Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Jeff Jarvis' Public Parts: the relative value of privacy

September 24, 2011Privacy

I've been reading Jeff Jarvis' new manifesto, Public Parts. It's a very welcome rebuttal to the concerns of privacy advocates. Jarvis, while making it clear that some of their concerns are warranted, focuses on the other side of our relationships online: sharing with others, and connecting with them.

I wish I had this book when I went on my Numerati book tours, in '08 and '09. I would talk about the future of the data economy, and everywhere I went, people would ask me about privacy. My stock response back then was that in the industrial age, we were regarded as identical dots, or perhaps as vast herds, and now companies were learning to look at us as individuals. Was that necessarily a bad thing?

But Jarvis focuses on the advantages of being public. As those of you who know him might imagine (and I should disclose that we're friends), he dives right in to his blogging and tweeting about his prostate cancer and the havoc that wrecked upon what became his most extraordinarily public part. (Maybe the word I'm looking for is "pubic.") He shows how this communication brought him into contact with people who showered him with friendship and valuable advice. The other side of publicness, of course, is that it brought him more attention and helped to build his brand, no doubt adding more than a few thousand dollars to his advance for the book while also propping up his speaking fees.

Believe me, this is not a criticism. (I'm in the market for some of that magic myself, as I'll describe in later posts.) As Jarvis describes in the sections about media in his book, a key to success is creating a community around a brand. The way to connect with that community is to share valuable or interesting information. Much of the most valuable information we have to offer is in the realm of what used to be known as private. Or even secret. For me, for example, one of the most interesting paragraphs of the book included Jarvis's disclosure of how much he earns as a professor, how much he made on his first book, and the range of his speaking fees. (One # he did not disclose is the dollar advance for this book. I can imagine he may have encountered some resistance there from his editors at Simon & Schuster.)

Some may conclude that Jarvis shares too much detail. So how should he manage that? In the world of old media, as he describes, he might have hired someone to do polling. With those studies in hand, he could calibrate just the right details to disclose about his public parts.

But in the new order, here's how he figures it out. He blogs what he feels like disclosing, or perhaps a bit more. Then he gets feedback. Some people are grossed out. Others love it. If those who object make valid points, perhaps he adjusts. But chances are, they simply stop following him, and they're replaced by others who like what he's sharing. A community grows around his content, just as one has grown around his public-parts role model, Howard Stern.

I'm especially interested in Jarvis' book because I was once considering writing a very similar one. Mine was to be about secrets. But the points were similar. I tried out a few ideas in a 2009 blog post.

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.

Jeez, now that I dig deeper into Google, I find a similar entry, but directed toward a corporate audience, in a 2005 post on Blogspotting.

What are your secrets worth? Just about every company has had standard practices for decades or longer to protect its secrets. But the rise of blogs, open source, and the networked world should lead them to re-evaluate their secrets, because many of them have stored value. They could be used to forge relationships, either with customers or other companies.

This is all to say that I'm tuned into the subject. It's important and will become more so, and I'm very glad Jeff has written his valuable book.


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