“Lions and tigers were kings of the jungle, then they wound up in cages. I believe the same will happen to us. This comment from Internet pioneer Josh Harris opens the documentary We Live in Public, a film about about loss of privacy in the digital age.
The film’s centerpiece is a surveillance-as-art-project shot in the late 90s, featuring more than 100 people living underground for a month in New York City. The bunker was equipped with food, drink and a fleet of webcams that captured a first-of-its-kind, live stream experiment. It also follows Harris’ personal life outside of the bunker, where he and his girlfriend opened their lives to the world through more than 30 cameras installed in their apartment.
The not-so-surprising spoiler: Neither the group nor couple’s experiment ends well. The film concludes with Harris suffering a mental breakdown — foreshadowing the heavy price that comes with Internet fame.
While the film takes status-chasing to the extreme, it’s viewed today as an early warning of the risks of oversharing on social media, related questions about well-being and willingness to exchange privacy for connection. Recently Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), one of the most influential political voices on social media, was the latest public figure to delete her Facebook. She cites feelings of anxiety and addiction while suggesting social media is a public health risk. She continues to publish several times a day to Twitter.
The conflict of quitting versus committing is tough for public figures or quasi-celebrity influencers who rely on consistent social presence. It’s instrumental to the power game that people like Ocasio-Cortez can’t afford to lose.
Still, it’s hard to overlook a growing social movement gaining momentum. Headline-making leavers span well-known figures in media, technology and entertainment. In aggregate, the steady stream of departees and post-deleters suggest that disappearing from view is in fashion.
Entrepreneurs are hopping on the trend through apps like Jumbo, grounded in privacy management, that allow you to wipe old posts, clear search histories and remove voice interactions from connected devices.
Despite shifting sentiments toward the value in building a social presence, we can’t look away — if anything engagement is getting stronger. Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook crushed earnings last week.
The takeaway–while building social capital is fraught with issues ranging from privacy to well being, don’t count on anything resembling an exodus from social media anytime soon.
Beyond connection, for those seeking power and influence it’s a hell of a drug.
This post was adapted from my newsletter on the fusion of machine intelligence, media and marketing.
This week’s updates include narrowing attention spans, facial recognition machines and how 5G will affect journalism.
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