Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Scribblings on Wikileaks: Some Thoughts on Digital Nativism and Transparency

I’ve been thinking and drafting about this for a few days, asking question of friends in person and on Facebook and Twitter, and I’m thus far no closer to a conclusion of this idea and so…I’ve decided instead to turn this blog post into what I hope might be a productive conversation (hey, it worked on my Facebook Wall!)

Here’s the premise: My generation — the Digital Natives, Gen Y — and perhaps the one younger than it views the concept of Wikileaks very differently from older generations.  We’ve grown up sharing the intimate details of our lives, we Tweet, we post our location on FourSquare, practically inviting stalkers into our lives…as a result, I believe that we expect more of a radical transparency from others…including our government.

Let’s start with a handy Facebook comparison — the company was founded by Mark Zuckerberg, who was born in 1984, two years after me.  He’s a clear digital native, and a true believer in radical transparency, as evidenced by statements like this:

“You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”

danah boyd (~4 years older than me, but clearly on the cusp of digital nativism) criticizes Zuckerberg’s ideas about transparency as being too out of touch with those outside the privileged class.  In a sense, and as I’ve said elsewhere – I agree to an extent.  boyd is the expert here, but I do believe she would agree that, by and large, young folks are more likely to “tell all” in public…if only because they grew up with the mechanisms to do so.

I wonder then…if asked, would Mark Zuckerberg apply the same standards he puts upon Facebook users to governments?  Would Zuckerberg support Wikileaks, if not in its actuality than in theory?  I obviously can’t speak for him, but my guess would be that folks of his–our–generation would generally say yes.  Anecdotally, what I’ve seen from my peers, young journalists, and bloggers, is overwhelming support for the idea of Wikileaks, if not the organization itself.  Which is not to say there aren’t genuine criticisms–of how and which names were redacted, of Julian Assange himself–but rather, that my generation, globally, by and large views transparency as a good thing.

Wikileaks’ latest release — of a quarter of a million U.S. Embassy cables — is particularly fascinating to look at through the eyes of a digital native.  Perhaps more than any other generation, we’ve been raised with this idea of extreme honesty, radical transparency.  And what many of the cables reveal is a duality between what is said publicly vs. privately.  President Obama has said himself that “[government] openness will  strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”  Perhaps such transparency and openness can’t be forced — a la Wikileaks — but can and should it exist, and to what degree?  Is there room for opacity in government? What about transparency?  And will this next generation, the generation just beginning to enter those jobs at State and the Foreign Service, push harder for it?

I’ll leave you with this gem of a quote from Gen Xer James P. Rubin, writing for what is perhaps my least favorite rag, The New Republic:

For better or worse, in many parts of the world there’s a big difference between what government officials are prepared to do publicly and what they’re prepared to say and do privately. We may wish it otherwise, but those are the realities faced by U.S. officials. The hard left, so quick to demand that America accept other countries’ political systems, now seems blind to the fact that other governments want to have the right to say one thing in public and a different thing in private.

Rubin has a point – that is the way things are.  But by engaging those realities rather than working against them, is the United States doing the right thing?  Is it even doing the American thing?

These are all questions, and to be honest, I haven’t made up my mind.  I believe in transparency, and I’ve grown frustrated by what I see as a duality between some of the things my government says and what it does.  At the same time, I believe that there are very real risks in what Wikileaks is doing — not the kind of risks Sarah Palin is wailing about, mind you, but risks to activists, advisers, and experts from other nations.  Some of the latest leaks, released today, make that rather apparent.  But again, in theory, I do believe in a Wikileaksian level of transparency.  So where do we go from here?

30 Comments

  1. Jillian,

    You nailed the REAL issues.

    I am one Gen X’er who agrees with Zuckerberg!

  2. Jillian,

    I think it’s largely a product of social circles. I went through the same process of surveying in DC and came up with nothing but condemnation. Most of our generation still don’t use foursquare or participate like a core group of users do. That circle, though, defines the prevailing definition.

    I wrote about it here: http://b.averysmallbird.com/entries/logos-pathos-and-wikileaks

    • I think you make a good point, but don’t get me wrong – I opened this up to a pretty wide variety of people (high school classmates vs. Cantabrigian colleagues) and continue to see pretty much the same. My guess? DC’s an outlier; y’all know far more about the way the government works than us folks.

  3. A lot of what government does at any level is in fact trade or business negotiation and you can’t be transparent in that.

