‘I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account… I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less than have to continuously share details of my life,’ said Scarlett Johansson in 2011.
Instagram was barely a year old at that point and the tidal wave of internet oversharing was yet to crest. This was long before we realised that there was an audience for pictures of our avocado on toast or that images of our make-up free face could garner dozens of fawning responses.
Now, almost a decade later, the actor’s comments seem eerily prophetic. She was calling it: in a world of personal information overload and fetishistic oversharing, the classiest thing you can do now is keep your life under lock and key.
Think about how much information we now regularly give away about ourselves.
Once upon a time, our colleagues’ lives outside work were largely mysterious; certainly those of our CEOs and leaders remained shrouded in secrecy. Celebrities, too, were unreachable, unknowable beings onto whom we projected our idealised versions of who they may be.
But as the world gives away its most private thoughts and moments with abandon, a new stealth luxury is emerging, one that few can lay real claim to: privacy. As Phoebe Philo told a journalist in 2013: ‘The chicest thing is when you don’t exist on Google… God, I would love to be that person!’
To early adopters like Philo and Johansson, privacy was about creating boundaries that allowed one to live one’s life away from the public gaze. As the decade has worn on, and the tentacles of the digital world wind their way into more parts of our lives than ever before, privacy has become something more all-encompassing.
In 2020, privacy means having the freedom to turn away from online connectivity. To be truly ‘private’ today is to have a level of control over one’s online presence that very few of us have the power to exert – and, as with the status symbols of old, it is that scarcity that adds value.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment that privacy became a luxury.
The internet was ‘born’ in 1995. Mark Zuckerberg took his first tentative steps towards creating Facebook in 2003. The same year, Paris Hilton – widely regarded as the originator of influencer culture – broke out in The Simple Life. (Her quote, ‘Dress cute wherever you go; life is too short to blend in,’ was added to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations in 2009.)
Fitbit launched its first wearable tracker at the end of that decade.
A couple of years later, the penny was starting to drop. Writing in The Atlantic in 2012, journalist Alexis Madrigal noted that, ‘every move you make on the Internet is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetised.’
In 2014, Kim Kardashian broke the internet, and in 2015 journalist Jon Ronson explored the advent of internet shaming in his bestseller So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal laid bare the extent to which our freely given online data was being harnessed to dictate real-world events.
Out of this melting pot of flash fame, big data, free-market capitalism, casual brutality and international espionage, privacy has emerged as one of the last true luxuries. Or, perhaps, the only true luxury of this digital age.
As Victoria Buchanan, senior futures analyst at The Future Laboratory, explains: ‘While material goods were once considered the ultimate status symbols, today we see something more abstract taking their place.’
Experts once predicted a digital divide between those who could afford to access the internet and those who could not.
‘However, the opposite is increasingly true,’ Buchanan says. ‘Status is now found in the power to slow down and decelerate, and the wealthy are investing in privacy and the ability to disconnect from a constantly tethered lifestyle.’
Last year, the LA Times reported on a burgeoning global economy centred around ‘digital detoxes’. For instance, ‘Live More Offline’ is a weekend retreat in Spain that offers guided meditations and silent walks, as well as detox coaching to ‘empower’ attendees to better manage their relationship with technology.
Buchanan points out that Steve Jobs famously said that he didn’t let his children use iPads.
‘Now, affluent families in Silicon Valley inspired by this sentiment are enrolling their children at technology-free institutions such as Brightworks in San Francisco and Waldorf schools across the US,’ she says. ‘Some families even hire screen coaches to help them raise phone-free children.’
As well as services, the desirability of privacy is also being crystallised into new products. Kaiwei Tang is the co-founder and CEO of Light, a company that makes what Forbes has called the ‘be-here-now’ phone. Now in its second iteration, the Light Phone is a credit card-sized device with a Kindle-style black-and-white interface, designed to be the Swiss Army knife of digital-detox tech.
‘You can make and receive calls, send messages, check maps, order an Uber, but there are no apps to lure you into an endless scroll,’ says Tang.
The promotional video offers a snapshot of what a truly ‘untethered’ life looks like. ‘How will you choose to spend your life today?’ the voiceover asks, as good-looking thirtysomethings cavort through sun-dappled afternoons listening to records (vinyl, natch) and rollerskating. ‘Does being so connected actually make us any happier?’ the advert goes on to ask.
The answer would seem to be ‘no’.
It’s been a huge hit. The implication is clear: people like you – that is, good-looking creative types – have better things to be doing than to be stuck in an infinite Instagram scroll.
