sustained mystery vs. radical transparency

it’s kind of hard to write a post advocating a sense of balance. it’s easy to get all riled up and energized on preaching some kind of extreme; is it even possible to create a polemic for moderation? i’ve been sitting on this particular post for weeks, unable to summon up the oomph to do it justice, but i’m gonna try, cuz i think it’ll be useful.

there’s a lot of push for “radical transparency” in this social media culture of ours. from the free-sharing ethos of the open source community that’s defining a good deal of the new medium’s structure, to the rampant open-bookiness of the random user’s social network profile, total “openness” is being heavily bandied as a requisite for the new media era.

a few months ago wired dedicated it’s cover story to this issue, with the see-through CEO article:

Radical forms of transparency are now the norm at startups – and even some Fortune 500 companies. It is a strange and abrupt reversal of corporate values. Not long ago, the only public statements a company ever made were professionally written press releases and the rare, stage-managed speech by the CEO. Now firms spill information in torrents, posting internal memos and strategy goals, letting everyone from the top dog to shop-floor workers blog publicly about what their firm is doing right – and wrong….

of course, when considered in contrast to the long legacy of empty hype, manipulation, and even straight up coercion that we have become fed up with in mainstream media and big business it’s understandable that there would be such a resounding grito for “radical transparency” now that media has, for the first time, truly become interactive. “secrecy is dying.” the article proclaimed. “it’s probably already dead.”

but before we go get it taxidermied and hang its stuffed, antlered head up in social media’s hunting lodge, what i am proposing is that there is room for an intermediate option between the overt and the covert, one that emphasizes a sustainable (vs. radical) approach to maintaining the delicate balance between the blatant and the intriguing.

but wait…

Your customers are going to poke around in your business anyway, and your workers are going to blab about internal info – so why not make it work for you by turning everyone into a partner in the process and inviting them to do so?….Some of this isn’t even about business; it’s a cultural shift, a redrawing of the lines between what’s private and what’s public. A generation has grown up blogging, posting a daily phonecam picture on Flickr and listing its geographic position in real time on Dodgeball and Google Maps. For them, authenticity comes from online exposure. It’s hard to trust anyone who doesn’t list their dreams and fears on Facebook.

ok. i’ll tell you something else about what i and some of the rest of this generation grew up doing. we grew up going to–and some of us, producing–“outlaw” parties. you can check out groove or go or kids even, if you weren’t there for yourself, but suffice it to say these were unpermitted, unfireproofed, underground all-night events that routinely broke a whole lot of safety codes, property laws, and a slew of other legislative regulations. there was a tremendous sense of community and trust that developed within this scene which was at once superlocal and hyperglobal, and we all relied on each other to be good at keeping a secret. because if we weren’t, we would all be saving the 3 am dance for members of law enforcement. and once the cops came there was no more fun for anyone.

which is not to say that i am advocating illegal activity in business practices, but rather to point out that this generation that now publicizes its dreams and fears for the world to see may yet be able to appreciate the value in keeping certain things–as the kids say–on the DL.

the wired article does point out that, ok, perhaps:

Secrecy can be necessary – CEOs are often required by law to keep mum, and many creative endeavors benefit from being closed: Steve Jobs came up with a terrific iPhone precisely because he acts like an artist and doesn’t consult everyone. In fact, secrecy is sometimes part of the fun. Who wants to know how this season of 24 is going to end? It’s not secrets that are dying but lies.

the article tosses in this dynamic concept that secrets can be fun, and then moves right along on its radical transparency proselytizing way without giving it any more thought. it’s this kind of secret that i’m interested in. the secret that is not a lie, the secret that’s enjoyable: the mystery.

because you know why? because mystery is infinitely engaging. mystery bestows specialness. mystery can create bonds within a community, and oh, hell, mystery is sexy!

i mean, full disclosure certainly can be sexy too, but it all depends. we don’t fantasize about what EVERYONE looks like naked, dig? and that goes for companies too. sometimes we don’t NEED to know. sometimes it’s a lot more boring or disappointing if we do. sometimes it ruins the magic. sometimes it could be more captivating if you maybe put your clothes back on and sought to seduce us. think of it like a strip tease. in fact, i think we can all learn a thing or two on the subject from cabaret. but not the outdated oldskool kind. no, i’m talking about punk rock cabaret.

n 2004 the dresden dolls were just this odd little cult duo from boston on their first US tour. at their L.A. show matt hickey, the dolls’ booking agent, said to me: you know, no matter how big they may ever get, it’s really important that you should still be able to feel like you are just discovering them. that idea has stuck with me ever after, and i think it’s immensely valuable advice to anyone responsible for the development of a lifestyle brand.

in the years since that conversation, the dolls have gone on to tour the world with panic! at the disco, nine inch nails, and many other major acts. the last time i saw them perform was about a year ago at the orpheum theatre in LA and i’d say that that sense of intimate discovery remained intact even when thousands of people now knew the words to all their songs.

how do you cultivate this intimacy? you keep things mysterious.

the lore around the relationship between the duo is the stuff of cult-rock mythology at this point, rife with tensions and speculation. but sustained mystery is not the exclusive territory of celebrity, where it is, in fact, more often than not mismanaged. it’s also the very same sort of element that induces alternate reality game enthusiasts to willingly participate in an obscure adventure, trusting that each discovery will lead them to an even greater enigma. in a certain sense our whole fetishized infatuation with celebrity can itself be thought of as one giant pop culture ARG–but that’s enough philosophy for one post, i think.

instead lets head over to psychology land. after all, this whole mystery thing is how people fall in love, and the result of eliminating its terrific tension can ruin an otherwise great relationship. (think brand-consumer relationship too!)

in her excellent book, mating in captivity, esther perel, a couples and family therapist and self-identified “cultural hybrid,” offers some refreshingly counter-intuitive (to american intuition, that is–perel was raised in europe, educated in israel, and now practices in NY) insight on how to “reconcile the erotic and the domestic.”

Intimacy has become the sovereign antidote for lives of increasing isolation…. but I am not convinced that unrestrained disclosure–the ability to speak the truth and not hide anything–necessarily fosters a harmonious and robust intimacy.

The mandate of intimacy, when taken too far, can resemble coercion. Deprived of enigma, intimacy becomes cruel when it excludes any possibility of discovery. Where there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.

It’s been my experience as a therapist that the breakdown of desire appears to be an unintentional consequence of the creation of intimacy. Our ability to tolerate our separateness is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship….Desire thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. It is energized by it.

An expression of longing, desire requires ongoing elusiveness.

we appreciate mystery not for the end goal of its destruction, but for the enjoyment of its process–its revelatory discovery, its furtive sharing. mystery isn’t about being shady, it’s not about deception, nor is it mutually exclusive with making things more accessible, safer, or better explained. there probably isn’t even one right way to sustain it–do too good a job of it and you run the risk of ending up in the dangerous territory of exclusivity. but mystery is incredibly powerful, and has the capacity to engage and captivate us all like nothing else. we shouldn’t ever discount it or think that complete transparency is really a viable substitute. sustained mystery, when pursued consciously and wielded carefully is an effective strategic approach in its own right.


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