It might be unfair to expect authoritative advice from Randi Zuckerberg, the effusive sister of Facebook’s Mark who turned her birthright into a short-lived Bravo reality show about Silicon Valley, a career as a netiquette expert, and now, a book called DotComplicated. After all, Zuckerberg is a marketer by training, not a privacy expert or a life coach. And although DotComplicated is littered with academic studies and surveys purporting to say something about how we use (or abuse) the Internet, Zuckerberg is no social-media guru. (See: this morning’s amazingly tone-deaf Veteran’s Day Twitter promotion.)
DotComplicated, a half memoir, half Emily Post guidebook, explores Zuckerberg’s own struggles with the social-media world her brother helped create. It’s a book that often presents conflicting advice — at once recommending “[being] yourself” online and warning against oversharing, tsk-tsking those who separate their personal and professional lives while saying “there may be some things you’re better off not letting anyone know about.” And yet, the book comes by its confusion honestly. Zuckerberg has no sufficient answers to the questions that vex us about living online, because answers to these questions don’t really exist.
For example, take the episode that Zuckerberg says led her to write the book in the first place. It was Christmas 2012, and the Zuckerberg clan had convened at home for the holidays. Brother Mark was demonstrating a new Facebook app, Poke, to the rest of the family; Randi snapped a photo of the event and posted it to Facebook, setting it to be visible to her 2,300 friends and the friends of those tagged in the photo. One of those friends of friends, Callie Schweitzer, saw the photo, thought it was public (and adorable), and reposted it to Twitter, where it went viral. A brief but engrossing Twitter spat ensued. Zuckerberg says in DotComplicated that she chalks the episode up to a mistake on Schweitzer’s part: “As my Christmas Poke photo story shows, there’s no privacy or security setting in the world that can save you from a friend’s bad judgment.”
But, wait. There are, in fact, privacy settings on Facebook that would have saved Zuckerberg from having her photo made public. And Schweitzer wasn’t showing bad judgment by reposting the photo. She assumed, quite reasonably, that since Zuckerberg had already made the photo public to thousands of people on her Facebook feed, it was fair game. Zuckerberg disagreed. She’d curated her Facebook friends, choosing only those 2,300 closest to her, and hadn’t meant the photo for distribution beyond that list. In another context — say, if the photo had been of Zuckerberg’s reality-show cast instead of her family — Zuckerberg might have been thrilled for the extra publicity Schweitzer’s tweet provided. In this instance, it felt like a betrayal.
In the annals of social-media history, L’affaire Christmas Photo goes in the Misdirected Anger file, not the Purposeful Betrayal file. Schweitzer meant no harm, but her actions proved deeply hurtful to Zuckerberg, in a way that by her own admission changed the course of her life.
Because of the expansive and fragmented nature of our overlapping social media, and the blurred lines between public, private, and not-quite-public, our online lives are filled with these kind of accidental missteps. I often post things on Facebook that I wouldn’t tweet, or place photos on Instagram that I wouldn’t put on Facebook. I assume that these networks will stay in their silos, but there’s no social contract to that effect, and no reasonable umbrage I could take if the lines between networks were breached. One of my Instagram followers could easily pick up a stray photo of my dog or my family, tweet it, and expand by a factor of a hundred the number of people who saw it. And were I to complain about the retransmission, as Zuckerberg did, the charge could easily come back: But you’re the one who posted the photo in the first place!
Online life is, always has been, and always will be full of these contradictions. We want things to be public, but not too public. We want our actions to have a wide impact, but only in the right circles. We want push notifications on our phones, but we also want to live undistracted lives. There is no set of commandments to follow in order to resolve these tensions, because we ourselves are conflicted about what we want from our Internet.
In a sense, then, Zuckerberg’s project (“untangling our wired lives,” as she says in the subtitle) was doomed from the start. But if Zuckerberg hasn’t succeeded in solving the riddles of modern life, she’s at least in good company. And she’s correct about one thing: The existing tools on sites like Facebook and Twitter are too prone to user error to be total solutions to the privacy dilemma. So far, our partial solution has been to invent new tools. Today’s teens, taught by the mistakes of their elders, are flocking to closed-loop apps like Snapchat and messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat, which keep private things more private.
In the future, those apps will coexist with more open ones to allow us better control over our online identities, but aside from chucking our smartphones into the trash, there is no total solutions to the problems Zuckerberg lays out. We are at once attracted by social media and fearful of its landmines. We want our photos to go viral, but only the ones we choose. We like having thousands of connections on Facebook, but recoil when these people behave more like the acquaintances they are than the friends we imagine them to be. We can’t solve the problems of online life, because problem and fix often look exactly the same.
Zuckerberg’s book won’t curb unwise Internet behavior, just like a book on weather won’t curb hurricanes. But with her two-handed, contradictory advice about how to live wisely online, Zuckerberg has accidentally done something better than solving our online identity crises. She embodies them, and perhaps waves away a bit of anxiety in the process. If even the sister of Facebook can’t untangle the wires, we can’t be expected to, either.