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In the company of nudists, no one is naked. We are entering an age of publicness when more and more we will live, do business, and govern in the open. Some see danger there. I see opportunity.
The evidence of the trend toward openness is all around. Young people are sharing their lives online via Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Google (GOOG), and whatever comes next. Though that mystifies their elders and appalls self-appointed privacy advocates, the transparent generation gains value from its openness: This is how they find each other, share, and socialize.
In business, in the wake of the financial crisis, the public and government will demand far greater disclosure. Companies should view transparency not as punishment but instead as a necessary step in rebuilding trust and repairing relationships.
And in Washington, President Obama has promised a new transparency in government—against the sure resistance of bureaucrats and politicians. For government, too, transparency is the prerequisite to trust. As newspapers shrink and die, one way to assure many more watchful eyes on government is to make all of its actions and information open and searchable. Government should be transparent by default.
Are there dangers in publicness? Yes. For one, we can all share too much and turn into the nation of narcissists. Young people may regret tomorrow what they make public today; this is why Google CEO Eric Schmidt jokes that we should all be able to change our identities at age 21 but I think we will all be protected by the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation (I won't dig up your college-party picture if you don't dig up mine). More important, our information can be stolen, misused, and misconstrued. But the issue isn't really privacy, as its advocates insist. It is control. We need to be masters of our own data and how it is seen and used.
But we also need to understand the benefits of living and working in the open; that is the discussion that is being ignored. I can attest to the value of the public life. As I wrote my book, I explored its ideas openly on my blog and that enabled my generous readers to improve, challenge, correct, and add value to them all. In the book and on my blog, I revealed the most private and personal of information—that I have a minor heart condition—and again my readers gave me advice, support, and information. I'm having a ball now reading readers of my book on Twitter as they quote and review it (and I respond). Finally, because I am on Facebook and LinkedIn and have a blog and use Twitter, I have made business connections—and money.
In reports I've written for BusinessWeek, the heads of Dell (DELL) and Starbucks (SBUX) corroborate the value of business in public as they each now seek and discuss customers' ideas openly. Comcast (CMCSA) has learned that there is a public discussion about its service happening independently and that is why it assigned staff to monitor and respond to Twitterers' complaints. Every company alive is hiring search engine optimization experts to help them manage their public face for Google and its users. What more powerful business elixir is there today than Googlejuice?
There are business opportunities in this new transparency. Google has won the war to organize our information. The next frontier, possibly even more valuable, will be organizing us. I don't believe the victor will be a single social network that has the most members. No, the Internet is our social network and the Google of people will be the service that makes sense of and gives us control over our information and connections. Note well that this battle is being fought in the open as Facebook enables us to use our identity there on other sites and as Google endorses an open standard for identity.
Openness itself will also yield more knowledge and value in commercial relationships. Google recently announced that it would enable us to see and correct its targeting data about us. That might seem to be a defensive response to those pesky privacy advocates but it's actually cagey business. For whenever we set Google straight about us, it becomes better informed and can more effectively target advertising. I've long wanted to be able to tell sites which ads they should and shouldn't show me (if I have to see them anyway). That's the cookie that would put me in control and it would give marketers valuable (if not always comfortable) intelligence.
Of course, there is also gold in the aggregate data mined from our public actions and words—the wisdom of our crowd. The more public we are, the more opportunities there are to learn and create value. If there's a business model behind Twitter, I suspect it's that, for Twitter's treasure is tapping into what a critical mass of people are doing—and thinking—right now.
As we see publicness grow as a force in society—and it will—it's important to understand the phenomenon in the context of the Internet itself. Contrary to the dreams of publishers and producers, the Internet is not a medium, and contrary to the hopes of retailers, it's not a cash register.
No, the Internet is all about creation and connections. It enables any of us to create content and find an audience for it—the purest public act. Fame is a force almost as powerful as sex and money. The Internet also connects us with information and each other. The key to Facebook's growth, I think, is that it moves past the tiresome fad of anonymity online to help us establish real identities and organize real relationships.
There is where the opportunities will be in publicness: helping people create, helping their creations to be found, and helping people connect. That will be the secret to social success.
Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? (Collins, January 2009), teaches at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism and blogs at Buzzmachine.com.