Privacy 2.0: We Are All Celebrities Now

Apr 26, 2011
Originally published on April 27, 2011 12:22 pm

Privacy is an endangered species.

Just ask teen heartthrob Justin Bieber. On a recent trip to Israel, he was hounded by photographers. "You would think paparazzi would have some respect in holy places," Bieber posted on Twitter.

Or actress Reese Witherspoon. In the May issue of Vogue, she says it is so hard for her to go out in public, she sometimes just stays in her car and cries.

Or the president of the United States. He pines for privacy. "I just want to go through Central Park and ... spend the whole day watching people," he told Hearst Magazines recently. "I miss that."

OK, OK. We know. Irony alert. Bieber is tweeting that he wants privacy; Witherspoon is on the cover of Vogue, for goodness' sake, and President Obama ... well, he ran for president.

Celebrities and politicians make their livelihoods by eschewing privacy and seeking full-frontal public attention. They are public figures by choice. (Duh. Winning!)

But what about the rest of us? In today's Facebooking Twitterverse — with the proliferation of cellphone cameras, community-building websites, photo-sharing apps and ever-expanding companies dedicated to exposing as much of our lives and predilections as possible — we are all becoming public figures whether we want to be or not. And it's changing the rules we live by.

Blurring Lines

"People, now more than ever, have become increasingly uninhibited with the information they share via online social media," says David Hector Montes, former outreach director of the Pro Bono Research Group at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. "As a result, private citizens have large audiences to share information with, and public figures are more accessible."

The prevalence of social media, Montes says, "has created a culture of over-sharing." And this "is blurring the lines between who is a public figure and who is not."

Montes first wrote about this line-blurring last year in a report titled: "Living Our Lives Online: The Privacy Implications of Online Social Networking."

"Much of our new networking occurs online, and accessibility to every remark and picture posted online has increased," he wrote. "Living life online naturally results in decreased privacy. How do we accommodate an interest in guarding privacy if our culture encourages and facilitates documenting virtually every aspect of our online lives?"

The line between fan and star is also blurring. Arguably, Chris Crocker — the emotionally supercharged advocate of Britney Spears in his virulently popular "Leave Britney Alone" video — became more famous overnight than a whole tier of actors who gained fame in traditional ways.

A Proliferation Of Celebrities

This paradigm shift also came up at the "Innovation Uncensored" conference staged by Fast Company last year. On a panel, entrepreneur Sean Parker of Founders Fund observed that in the "pre-social-networking, pre-Internet era, celebrity was extremely scarce ... and it was highly valued. Now there's a proliferation of celebrities. Before the Internet and social networking, people wanted to be celebrities."

The number of "celebrities" has mushroomed, Parker says, and these days "normal people are starting to experience some of the downsides of celebrity without any of the upside." For instance, he says, it doesn't make it any easier for them to get a table at their favorite restaurant, but they do get harassed by people who know them from the Internet.

Eventually, the fact that we are all living very public lives could have long-lasting ramifications. For instance, Montes says, traditionally there have been separate rules in the court system for someone who is regarded as high-profile. "The burden of proof is higher in a defamation action for one who is a public figure," he says.

'Public-Figure Status'

But, Montes continues, "now that public-figure status can be bestowed upon anyone, even involuntarily, being careless with online privacy settings can set anyone up for such characterization. Practically, this means that everyone must be cautious about what information they choose to share online, lest they be the subject of the next news story about being fired for their Facebook comments."

So far, the courts have not broadened the definition of "public figure," according to Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a users' rights advocacy group.

The Internet does give every person increased access to the public sphere of discourse, Tien says, "but that doesn't mean we're in the same class as real public figures."

Improved ability to participate in public debate, Tien says, is still not the same as a special prominence in social or public affairs. The legal definition of "public figure," Tien says, is rooted in the notion that a person "is proactively seeking prominence."

But, he adds, the problems associated with privacy "are large and systemic, owing partly to the rise of commercial and governmental information gathering — a trend that predates the Internet — and partly also to the spread of technologies that routinely record what we do."

In other words, by enjoying the convenience of digital commerce and community, we are sacrificing safety, security and privacy.

"In the 'old days,' which weren't that long ago," Tien says, "it took effort to track people. Now we're tracked through our devices — like your cellphone or computer — and the issue is who has access to the data trail that already exists. That's a huge shift."

In the new privacy paradigm, we have a lot more in common with celebrities like Bieber, Witherspoon and Obama. Even if we want to be left alone to do something privately, without being approached or bothered, there are still legions of people — ad trackers, opinion pollsters and countless other nosy folks — who are our fans and followers. They are fascinated by our every move.

Coming Wednesday: With concerns that less and less of our lives are private, a privacy industry is rising — commerce that works overtime to give the rest of us some alone time.

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