Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and now executive chairman, said the following in an interview: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”.
While the statement itself is not new (it’s believed to be an ancient Chinese proverb), the fact that it’s coming from the person who used to run the company indexing the internet (and potentially having the biggest database of information about everyone ever), gives it an interesting twist and makes it more relevant today than it ever was.
The evolution of technology (the world wide web, the apps, the smartphones, the speed and ubiquity of data networks) combined with our passion to share (see my previous article) result in our acts being known anywhere, by anyone and at any time. Sometimes we do it on purpose, we want them to be public. Some other times though we would prefer if no-one, or a reduced audience, is aware of them. In this post, I’m not going to question whether that’s a good or a bad thing. My pragmatism tells me it’s going to be like that anyhow, no matter what we try -welcome to the hyper-connected world-. My interest here is rather if this phenomenon is truly altering what we do, how we do it and, ultimately, who we are. And I’m not talking about being an outlaw and committing crimes, doing illegal things -that would be too obvious and has been in our society for long enough, the fear to be caught- but to those little daily acts, words said, thoughts expressed, that might or might not be there if they weren’t so prone to distribution.
The easier it is to find out information, pieces of knowledge about others, the more we react to it by not doing certain things. As the capacity of the web to reach out to anyone expands. As the very little details are somewhere in the cloud of big data, I wonder how that changes our behaviour, because I believe it does, in one way or another. Even if I finally do what I was thinking of doing but doubting it could be known by others, the fact that I will do it in a way that protects its privacy is already a signal and confirmation that this is happening. In a way, the authentic nature of some acts is changed because of the potential for them to be known by others. In physics, there is the “Observer effect” which states that the true state of something can’t be determined because of the changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed. Here, we could talk about the “Audience effect” as the chance of something to be known by someone really changes the nature of it.
Consider another trend happening right now in the social networks: doing something just for the sake of sharing it (as a picture, as a check-in in a place, as a quote, as a video…) so others can see it and we get some recognition for it. In practice, this can be called being a phony. Is it really that you like being in that museum looking at that portrait (using FourSquare to give you credit for it)? Or is it that you look interesting and intellectual? Do you really enjoy raw oysters and champagne (which look so classy in that Instagram picture)? Isn’t it more of a touch of exclusivity? Much as the things we don’t do (or do differently) because of the risk of someone finding out about them, there are the things we do (again, maybe differently) just because we want to talk about them, to share them. As we know there is an audience out there, we “act” for them, in a way. And, contrary to not doing things, we might do more or even the ones we didn’t even think about ever just because we can publish them.
How big is the influence of social networks (and their ability to share) in our daily lives? Are we conscious of them changing what we do or how? Do we have them in mind when doing things? We’re in the first years of the social boom and so it might be difficult to assess the impact and consequences. Maybe if we look at the youngsters, the coming generations, we might have a clue and can therefore prepare for it.