Friday, May 10, 2013

On Being Private in Public

I used to have this friend, Lacey*. She was funny and irreverent, and even though we were close, sometimes she was capable of great cruelty. She wrote a blog, and one time she posted a picture of herself—to be precise, her butt—in long underwear. I think she thought it was riotously funny. (I didn't get the joke, but then I didn't get most of her jokes, though I laughed at all of them.) She was trying to make some self-effacing point that I've forgotten, but I remember the photo: her rear end, thighs and torso in a green-and-navy striped shirt and long johns, which were holey, baggy, all torn up. Lacey put a picture of her ass on the Internet.
This is not a photo of Lacey's butt. Nor of mine. This is a photo of a statue I took
 at an art museum outside San Francisco.

The idea of putting a picture of my ass wrapped in saggy waffle cotton onto the Internet seems inconceivable. You couldn't pay me enough to post a picture of my butt on the web! Lacey didn't feel this way. She was brash and balls to the wall, and anyone who didn't understand her or agree was just a conservative, uptight jerk trying to control her. It’s her body; she has the right to put herself out there any way she wants, even if others don’t understand.

A mutual friend of ours confided in me that he was worried about her after he saw this picture on her blog. Despite how uninterested I was in her picture or her blog, it was hard for me to take his concern seriously. Still, to put a picture of her butt in the internet--I just didn't get it. I don’t know if she was out of control, or if she was just owning her body and making a joke at her own expense, but I’m sure that she’d only want certain friends looking at a picture of her butt; she wouldn't want to be judged by people she thought were her friends. Maybe she would have asked him to stop, told him that it’s none of his business.

So here’s my question: what expectation of privacy does Lacey have on her blog? She’s put this photo onto the Internet, that Wild West, a new, lawless frontier. Lacey can’t control the Internet; she can only control what she puts on it. Can she tell her students not to read her blog, or her boss or her pastor or her in-laws? Does Lacey have the right to tell someone, “Don’t read this; I’m okay with millions of strangers all over the world seeing my ass, but not with you seeing it”?

What if Lacey gets an acrimonious divorce? Her loving husband is now angry and hurting. They split, but Lacey can’t keep him from reading her blog and laughing at that picture of her longjohn’ed butt late at night when he’s drunk and miserable. That restraining order doesn't mean he can’t follow her Twitter feed and keep some kind of tab on her, unless she blocks him. Can Lacey say to him, “This message—1400 words or 140 characters—that I’m broadcasting to the world is for everyone but you”? I mean it’s the Internet, democracy in all its bloody, common-denominator glory. Does she ask him to back off, does she block him, or does she curtail her own online activity?

Whatever you think about Lacey posting a picture of her tuchas on the web, what kind of privacy can she expect? Hell, maybe I've violated her privacy by telling you about her butt-shot.

Let’s put it another way: you have an ex. She was maybe a little controlling at times, unpredictably moody, but never violent. Still, when you broke up with her after six months, she did show up at your grandmother’s 80th birthday picnic playing the guitar, crying and singing “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. When you ended it, you told her not to call you. You needed time, distance. You figured after a year she’d have chilled out and maybe you two could be friends. Maybe.

You work in P.R., which means you’re blogging or tweeting or Facebook’ing, and though it’s mostly for work, there’s a place where your personal and your professional selves overlap. Your ex’s name starts popping up on your online landscape. She’s liking your photos all the time, and commenting inappropriately: “I love the way that margarita brings out your eyes,” “Remember that time we went to this boutique and bought matching bracelets. I still have mine…”

So you’re creeped out. Not only do you feel disrespected, but the two of you agreed to give each other some time and distance. This isn’t just some one-off, this is a person that you respected, liked, even loved; but she can’t seem to respect your request for space. You’re hurt and disappointed; now you have to either block her from all your social media access points—which just feels so bitchy, eighth grade girl to you—or you have to curtail your online presence, causing you professional problems.

Some of you reading this are thinking, what’s the problem, Jess. I’d DTMFA, click “Block” and call it a day. You’re right; and with an ex I’d only known six months, I’d agree with you. But what if it was your ex-partner? Or a close relative, or a parent? Is it that easy to unfriend a loved one, or is it appropriate? Hear me: if you’re in a situation where your physical, sexual or emotional health is being violated or threatened, then yes, Dump The Mother Fucker Already and do what you need to protect yourself. But what if it’s not that serious? You can change your number, your locks, your email address: but how do you enforce online privacy? Do you even have the right to expect online privacy?

Some of you are thinking, Jess, it’s the internet, and privacy is for shy kids. If you want privacy, delete your shit and stay home watching Friends on Nick at Nite. Maybe you’re right. If the web can tell us what shoes we want to buy while we’re reading the New York Times, or send coupons to our smartphones while we’re shopping in certain stores, maybe all bets are off. Maybe privacy doesn't exist online, and in order to have some privacy, we have to opt out of online communities.

That same woman, Lacey, used to troll her old boyfriends’ new girlfriends. She’d drop in on their blogs and scope out what she might be able to find out about herself there. Seems that even though she thought she was bold or in control of herself by putting a photo of her butt on her blog, maybe she was also insecure about what other people may be posting online about her, and who was reading it (or writing it). Maybe she did want some privacy.

I can’t figure this out. I want to believe that the people I've moved away from or cut ties with can respect the distance between us, rather than using the Internet as some kind of substitute communication, or way of keeping ties. But it doesn't seem to work that way; there's no such thing as the Honor System when it comes to broken relationships. I think the Internet might be a giant, never-ending day of junior high, a place where we show how cool we are, or where we whisper about others, or where we try as hard as we can to get closer to the "it" people. We can pretend that we’re in control of our online content, what we show people and what we hide, but we can’t control who reads it or what they say about us. In order to maintain our online privacy, either we block users we want gone, or we censor ourselves. If the bitchy, eighth-grade shoe fits, we better buy a pair in every color.

*Lacey’s not her real name. But there's a chance that she's reading this, and she knows who she is.

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