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Opening the Chamber of Secrets

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The British are, as a slab of generalised populace, a curious bunch. Their urge to poke and peer has led to advances in science and technology and no doubt contributed to a fondness for global domination.

But it's not all fun and free coconuts. A fascination for staring goes against our other national characteristic; a sharp adherence to Keeping Things Private. Sharing too much personal information used to be akin to showing too much leg - something best left to theatrical types. In recent years this desire for information but reluctance give it up combined to create Big Brother, a TV show which allowed us to gawp as much as we cared, all under the auspices of innovative television.

The validation of innovation is less of an excuse for the rise of the cult of celebrity, but a belief that we are paying celebs for the right to gape allows our British sensibilities to side-step any nastiness. In an echo of our role at the forefront of the industrial revolution, we have some experience in stripping products down to their constituent parts and then flogging them to the masses, be it cheap matches to light the fire or cheap matches of the like that appear on magazine covers wearing a Vera Wang and the latest in spray-tan technology.

Where this paid-for probing starts to rankle is with social networking: the dissemination of personal information by, well, everyone, not for their profit, but for the profit of curly-haired Harvard drop-outs. Leaving aside the profits - and the curly-haired drop-out's investors fear he will - and this revolution of industrialised information has led to advances, or at least changes, in the way that the British interact with each other.

Where some celebrities will reveal the most startling personal details of their lives for a chunk of change, now anyone with internet access is able to mimic that celeb lifestyle, without the free shoes. Concealed by a screen, this may well be the opening that the reticent Brits have been waiting for, all those pent-up feelings about life, love and what they are having for lunch now being smeared across the internet for general diversion.

And good luck to them. There are those who would have no other outlet, either through reluctance to speak out to their nearest in the face or because they have no-one in whom they can confide. A social network can provide comfort in a way that has never been available before.

What about those who don't feel the need to embrace this new freedom of expression? Well they can simply not type out those daily/hourly/minutely updates of their lives. There is, as yet, no compulsion and they can restrict themselves to news about the cat or comments on whether Ed Balls should be photographed in football kit.

But the appetite of fellow users who are becoming used to the free-flow of personal tidbits is growing. Reveal a detail of your life - or have it revealed by another user - which the wider group feels they should have been privy to and suddenly backs are put up and noses out. There is no button for 'well I told my friends down the pub four months ago but I couldn't invite all 256 of you'.

Increasingly, social networks demand all-or-nothing, full exposé, total access to your life, or you're not playing the game. It's not enough to stand on the sidelines, with an link to an amusing headline. There must be equal trading with those who are inclined to reveal all. The celebrity market is used to these demands. For some of us, that's a gossip column too far. The British have a reputation as secret-keepers to hold onto too, after all.