Nadia Eghbal

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How Privacy Makes Us Better People

Following our recent, fully-transparent Series A announcement with Buffer, and having just finished reading The Circle, I confess I’ve got transparency on the brain.

Transparency (and its various forms, such as open communication and constructive criticism) is a cornerstone of a healthy organization.

But I don’t want to talk about transparency. I want to talk about its lesser discussed counterpart, privacy - because I truly believe that transparency can offer unlimited benefits to society, as long as it does not diminish the value of privacy.

As we continue to debate transparency in the coming months and years, I hope we remember to root our actions in the things we value, rather than in their absence.

Here are some things that I think are valuable about privacy.

Creativity

Research demonstrates that people tend to become creatively inhibited when they feel they are being watched or judged. Creativity requires not being afraid to look silly, and we don’t want to look silly in front of other people. (That’s why I’m drafting this blog post in a private doc.) And that’s why multiple experts recommend starting group brainstorms with designated alone time to generate new ideas before brainstorming as a group.

Building Moral Character

Privacy gives us a safe space to conduct moral experiments. We need to know what happens if we cheat and cover it up, or we tell a lie and get away with it. Maybe it makes us feel guilty, maybe it makes us excited, and then afraid. By learning what we can or cannot get away with in life, we understand the consequences of our actions, which become defining experiences for our character.

Multiple studies have suggested that exposure to small amounts of trauma makes people more emotionally resilient and better able to cope with future difficulties. While nobody likes it when bad things happen, those learnings cannot be read about or absorbed secondhand. They need to be experienced the hard way.

Intimacy

So much of who we are as humans stems from the contrast between our private and public selves. Freud wrote about this extensively. One could argue that art lives at the intersection, or deficiency, of our inner and outer selves.

Alain de Botton, in his book How to Think More About Sex, discusses how sexual desire stems from a rebellion against our public selves. For example, we spend our days interacting with hundreds of strangers with whom it would be inappropriate to intimately approach. The initial spark of desire, argues de Botton, comes from the crossover from stranger to intimate partner. Likewise, the subsequent decline in desire comes from when that stranger has been fully normalized into our intimate sphere, much like a friend or family member.

If everything were completely transparent, we could not fully appreciate intimate moments - sexual or platonic - whether it’s an irreverent night out with friends or a particularly deep conversation with a coworker.

Authenticity

We act differently when we know we’re being watched. By definition, that is the value of transparency. We know we’re being held accountable to someone else, even if that accountability is implicit, so we’re on better behavior.

In public, then, we adjust our actions so that we are doing things for others rather than ourselves. Maybe we say something to get a rise out of others. Maybe we just only talk about the good things in our life. Anyone who’s spent time on a Facebook or Instagram news feed would agree that the type of content that gets shared is not fully representative of who we are.

Without privacy, we lose a sense of authenticity, and society risks becoming an echo chamber of our public selves - false positivity, cheering one another on, without ever getting real about the things we’re afraid of, ashamed of, or feeling guilty about.