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QUINTESSENCE

Facebook and Privacy, One Writer's Dilemma

I am a child of a parent come of age in the cold war. My father, with a degree in physics, was an officer in the USAF SAC Command. The USAF paid for his graduate degree at Stanford in computer data statistics, then a precursor to big data metrics. His specialty: metadata analysis. My father was deployed on Russian spy operations frequently throughout his twenty-plus year career in the USAF. In the 1970s, he retired from the military after a long stint at the Pentagon, and then went to work in the booming computer industry, working on designing unified data systems for several large state university library systems. He wrote papers on the implications of massive data holdings. He said to me over and again, “The most important thing in your life is your privacy. Protect it.” He railed against the use of social security numbers as identification, entirely against Congressional intent, and warned me that once private personal data was harvested and loosed in the world, it was irretrievable. Our financial and identity security was forever in jeopardy.

This then, is the ideological framework with which I have watched social media giants like Facebook (FB) and its cohorts leap into the digital world. These companies entice users because their applications are simple and free; they encourage social networks in an era of increasing isolation. Your soccer team schedule is on FB. Your grandma is on FB, because you don’t write her much and she can keep up with you and the Joneses this way. The television station is on FB to build viewership platforms, pushing viewer prizes and advertising contests. Professionals join the platform, and others like LinkedIn, to reach clients and keep the world aware of their product. This is how many writers, including me, found ourselves on FB. Publishers want us to do as much “free” outreach on our work as possible, and what better global media option than FB?

And all so free. Or not.

Interestingly, you cannot have a professional business page on FB without also hosting a personal page. And if you forgo keeping your personal page active to focus exclusively on the business page, FB will hound you about that inactivity. And nothing, but nothing happens on the professional page that you don’t pay for. Your followers will not see 90% of what you post, unless you pay to “boost” it through FB metrics. The method FB uses to push these “sponsored” boosts yield random smatterings of distant likes. No, it makes little sense to send travel information on Ecuador to someone who prefers Asia, and yet this is the deal with FB promotions. I generalize here, but you get the idea. Beyond setting generic categories of interest for people you’d like to receive your information, it all happens behind a curtain.

Well, no more. This week the curtain was pulled back on FB and the back office operations revealed. There stands profit motive. Your information, your privacy, everything about you that you happily or perhaps reluctantly provided FB, under their terms of agreement to use as they wish, has flown out the back door straight into the hands of people who have targeted plans for you. They want your dollars, your vote, your allegiance, your prejudices, and your insecurities. FB made its money selling you and me. We are the product. Facebook, this massive social information sharing experiment, grew and mutated, and the data-mining virus broke out of the lab.

I have thought about my Dad’s words a lot this week. About the pressure I feel to be active on social platforms to promote and support my writing, and to maintain connections with the family and friends who love the interactions FB provides. Yet much of it occurs behind screens. Yes, that “look at us having the time of our lives” picture montage, the two-sentence blast about a promotion. We love FB because it allows us to filter our lives favorably both to ourselves and for the consumption of others. But in return we give FB our identities and access to our private worlds.

While the current FB data manipulation breach is one fast horse out the barn door at this point, it bears thinking about our exposure on the web. The number of bank and credit card companies who hold our data. The online retail sites we have “saved” accounts with. The social media apps we play with, from Tumblr to Intagram and Twitter. Do any of us truly know how secure our information is? Is the convenience of a “pre-loaded profile” worth the risk that it might be someday be breached and our private information drained? Cyber security experts advise us not to open retail accounts: to provide online information to retailers only for the purpose of that sole transaction. To limit credit accounts to those most likely (nothing is guaranteed) to be kept secure and the corporate host committed to consumer privacy. I think about the information on the web about me, posted from me. Do any of us really want our adorable child’s pictures up on Google, and eventually on an advertisement billboard in Denmark? (True story: An American family discovered their Christmas photo on a billboard, selling yogurt in Europe.) Computer science and information technology are an evolving science. Corporations are collecting massive amounts of data on people and we ourselves give it away in buckets. I think the FB situation is fair warning. Bear in mind what you place in the public venue, or on social media. It may be neither secure nor safe from abuse or manipulation.

I’m closing my Facebook account today. I do not think this company is capable of controlling the data beast it has unleashed worldwide. I certainly hope we find more secure ways to connect in the future. The promise of “free” shouldn’t come at the cost of selling personal data to merchants of advertising or bad actors in politics. I want to stay in touch. As a writer living in a remote region of the west, social media is a remarkable avenue of connection with friends, and colleagues, and yes, readers. But I’m planning to be smart about it now, and choose platforms with more privacy and personal control. You can find me on my website still (glendaburgessbooks.com), on Instagram (@gbbooks) and on Twitter (@GlendaBurgess). Family? Text me.

Believe me when I say every post is something I imagine now having lost forever, left face up on the table in a coffee shop.

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All Things Made New

Ostia Antica
OF THE MUSE
by May Sarton

There is no poetry in lies,
But in crude honesty
There is hope for poetry.
For a long time now
I have been deprived of it
Because of pride,
Would not allow myself
The impossible.
Today, I have learned
That to become
A great, cracked,
Wide-open door
Into nowhere
Is wisdom.

When I was young,
I misunderstood
The Muse.
Now I am older and wiser,
I can be glad of her
As one is glad of the light.
We do not thank the light,
But rejoice in what we see
Because of it.
What I see today
Is the snow falling:
All things made new.


This poem by New England poet May Sarton stands as the final poem in her book, "Halfway to Silence." What I love about this poem is the poet's quiet sense of slipping through experience into a sense, as English writer Julian Barnes defined it, of an ending. Opening to wisdom. Aged, reflective, and questioning still, Sarton seeks an elusive muse. A bolder, nobler inspiration. Answers.

"Of the Muse" reveals a distilled personal truth from Sarton: that her lifelong art has not been the gift of inspired flights of stark originality but the gift of incidental moments of awareness. Found truth along life's most ordinary path. Leaning in is looking closer. "We do not thank the light,/ But rejoice in what we see/Because of it."

Truth, not appearance or form, defines meaning; unvarnished and unaltered. Whether one speaks of the heart or the earth, ambitions or sins, perceiving honestly is the beginning point. "There is no poetry in lies," Sarton writes. Listen in, the poet advises. Hear the tighter, deeper, stronger, resonating beat of experience. There is no mantra or magic. No easy hack for enhancing creativity or making a life.

There is only this: honest awareness. A raw truth. "But in crude honesty/There is hope for poetry." Can the essence of understanding be put more beautifully or simply? Sarton lays aside the ego and its masks. Only comprehend, she asks. See that which is before you. Bow to the pre-eminence of what lies in all things, and therein, find wonder.

To see the snow fall, all things made new.

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