Writing in the Digital Age: Is Privacy Possible Any Longer?

What’s In It for the Nosy Now?

As a teen, I was strongly influenced by George Orwell — both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even though I love the information flood facilitated by the digital age and have embraced it as my own, Orwell’s warnings whisper in my ears at random moments. For example, my youngest son recently had to renew his driver’s license and show his papers (birth certificate and social security card) to do so in our post-9-11 United States. Orwell long ago convinced me this kind of precise scrutiny by government is not a good thing, and I worry about it.

On the other hand, Orwell wrote his work over 100 years ago, so he wasn’t speaking to the societal changes caused by the digital age. He was, instead speaking directly to the human heart that wants to order the world — and everyone in it — to maximize the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of that one human. That human heart hasn’t changed in a hundred years. Maybe not in a hundred thousand.

We humans still find it easier to tell others what to do than to do it ourselves (look to politicians and celebrities for an example and you’ll find a new one every week). We know others are as flawed as we are, but we (mostly) let social niceties hide that knowledge from view. Yet there are those among us who delight in ferreting out other people’s secrets and using them as currency in their own sphere of influence. Gossip is power, which is why it is so reviled even by those who indulge. Gossip is knowing something about someone. Something the person does not want revealed. Is there anything more tantalizing than that, even for the sort of people who’d take the secret to the grave?

Writers are the ultimate gossips. We change the names to protect the innocent (and ourselves), but we tuck all our little (and big) revealed secrets into narrative structures meant to showcase them. We tell ourselves we do that for a greater purpose. Take Bridget Jones’ Diary. Funny, authentic, painfully revealing. Imagine if you were learning all those things from one friend about another. Gossip. Delicious and interesting — and if you’re a writer, fodder for a book.

Gossip has been locked in a desultory war with privacy forever, I would suspect. But gossip could always be denied. A strong “I never!’ The lifted chin, fierce stare and straight posture of indignant denial very often turned gossip away in the past (even if it were true). Now we have Facebook, and Twitter, and Pinterest, and sex tapes that get released on YouTube and go viral around the world. Deniability takes more than a lifted chin and defiant stare. It takes a computer worm to go around and destroy the evidence.

You would think writers would be in hog heaven, rolling around in the uncensored humanness of humanity on display. And we are. Except…

Writers examine that human heart in intimate detail, but even we are faced with the conundrum of our new 24/7 connected world — if, to do our job as authors to connect with readers, we must be present on FaceBook, Twitter, Pinterest, in a blog, how much of ourselves do we have to reveal? Do we create a persona for ourselves? Do we have to scrub it clean of anything that may offend? Is that even possible? Being the curators of finely crafted gossip, we are achingly aware of how one little twitch of an eyebrow can reveal more than we ever want known.

I find it ironic that many writers (and others, see this CNN article on why 2012 is not 1984) still believe in the myth of privacy, since we are so good at mining gossip for story. There is much advice for how to comport oneself on social media, and stop others from watching our actions on the computer and off (FaceBook taggers, I’m talking to you!). If everyone were able to remain truly private, writers would have much less access to that secret human heart that inspires and informs our work.

Perhaps it would be better for we writers who don’t have the courage and heart to be truly private (i.e. hole up in our offices and never speak to another soul, mailing our typewritten manuscripts to whatever publisher still accepts them) to take Orwell’s wisdom to heart:  An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.

There is no one in the world who knows that better than a writer. And yet…

I still don’t trust Big Brother.

Kelly McClymer is an opinionated new member of Book View Cafe, and a cheerleader of writers reaching readers however they can. You can visit her on her desperately-in-need-of-update website; Follow her on Twitter, hang with her onGoogle+, Like her on FaceBook, and share Pinterests with her. Oh, and she’s on Goodreads, too (once a reader, always a reader)


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2 Responses to Writing in the Digital Age: Is Privacy Possible Any Longer?

  1. For the sake of pedantry, Orwell wrote his books less than eighty years ago – born 1903, working in the ’30s and ’40s. (In Burma in the early ’20s, I realise suddenly – he might’ve met my mother!)

  2. True Chaz. I’m very shaped by the late 50s and 60s (my childhood years). I assume Orwell was shaped by his growing up in the oughts of the twentieth century. But it is clear from his diaries that the World Wars shaped his viewpoint.

    I forgot to mention that Orwell’s diaries are being released in blog form. http://orwelldiaries.wordpress.com/