Friday, July 31, 2009

'Private' Parts

A week ago I received an incredibly upsetting e-mail from a dear childhood friend of mine who was (putting it mildly) livid that I had included her name in a blog post about an experience we'd shared in our teens. ("Fuck me for having any expectation of privacy from you.") Happily, I can tell you upfront that we have since spoken on the phone and everything is fine now (well, until she reads this), but for the 72 hours between the e-mail and the phone call I was shaken, saddened and not someone you would want to be around.

Don't get me wrong. After 6,293 posts, I've received my share of feedback from people who have been mentioned along the way. But honest to god, easily 95 percent of it has been positive, often connecting me with authors, actors, filmmakers or musicians I admire, or reconnecting me with old friends and colleagues who are tickled to relive old memories we shared. So the occasional model who "doesn't want to be seen on a gay site" (even though the photographer who OWNS the rights to the photos gave them to me) isn't exactly in a position to break my stride. But to have upset this friend -- a friend with whom I had been through so much during our misspent youth, with whom I had plotted -- and sometimes exacted -- revenge against our high school nemeses, with whom I had worn so many ridiculous outfits and with whom I had gone to all of those glorious New Wave concerts -- was a little more than I could bear. To be more specific, she was angry because I had used her full name -- which now brought up my post as the top result of a Google search -- her name that I later learned she has gone to great lengths to "keep off the Internet." It probably won't surprise you to learn that it took me -- who has his ENTIRE LIFE ON DISPLAY on said Internet -- several minutes to even truly understand why she was so angry (didn't she see the part about the fun we'd had, I thought to myself!!!), despite the fact that she specifically cited future job prospects as a principal reason for not wanting our tales of underage drinking out there for all to see.

(The sad irony was that I had DELIBERATELY included her full name in the hopes that she would come across the post more readily because I hadn't heard from her in a couple years and I hoped the fun memory of this trip we took would cajole her into contacting me. We have the kind of friendship where we can not speak for years and then when we do, it's like not a day went by. And it also wasn't unusual for her to disappear for a period of time. I had sent cards and occasional e-mails, but she had moved a couple of times and I wasn't 100 percent sure they were even reaching her. Quite simply, I wanted to know how she was doing.)

So while both of us might have been wise to have handled the whole thing differently -- I could have just used her first name, and she could have calmly asked me to remove her last -- I certainly understood that she had a right to be upset. And it got me thinking about the bigger question looming over all of this. In a world filled with cell-phone cameras, Facebook, Twitter and blogs, what should anyone's expectation of privacy be anymore? Is it time to select a date that acts as a cutoff point for privacy as we knew it, and declare that FROM THIS DATE FORWARD anything you say or do can appear online somewhere without question -- but nothing before then? (In her missive, my friend made a point to mention my use of -- what she called -- the "least-flattering photo you can scan in ... on the goddamn internet." I, of course, responded by saying I thought she looked ADORABLE back then -- had she not seen MY hair?) Or are we each the owner of the copyright to our own memories, free to do with them as we choose, and therefore is it time for everyone to accept that their life is now, to a certain degree, a more open book, like it or not?? I would argue for the latter (although that didn't exactly work for Augusten Burroughs, now did it?), but it's much more likely there will continue to be the struggle between those of us who are a 6 on the Kinsey Scale of Privacy versus those who are a 0. And there will be casualties along the way.

As I mentioned, I have had a number of people -- some of them who are very close to me, including my homosexual lover AND even fellow bloggers(!) -- who have asked me to remove references to them over the years, for various reasons. It's surprised me at times, but for the most part I turn into Kathy Griffin getting caught by someone she's made a joke about (even if I haven't) and acquiesce to whatever they want. I blog because I enjoy it, not to upset anyone. I blog because so much of my professional life involves editing other people's words, so sometimes I need to write my own. I blog because I like to make people laugh and think and feel. And I blog because I enjoy sharing my life and hearing from other people who have experienced similar things.

