Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Secrets: Which ones to share with whom?

April 10, 2009General

On my other blog, BusinessWeek's Blogspotting, I've been writing over the last week about Friendship. The idea is that we face all these different types of "friends" in the networked world, and a challenge for advertisers, employers and above all, us, is to distinguish among them, to put them all in their appropriate groups. (more of my posts)

Why group them? Because, in part we have to figure out which secrets to share with whom. Secrets are at the heart of meaningful relationships, and they always have been. Traditionally, we have delivered different secrets to different people. The doctor learns about our body. He (and it was usually a he) sees us naked. He measures and probes us in ways that we’d never tolerate from the banker or the insurance rep. Those two people get different secrets, ones about our finances. Again, it’s stuff we don’t share with others. The same goes for those who confess to priests, lie down on psychologists couches, or, for that matter, hire prostitutes. Each person gets a dose of secrets, along with the trust that they’ll keep quiet about them. By sharing secrets, we provide information these people can use to do their jobs better, to understand us and the lives we lead, and to provide us with customized service or advice. If you think about it, we keep the information of our lives in little boxes of secrets. Our relationship with society is based largely on deciding which secrets to share with whom.

Secrets hold great value, far beyond the information they convey. When we tell secrets, we open ourselves to others, and establish trust. We bestow the holder of our secrets with great power—the means to benefit from our secret and to betray us. In that sense, secrets stitch together friendships and alliances, and they tear them apart.

I'm going to be going to the West Coast next week, and I'll be talking to companies and researchers about friendship and this question of secrets. I'll be publishing the reporting, instead of waiting and compiling it all into one article (though eventually I may produce one). Here's one I did on research at IBM. If you have ideas on who I should talk to about friendship, please suggest names.

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