The Want for Privacy: Facebook's Assault on Friendship

In a provocative deconstruction of the Patriot Act, Elaine Scarry theorizes about the implications of this involuntary dissolution of privacy on social interaction. As she writes in "Rule of Law, Misrule of Men," "When we say that democracy requires that the people's privacy by ensured, we do not mean that our lives remain secret; we mean instead that we individually control the degree to which, and the people to whom, our lives are revealed." She continues, "Such privacy is in turn the basis of a person's capacity for friendship and intimacy. [People] who lose the guarantee of privacy also eventually lose the capacity for making friends."

We live in an age of perpetual assault on personal privacy. The Internet has democratized human ability to peer into the private life of the neighbor through an expansive confederation of search engines, online directories and, of course, social networking sites. In a little over half a decade, Facebook has revolutionized the way we interact, relate and even befriend one another. This revolution in social networking is transforming the sphere of the social to the extent that many of us -- this writer included -- have difficulty conceiving of our lives without Facebook, the convenient and near-universal social networking tool to monitor, facilitate and govern our social interactions. Thankfully, we maintain, in most spheres of our lives (and at the time of publication, on Facebook also), the ability to decide who is worthy of knowledge of the intimate details of our personal lives. What is unsettling is that so many of us are voluntarily declining this right to privacy, and opening up our lives to a vast consortium of various, and often spurious, acquaintances: "Facebook friends."

At this juncture, I ask you to perform a brief experiment. First, log onto your Facebook page. (Chances are you have already done so -- your Facebook page lingering silently in a nearby browser window. With any luck, you have received a notification or two -- a "like," a comment, an event invite -- in the five minutes it has taken you to read this article. Congratulations, dear reader! You are acknowledged. Still, I ask you to soldier on.)

Next, log on to some long-lost, long-forgotten Facebook "friend's" page. (You know, that guy that you met once at a party in your second year of college. You found him mildly irritating and uninteresting for the duration of your seven-minute conversation, and he smelled of Budweiser, Axe and regret. Still, this did not prohibit you from "confirming" his friendship request when you returned home to your dorm later that evening -- sure he was boring, but he seemed harmless enough. However, you do realize that this meant that Joe Tedium added you as a "friend" only minutes after meeting you at said party. You know. That guy.)

Finally, go through Joe's Facebook page -- "creep," in effect -- and see how much information you can obtain about his life, years removed from your initial encounter and any face time (thankfully).

Aside from the basics -- relationship status (whether listed or unlisted, have a look at the photo albums -- you'll know), age, school and other categories such as employment, by reading between the lines you will discover a wealth of information about poor Joe's hapless existence: his income, the details of his social life, if he got fat(ter), if his Grandma/dog/dealer died, what he's eating, the movies he likes, the movies he doesn't like, if he got dumb(er), if he's getting any, if he's a drunkard, if he drives a Camaro, if he voted for Obama (he didn't), if he watches Glenn Beck (he does), etc. etc. etc. It is likely that you will be able to determine, in a very real sense, the nature of Joe's current existence, warts and all.

You may think much of this information innocuous or mundane. However, what does it say about our society when we pass about freely the details of our personal lives with an audience of several hundred -- in some cases, thousands -- of onlookers, many of whom we barely like or even know? Indeed, many of these Facebook "friends" are genuine friends, lovers, family. Surely worthy of our trust. But how many of your Facebook "friends" are opportunistic voyeurs who remain your "friend" only to retain access to your world, far removed from any direct, meaningful, personal interaction? And of course, vice versa: if you think that most of your long-lost "friends" on Facebook are not interested in the current details of your life, ask yourself -- when was the last time you "creeped"? (You've likely moved on from Joe to a new victim even as you are [half]reading this...)

Perhaps you have convinced yourself into thinking that you're an open book -- open to the world, unconstrained by traditional social conventions regarding "privacy," "intimacy" and the like. And if so, more power to you. Still, I fear for the day when your dissociation from the physical -- when chatting online becomes better than sharing a cup of coffee with someone, when downloading your professor's study notes becomes better than engaging with your academic community, when (heaven forbid) online sex becomes better than the real thing -- I fear for the day when your dissociation from the physical exposes the fact that your online "community" is no substitute for genuine, human companionship and intimacy.

An intimate relationship, whether with a family member, a friend or a lover, is something to be cherished, privileged and prioritized. Opening your life up to an enormous network of electronic acquaintances, and all under the label of "friend," is an assault on friendship itself.

"[People] who lose the guarantee of privacy also eventually lose the capacity for making friends," Elaine Scarry reminds us once more. I argue here for an even greater danger: people who lose the want for privacy may eventually lose the capacity for making friends.