In the flurry of listings of milestones for 2013, two publicity-seeking announcements struck me.
Shortly after the Oxford Dictionaries folks declared "selfie" as the word of the year, Dictionary.com (not to be outdone) bestowed the honor on the word "privacy."
OK, so neither choice was scientific, but the pairing provides an enlightening symbol of our conflicted digital lives today. What, exactly, do we want? The fame and familiarity of posting pictures, updates, hopes, aspirations and the like on every available social media platform? Or do we want to be free from the prying eyes of the NSA, our Internet provider, the email services we use and the very social media companies we rely on to dish?
Let's just say it's complicated.
Privacy never really goes out of style, but it was particularly buzzy in 2013. Start with former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaking an increasingly disturbing series of breaches of our personal privacy by the spook agency (apparently with the witting and unwitting help of some of our favorite tech companies). Throw in a few incidents of Google (GOOG) Glass being banished from establishments for privacy reasons, and the rise of now-you-see-it-now-you-don't photo service Snapchat, and Dictionary.com's choice begins to make sense.
"This year, as we were circling around both the major policy and social events of the year, 'privacy' kept coming up over and over again," says Rebekah Otto, Dictionary.com's head of content.
But wait a minute. Let's go back to Snapchat. Like the dueling words of the year, the Stanford-launched startup is something of a symbol of our ambivalence about whether it is better to be known or anonymous. The service essentially lets you take a picture -- yes, a selfie, most likely -- and send it to a select number of people. Once they open the photo, it vanishes in seconds, never to be seen again. Poof.
The conflict between wanting privacy and agreeing to give pieces of ourselves over to social networks or companies that serve as our digital messengers and savants is understandable, of course. We give our personal data to Google, Yahoo (YHOO), Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and, yes, Dictionary.com, and we get something in return -- information, a way to communicate, a connection.
Michele Turner, the Oakland-based dictionary site's CEO, says she gets the internal struggle. She is a huge fan of Waze, the Google traffic app that reports on traffic congestion by tracking drivers who opt in to the service.
"Waze knows who I am, how fast I'm going, when I'm exceeding the speed limit. It knows exactly where I am," Turner says. "They've got tons of data on me and it's all feeding right into Google."
But she says the app saves hours of commute time every week and it gives her the warm feeling of providing helpful information to other drivers using Waze. In the end, then, it's worth it.
It sounds like a reasonable bargain, as long as users' eyes are wide open -- and as long as big tech companies can protect our data from hackers and government operatives who hoover up our information without our knowledge or consent.
But there a few problems with the give-something-to-get-something narrative, says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights group that focuses on the digital world.
First, he says, consumers have no choice but to use the digital tools that run the world today. I might quibble with no choice, but you've got to admit it would be a dreary existence living without email, social networks, e-commerce, instant search and on and on.
"In order to communicate, exist, thrive, succeed in this environment, one needs to fully give one's self away to contemporary tools," he says. "You can't imagine a contemporary world without online communication."
Beyond that, Chester makes a convincing point that digital communication tools provided by the valley's big search and social media companies play to an impulse deep in all of us -- the desire to connect with family and friends and to forge new connections with those we've never met.
The problem, of course, is that once we share our likes, dislikes, habits, locations, relationships, purchases, fears and desires, we can never really know the full roster of whom we are sharing them with.
In fairness, I should note that a number of Internet companies, including Google, Twitter, Yahoo and Facebook, have called for new legal restrictions on the NSA. And Ed Black, CEO of the Computer and Communication Industry Association, points out that while gathering data is vital to many Internet companies' business models, misusing that data and angering customers would be bad business.
Edward Snowden helped point that out, all while pushing privacy to the top of one online dictionary's list as another turned its gaze to selfie.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.