None of Your Business

How should we regard the business card in a digital age, both in terms of its future, but also in terms of what their function may be as historical artefacts? For a few years now, I have been photographing business cards that I have received and I decided today that they should go into the public domain.

Of course, one of the initial issues raised by this is ethical. Were they intended to be distributed in the public sphere? Indeed, are they public or private artefacts? Does our response to this question change over time?

There is also aesthetic value in displaying business cards in this way and this may have a bearing on how we regard the ethical issue. However, I want to stick with the ethics first. Did the people who gave me their cards imagine they would enter into the public domain? I doubt it. Would they mind? Perhaps. Is it unethical that I am doing this? Perhaps. Yet, when I received the card, there was no clarification over what I may do with it. We did not discuss this.

Neither have i been taught to treat business cards as private transactions. Indeed, I would be delighted for my own business cards to enter the public domain in this way or, at least, I would be indifferent. By uploading them to flickr, I am, in fact, undertaking a public service whereby I have created a website for people who may otherwise have no chance of reaching out in this way.

Certainly, the receipt of some business cards feels more vaulable than others. Some cards may seem more exclusive and privileged to have. Others are ten a penny and people are just desperate to give them to you, nobody what.

On balance, I conclude that the good that may arise from my having published them in this manner far out weighs the possible violation of privacy that may ensue for some of the people who, foolishly, wish for their details to be made available only to the random recipient they happened to meet at some chance encounter. Indeed, one may argue that some business cards have personal details, such as mobile phone numbers, which reinforce the claim that they ought be kept private, to which my reply is 'hogwash'. If you dont want to be contacted on a personal number, don't put it on the card.

As well, by putting them online, I avoid losing them, which was a primary reason for photographing them in the first place.

Equally, there is a temporal element to this matter. Most of the cards here will have details that are now out of date, so the privacy issue is even less of a concern. To this end, they are historic records of people's affiliations and perhaps valuable for that reason alone. Some of them include hand writing, which gives them additional value.

I also think if valuable to reflect on the value of a business card in the context of such platforms as LinkedIn and the general shift towards greater connectivity. Arguably, each individual decided their level of exposure and there may be some who deliberately choose the level of exposure to be that enabled by a business card and not the expanded kind offered by social media sites such as Linked In.

On this basis, that desire ought to be respected and I may have violated that expectation. Yet, again, I revert back to my earlier observation that, for business cards, this has never been clarified, at least not to me. As such, given the other positive reasons for making them public, I will err on this side, rather than imagine there to be an ethical issue that does not yet exist.

I am also concerned about what happens to the business card over time. Looking through my list of cards, I realize most of these people I never contacted again or, certainly, never sought their details by referring back to the card. Perhaps I am unusual here, but I doubt it. In any case, this is the new business card, isn't it?

I will let you know if anyone complains about their card being online, but I would not hold you breath, if I were you.