  4. I’m not sure I fully agree with you that it is a generational thing (I’m not a digital native) but rather a sign of changing times in society that institutions and individuals are struggling to adapt to, even if natives on average find it easier than others.

    The kind of public disclosure that is coming from Wikileaks is not going away – harmful or not. There is likely to be official pushback on disclosure in the shorter term – but I think longer term we all will have to learn to live with more of what we do in our personal and professional lives being visible and subject to scrutiny. This will make us both more careful – but also less hypocritical which will result in people being less shocked when we find that people have done bad or unwise things, since we all have.
    Here’s a blog post I wrote on this recently: http://kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com/2010/11/30/working-and-living-out-loud/
    And here’s why I don’t fully agree with you on digital natives:
    http://kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com/2010/11/26/talkin-bout-my-generation/

    • You’re right – it may not be generational, but I do think that my generation’s reaction to this (and to transparency initiatives in general) is a factor for future governance.

      I’ll check out your blog posts – and for the proverbial record, I don’t buy into all the digital natives hype (or generational hype in general), I just see it as an easy division to work with.

  5. There is also an entropy-type argument. Diplomacy depends very much on being able to talk openly in private, secrecy, and even a certain amount of hypocrisy. Government and diplomats tend to optimise the system by asking that secrecy is enabled and leaks are forbidden.

    However, this optimisation tends to a sub-optimal solution, as the secrecy allows parties to ‘cheat’, to ignore real problems, while creating problems that are imaginary and should not even exist.

    The media should constantly put pressure on government and diplomats to be honest and reasonably transparent. However, this clearly doesn’t work, so leaks like this big wikileaks one can shake up the whole system, and force it out of its sub-optimal solution, and move to a more generally optimal state.

    However, if such radical leaks would happen too often, no private discussions and negotiations would be possible, and all diplomacy would grind to a halt.

    .. it is all about balance.

  6. Great piece Jillian. Although I am not American, nor am I of your generation, I am a supporter of free speech and was torn when this whole thing exploded.

    I am thankful to Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca for articulating in their own versions how I felt. I
    I also think that this would happen without Wikileaks or not and that it is a learning process for everyone in the world, not only the U.S

    We have yet to see how this will impact people/organizations etc. for better or worse ~ it is all ongoing :)

  7. Jillian, i’m ten years older than you and i don’t believe in digital natives BUT i do think you’re right about alignment/involvement/comfort with the radical transparency of digital practices being a key factor in how people perceive Wikileaks. i find it fascinating that so many voices are calling for Julian whatshisface’s head rather than for better behaviour on behalf of the diplomats and elected representatives he outed. societally, it appears a lot of people have bought the myth that our security is wrapped up with keeping our dirty shit secret. which is not actually the form of government i prefer to subscribe to. but like you say, i’m into openness and transparency and my expectation is that even the powerful be accountable to the crowd. which they won’t be so long as they crowd is cowed into thinking that “security” is the main good and goal in life.

    i think where generational differences in perception on this occur they might be hard to clearly trace to social media-style behaviours and more about the tendency of the young in any era to have less invested in supporting and protecting the status quo…not sure.

    • You’re right – this needn’t only be about digital natives; it’s simply an easy way to frame a debate. There’s definitely a lot more thinking to do about the generational differences. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  8. Jillian:

    I’ve written up a more in depth response to some of the points you raise in your post, so my comment will be a concise summary of that post. I agree with you that our generation does have a spirit of ‘extreme honesty.’ I also think that there is a great deal of good that can come from an ethos of transparency and honesty. But I’m not sure transparency is the ideal. The binaries of a transparent or opaque web never seem to adequately touch on the complex realities of online experience. I also think that transparency ends encouraging more performance and individual authenticity, but maybe I’m a cynic. Perhaps it makes sense to think of a model of online translucency? Some kind of post-modern middle ground. (http://t.co/DJylzW5)

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    Cheers,
    Christina

    • I loved your post, Christina – also, happy for your link to 8095 – what an interesting marketing project.

      I think you might be onto something with the concept of online translucency rather than transparency – will comment over there.

    • Jillian:

      Glad you enjoyed the response. Obviously I enjoyed your post, as it was great catalyst in forcing me to articulate what I was thinking. I always appreciate a great idea starter. your call out of 8095 reminded me that I forgot to include a disclosure about that link in my own post. 8095 is a group that belongs to Edelman, my employer. If you have any interest in chatting with some of the project’s leaders, I’d be happy to connect you to them as they are colleagues of mine.

