Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Privacy, Public Perception & The Circle

After confessing in my last post that I had barely cracked open a book, I proceeded to binge read the new David Eggers novel, The Circle.  It had a little bit of a chick-lit feel to it, which may very well be why I couldn't put it down, but it also seemed remarkably relevant for a myriad of reasons.  When you boil it down, the book poses a very important question about the value of complete honesty and accessibility vs. the value of privacy, control, and truly personal interaction. You can probably see how this applies but I'll get to that shortly.  To sum up the plot, "The Circle" is the ultimate tech company - a conglomerate of Facebook, Google, Apple, and everything else remotely relevant these days.  As such, it has a complete monopoly on everyone's personal information from search, e-mail, social networks, online shopping and anything else that composes our online identities.  The company has guaranteed ultimate convenience by centralizing all user information, but that also means that they have nearly unlimited data on every individual that uses the internet.  As the company grows more powerful, it pledges to use its omnipotence for the betterment of the world, but even so there is an undeniable question of what if... where are the boundaries and who draws the line?

I am probably not unique in that I found myself relating to the protagonist, Mae Holland.  She's a classic Millenial seeking success, acceptance, and everything good for the world but simultaneously crippled by her own underlying insecurities and loneliness.  She initially struggles with the Circle's pledge of allegiance to complete and unconditional openness, but after she is caught red handed in the act of theft (and lying about it) and is perplexed and troubled by her own behavior, she decides to go all the way and commit to "total transparency".  This means she wears a camera around her neck all the time so anyone and everyone can access her conversations, activities, and behaviors.  She finds that knowing she is being watched makes her more accountable, a better and more balanced person.  She's relieved of the difficulty of wondering (and knowing) what she would do "if no one were watching", because people always are.  Anything she has felt compelled to keep hidden, she has been forced to share, and the reaction was always overwhelmingly positive.  She felt reinforced, validated, and less alone than if she had kept it to herself.  The more access she granted, the larger following she commanded, the less alone she felt, the more she wanted to share, and the circle perpetuated itself.

What it all boils down to is: How do we deal with the trade off between honesty and privacy?  How much should we, or do we want to be, in control of how we are perceived by the world?  When I was in finance, I had a manager sit me down to tell me that people didn't think I was logging in enough hours.  I didn't look like I was working hard enough, he said.  I insisted I was simply being efficient.  I was getting all my work done and my clients were happy, but he looked me in the eye and very seriously said, "Allison, that's great.  But you have to realize that perception is reality."  I'll never forget that, and I change my mind pretty regularly on how much I agree with that statement.  I don't want to agree with it, but it's kind of true (for better and for worse).  The scary part about that truth is that if you read this blog, you most likely see me differently than you would have otherwise.  Maybe you see yourself in what I am debating, maybe you like to read it and laugh at me with your friends taking shots every time I say "I don't know".  But maybe, just maybe, it coincidentally struck a chord and has helped you feel okay in a strange and unexpected way.  The point is that I don't know.  I put it out there and that's it.  Nothing more I can do about how you are reading it, and I have to be okay with however you decide to perceive it.

When I was in college, social media was still relatively new and I had no idea how (and definitely not enough confidence) to use it any real or substantive way.  When I graduated, I went straight to Goldman Sachs, which is basically a beacon of total privacy.  We weren't even technically allowed to publicly state that we worked there (obviously LinkedIn threw a wrench in that rule) but not on Facebook, nor on Twitter was it okay to comment at all on GS or its inner workings.  (And then there was @GSElevatorGossip, which you should follow if you don't because it's hilarious.)  Anyway, I digress.  Looking back, I can still understand their reasoning which is their #1 concern is that clients come first.  'Clients deserve their privacy and as GS employees, we are not in any position to share information or activities on how we serve them because it isn't completely ours.  Public commentary or opinion on what we do day to day (which is, serve our clients) is not relevant to our success - our success lies in the hands of our clients.  We are much better off putting the energy into serving our clients and being the absolute best at what we do.'  OK fine, it may very well have been bullshit, but I bought it then and I still think it makes sense.  Either way, the point is that during my time at Goldman Sachs I barely posted on Facebook, I forgot my Twitter password, and anything else was simply an afterthought.  

