Defeating the Object: Public Secrets

On the busy road into Cambridge, as it winds through the suburban village of Trumpington, you pass a pub with a sign that boldly declares it possesses ‘Cambridge’s Best Kept Secret – Great Thai Food’. Of course, for ‘best’ you should read ‘worst’. This self-defeating annoucement was repeated recently in a rather blatant piece of of ‘content’ filler on the Guardian’s website. Piggybacking on another product as so much modern predatory ‘content’ does (in this instance, a new BBC TV series), an article’s headline enquired: What are your favourite secret places in Britain’s countryside?  Some below-the-line commentators saw through the ruse, posting comments along the lines of ‘If I told you, it would no longer be secret!’ Others, however, were only too happy to oblige, divulging their hidden Edens to the wider public. These responses spawned a follow-up article, Your favourite secret corners of the British countryside – mapped, compounding the betrayal of these secret paradises, by mapping them with flags on Google maps.

Not only is the object of a secret is manifestly defeated in these two public annoucements, but what is curious is: 1) how capitalism uses the secret for publicity as a marketing tool; and 2) how readily some of those Guardian readers were to reveal their own private paradises. What is particularly cynical about the latter is how the Guardian connived to get this private information out of them and into its very public domain.  For, along with the contentless nature of modern content, there is another ‘con’ involved: that of its being outsourced, user-generated. Contributors receive the pseudo-creditability of having their work – photos, short inoffensive articles – hosted on the website in its Guardian Witness section, which the Guardian will use to generate statistics to sell advertising space and generate revenue on the back of these contributor’s unpaid work. It’s a curious economic model for an institution that once bemoaned the rise of internships, but in a world of proliferating digital content, those empty text boxes have to get filled somehow, doncha know! Of course, this is equally true of every reader visiting the site: all visits are converted into discrete data flows – clicks, page views, etc. – which are amassed and repackaged to impress potential advertisers. Since it’s still free to read, how are we to complain?

Still, what is troubling about the Guardian’s articles is the predatory nature of it.  In a world where the division between public and private is collapsing through both the ‘lifestreaming’ Instagram culture, a government surveillance assemblage which demands that ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’, and now newspapers encouraging you to feed them content, it would seem that even our secrets are no longer safe.

Featured Image c/o Tralmer Poster Collection (Plakatsammlung) and used under a Creative Commons license.

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