      On a side note, I was asked to write a post for Edelman Digital’s blog about digital research. I put together a list of digital researchers and ethnographers. I included you in the list. Hopefully you don’t mind. I used the post as an opportunity to point people to individuals whose work I find valuable and insightful. Here’s the link to the post: http://t.co/rjqZggt

      Cheers,
      Christina

    • Thanks Christina – it’s an honor to be included in your list! I would certainly be interested in chatting more with the folks behind 8095. The marketing scene is particularly interesting to me looking in from the outside – it’s great to see what my peers are doing!

      -Jillian

  9. Answering your final question…
    I was born in the 70s, so I really don’t think I am digital native, but here is my two cents. I use to think that Humanity goes around in cycles. We’ve gone from being private to being open. In the past, for example, when someone broke up with their best half, it used to be a private matter, concerning only to those two involved and their closest people. Now, someone in the same situation would change their status like a second after breaking up.
    My guess is somewhere in the future, we’ll be returning to privacy, maybe slowly. Maybe the next generation will be the one that will switch things.
    We’ll have to wait and see.

    • Thanks Gabriela! I’m interested to see what lies ahead for privacy and transparency as well – there really is no widespread public precedent, so there’s no telling what direction the next generation will choose.

  10. Jill,

    Great post. Your FB inquiry made me think of my dad. Like many journalists of the Watergate generation, one of his biggest gripes with new media is the way that it de-stabilizes mainstream journalistic authority, and the way that journalistic and ethical excellence have become much more complex to measure. The idea of a technological tool releasing such volumes of sensitive information takes this to a strange place–not long ago, massive leaks of information were almost always delivered in the form of news by some source of authority, journalistic or otherwise, that would tell readers what they should care about and why. And that source would often take things like national security into account when delivering this news.

    Wikileaks lets the world do with it and think of it what it wants. This makes many of us scratch our heads, but it makes our parents cringe. I was six when the Berlin Wall came down–I know that the idea of “sensitive information” means something different to me than it does to people who remember the Cold War. They understand and contextualize the work of federal agencies like the CIA in a way that I never will. My internal jury is still out on this, but I do think that a state’s political stability probably does depend on some level of privacy—whether this produces good or bad outcomes is another question.

    Keep tapping away at this one!

    Ellery

    • Thanks Ellery,

      The idea of journalistic authority has always been interesting to me – having now been on both sides of the pen, so to speak, I’m still not sure what I think. On the one hand, I’ve dealt with journalists who have no scruples, do no fact-checking, and yet are employed by major papers in full-time positions. On the other hand, well, I know how tough it can be.

      That said, those days are long over. Projects like Global Voices have proven that our mainstream media isn’t telling the whole story, particularly when it comes to the world beyond our borders. WikiLeaks, of course, is not the same as blogging/citizen media, but it still represents the citizenry taking control of something they feel they have no control over.

      I’m still not sure how I feel about this particular leak, to be honest, though I fully supported the leak of the video of the murder of two Iraqi journalists. It’s tricky – WikiLeaks could potentially cross the line into banality at some point. Or they could generally release something that endangers another person. Jury’s still out, indeed.

  11. Good post Jillian. I am often torn myself on WikiLeaks. Intellectually I like the idea – but there is a catch 22 involved in it.

    The theory of WikiLeaks is that information is power. Governments have too much secrecy (read power) and that if we share the information – the level of power deflates.

    The problem is that before the information can go from private to public – it remains private in the hands of Wikileaks. In other words – they have more private information than any other organization. One might even guess/assume they have more secret information than any other government. That makes the organization itself too powerful. Granted – their intention is to release. But until info is released it creates power for them. So now it’s a choice about whether you want a government to have too much info/power or a rogue organization to have too much info/power. I prefer neither option. I think Wikileaks would prefer neither option too (not that I can speak for them) but I can’t figure out a method around this Catch 22.