So perhaps it was not all that surprising that after I had written most of this post I would come across someone who had experienced "a similar thing" only to a more devastating effect, one Bradford Shellhammer, whose blog I have read from time to time over the years. (In fact, when he was editor of Queerty he gave me my first big "break" by linking to my Madonna as Valerie Cherish post.) In a stirring article in The Times we learn about the demise of his relationship with his fiance, Benjamin Dixon -- complete with wonderful photos of their charming duplex in the city and kitschy lake house in the country -- that strongly suggests it was the couple's polar opposite Kinsey "privacy" ratings that drove the blogger and his more private lover apart:

Mr. Dixon felt increasingly alienated by his partner’s need to post the details of their lives online. “For me,” he said, a vacation or a party was “real just for the two of us. It seemed like Bradford often needed to put it online for it to be real.”

Almost shockingly, based on a post-article blog post by Bradford, you'd almost guess this was news to him:

I thought he had no issue being Googled and having his life exposed. How could he? He was with me for five years. I knew he would not want to work for someone who would judge him based on his personal life. He's not as exposed to the world as I am. But he does not hide. But I guess, after reading the article, he's not so comfortable being out there as I am. I did not realize he had issues with this blog. I sit here asking myself why I have the need to write here. It's complex and needed and evolving. I will not or cannot abandon the possibilities and connections this space brings to my life. I'm a writer. I'm home here.

A beautiful explanation of this blogging compulsion some of us are afflicted with, one that I hope brings comfort and clarity to the more discreet loved ones of bloggers around the world, particularly one who did some underage drinking with me so many years ago. ...


Matthew said...

Augustin Burroughs is a bad example because there is a lot of legit evidence that he deliberately changed details, and also he was writing unsparingly about people he thought were quite deserving of criticism and so was apparently trying to keep them anonymous (but enough clues existed that they were well-known to any who cared to find them).

What you were doing was reliving your own memories, and trying to do so honestly.

In that regard, I'm with you that legally and ethically, anything goes.

However, you're right—there are people who fear the Internet can lead to job loss and stalkers and the like, and then there is the simple issue of vanity (because nobody thinks they look the same way others think they look), so aside from your being in the right, there is the separate issue of, "I'm fine to do this if I choose, but will it piss someone off?"

Like you, I tend to cave and/or err on the side of sparing people. I laugh at people who make fun of others publicly (Kathy Griffin was a good example, others would include Perez Hilton), but I can't bring myself to do that too cavalierly because unless it's someone I truly have no respect for anyway, it is an awkward feeling.

I had out friends (not straight models) ask to not be seen on my gay blog because it's too sexual. It annoyed me but I could see their point, too.

Sorry to hear this affected you so; it would have pissed me off, especially since she started out with hostility instead of a gentle, "Hey, would you mind changing this...?"

Richard Wall said...

Wow, Babycakes! Somebody sho' did push your buttons!

Love you, mean it. Really.


Alan Bennett Ilagan said...

Great post - you touched on something that's been an issue for many bloggers and their family and friends. I used to post ruthlessly about my friends, telling them if they don't want something written about, then don't do it with me(like dragging me to a straight strip club where they didn't serve liquor). Those are my memories too, and if I choose to share them that's my right. But in the last few years, I realized that wasn't fair, so at the most I use first names only. Thanks for sharing your take on it!

S said...

I've written about a lot of events that occurred involving others (I don't live in a bubble), to which they were pissed I mentioned them (although never by name).

Their privacy was kept intact, but their/our/my stories were told to a smallish audience.

But this is my world, too. Why shouldn't I be able to tell people about my life if I choose to do so?

Jimmy said...

It is a brave new world in terms of where to draw the line between what is public and what is private. Changing names to protect the innocent, or those that haven't given their consent, has been a good policy in the past and is still worthy of being observed.

Cory said...

While your friend may have been a little over the top and got her knickers in a big knot, I do have to agree with her. She has a reasonable expectation to privacy, and you have an obligation to ensure that you maintain her privacy should she so desire.

There's a difference between telling your boyfriend or dinner companions an amusing story versus blogging about it for the world to read. Using first names or generics works just as well to get a story across. If you were looking for her I think you could have put a little more effort, through different means, to find her rather than dropping her full name and hoping she was vain enough to Google herself.

That being said, I'm not dumping on you. I love to read your blog, it's always entertaining. I can do so relatively anonymously, which is generally how I prefer to lead my internet life (and my friends know it). But now I've had my say, and I'll sign my name.

Cory J.