I have long attributed the idea of preemptive self-disclosure - sharing information about oneself in order to forestall negative consequences from not sharing - to Paul Dourish, but over the years, I'd forgotten exactly why. A couple of recent articles I've read about disclosing what many might consider private information - coupled with the 19th and final post I recently wrote about my wife's anal cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery - prompted me to seek out the exact source of this attribution: a 2003 paper he co-authored with Leysia Palen on Unpacking "Privacy" for a Networked World. The term "preemptive self-disclosure" does not appear in their paper, which is just as relevant now as it was 7 years ago (if not moreso). However, I found the section that I believe prompted the term - which may well represent my own shorthand for repacking the concepts - and will include an excerpt after briefly reviewing the more recent promptings.
Yesterday, Jeff Jarvis announced the title of his next book, Public Parts , which will be about "the end of privacy and the benefits of publicness". Jeff has written publicly about his private parts - the challenges he has faced over the course of his battle with prostate cancer - and his decision to preemptively disclose his experiences has yielded many unanticipated benefits, for him and for his readers:
In Public Parts, I’ll argue, as I have here, that in our current privacy mania we are not talking enough about the value of publicness. If we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections the internet brings: meeting people, collaborating with them, gathering the wisdom of our crowd, and holding the powerful to public account.
Toward the end of his short post, Jeff references an article written by his friend, Steven Johnson, In Praise of Oversharing, in which Steven writes of discovering his friend's cancer diagnosis a year ago via a Twitter status update ... and not finding that strange. He goes on to write of the "obsession" with privacy exhibited during the early days of the Internet, and how that now seems "quaint", although he also warns against claims that "the whole concept of privacy is teetering on the edge of obsolescence". Noting the erosion of Facebook's "fortress" of privacy into a "drive-through", he suggests that we are on the leading edge of the learning curve with respect to navigating "the valley of intimate strangers" that lies between privacy and celebrity (or, at least, publicity).
Writing of his friend's public disclosures about cancer, Steven notes:
Within days of his [Jeff Jarvis'] initial post, he had hundreds of comments on his blog, many of them simply wishing him well, but many offering specific advice from personal experience: what to expect in the immediate aftermath of the surgery, tips for dealing with the inconveniences of the recovery process. By taking this most intimate of experiences and making it radically public, Jarvis built an improvised support group around his blog: a space of solidarity, compassion, and shared expertise. ...
In the end, it wasn't just a conversation for Jarvis, it was a conversation for the thousands of other people who will come to those pages through Google. There is an intensity and honesty to these public disclosures that can be enormously helpful, next to the formal, anonymous advice of a hospital cancer site. ... You get a truer account of what it actually feels like to go through that terrible experience than any official page on the Mayo Clinic or WebMD sites could ever offer.
The primary motivation behind my own initial foray into preemptive disclosure of potentially private [health] matters - the first blog post I wrote about my wife's anal cancer 5 years ago - was to reduce the overhead of sharing information about our progress - and periodic setbacks - with friends and family, going public so as to minimize the number of redundant emails and phone calls. However, it also created an unanticipated broader support group - which I'm sure is at least an order of magnitude smaller than Jeff Jarvis' - through which we've received encouragement from not only family and friends, but also from intimate strangers. Another unanticipated effect is that by opening sharing our experience, we were able to provide support - or at least personal information about the experiences - to others ... potentially far beyond those who have directly acknowledged that indirect support via comments and email. And we continue to receive gifts in the form of expressions of appreciation for our willingness to go public with what is, for many, very private matters.
Finally, returning to the CHI 2003 paper that I believe first gave rise to my awareness of preemptive self-disclosure, I want to include a relevant except - though I recommend the entire paper - from the section entitled "The Disclosure Boundary: Privacy and Publicity". It's worth noting that although the paper addresses and/or anticipates several of the themes raised this week by Steven Johnson, it was written in 2002, before the advent of boundary-challenging social networking services such as Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook and MySpace - although I believe Friendster may have been on the scene by that point - and is based largely on a book by social psychologist Irwin Altman published in 1975. To me, it demonstrates how forward-thinking Altman, Palen and Dourish were [/are], how good science - like good art - is always ahead of its time, and how much unpacking remains to be done in the continuously evolving landscape of privacy and publicity in our increasingly networked world:
As Altman theorizes, privacy regulation in practice is not simply a matter of avoiding information disclosure. Participation in the social world also requires selective disclosure of personal information. Not only do we take pains to retain certain information as private, we also choose to explicitly disclose or publicize information about ourselves, our opinions and our activities, as means of declaring allegiance or even of differentiating ourselves from others (another kind of privacy regulation). Bumper stickers, designer clothing, and “letters to the editor” deliberately disclose information about who we are. We sit in sidewalk cafes to “see and be seen.” We seek to maintain not just a personal life, but also a public face. Managing privacy means paying attention to both of these desires.
Furthermore, maintaining a degree of privacy, or “closedness” [from Altman's 1975 book, The Environment and Social Behavior: Privacy, Personal Space, Territory and Crowding], will often require disclosure of personal information or whereabouts. The choice to walk down public streets rather than darkened back alleys is a means of protecting personal safety by living publicly, of finding safety in numbers. We all have thoughts or facts we would like to keep secret, but most of us also need to ensure that others know something about ourselves, for personal or professional reasons. For some, this management of personal and public realms is analogous to the job of a public relations agent who needs to make their client available and known in the world, while at the same time protecting them from the consequences of existing in this very public sphere. Celebrities operate in this space, but so do many lesser-known people: academics, for example, often feel compelled to maintain web pages, not only to advertise their expertise and experience, but also to keep requests for papers and other inquiries at bay. Therefore, one of the roles of disclosure can ironically be to limit, rather than increase, accessibility. Views of privacy that equate disclosure with accessibility fail to appreciate this necessary balance between privacy and publicity.