On Privacy…

So I just got off the phone with Dylan Hornsby. We know each other well, have done so for a number of years, and I would be more than happy to tell Dylan a good deal more than I would tell most people, including (and particularly) a number of the things I wouldn’t post publicly online. But until today, Dylan and I hadn’t chatted for the last 3-4 months. So when I shared a bit of new info with Dylan while I was out walking my canine companion Frank, he was taken completely by surprise. I had told Dylan that ‘I have a two-week old at home’.

I’d only shared this recent happening with a small circle of people to this point. Dylan spluttered something between confusion and disbelief; he didn’t even know my partner and I had been expecting a new arrival. It’s not that I was hiding anything from him; it just hadn’t come up in conversation – as it hadn’t with most people. Dylan believed me and didn’t need ‘evidence’, but I sent him this photograph because I knew he’d get a laugh out of the Star Wars reference (due to our work on a parody video together).

The circle is now complete
‘The circle is now complete’… It’s from Star Wars. Get some culture!! 😉

Someone said to me recently that they’d told a colleague at my workplace that ‘Adam’s probably the most private person I know’. That statement would seem strange to most people who know me see me doing the things I do online: filming videos in front of the wall of tabletop games in my home study; recording occasional podcast conversations with members of my family; making live Periscope broadcasts while walking my canine companion through a local nature reserve; taking a selfie on a weekend to make a point to students about performativity and online identity. That last example is really the crux of it.

Nothing I do online – nothing I show, nothing I say, nothing I ‘reveal’ – is something that I wouldn’t be comfortable having seen or heard by a total stranger at a bus stop. This is not to say I’m partial to randomly blurting things out to people around public transport. What I mean is that I wouldn’t be concerned if this hypothetical bus-traveller discovered that this other person called ‘Adam Brown’ likes dogs or buys too many board games. What is more, these details are not some ‘real me’ – they are just part of the a performance that I choose to include.

Make Your Own Privacy

In harnessing this agency and choosing what to include in what I share, I simultaneously choose what to exclude: I decide what I keep private and what my privacy is. This is far from concrete and will shift over time as my decisions change, as if resting on ever-moving tectonic plates. The concept of ‘privacy’ itself has itself undergone persistent transformation over the years. Yet the key difference between those plates that gradually and inevitably move below the Earth’s surface, and my own strategic manipulation of my professional-personal brand in the digital mediascape, is that I have control over the latter.

Privacy is often thought of in terms of something that is ‘vulnerable’,breached’, or ‘surrendered’. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a student express some form of the sentiment ‘I don’t want to give up my privacy online’, I wouldn’t need to have any students. I feel like I’ve used the personal observation about not giving up any of my own privacy so often that I sound like a broken record by now – at least to myself.

Photo by Giovanni Randisi on Unsplash
Photo by Giovanni Randisi (free use via Unsplash)

Privacy is seldom considered something that might be determined. Sure, there are risks of other social media users impinging on a ‘subject’ or ‘area’ of your life that you’d rather they didn’t, but if you’ve educated yourself to be savvy enough in negotiating digital interactions, you can generally work things out without any ‘damage’ done. A couple of times I’ve requested that someone delete a specific post – and they’ve always happily agreed to do this without any ill will lingering.

Now don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing overtly wrong about being more ‘transparent’ with your life’s details – that practice is just not for me. I’d say I’ll keep that to my locked-down, friends-and-family Instagram account, but I hardly post anything there either. I’d much rather write or make media about ‘private’ things for myself or smaller audiences than broadcast it to people who won’t or shouldn’t get anything of value out of it.

Crucially, being ‘hyper-transparent’ with everyday aspects of your life doesn’t always intersect with the imperative to always think about your audience and what value you are adding to their experience online. There is a difference between revealing a lot about yourself and appearing to do so. If you know what you’re doing, the second of these options can just as easily be perceived as an ‘authentic performance‘.

You don’t have to shed all of your masks to engage (with) people online. But if you need to ‘put yourself out there’ on social media in some way and you ever give me the defensive excuse that ‘I don’t want to give up my privacy’, my answer to you will be the same as the response I’ve given lots of other people:

Then don’t.

Communicate with Purpose

When I publish something that may be perceived as residing in my ‘personal life’, I have not only chosen to do so – I’ve also chosen to do so for a reason. Unlike what common discourses about social media hold, when it comes to emotional gratification gained from social media, I get very little. I might not take myself completely seriously (it would be pretty hard to – trust me!!), but I constantly think of myself as communicating online, for one purpose or another. This might be to accomplish one or more of the following:

  • to connect
  • to inform
  • to persuade
  • to educate
  • to entertain

In its own meta way, the blog you’re currently reading might be seen as an example of this, though perhaps the best example I can point to is my last post on the passing of my younger brother – a man who could harness the nature of performing better than anyone else I know. That subject was very much private until I decided to make it (semi-)public.

Beyond becoming a dad, another thing that happened to me recently was that I got a national teaching award as part of the 2019 Australian Awards for University Teaching. This is hardly a ‘private’ matter, but I’d seriously considered not posting about that either, because if I’m honest, I don’t really care if I get public acknowledgement for it. There’s nothing wrong with posting about achievements – it’s arguably an important thing to do when well-rationed – although if you’re doing things right as a teacher, the gratification comes from the students themselves, not from any award. Plus a significant part of me has had an enthusiastic dislike for getting awards since high school.

But if I was to add yet another function of professional communication to connecting, informing, persuading, educating, and entertaining, it would be acknowledging. And while I was out walking the other day, I thought of a way to give due credit to the many people who’d knowingly or unknowingly supported my teaching over the years. To put the award in its proper perspective, I decided to announce the much more important event that had happened just afterward – and for all sorts of reasons has been why an AAUT teaching citation has been farthest from my mind.

So I decided to make some media about my award, the people who helped me get it, and the little guy who landed in my lap to help me almost forget it.

There’s no name included, and for now I’ll happily give every single person who asks for one a different and probably increasingly absurd name. If I found myself sitting at a bus stop next to a stranger who asked about the child I was holding, I’d probably do the same for them too…

Until a different decision is made.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Catherine says:

    I found this very interesting, I work in a small startup and each of us has very different privacy boundaries.
    At first, our co-founder wanted to put our personal facebook up for people to be able to contact us whenever see that we are human and get an idea of our personality. keeping in mind his in his late 20’s, had no children and seems to generally think the best of everyone.
    To make my point I changed the profile setting on Facebook and sent him every picture I received for a week after interacting on the Facebook groups related to our industry.
    Let’s just say it was an eye-watering experience for him.
    Our other co-founder is at the other extreme and values privacy and finds facebooks lack of accessibility frustrating.
    While for myself I am careful when it related to my spawn, as they are often referred to online my main concern is my personal online presence is very forthright about the issues I am passionate about, and while in my personal circle, I see it as a sort of filtering system, professionally especially in a business interacts with investors and people who may have different viewpoint it is a risk.
    Also, I used to work chasing up accounts for a wholesaler and most of the people who skipped out on their accounts I tracked down on social media.
    If you’re going to take a $300 crystal on commission and then post a picture saying its sold on social media for $700 paying your account with the supplier is a good idea

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks for sharing – lots of great anecdotes there!

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