When I last went to visit my former high school, some of the teachers told me they were really worried about cyber bullying. Girls (it’s an all-girl school) were starting to post mocking photos and videos of their classmates on social networks, or even threaten with the possibility of obtaining some. “If you do my homework I won’t post this photo on Facebook. And if you tell anybody, you can be sure everyone will see it before I’m stopped”.
The victim knows those threats are easy to fulfil, and that’s one of the reasons teachers don’t know how to face the problem. “Everything is public now. Teens think they can publish anything on their wall, share their feelings, their party pictures… And it’s fun! At least until someone uses that information to mock you or to threaten you”, one of my teachers told me, “how do we make these girls aware of the consequences of making their entire lives public?”.
Gabriel García Márquez said “everybody has three lives: a public life, a private life and a secret life”. In Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, the Puritan community of Salem is described as a place where almost everything is either a public life or secret life, but there’s no in-between. Today, the line that separates public and private life is equally unclear. If Hester Prynne is publicly blamed for her adultery, today’s women are slut-shamed through the internet. Public humiliation that once took place at the scaffold in the market-place now happens on the tabloids and social networks.
In fact, social networks have brought almost everything into the public life sphere, making those lines even more unclear. Suddenly, the market-place has grown to embrace even the details of everyday life. We tweet our political opinions, we declare on Facebook how we’re feeling, and we can even share our location through foursquare and let anyone see what a delicious meal we’re eating through Instagram.
But the problem isn’t that we can share everything with everyone: the problem is that we do it. Social networks are the tool, but not the problem. The real dilemma is that, like teens at my school, people don’t have a clear idea of privacy, just like Pearl:
“Mother,” said she, “was that the same minister that kissed me by the brook?”
“Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!” whispered her mother. “We must not always talk in the marketplace of what happens to us in the forest.”
“I could not be sure that it was he—so strange he looked,” continued the child. “Else I would have run to him, and bid him kiss me now, before all the people, even as he did yonder among the dark old trees. What would the minister have said, mother? Would he have clapped his hand over his heart, and scowled on me, and bid me begone?”
“What should he say, Pearl,” answered Hester, “save that it was no time to kiss, and that kisses are not to be given in the market-place? Well for thee, foolish child, that thou didst not speak to him!”
Clearly, the question of privacy is a difficult issue: In Egypt, religion is part of the public sphere, while in Sweden it’s considered a private matter. Some people think politicians renounce a part of their privacy because voters need to know what kind of person they are, while people under the public eye defend their right to have private life.
Despite conflicting views, it is an essential debate in society nowadays. Since social networks are here to stay, it would be good to clarify where the market-place ends. Understanding what is private and what privacy means is learning to respect the other and that there’s some space that only belongs to that person. It would mean we’d be less quick to judge on others and less likely to mock them.