Is Privacy Still a Choice?

It happened in the middle of a Liz Phair concert. One moment I was dancing with friends and singing along to songs I’ve known by heart since “Exile in Guyville” came out in 1993. The next I was in turmoil.

Phair asked for a volunteer to join her onstage at the Troubador to sing “Flower.” Hands shot into the air, begging to be the chosen one. My friend turned to me and said, “You should do it!”

“Absolutely not,” I responded.

“Flower,” for those not familiar with “Guyville” or Liz Phair’s oeuvre, is an explicit song about a sexual act. This frankness is a hallmark of Phair’s early albums and, as an artist, it’s her choice to create a stage persona who shares supposedly intimate details. As a public figure, presumably she understands that singing about certain subjects is going to bring her both adulation and unsavory attention from fans. But, what of the average concertgoer, plucked from the audience? Is she given a choice?

Phair selected a young women in her mid-twenties. Let’s call her Jennie. Jennie’s friends giggled and cheered as she made her way to the stage and Phair whispered encouragement in her ear, showed her to the mic, and counted out the beat.

As the last lines of the chorus echoed around the venue, Jennie thrilled to the applause and her moment in the spotlight. When she rejoined her friends in the crowd, the first thing one of them said was, “I got the whole thing on video.”

And that’s when I grew terribly worried for Jennie. Because while her friends might have her best interests at heart and agree not to post the video to Facebook or YouTube, there were, of course, dozens upon dozens of recordings of Jennie, all taken by strangers.

If even one of them doesn’t have scruples about invading Jennie’s privacy, then she may have to live with a video of herself singing a salacious song, out there where everyone and anyone can see it, for the rest of her life. Who knows? Someone might recognize her and tag the video with her name, or perhaps her friends already have on their Facebook pages.

When she’s 27 and applying for a job. When she’s 32 and needs clearance to do research. If she wants to run for office some day. When she meets the man of her dreams. If her parents Google her. Because of one innocent and spontaneous moment in a club, she’s going to have to face the questions and consequences (like not getting a job) that stem from those four minutes of fame.

Okay, maybe this doesn’t happen to Jennie. But, if you visit popular social sites, it’s obvious that inviting audience members onstage to sing this song is a regular part of Phair’s repertoire. There are plenty of other Jennies online, dueting on “Flower” for eternity.

(This is not about Liz Phair, mind you. Obviously, I’m a fan or I wouldn’t have been there that night. What this is about is claiming privacy that we all have a right to.)

Perhaps these women posted those videos themselves, but I worry that they may never have had a choice about keeping this moment private. Moments that, when I was 23 and attending concerts dressed in safety pins, dog collars, ripped T-shirts and studded bracelets with purple hair, I never had to spend a second worrying if someone was going to video me and my friends. Think of all the crazy, fun, messed up, spontaneous things you did before the days of smartphones. In retrospect, how many of those times would you revisit if someone pressed Record and turned a camera on you?

There are so many benefits to the transparency and connection of digital and social media, along with the simplicity of online publishing: making library resources available to people who couldn’t otherwise access them, opening up the practices and processes of government, helping people find and reconnect with family during a disaster. It’s hard sometimes to see the downside.

Choose Privacy Week, which takes place from May 1 – 7, isn’t a bunch of Debbie Downers wagging their fingers at Facebook. Rather it’s about creating a conversation about privacy – and what it actually means – in the digital age as the boundary between public and private morphs and becomes more permeable.

The goal is to give people, especially young people, resources to make informed choices about how they use digital/social media and where they might want to draw the curtain.

There’s a fascinating Choose Privacy video featuring authors Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow, Camila Alire, past president of the American Library Association, and other librarians, as well as children and parents. It explores the practical approaches that families are taking to protect personal privacy and looks at the efforts of libraries to protect intellectual freedom. As one librarian notes, only you should be trusted with your information.

The website offers more information, a video gallery and links to resources, events, position papers and surveys related to Choose Privacy Week.

I still worry about Jennie. But, it’s nice to know there are organizations out there, including the American Library Association, dedicated to keeping the discussion going about digital privacy and helping everyone who uses these platforms to educate themselves about the issues involved. To paraphrase one of the speakers in the Choose Privacy video, it’s indifference to privacy that makes you vulnerable.

Writing that inspired me this week:

Moss: “My mum’s on Friendface! My mum! I’ve opened up another channel of communication with my mum.”
Jen: “Isn’t that good?”
Moss: “No, it is not good. She’s put down her current mood as ‘sensual.’”

~ “Friendface” episode of the British TV series “The IT Crowd”

2 thoughts on “Is Privacy Still a Choice?

  1. I didn’t realize that librarians were taking the lead on privacy. I’ll have to see if our library has anything going on for Choose Privacy Week.

    The title of this post is a good one, Vickie. I’m not so sure that privacy IS still a choice. I’m afraid that by joining social networking sites we have already given our permission to have our personal data shared, mined and, perhaps, exploited. When you add that to the realm of personal photo or videos going viral for the whole world to see, well it appears that privacy has already gone the way of the dinosaur.

    I think one of the biggest issues with privacy is the fact that young people are really into this “sharing” thing. I actually heard a young man on “Talk of the Nation”. He was calling in to a show about privacy issues related to Google and he said that he and most of his friends were of the opinion that “the more things that people know about you and you about them, the better the world will be”. Uh, I don’t think so!

    I cherish my privacy and I won’t even turn on my phone, except to make a call. I don’t like the fact that, with a cell phone turned on, a person can be tracked 24/7. It’s not that I’m involved in illegal activities (!) it’s just that I love the thought that nobody knows where I am, or can find out where I am, without my permission—but I suppose that thought is going the way of the dinosaur too.

    A very interesting post. Thanks.


    • Very interesting comments, Rita. You raise important points about whether our approaches to technology have evolved as fast as the technology itself. We have all these capabilities, but aren’t sure which ones we should embrace and which might best be left turned off.

      I think libraries have found themselves involved since the Patriot Act. While they want to prevent terrorism, librarians don’t want to violate users’ rights by turning your browsing and check-out information over to the government without good reason. The librarians, authors and lawyer in the video do a great job of discussing these issues and where individuals and governments should be drawing the lines around personal and intellectual privacy.

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