I suspect Mat Honan wishes he could hide the fact that he was listening to Cher and the Black Eyed Peas eight months ago on Rdio. But he can’t.
We’re on a march to share more: More content, more services, more details, more frequently. A few things I’ve shared this year that I did not share a year ago: when I read people’s text messages, my real-time location, what I am listening to at any given moment. And the publishers and services whose stuff I use are totally down with this. More data and more sharing from me means more reach for them — join this thing I’m using! — and in a lot of cases, better (and maybe more) advertising. I feel like every new service practically begs you to hitch it to your Facebook account. Which is all totally fine. I chose to turn on read receipts, I chose to turn on Foursquare Radar and Find My Friends. I (sorta) chose to let my friends see what I’m listening to.
“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”
Mark Zuckerberg has no small amount of self-interest in this declaration; Facebook is both the engine of this shift and its primary beneficiary, like a vast machine that eats stars as it pumps out the raw materials for new ones to be born. As Farhad Manjoo put it a few months ago when Facebook unveiled the Timeline and a new way for services to plug into Facebook, “If Facebook’s CEO has his way, everything you do online will be shared by default. You read, you watch, you listen, you buy — and everyone you know will hear all about it on Facebook.” There’s even a “Zuckerberg’s Law”, a lame riff on Moore’s Law, that the amount of information people share roughly doubles every year.
The pernicious thing about the push to share more though, from Facebook and Twitter and Rdio and in some ways I think, ourselves, isn’t simply that the default, increasingly, is to live more online. It’s that it’s less and less of a choice. Or at least, it’s very hard to make the choice to not share — either with the companies whose services we’re using, or with the whole world. Even selective sharing is increasingly difficult. It’s all or nothing.
You cannot hide what you’re listening to from your friends on Rdio. You cannot have a private pinboard on Pinterest. You cannot hide your favorites on Twitter. You cannot delete titles from your Netflix history. (Netflix isn’t shared on Facebook right now, but it’s not for lack of wanting to.) Spotify freaks out a little bit when the social thing isn’t working and harangues you constantly to connect it to your social networks (even though it, admirably, has a private mode). Washington Post Social Reader shares whatever article you’re reading in real time, unless you dive deep into Facebook’s settings and decide to only share with yourself (which is kind of weird, to think about it that way; there is no not sharing, just sharing by yourself).
Compounded with the fact that so much of the media we consume is moving to the cloud — or fuck it, let’s just say online because “the cloud” sounds stupid — our music, our movies, our books, our games, we’re faced with the prospect of nearly constant public performance of our tastes. And to be honest, that’s fine 90 percent of the time. I don’t care if you see me listening to Tanlines. It’s the other 10 percent of the time that’s the problem.
We need a universal private mode button. So we — well, BuzzFeed’s Amy Sly — made one. A fingerprint being wiped away, by a smooth white surface. An opaque, clean slate.
Every service needs the equivalent of stomping upstairs to your room, slamming the door shut and burying your head under a pillow — watching, reading or listening to whatever you want, without broadcasting it to anybody else. Or, more directly, just like Google Chrome’s Incognito mode. You press the button, and for the duration of a session — whether you’re watching a shitty Troma movie, playing “Super Bass” at the gym, reading a sleazy article in the Post — nobody sees what you’re doing. It’s not recorded in your history. It doesn’t screw up your movie or music or book recommendations because every now and then, you like to watch weird British soap operas or you watched a small marathon of How I Met Your Mother with a girl. Some services have this already, but it’s often difficult to get to, because they want you to share as often as possible. And the services lose very little — they still know that you watched this or listened to that — you’re just telling them not to put that on your permanent record or tell the whole world. The only things I’m ever tempted to steal anymore are terrible things I don’t want people to see me consuming.
So the button or mode needs to be super visible, obvious and easy to engage or disengage. It needs to be on every service that’s designed to broadcast what you are doing. It needs to be right there whenever I don’t want you to see what I’m doing, whatever service I’m using.
The thing is, it’s kind of okay that we’re moving to a place where we share practically everything. As long as we still have spaces where we don’t have to share anything, the choice to share nothing at all, at least for a little while. The irony, of course, is that I think prominent private modes would probably speed that whole sharing process up, not slow it down. Why not move your music collection entirely to the cloud, now that you don’t have to worry about being mocked for your taste in late-90s nu-metal? Genuine bad taste — terrible things you love because you love them, not because you’re performing it ironically for your friends — has its place in what we consume, in defining who we are, without any regard for what other people think.
We need a safe place to be alone and be ourselves and think and feel and consume authentically. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of people crushed intto watching, listening and reading the same thing. There’s already enough pressure to do that. And constantly performing all the time? It’s just exhausting. There’s a reason every stage has a curtain.