What do we know, but that we face
One another in this place?
W. B. Yeats, “The Man and the Echo”
I spend a lot of time talking to academics about social media. I field many frequently asked questions and try to speak to many frequently voiced objections. Sometimes the effort is exhausting or even exasperating, particularly when the questions are really objections in disguise. Answers aren’t much use in that case. Other times, however, useful distinctions may emerge–useful to me, at least, and perhaps to others as well.
One of the typical questions has to do with how “personal” social media are, and how troubling that can be for academics. First, I have to unpack “social media” a bit, and begin to distinguish between blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest. These are all “social media,” yes, but they are very different in practice, with different challenges and opportunities. After these distinctions, though, I’m still faced with the core question: what’s valuable about the personal element in these media? Why should I care? And why should I make myself vulnerable by sharing my personal life with the world?
There are many implications and assumptions hidden in the questions. Those who want to cleanse discourse of the personal seem to assume that “personal” means “irrelevant to anyone else,” or “ephemeral,” or “trivial.” The classic example is “what I had for breakfast.” (I’m on the wrong networks, obviously, as I myself don’t see breakfast tweets or blog posts or Facebook status updates.) Yet there’s also a thread of fear in these dismissals and objections, a fear or even a defiance that I acknowledge and take seriously. In this sense, “personal” also means “none of your business,” and “too dangerous to share.”
So I’ve begun to distinguish “personal” from “private.” The idea is that “private” means “don’t share on social media.” “Private” belongs to you, and you should always be vigilant about protecting your privacy. Without privacy, our agency is diminished, perhaps eliminated. Without privacy, we cannot generate or sustain the most intimate bonds of trust. Without privacy, our personhood is at risk.
But what of the personal, as opposed to the private? I believe the words are not synonyms. Instead, I believe private is a subset of personal.
I think those aspects of the person that are not private not only can be shared but ought to be shared. This is what we mean when we tell writers they should find their own voices. This is what we mean when we say we seek to “know as we are known,” as Parker Palmer insists. This is what we mean when we talk about “integration of self,” when we speak of our concern for “the whole person.” It is only when we bring the personal (not the private) to our discourse that we understand the rich complexity of individual being out of which civilization is built–or out of which it ought to be built. The personal keeps our organizations from becoming mere machines. The personal preserves dignity and community. The personal brings life to even the most mundane and repetitive operational tasks. We neglect or conceal the personal (not the private) at our peril.
I tell my students that I have only two rules for us in our work together: “passion encouraged; civility required.” The passion is always personal, as is the civility. The forbearance we show each other within our civility is a personal respect for the other, which also means a respect for the complexities of their privacy, complexities hinted at, though not made visible, primarily through the extent to which we share our personhood.
The Oxford English Dictionary entry for “person” offers many fascinating definitions, but the salient one for what I’m exploring here is definition 3a:
The self, being, or individual personality of a man or woman, esp. as distinct from his or her occupation, works, etc.
The personal is who we are “as distinct from [our] occupation, works, etc.” Our occupation and works are the result of effort, luck, ability, connections, a whole host of purposeful and chance occurrences. But we are not defined by our works and occupation. We are defined by something larger and more elusive, and more dynamic too. Sharing that larger, more elusive, and more dynamic aspect of selfhood is valuable, reminding ourselves and those around us that all of us are more than we appear to be in any particular transaction or encounter. Such reminders encourage humility. They also encourage a kind of exhilarating anticipation, as one never knows which humble or exalted personage may be one’s unmet friend, an angel to entertain unawares.
Sharing the personal, as distinguished from oversharing the private, means engaging with personhood in all its messy and glorious complexity, and all its potential, too. If, as Jon Udell reminds us, “context is a service we provide for each other,” the context is not merely informational, nor is it about matters that should remain private.
It is personal.