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Jeff Jarvis is not a man to mince words. And to the critics and curmudgeons resisting the new networked world at our doorstep, the message in his latest book, Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, is clear: get with it.

The progression toward a more public society is apparent and inevitable,” Jarvis writes. “Resistance is futile.

A blogger, professor of journalism, and the author of the 2009 book What Would Google Do, Jarvis’s latest effort surveys the way sharing in the digital era has enabled a world of possibilities, arguing that an “obsession” with issues like privacy and disintermediation could derail some of the benefits of this emerging, powerful age. The challenge, “is to find a new balance between our roles as individuals and members of the public who join together to build better, more open, more generous, and more accountable companies, markets, communities, governments, schools, relationships, and lives,” he writes. “There is a need for privacy, its cautions, and its advocates, to be sure. But publicness also needs its advocates.”

PW recently caught up with Jarvis to talk about his new book, sharing, and of course, the changing world of books and media.

What inspired you to give this subject a book treatment?

Jeff Jarvis: A couple things, but the main one was that, with all the talk about “privacy, privacy, privacy,” I began to fear that we weren’t looking at the other side of that coin, which is publicness. We have a lot of presumptions, and there’s a lot of fear. People say, “Oh my God! I watched CNN yesterday and there was a guy doing a report on Internet privacy and he looked at a bunch of sites about vacations, and, guess what, now they’re trying to sell him a vacation—isn’t that scary!” Well, no, it’s not. But the anchor nods conspiratorially, because this is all new and we don’t really understand it.

That’s interesting, because I do have a sense that our expectations about privacy are being subtly altered by companies like Facebook, or Google, without transparency or public debate.

Well, my first instinct is to disagree with you—we have tons of debate. All we’re doing is yammering about privacy. But, I do think you’re right, because, actually, we’re mostly just talking about privacy, but not necessarily debating it. Do we need some privacy controls? Yes. Do we need protection? Yes. I hope I make that clear in the book. I’m not anti-privacy, quite the contrary. I’m trying to point out the benefits of publicness, because I’m afraid we might lose some great opportunities in this age of links.

Is part of this privacy vs. publicness issue generational? Are kids growing up on Facebook more comfortable with sharing, or less worried about their privacy?

Yes, and no. Some of these “Net native,” stories make it seem as if children come out of the womb understanding the Internet—they don’t. They learn the same way all of us do. But, at the same time kids are more comfortable trying new things, and figuring things out. So, there is a generational piece to this, but kids don’t have an entirely different attitude about privacy.

Do younger generations seem to at least better understand the technology and its implications? My parents, and some of my friends, even, can’t understand how to, or why they need to, change their Facebook settings, for example.

You know, it’s like the new “programming your VCR.” I do think that’s an issue, and I think for Facebook it’s been a hard lesson to learn. They started out being accused of not having enough privacy controls, and not being transparent. Then they added so many controls that it’s just too complex. Part of the problem is that they are not clearly communicating what it is they are doing. Google learned some lessons about that, too—they messed up badly with Google Buzz, but they’ve since turned it around in Google Plus.

With Google Plus, the fact that you have to put people into circles means you’re thinking about your relationships. It’s not a global setting, it’s something that you do on a case by case basis.

But still, I caution, that’s not about privacy control—it’s about relevance. When I share something with my circle of journal wonks, it’s not because it’s a secret that I want to share just with them. It’s because I don’t want to bother all the other people who couldn’t care less. That’s not about privacy, and there’s a danger in letting this be seen as privacy, because when somebody messes up and shares something they shouldn’t have, Google is going to be blamed, even though the technology is not the problem.

Less than a decade ago, there was no Twitter, MySpace was new, and Facebook hadn’t really taken off. As an author, and journalism professor, can you talk a little about how the march of technology has impacted the media?

Yes—so, this school, CUNY Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, is about five years old, and we were very much looking to change how you teach journalism by starting this school. I was hired as the nutty online guy. And we’ve seen a couple of big things happen since we started. One is the collapse of the newspaper business. It got worse and worse, and that’s why I think journalists today have to be better stewards of our business.

But also, as you bring up, social media took off. Now, there had been some social media—basically, comments on articles. But comments are like, “O.K., we’ve finished, here’s a little space for you to talk.” These days, however, the conversation often starts with the public, not with us.

I remember the day I first showed Twitter to some of my colleagues here at CUNY, very early in Twitter’s life. One of them, who always asks the hardest questions, and is usually right, said, “What the hell does this have to do with journalism?” So, we started talking about the ways reporters could use it, and finally, she said, “alright, I get it.” What’s happening, and I think what we’re teaching at CUNY, is that we in the media now have an entirely different relationship with the public. Maybe you saw that I pulled up a bit of a shitstorm on Twitter recently?

Actually, no…

Well, I’ll embarrass myself and tell you about it. I was watching TV news about the debt ceiling crisis, and after two glasses of a nice pinot, I got pissed off. So, I went to Twitter, which was invented for offloading your chest, and I tweeted, “Hey, Washington assholes, it’s our country, our economy, our money. Stop fucking with it.” And people started responding. So I said, let’s start a chat: “Fuck you, Washington.” Somebody came back and said, well, idiot, you do that with a hash tag. So, it became #fuckyouwashington, and it just took off. Within a couple days there were more than 88,000 tweets, and I ended up writing a post about it on my blog. What fascinated me was how it became a platform for people to say what they wanted to say. They started saying “fuck you, Washington, for not letting me marry who I want,” or “for making my parents nervous about whether they’re getting paid next month.” It taught me a lot about the new structure of media.

Such as? I mean, you’re a thoughtful writer and yet you didn’t write a thoughtful article. What did it teach you about journalism that that kind of visceral offloading got such a reaction, rather than a well-reasoned article?

That it’s not about the article, it’s about the relationship with the public. I think we in the media should look at ourselves as a platform more than as a product. But instead we’ve separated our business into content businesses and platform businesses. “Fuck you, Washington” was a platform—a pretty weird one, and fleeting, but a platform nonetheless. It let people say what they needed to say. Some people were upset with me for the language, but “Dagnabbit, Washington” just doesn’t have the same impact.

Of those 88,000 people, how many would have written letters to the editor? It emphasized to me that the article is no longer the atomic unit of news. It’s not going to die, but there are other ways to think of news now that communities can share information in public on their own. So, the challenge is how do we add value to that?

It feels like just yesterday people were saying the article was the new atomic unit, rather than newspapers, magazines, or books. That moment’s over already?

Yes. But, I’m not saying that articles, or magazines, or books are dead, just that we should question the assumption that everything has to be in those forms.

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