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Private, sometimes confidential


Yes, I have read, understood and accept the terms of use and privacy policy”. Click.

Opinion: Thembe Khumalo


I don’t know how many privacy policies you have ever actually read, understood and agreed with. Most people simply click to say yes. Privacy has become something we can easily dispense with, because after all, all the other one million users of the site or service are happy to proceed, so clearly there is no danger. Or is there?

At a time in modern history when so little is contained, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of personal privacy. And yet maintaining your privacy is more essential than ever.

Precisely because we are exposed to so much, which would otherwise have remained private were it not for the access provided by the internet in general and social media in particular, we must be more deliberate about setting aside what it private for private consumption.

We also must set aside spaces in our minds and in our days to process the large volumes of information and experience that come our way, and to understand what we are sharing and why.

Twenty years ago, we woke up in the morning, selected the clothes, which would cover our bodies and the food, which would nourish them and proceeded to get on with our day.

In the evenings we would sit down with our families or friends and share the experience of our days, including perhaps what we had eaten and worn. If our loved ones were far away we would call them on the phone or write them letters, sometimes enclosing photographs to give them a more vivid glimpse into our lives.

Today, the mundane choices of clothing and nourishments can be broadcast to a wide and varied audience. In fact, from the moment you are fully awake, you too are privy to the intimate details of other peoples live and if you feel so inclined, you can reciprocate with details of our own.

People you have never met can see what you look like when you wake up and how “rock” your pyjamas. Details of your meals, including the cutlery and crockery, are no longer reserved only for those you eat with, but are freely available to the entire world should they wish to partake in the consumption of your media feed.

Complete strangers can view and comment on your family holiday snaps as easily as they can decimate your choice in music or celebrate your new hairdo.

Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with this level of exposure. Or is there?

At what point does the idea of privacy begin to be relevant in a world where almost nothing is private. Can the principle of invasion of privacy apply when you expose the details of your private life everyday? And more to the point, why are we sharing these details?

Why are we telling our followers what we ate for breakfast, why are we sending them pictures of our children crossing the street. Why is it important or even necessary to share a sunset, or a pimple or even a thought about a rocky relationship with people we hardly know?

Many of those of us who post regularly on social media platforms would not be able to answer these questions for the simple reason that we haven’t stopped to reflect on the matter. Social media is what people do so we do it.

This is a matter of great concern partly because the sharing and re-sharing of content on the internet can happen at incredibly fast speeds, and partly because once content is shared it is very very difficult (if not impossible) to retrieve and re-assign into the realm of strictly private information.

When the people doing the sharing are youngsters, full of unrestricted hope and unreliable hormones, with very little experience of life, and not much in the way of personal restraint, the results can be devastating.

Confidences broken, relationships damaged, self-esteem shredded, reputations ruined and a general bleakening of outlook about life can all result from small incidences of over-sharing of content that should have remained private.

Apart from the desire to indulge the narcissist in ourselves, we are also anxious to fit in. Being part of the cool and trendy crowd is no longer the preserve of adolescence it seems.

Many times we miss the real beauty of the moments in our lives, while we are trying to capture the perfect angle for sharing that Instagram post.

Years ago I realised that I often missed out on the real pleasure of hanging out with my children because my focus was on the camera — on trying to capture the moment forever. I soon realised that it was better for me to be in the moment, to engage fully and drink it in thoroughly, that to be half in the moment and half outside of it as the voyeur, that the value of the moment was in feeling it, being in it much more than in recording it for posterity or Facebook.

Moments pass all too soon, and we have to trust our hearts to make and hold on to the memories of the experiences we really treasure.

I have not mastered the art of distancing myself from social medi, and I am as guilty of the vanity-inspired selfie, as the next person. But I have learnt to ask myself about the value of a personal picture or a passing thought before I share it. Most of the times I find that actually there is no value and so I don’t.

Privacy is important. It is important, not just for those with something to hide, but because how we spend out time, and even our money, is an important part of how we define ourselves.

When it is subject to regular scrutiny it can begin to change what we do and how we do it. This is particularly true for young people. It can lead to a homogenisation of our culture and beliefs.

Jathan Sadowski, a student of applied ethics, puts it this way, “Privacy is not just something we enjoy. It is something that is necessary for us to: develop, who we are; form an identity that is not dictated by the social conditions that directly or indirectly influence our thinking, decisions, and behaviors; and decide what type of society we want to live in.”

Thembe Khumalo is a brand-builder, storyteller and social entrepreneur. Find out more on www.thembekhumalo.com or follow her social media accounts @thembekhumalo

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