So, we all know now that JFK did not have eyes only for Jackie. But before the Information Age, before almost everything was available with a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection, scandals like this were seldom broken to a surely disapproving public. (The media also operated under a gentleman's agreement in terms of issues like these, but that's another story.)
Privacy and politicians
In light of the ever-evolving Herman Cain scandal, I can't help but be struck by the increasing impossibility for those in the public arena to ever close their proverbial bedroom doors to the press and the American people. It's beside the point whether this is a good or bad thing: Going forward, this is an irrefutable reality of those seeking public office. Don't run if there's anything in your past that suggests impropriety, or if you're a human with any kind of sexual or relational skeletons in your closet. Figure out what your official response will be before it comes out — because it will come out.
President Bill Clinton was one of the first politicians to learn this lesson via cyberspace. The salacious Monica Lewinsky scandal heard 'round the world was sparked by a (then-unconfirmed) article on theDrudge Report, a conservative blog just getting its start at the time. From the standpoint of a 4G world, it's kind of amazing to think that a blog was the first to officially break the news that would be the premise for an impeachment trial — based on perjury, as Clinton did have sexual relations with that woman, pre-Y2K.
And Web 2.0 makes it so that once a questionable part of a politician's past does come out, it receives untold gigabytes of fame — not just the pre-tech age 15 minutes. Not only does everyone know about what he or she did and with whom: Information abounds about that "whom." Remember when we were all talking about the campaign videographer mother of John Edwards' child out of wedlock? (I mean, she has her own dedicated page on The Huffington Post.) Somehow when all the nitty-gritty is not only accessible but in-your-face throughout the internet, that makes everything seem a lot more real — and more importantly, despicable.
Privacy and you
But what about those of us who just want the steady nine-to-five after graduation? It's a long-acknowledged fact that employers/graduate schools/our parents are checking up on us on Facebook. What's even creepier, though, is how much information Facebook retains on its users — "up to 800 pages of personal data per user account." As a part of the generation that has in essence grown up with Facebook and its mostly phased-out predecessor, MySpace, this seems just a little bit concerning. Even if incriminating pictures are deleted or removed from our profiles, they could still exist in the server farms of Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, has been known to talk about privacy's death. Apparently, he's right, and his company is starting the rager at its cultural funeral. So, something's gotta give. And as Facebook's growth continues at absurd levels — it gained 250 million users in one year between July 2010 and 2011 — it's pretty clear that it's not going to be Facebook. Even if the site were to taper off and eventually die as such a major social network, the damage to personal privacy has been done. Zuckerberg is right: Privacy is disappearing from our cultural scene.
In light of these changes, I would argue that loss of privacy will continue unfettered. The thing to give will have to be cultural norms. Someday - maybe not soon, but eventually - online identities will need to be compartmentalized as Google + aspired to do with its "Circles." Professional Joe Smith is a different online entity from Weekend Joe Smith. Weekend Joe blows off steam - sure, he's only 19, but he has a beer in his hand in his profile picture. But on Monday, he'll be at the office, in a clean-cut suit and tie. The duality of man will need to eventually be recognized - as reflected in our Facebook profiles.