Stephen Baker

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The payback of "publicness."

May 25, 2010Privacy

I see that my friend Jeff Jarvis, author of BuzzMachine.com and What Would Google Do?, has a contract for a new book, Public Parts, on living a public life. Here's how he describes it:

In Public Parts, I’ll argue, as I have here, that in our current privacy mania we are not talking enough about the value of publicness. If we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections the internet brings: meeting people, collaborating with them, gathering the wisdom of our crowd, and holding the powerful to public account.

I agree that we have to rethink our hand-me-down ideas on privacy. Every secret that we keep has a value, and an opportunity cost. By keeping it private, we forego the connections we can make by sharing it, and the information and contacts people can potentially add to it. Jeff's prostate cancer, which he has written about a lot, is a case in point. If he had kept it to himself, his readers wouldn't have learned some of the details that would embarrass most of us. But Jeff would not have benefitted from the advice and know-how of hundreds of his readers and online friends.

If we bring business into the picture, and start to piece together a cost-benefit analysis, Jeff's openness led to a major story by Steven Johnson in Time Magazine, a radio session with Howard Stern, and lots of other exposure. This couldn't have hurt when Jeff and his agent were negotiating his advance with HarperCollins for his next book. So "publicness" can help to build a personal brand. If you count lost opportunities, keeping certain secrets can cost money. (Conversely, there is information that we routinely used to share, such as commercial preferences, which now can be used to target us with advertising campaigns and phone spam. So we have to rethink our secrets in both directions.)

In any case, here's one point where I think Jeff should tread carefully. In his writings, he often uses himself as the guinea pig. That's natural. It's what bloggers do. But Jeff's risk-reward ratios, when it comes to publicness, are not like most people's. He's an excellent and well-known writer and a brand. When he blogs about his indignities, it makes waves--and creates bankable opportunities.

The networked world he is operating in, however, works on the curve of a power law. He doesn't just get twice or five times as much attention as another person who chooses to go public online.  He might get 100, 1,000 or 10,000 times as much attention. That's how power laws work.

So while "publicness" pays off for Jeff, the same rewards are not likely to reach most people who write openly about traditionally private stuff. There can be payoffs for them as well. They can make friends, gain support and insights. But their ratios are different.

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