    • That’s an excellent point Dave – I can’t figure out a way around that particular problem either. I also find it interesting that WikiLeaks continuously releases to major mainstream news organizations (rather than say, major bloggers, or smaller orgs, though it could certainly be to prevent risk to individuals). Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  12. Dear Jillian,
    Your post is thoughtful and useful in this debate! I think you are right about radical transparency as a big theme of some “digital natives”. Yes, the differences seem to track with age, but I think another key factor is the EXPERIENCE that accompanies age. The divide seems to me to be between those who have never actually tried to run govern anything–and those who have had to take responsibility for others’ welfare, navigating sensitive cultural and political divides. If the radical transparency folks–my fellow travelers when I was an idealistic young journalist some years ago–try to put themselves in the job of Obama, Clinton, or lesser negotiators of foreign policy in a crazy world–they might have more nuanced views than radical transparency. It will be fascinating to watch this generation of radical transparency activists as they take on these complicated responsibilities…

    • Thank you Ellen,

      You’re certainly right about experience – part of the argument may very well be that this generation simply lacks it. That reminds me of the row Jared Cohen (who worked for Secretary Clinton) caused by tweeting about a good cup of coffee on an official trip to Damascus – he was apparently chided for making the trip seem too enjoyable. But what frustrated his superiors humanized him to me as well as some of my Syrian friends and colleagues, who were able to see his humanity.

      As others said, there’s certainly a balance that needs to be found, and I too am looking forward to watching (and being a part of) what happens next.

  13. everybody knows everything already … that is the mystic’s pov … the only reason they don’t know they know is dullness of mind.

    technology is just the out-picturing of what the mind can already do.

    wikileaks is the new normal.

  14. Hey Jill, great post. Couple thoughts:

    I’m curious about the starting point for the claim to “one identity.” The issue to me doesn’t seem to be generational, but a question as to how we form identities in the first place. Generally there are two schools of thought: we inhabit core selves that are autonomous and fully formed; or we are social beings whose identities constantly in flux, shaped by interaction, environment, time, etc.

    The idea of one identity is only possible with the first construct, and the premise behind Zuckerberg’s comment is that older generations have concealed some aspect of their real selves, and present a public facade to the world. To me the more interesting possibility is that social media and the potential for radical transparency play a role in the construction of identities, such that people affiliate online in ways that reinforce their perceived/desired selves.

    A lot of the wikileaks anger, I think, comes out of a sense of threat to people’s sense of self. Otherwise, will leave that part aside. Agree with many of the above comments.

    Cheers

  15. What I do not see discussed is the lack of discipline, professionalism, and maturity shown by Americans writing the leaked cables. What are these organizations and their members thinking? Anything entered into a computer – Internet connected or not is subject to eventual public disclosure and vetting. Is this really news to these people? I am happy to have seen written that my Senator John Kerry’s remarks were held by one reporter as being outside the mud and even potentially libelous comments others were routinely writing. Congratulations John.

    How can we help our government evolve into the 21st century approaches business has long used. First – never put it in writing if it can’t stand the light of day. Second – use any of he active content screening email software that prevents members of an organization from writing, saving and sending most content that would be damaging on discovery.

  16. Hi Jillian,

    I don’t think J Assanges choice to release to mainstream media and not bloggers is because he wants to protect them. He has clearly said, in his own words:

    “when people write political commentary on blogs or other social media, it is my experience that it is not, with some exceptions, their goal to expose the truth.

    “Rather, it is their goal to position themselves amongst their peers on whatever the issue of the day is. The most effective, the most economical way to do that, is simply to take the story that’s going around, [which] has already created a marketable audience for itself, and say whether they’re in favour of that interpretation or not.”

    He also said analytical work was “done by professional journalists we work with and by professional human rights activists. It is not done by the broader community.”

    It seems to me that his decision for choice was really because he thinks more highly of mainstream media or that wikileaks was deserving of being leaked through partnering with mainstream media purely for these reasons and not really to protect anyone.
    At this point, judging by the number of people he has put at risk, should also tell us that he is not someone who would really care?

  17. Thanks for the thoughts, Jillian. I´m not a digital native by age but Zuckerberg accusing those who are not willing to “share everything with everyone” of lacking integrity sounds really scary to me. I think this video, where Amy Goodman interviews Chomsky, is also worth watching. Chomsky has always talked about the huge gap between government´s discourse and actions but it makes even more sense now: http://unmundollenodemundos.blogspot.com/2010/12/noam-chomsky-sobre-wikileaks.html

  18. Mark Zuckerberg preaches radical transparency but what is he hiding?.. What has been overlooked is the hoovering up of the digital fingerprints we leave in our online meanderings. Its what Columbia University law professor Eben Moglen calls the data dandruff of life.

  19. Very good post.

    Thanks,
    Jayesh

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