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Jeff Jarvis’ ‘Public Parts’: Understanding sharing in the digital age

In his latest book, Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, Jeff Jarvis traces the relationship between privacy and “publicness” and examines how it has been affected by a number of “new” technologies ranging from Gutenberg’s printing press and the Kodak camera to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

Through the book, Jarvis argues that technology has always created fears about privacy throughout history. Today there are many advocates for privacy but there are few advocates for publicness. And whether you agree with him or not, it is refreshing to hear Jarvis make his case for publicness: while there may be potential risks for sharing information publically, the opportunity cost of not doing so could be far greater.

As Jarvis says: “It’s not that privacy is bad, it’s just that fewer things need to be private”

The Public Self

Jarvis argues that in order to build a relationship or make a connection, we have to share something about ourselves. This is true offline as well as online. In Jarvis’s case, he recounts his experience of sharing arguably the most personal information imaginable: his experience of being diagnosed with cancer.

By blogging and tweeting about his experience, he was able to form friendships with many people around the world who were also diagnosed with cancer. Through platforms like Twitter, he has met new friends, new business contacts and created a network of advocates who promote his work on his behalf.

None of this would have been possible without sharing. People will always have their own personal limit with regards to what they feel comfortable with sharing. It should be noted that Jarvis doesn’t endorse the belief that everything should be shared (there is a section in the book about oversharing) but he does believe that something should be shared if it creates value.

Publicness in Business

In the book, Jarvis examines how publicness can be used to create a business model that organisations can use to help them succeed in today’s highly connected world. Jarvis argues that businesses need to decide if they can create more value by keeping secrets or by creating deeper relationships with their consumers.

Businesses can do this is by collaborating with their customers during the product development process to create products that customers actually want. As Jarvis points out: “Which would you rather be: ‘the company that has no relationship with their customers unless they’re angry? Or the one that works together with them to make better products?’”

Jarvis is also an advocate of companies using ‘cookies’ (as long as they do so transparently) to collect information about users for targeted ads. After all, if you are going to be advertised to, the ads should at least be relevant right? And many customers who shop on sites like Amazon will agree that the practice less “creepy” and more useful.

Publicness in business is also linked to transparency. Today, it is almost impossible for a business not to be held accountable when they do something wrong. Should a business be caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing, the correct course of action is simple: Stop doing what you’re doing. Apologise publically and communicate how you aim to fix as much of the damage as possible.

Publicness in Government

Jarvis sums up the relationship that most governments have with publicness by stating: “Government should be open by default, private by necessity. Instead, government is private by default, public by force.”

During 2011, governments around the world clashed with protestors empowered by the ultimate tool of publicness — the internet. But as Jarvis points out, the internet can also be a double-edged sword.

Technology helped ignite the so-called Twitter Revolution in Iran, but all of the data was also public — thereby allowing the government to hunt down protesters more effectively. After riots broke out in Egypt, the government tried to shut down the internet.

Jarvis argues that governments are not the appropriate custodians of the internet citing that the internet is a tool that has yet to be completely understood – especially by politicians. And as legislation like SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) in America and the Protection of State Information Act in South Africa being debated by politicians, citizens around the world need to understand the value of publicness and a free internet.

Ultimately, Public Parts is a fascinating book that explores the role of publicness in a variety of spheres in our daily lives. There are a number of opportunities that can result from publicness and transparency. We owe it to ourselves to explore these opportunities and embrace them.

You can find Jeff Jarvis on Twitter, Google+ or on his blog at www.buzzmachine.com. Alternatively, you can hear more about the book directly from Jarvis in a talk he gave at Google.

Image: re:publica 2011

  • Rowan Puttergill

    Interesting. I have yet to read ‘Public Parts’, so I can’t comment too fairly on this. Nonetheless, as a strong privacy advocate, I’d like to point out that from what is mentioned in this article Jarvis seems to be setting up a bit of a straw-man with regard to any attack on privacy.
    Privacy advocates aren’t against the sharing and dissemination of information. Certainly, the desire to share information is strong amongst most privacy advocates. For instance, during a time when sharing cryptographic code internationally was considered to be equivalent to exporting weapons of mass destruction from the US, strong privacy advocates such as Philip Zimmerman managed to find loopholes in the law in order to share the code for cryptographic programs like PGP.
    Jarvis’ statement: “It’s not that privacy is bad, it’s just that fewer things need to be private” seems completely misguided. Privacy advocates aren’t worried about how many things are private, but rather about having control over what things individuals want to keep private.
    For instance, Jarvis gives the example of sharing publicly the fact that he has been battling cancer, and how rewarding it has been sharing this intimate bit of information. No privacy advocate would have a problem with this. Jarvis should have the right to share whatever information he chooses to share. However, Jarvis should also have the right to control who has access to the information that he chooses to share. He should also be able to control how widely information is shared. And most importantly he should always be able to find out what information is being shared about him and with whom.
    Geolocation is a great example of a tool that opens up many privacy concerns. It brings many advantages, including being able to find things that you are looking for in the area that you are in. By sharing this information, friends can easily find you or people can provide you with directions to places. It has the advantage of allowing me to track exactly where a package that I am waiting for might be, and how far it is from delivery. None of this is a problem. However, from a privacy point of view, I would like to be able to control who has access to this data and when they have access to it.
    According to the article, Jarvis ‘does believe that something should be shared if it creates value’. This seems naive. The problem with this is how one goes about measuring value, along with the recipient of that value. One just needs to look at Google’s profits to see that their sharing of my information creates value. Its just that I don’t get my rightful share of that value. Or put another way, sharing naked pics of my neighbour can increase the funds in my paypal account, but Jarvis would agree that this information should not be shared. That’s because being a privacy advocate isn’t about preventing the sharing of information it is about defending people’s rights over the information that is shared, and from the article it seems that Jarvis has largely missed the boat.

  • Hey Rowan,

    Thanks for the comment. If you feel that Jarvis has missed the boat, rather blame me than Jarvis :-)

    There are a ton of ideas in the book that I wasn’t able to unpack in the article – the effect of the internet on mass media, debates about the use of Google Maps in Germany, how people define privacy, how people can protect their privacy etc.

    I found Jarvis’s writing style to be quite academic, which means even if you don’t agree with what he says, his point of view is generally well researched and well articulated. If you do decide to read the book or watch him talk about the book, I’d love to hear what you think.

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