During my years at university, I took a lot of classes that really liked to quote from a thinker named Erving Goffman, a man who thought that modern society operates on a system in which people exchange information in order to socialize. As far as he saw it, we don’t just talk or meet people, we “get to know” them. So, whenever we socialize with people, we want to know who they are: where they grew up, where they went to school, what their relationship status is, etc.
Until the past twenty years or so, this only applied to in-person interactions, since we only had landline telephones, TV, and in-person interactions as a way of learning more about people. Now, though, information exchange and “getting to know” someone is as simple as a few mouse clicks and the right Google searches, since a personal profile on Facebook, LinkedIn, or a regularly-updated Twitter account are accessible to everyone (yes, governments, but, let’s face it, everyone else, too) 24/7. Basically, in the new age of information, getting to know someone through an information exchange has changed a lot.
The trouble is, we’ve never paused to think about what it means to constantly get that kind of attention. If you put your full name, cell phone number, and home address on Facebook for everyone in your extended network to potentially access, do you really expect that it will remain private from the world? What if, for example, one of your friends leaves your profile page open momentarily at a café? True, you can’t anticipate your friend’s behavior – but you can determine your own.
This is a new era of privacy in the face of an ever more digital world, and it’s not just governments who are going to have to learn what people consider acceptable in terms of their rights to privacy: we as individuals also have to figure that out. It’s time we learn how to take responsibility for online ourselves, and it’s important that we evaluate we really want and expect when it comes to putting information about ourselves into the vast digital world. That’s really the only way we’ll be able to start ensuring the safety of our personal identities.