My Turn: In Defense of Facebook

I should have known that the blog, an anonymous diary of my personal life, was a bad idea. As a reporter for the gossip site Gawker, I spent my days deconstructing similar attempts at concealment. But I lulled myself into a false sense of security. I wrote about cooking, sex, and the awkwardness of my office romance, which ended (as it began) via instant message. Not surprisingly, I was soon dropped into the body of a gossip story rather than the byline. My blog posts, unveiled by my former paramour, were excerpted in his own tell-all in the New York Post Sunday magazine. I spent the next few days wishing the Web away.

But if anonymity had caused me drama, it was attribution that helped me return to normal. Online commentators, after reading the Post piece, gradually came to my defense using what they had gleaned from Emily Magazine, a separate blog where, for years, I had written under my own name. The shift of allegiance (“I’ve got to throw in with Team Emily,” wrote one person; “I owe you an apology,” wrote another) eventually helped me return to writing. Now I realize that having Emily up and running was my best defensive strategy. It helped bend the record toward how I saw the truth.

I’ve been thinking about this ordeal recently as the ethics of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have been called into question. He was lambasted last month for the site’s new privacy settings, which made more information from 500 million user profiles automatically public. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, he couched the move in terms of Facebook’s organizing ideals, which include the belief that “if people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.” In his new book, The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick expands on Zuckerberg’s “radical transparency camp,” noting that the 26-year-old mogul and his followers believe that “more transparency should make for a more tolerant society in which people eventually accept that everybody sometimes does bad or embarrassing things.”

That’s true in my experience. A couple of years ago, when a New York magazine blogger hatcheted my prose on her personal blog—“This writing is so god awful,” she wrote—I responded. To my surprise, I was cheered on by supporters. “We all have our share of ups and downs,” counseled one. “I’m proud of you for continuing to get back up after so many people try their best to ruin you.” Facebook users have their own runins with online thugs. But they, too, buck up and return to sharing. Search the status updates of people who have made their profiles public, and “I’m gay” is among the easily found—and, obviously, personal—disclosures.

Zuckerberg’s utopian vision has its disbelievers, of course. More than 2 million people have joined a Facebook group protesting his credo, and the company has since walked back some of its tweaks. This month it will debut new features that make it easier for people to control what they reveal about themselves publicly. That’s kind of a shame. Only Facebook is big enough to help close the daylight between online and offline lives—and show that there’s much good that can come from behaving consistently in both.

Gould is the author of a collection of essays, And the Heart Says Whatever.