At $350, the Light Phone wasn’t intended to be a dumbed-down burner phone.
‘It’s meant to feel like a luxury item,’ says Tang. ‘You might spend $1,000 on a digital detox weekend for someone to take your phone. Get a Light Phone and you can do that every weekend.’
To own a Light Phone is to signal that you don’t need to expose yourself to unnecessary attention.
Academic and author of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism Kristen Ghodsee says: ‘The implication is that you have already “made it” – that you already have status.’ For many if not most of us, social media – or some level of digital exposure – has become a necessity. ‘Our jobs dictate that we need to be engaged in this ecosystem,’ says Ghodsee.
‘We trade our time and attention because in exchange we get information from Twitter or recognition on Instagram. If we can opt out, it means that we’ve already reached a certain level of wealth and prominence so we don’t need to make that trade-off.’
Ghodsee only ever kept a bare-bones social media presence.
Then three years ago, after finding unwanted fame when a New York Times op-ed went viral, she went ‘as dark on the internet as I could possibly go’. But, she says, ‘by then I’d already reached a level in my career where I didn’t need these platforms.’
In that respect, she adds, those who are able to renounce exposure in favour of privacy are, in effect, performing their own status. It’s a way of saying: ‘I no longer need to shout to be heard.’
Amanda Eilian’s philosophy aligns with Ghodsee’s. As a co-founder of New York-based investment fund Able Partners, Eilian assesses how ideas might translate into good business ventures (specialising in the wellness space, she’s an investor in both Goop and The Wing). Sensing its promise, she tried Instagram when it launched.
‘I posted a picture my mother sent me on a trip to the Amazon,’ she says, via Skype from her home in New York. ‘I posted a picture of my husband and me on our anniversary, a picture of a business event… Those kinds of things. I shared them thinking, This is for my friends and family, it’s a private account. Then people started to request to follow me.’
Working with high-profile companies, she inadvertently found herself an object of fascination.
‘I was getting hundreds of requests from people I didn’t know.’ Far from flattered, she found herself uncomfortable with the attention. ‘It drove home the fact that I don’t need to be part of this.’
Eilian describes a time in her career, working as an investment bank analyst when, ‘I had less status – I was certainly at the mercy of my bosses – and it meant that I had no choice but to be contactable at any hour. But I’m not in that position any more. I don’t need to engage if I don’t want to – that’s a privilege.’
She also points out that, ‘there’s a camp of people who strategically need social media as part of their business. When one has to have a presence, the aim – certainly for my peers – is to control one’s own narrative. Without transparency around how our data is being used, it’s easy to lose that control.’
Social media feeds are the best example of how we lose control when we hand over our data, she says. ‘An algorithm we have no hope of understanding curates what we see, based on what we unconsciously click on.’
In February, Harvard Business Review ran an article ushering in The Era of Antisocial Media, arguing that many of us now huddle around ‘digital campfires’. Journalist Sara Wilson wrote: ‘If social media can feel like a crowded airport terminal where everyone is allowed, but no one feels particularly excited to be there, digital campfires offer a more intimate oasis where smaller groups of people are excited to gather around shared interests.’
‘Campfires’ include private messaging and microcommunities like the ones we might find via Slack channels. Could this be another signal that we’re cooling on the overexposure we’ve come to expect of the internet age?
‘For a long time, only a tiny minority could have “fame”,’ says Ghodsee. ‘Over the past decade, though, we’ve seen the rapid proliferation of fame, and of data companies who are eager to exploit our narcissism. This has created an artificial scarcity of privacy, so suddenly privacy has become a growth market.’
Tang agrees: ‘What’s interesting is that at some point in the near future, I think we will be able to sell our own data. Right now, we’re giving it up for free but it’s a valuable asset.’ In that respect, those who have protected their privacy will stand to gain more than those who’ve spent years oversharing online. But – as Emily Gould explored in Replaying My Shame, a piece for The Cut in which she writes about her time as a blogger at the early internet sensation Gawker – even those who’ll have nothing to sell have now lived long enough in the age of the internet to realise, and be wary of, the fact that everything posted online will probably exact a real-world price.
Of course, what this all means for those of us who are still tied into careers that require us to have a digital presence, remains to be seen. Undoubtedly, private accounts with no posts will come to seem ever-more chic. Where once it was difficult to garner followers and likes, now it’s more difficult to opt out of the online economy while still remaining relevant.
But true privacy will continue to be a genuine luxury because it will only be available for a select group who, like Phoebe Philo, remain influential no matter how ‘dark’ they go online.
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