Unpopular Privacy

What must we hide?

The Ethics of Over-sharing

Why being careful is prudent in this Facebook age

It's the glorious Age of Revelation and I love it. Openness, networking, and public accountability are the names of the game. We can unburden conscience about illness and conflict. We can discover affinities with people across town and across the globe. We can exploit freedom of speech to do everything from having irreverent fun to promoting political regime change.

But things are getting out of hand.

Some people have fallen into the habit of over-sharing, online and offline. They disclose everything about their routine daily lives, almost indiscriminately. At work they chatter about family hardships, flirtations, and intimate dates. At parties they rattle on about the details of their finances and health. On Facebook they relate every good meal, shopping trip, and unreflective reaction to current events. The over-sharers upload Youtube videos of themselves brushing their teeth and sitting around playing video games with friends.

The usual accounts of what's wrong with over-sharing rightly stress that narcissism, individualism and approval-seeking are unhealthy modes of coping and social interaction. And when over-sharing extends to gossip about friends and family, or worse, to breaches of workplace and professional confidentiality, it offends as breaches of trust, disloyalty and possible law-breaking.

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I offer an additional reason for not over-sharing: It's a violation of the ethical duty of self-care. We have an ethical obligation to protect our own privacy, no less than that of other people. This duty stems from the time-honored virtues of modesty, reserve, and discretion. But there is another more practical dimension to the ethics of limited sharing. It forecloses opportunities for a lifetime of flourishing. Over-sharing can come back to haunt us. As youth move from the carefree days of irreverent self-expression they will want to impress college admissions committees, employers and community leaders. But their internet personae will repel. Use of Google, Facebook and Twitter—just to name a few of the most popular repositories of over-sharing—does not currently come with the right to recall damaging information.

American courts have already begun to force internet service providers to reveal the identities of anonymous computer users behind offensive posts on discussion forums. Add to this the fact that employers have a right to examine texts and browsing history on company-provided beepers and computers and there is only one conclusion to be reached: being ethically responsible to oneself requires reserve and discretion. I am not making a case for a return to the stiff upper lip and deadly silence about sexuality. Nor am I suggesting that political association move back to paper newsletters and hand-distributed broadsides. I don't want creative artists to cease to exploit the potential of the web, or that people looking for love hang out in bars. And I certainly don't want to abandon Facebook as the way I keep up with my five siblings and fifteen first cousins. But let's not ignore that with new cultural practices and technologies, come new risks, and a whole new set of ethical responsibilities to others, and to ourselves.

Anita Allen is the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Unpopular Privacy: What Must We Hide?

Anita Allen is the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at University of Pennsylvania.

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