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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Expectation of Privacy and Social Media

Life offers the truly observant an opportunity to experience a variety of circumstances, emotions, flavors, and things that sometimes defy definition. This is how we grow and learn. It is how we make sense of our world and our specific role in it.

Who among us writers hasn't found herself furiously taking notes in public -- because you've thought of a great story idea or overheard a fabulous bit of dialogue or seen a feature that screams CHARACTER -- and had people give you the evil eye as they suspect you are violating their privacy?

I remember a writer friend getting caught overhearing a conversation and documenting it, and a child accusing her in public, "She's eavesdropping!!!" 

Enter social media and now you have a new beast to contend with...

It’s not social media per se, nor is its existence at fault – get that right. Users need to understand media, how to use it and how to curtail others’ access. We’ve turned social media into some surreal, hellish horror porn version of the universe Warhol envisioned.

In the last five years, I have witnessed love and conquest, courting and marriage, birth and death, divorce and rebirth in a way I may not have even if I were living next door to some of these people.

I have seen marital squabbles unfurl on social media and recognized the ugly monster before the couple realizes it themselves. Sometimes being in the midst of an emotional whirlwind or a tempestuous rage, they never realize that others may be privy to their breakdown. And if they do, it stops mattering and turns into a contest, as these things often do, where one must win over the other.

We’ve gone from living part of our lives publicly to living our emotional lives publicly to a no-holds-barred exposure of every aspect of living thrown into the ether for all of humanity to see.

It makes for an interesting time to be a writer or a social anthropologist, but it also means that you no longer get to imagine what happens behind closed doors. You get front row seats now. You also get to comment and put in your two cents in things that until very recently was the kind of thing only your BFF, clergy or therapist knew!

Knowing this, and knowing writers, I wonder how people remain as unabashedly oblivious to their virtual nakedness online. Have we become so accustomed to the behavior we are now blind and ignorant of its consequences?

It’s like when they first installed cameras in Congress and everyone was self-conscious and soon enough C-SPAN was a place to see otherwise stiff and suited statesmen picking their nose absentmindedly.

But back to writers and having full access to the lives of others on social media. As writers, we internalize, appropriate, and rewrite what we see and experience. There are big questions that social media open up, such as: do we change the definition for “expectation of privacy”? Or is it open season if folks do not filter for their own privacy? Is it reasonable to expect privacy when you do not protect the details of your life and put them out there for others to see, witness, experience, read, view, listen, share, and comment on it?

How exactly do people who expose every dark corner of their existence to the critical lens of social media define “privacy”? Or is privacy the thing one claims a right to when one feels the heat of exposing their own nakedness?

I just started writing a scene and it reminded of someone I know. Then I realized that this person and their partner had gone through a rough patch, very publicly. I stopped writing. In fact, it spooked me into scrapping the idea altogether – not only because it felt as if I was dragging their life across my fiction (I wasn’t, at least not purposely).

The definition of topsy-turvy: “reality” television is our new pulp fiction. How do we fit social media into the process of writing? It must be a consideration as we are all a part of it. But do we treat it as adjoined living rooms in some sort of virtual complex or a street corner in that proverbial superhighway?


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