However, once I left GS and entered the start up world (a small subset of what some might call "the real world"), I was quickly exposed to the fun, the danger, and the value of social media. It still didn't have much personal relevance until I left for Hong Kong and felt a strong hankering, very undeniable need for connection to those that understood me.  A great friend looked me in the eye before I left and said, "Start the blog."  As I looked up at the seemingly insurmountable challenges of starting a life in a new place, starting a business in a new culture, starting over and getting started yet again, I needed to share it all to make it real and to make it okay….  but more than anything, I wrote so that I could be honest with myself.  Like Mae, I needed some bullshit barometer that held me accountable and kept me from getting completely lost in my own thoughts.  So I started the blog.

I wrote a post the other day about traveling alone and the challenges of actually being myself vs. trying to be someone I want to be.  Clearly that, as well as most of my posts, are quite personal and I am very open and honest about what I'm thinking about or struggling with.  Why do I write these things?  What's the point of sharing this, of putting myself out there?  Though many may not understand it, there are plenty of reasons.  It's incredibly cathartic - and revealing - to actually put my fears into words and explain why they are there. I learn about myself, I figure things out as I write, and ultimately I find that I don't actually need an answer.  Even if I do, I end up with some decent thoughts that I can share with other people.  Not only does writing scratch my itch for self expression and exploration, but it also facilitates me connecting to random people from my past, from my present, and people I didn't even know yet.  I have found myself having the most real, open, and candid conversations I have ever had with somewhat strangers, and it feels really fucking good.  When I think about what it means to be human, what it means to really live, I think it comes down to connecting with others over the things that make us human.  

To be fair, putting it out there can also be very personally validating.  Constantly thinking and questioning can feel incredibly lonely because it's all too easy to look around (and scroll through Facebook) and see everyone's happy pictures and think that everyone else in the world has some secret that I'm just not in on.  That secret is apparently not worrying about things and just being happy.  Maybe some people really have found this secret -- or worse, they don't even need to look.  If that is the case, I'm still getting over my resentment of them (just kidding, but not really), however, I have almost always found that vocalizing whatever I'm agonizing over results in people saying they feel that way too.  
I find that I'm not so isolated, I'm not so alone.  Knowing that allows my incessant self doubt to take a pause and I'm periodically free to enjoy myself and the world as I perceive it.  So yes, it's also selfish, but I think we all knew that already. 

But going back to the power of perception, there are a million and one reasons why I should not be posting this shit.  I don't know what my previous employers think about my online persona, but luckily it hasn't affected my ability to be successful at my work thus far.  When I began writing like this, I had a steady significant other and I don't think this type of honesty made him see me differently.  But now that I'm on my own and I'm about to embark on a new professional endeavor, I can't help but stop and think…. "Oh God, what have I done??"  There aren't that many people reading this, but anybody can search my name on Google and find this blog.  Even if we've never met, you now know some of my most personal struggles, you know nearly everything I don't like about myself, and certainly now you know that I'm far from put-together person I can seem.  The fact that I have put this all out there has very real implications for meeting new potential employers, employees, investors, friends… it's really fucking scary to think about who might think what about me, and what opportunities it could close off without me even knowing.  And why? Simply because I felt the self indulgent need to express myself in a public forum?  

Obviously (if you're making fun of me, this one's for you… get ready to take a shot), I don't know if the good outweighs the bad.  Every time I hit publish, my heart races.  The night after my last post, I couldn't sleep because I wondered if I had said too much, revealed too much, shown too many of my imperfections.  Would it compromise relationships, jobs, transactions, friendships?  Sharing openly means I can't control what people will think when they objectively observe my online identity. But I guess I'll just keep my fingers crossed that what I do share will help me cut through the bullshit and weed out those that think I'm crazy and don't respect a desire for self discovery, or that the personal validation I feel now is worth any negative consequences I may experience in the future.  Or maybe it doesn't really matter and I'm just worrying about nothing.  I don't think so, but what's the point anyway?  As they say in The Circle, I can't delete it now!

<disclaimer> For the record, there are plenty of things I don't share and never would share, because I respect the privacy of others and particularly those I care about.  In terms of the question posted by The Circle, I believe that total 100% transparency would be nothing short of disrespectful and dangerous… I'm not a complete idiot.</disclaimer>