Of Facebook, Transparency, and Pentecost

“Man tends by nature toward the truth” (CCC 2467).

Brian Regan does a funny bit about Pop-Tarts in which he reads aloud the package directions. Yes, there are Pop-Tart directions—which is pretty much Regan’s joke in a nutshell. However, his rendition of those instructions is genius, particularly step #1: “Remove pastry from pouch.” Regan, nodding sagely, comments, “I see where they’re going with this. We’re banging on all cylinders now.”

That sardonic observation has been in the back of my mind since it came to light that Facebook has been playing fast and loose with their users’ data—my data, your data—and, to make matters worse, profiting from that data by selling it to a political consulting firm. The ensuing uproar would make you think FB had peddled our collective souls to a digital devil. To mitigate the fallout, FB’s Mark Zuckerberg has been all over the place (electronically, congressional testimony, etc.) doing mea culpas as well as promising to tighten up his website’s privacy standards and data security. Clearly, this was a big deal in tech-land, and it seems like a new article or blog post pops up daily in my FB feed about the whole mess—how it happened, why it happened, who’s responsible, what it means, and how we can prevent it in the future.

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A prime example is this one by Steven Melendez in the Wall Street Journal:Stop Facebook from Using Your Private Info: A Beginners’ Guide.” Melendez’s article must’ve been on heavy rotation for a while because it kept circling back to the top of my feed algorithm. Perhaps Zuckerberg and his minions were pulling strings behind the scenes to keep it up top—maybe as penance, or else as a foil for further nefarious capitalist schemes.

Maybe I’m just naïve, but all this handwringing and outrage about online privacy makes me laugh. Sure, Zuckerberg and friends deserve to take it on the chin for surreptitiously fiddling with (and profiting from) our personal information, but let’s be real. We freely surrender all that online information—whether to FB or Instagram, Pinterest or Twitter, or whatever other hip app is out there that I don’t even know about. Plus, we freely do that surrendering on mobile iGizmos, which means we release our precious “data” into the Wi-Fi ether like helium balloons into the summer sky. Despite all the “privacy” settings on all those apps, does anyone seriously think that absolute control over our data is possible these days? Is it even worth worrying about?

I’m old enough to remember when the internet and wireless revolutions were just heating up. I was slow, so slow, to catch on, but eventually I started wading into the online shallows (thanks to the prodding of my students). Now, I’m no tech Nostradamus, but, like Regan’s Pop-Tart consumer, I could see the handwriting on the social media wall. Facebook is free to use, after all, but it has to make money for somebody somehow—it’s a business, not a charity. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when we upload our lives online, the online overlords are going to monetize what we give them. Yes, I do regularly follow FB’s helpful prompts to check and update my security and privacy settings, but I have no illusions about what those settings can actually accomplish. Maybe the social media juggernauts will rein in their trampling of personal privacy, but don’t hold your breath. And I wouldn’t bank on Uncle Sam’s ability to police this arena either.

That being the case, I long ago adopted the wisdom espoused by various cyber-sages that you should never cede anything online that you don’t want the whole world to see and see forever. And it’s what I’ve always told my kids—and my students. Obviously, that includes things like social security numbers, but it also applies to indiscreet photos of beer-fueled fraternity escapades and spring break excesses, not to mention spiteful screeds and trash talk in comment boxes. “Do I want my mom to see this?” should be the question we ask ourselves every time we hit the “Post” button—or, better yet, “Do I want my kids to see this someday?” You could also insert “admissions counselor” or “potential employer” there. If the answer is “no” to any of those, then hit “Cancel” instead, because chances are good that they will have access to whatever you post long into the future.

Besides, what’s the point of launching personal information into cyberspace that you’d prefer to keep discreet? Why do so many people voluntarily risk exposure and then scramble for privacy? In his WSJ piece, Melendez gives us a clue by quoting Pew researcher Lee Rainie. “It’s not so much the old definition of privacy—‘I want the right to be left alone,’” Rainie told Melendez. Instead, there’s a new, overriding priority that the internet and social media have both fabricated and facilitated—namely, in Rainie’s words, “I want to control the world’s understanding of who I am.”

And controlling how the world understands me includes not just privacy and data security, but also shaping and massaging that data to present my preferred Potemkin persona—and for whatever reasons. That’s the angle Heidi Vogt explores in a different WSJ piece about how we play online hide-and-seek with our identities. “Consumers, wary of how their information is being used, lie about everything from names to birth dates to professions when companies ask for personal details online,” she writes. “Some are worried about identity theft, some just want to protect their privacy and some hope to fool advertisers by intentionally mucking up the databases used to target ads.” Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Especially that last bit about sticking it to the Man by skewing and distorting his precious marketing data—almost a tit for tat, you could say. “Mess with my information,” these tech dissemblers are declaring in effect, “and I’ll mess with yours.”

But there’s another option: Total transparency. “If you tell the truth,” Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “you don’t have to remember anything.” And you don’t have to worry about who knows what you say or how they’ll use it. We’re increasingly dependent on web-based communication—even aside from our voluntary internet activity on social media—and it’s unrealistic to assume that we retain any real control over what we put there. Life is too short to worry about things over which we have little control, so, aside from some prudent exceptions, why not throw caution to the wind and be honest about who we are online?

There are distinct advantages to this approach, especially for Catholics. For one thing, it’s a way of taking full advantage of the internet’s potential for evangelism, and it’s in keeping with what the Holy Spirit was all about in the earliest days of the Church. The readings from Acts throughout the Easter season are testimony to the Spirit’s desire that the Apostles come out of the shadows and bare their souls to the world. No more hiding out in the upper room; no more skulking around the fringes of the synagogue. Pentecost was all about getting out into the streets and proclaiming the Gospel.

We can do the same in the highways and byways of the internet.

In light of the Holy See’s repeated emphasis on a New Evangelization, I think we should eschew both subterfuge and secrecy when it comes to our online presence. In any arena we enter—whether it be the Areopagus or the cage-match of social media—we should be both transparent and vulnerable. If we’re receiving the sacraments, we bring Christ with us wherever we go in the physical world. Why should it be any different when we launch out into the World Wide Web?


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