Sticker Shock

Continuing yesterday’s thoughts on the suburban ideal, today I have been almost obsessively pondering those stick figure family windshield decals.

Specifically: I want them. Yes, I want to fill up the back windshield of the minivan with cartoonish versions of my family.

Five years ago, this would have seemed completely inane to me. But now, I am happy. I am proud of my family and frankly it would make me smile — since we can’t be together all the time — to see a representation, however corny, of our entire clan each time I get in and out of the minivan.

For those of you who would say you don’t care to learn about my family or that those decals somehow offend your sensibilities, remember that when I’m driving behind you I am subjected to your anti-foreign car messages, overplayed puns like “Visualize Whirled Peas,” and the fact that you find Calvin peeing on just about anything hilarious. I don’t generally care about your messages either. The pleasure of the bumper sticker resides with the one driving the car.

And sometimes, things are trendy because they are good. In the case of the decals, they promote family pride, togetherness, the consistency of the family unit. Whether the decals ring true or false depends on your own family dynamic.

But the decals bring up the issue of the fine line between pride and privacy. On a purely practical level, they are probably tremendously unsafe. Your car becomes a billboard advertising your family make-up — including your kids’ hobbies if you pay an extra dollar or so per person — that basically leads the way to your home address. Who knows what kind of creepshow is lurking behind you on the freeway, or trolling through your neighborhood as your car sits in the driveway?

This will probably be the reason I don’t trick out the minivan with decals, and leads me to think about the information I share about our family online. The public forum of the Internet opens us up to an infinitely greater range of weirdos than the ones we might happen to cross paths with driving back and forth to guitar lessons. But somehow we feel safer veiled behind the computer screen than we do out in the real world. The family decals are like a live — albeit incredibly watered-down — version of the basic information we post on our blogs and on Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, discussion boards and social networking sites.

Our guard is down these days. Our virtual privacy fences are disintigrating. This has allowed a broadened sense of community and sharing, and a platform to nurture friendships, even as it may open us up to the ill intentions of strangers. Those of us who choose to participate online and in the real world face an everyday juggling act between joining the conversation and protecting our privacy. It is a balance that will take a generation to refine.