We Live in Public

The ‘We Live in Public’ premiere at SXSW. PC: Frank Gruber

Almost a decade ago, at the SXSW film fest, I saw a documentary about a man ahead of his time called We Live in Public. He rigged cameras all over his house and live-streamed his life with his girlfriend, a prophecy of the privacy-rejecting times to come. The film unsettled me back then, and raised a lot of serious questions about the implications of living under a construct like this. Now his avant garde art experiment is reality, especially in China, where people are making $100,000 a month live streaming their most mundane moments.

One of the primary concerns I have about all of us living in a mediated reality (one in which you are aware of an audience gaze) is how it affects identity formation. That is, during adolescence, when developmental science indicates people are quite literally forming their own identities, establishing who they are as adults who are separate from their parents, today’s adolescents are also forming their public identities (on Instagram or what not) at the same time. These two selves may be completely dissonant, and neither is even fully “formed” yet. What a mindfuck!

The summer between 9th and 10th grade, a group of cheerleaders from my high school decided to pose for a group picture topless except for belts they fastened around their chests. They took the film for developing at Eckerd (you see, children, back in those days we would get our film rolls developed at a 24-hour pharmacy). Another high school student worked at the Eckerd photo corner, saw the shot when reviewing the final photos and scanned it. This was 1998, so the photo was passed around as email attachments, and everyone who was anyone saw this photo, but it eventually stopped being a thing. Can you imagine if this had happened in the age of social media?

Had I paid more attention in philosophy classes, I would probably know this problem is as old as time, and it’s just expressing itself in a different way now. But I do think about it a lot because my daughters are post-millennials, and damn, what a world. Even given the minor professional obligations I have to be “in public,” I’m constantly unsure how much/what to share in public spaces. Suffice to say it will not be anything involving topless belt photos.

The Unbearable Lightness of Internet Stalking

To briefly revisit a lesson from high school English, “dramatic irony” describes a situation in which the reader knows what’s going to happen to a character but the character doesn’t. It’s a tension that makes for great literature and art. And it’s the closest example I could think of to describe the situational discomfort of having to face someone who I’ve already internet stalked.

Just as a reader is one step ahead of a character because she possesses more information than say, Hamlet, so is the data-hoarding internet stalker. I usually do enough Googling to learn some stats that I’ll later have to pretend to not know in the course of face-to-face interaction. Unable to pack this problem into a single term, we will call this ‘”the unbearable lightness of internet stalking” until you come up with something better.

The context of this situation is part of the larger intersection of technology and human relationships that has long fascinated me.  The deep ocean of data available on the internet allow us to learn a lot about someone — and even communicate extensively with him — without ever talking to him in person. It’s the stuff of online startups, like my friends HO’s Umbel, which is designed to give people more control over internet searches of their identities. It’s also the stuff that can start relationships. A 2009 survey by Zagats found that more than 50% of respondents admitted to Googling their dates.

My problem is the human interaction that comes AFTER you learn or know information that you obtained in a slightly surreptitious but a let’s-face-it-we-all-do-it-kind-of-way. I am almost ALWAYS AWKWARD when I interact in person for the first time with someone I’ve searched or @ messaged on Twitter a lot. Two ways to think about this, both which make me act stupid.

1.) When I am the internet stalker: My fandom of a Google or Twitter @ subject leads to paranoia that the subject knows that I’ve been keeping up too closely with his feed because of my curiosity and interest. (This is why I was so strange everytime I saw Brian Stelter at SXSW, even though my friends say he is totally a normal, nice, dweeby dude.)

2.) When someone else has internet stalked me: This is usually revealed in a reference to something I tweet about a lot (like how someone saw a bacon-flavored something and thought of me). My response is always initial delight. “YOU LIKE BACON TOO? IT IS SO DELICIOUS, RIGHT?” But then, if I marinate on this too long, I start asking the vexing larger questions. Is it socially acceptable yet to reveal your stalkerdom? Maybe I feel weird on both ends of this situation because it’s not.

I quizzed my friend (over Gchat, natch). Let’s call her Megan:

Megan: I was very taken aback when I went on a date with someone who candidly told me that he had read my Twitter feed and then referenced things I had tweeted about like two months ago.

Me: What did it make you think?

Megan: I thought, “Why doesn’t he have the social skills to pretend he didn’t do that?” Because I had also stalked him too but I wasn’t going to admit it.

Me: So the reveal of it is somehow socially unacceptable.

Megan: Yeah… it’s almost as if you are exposing someone. Or forcing them to be intimate with you on this level you aren’t ready for. Because they have this info about you that you didn’t give them, but also, it’s all on a public forum, so why shouldn’t they know it?

And to use Hamlet once again, there’s the rub. Most of us admit to doing this sort of searching of near-strangers, and certain social media tools like Instagram allow us to go as far as seeing someone else’s day through their eyes. But I still can’t face some of my Twitter friends in person without feeling like a total dork/loser/insane person. When will this not be weird? When will internet stalkerdom be socially bearable?