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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.

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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

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