What happens when the line blurs between our online and offline lives?
Overshare (verb): to divulge excessive personal information, as in a blog or broadcast interview, prompting reactions ranging from alarmed discomfort to approval (Webster's New World Dictionary 2008 Word of the Year).
This is who we were: communities of individuals who forged identities, selves, and lives via formal (or informal) interactions within a societal whole. We met one another at home, school, work, play, and everywhere else, and we did it all face to face. We were first persons singular or plural, intensely social creatures with a craving for companionship but neurotically fixated on who, exactly, we really were. I was and we were writers who wrote, readers who read, and artists who actuated the unreal, cunningly, with artifice that reflected not only our own inner selves but also the identity – the soul? – of our surrounding communities. Persons of cerebral substance, literally, recognizing ourselves in the morning mirror and muzzily wondering if anyone else saw what we saw. That was us for millennia.
This is who we are: communities of individuals who are online half the time; often inseparable from our laptops; clustered in the muted, ambient click-type drone of coffee shops or working late into the night alone in home offices; hearing the quiet pattering of unclunky keyboards; the kids in the kitchen instant-messaging before the bus arrives, after the bus arrives, on the bus; Dad scrolling through Slate/Wired/Salon or eyeing the tumbling economic dice; Mom wondering why she even bothered to get that now silly-seeming Realtor's license; chatting; texting; iPhoning; linked-in; sharing our individual triumphs and tragedies, from Obama to Mumbai, in real time, for all the online world to see, read, and share. We are as quick and relevant as our streams of consciousness (and Twitter) allow. Today, transparency trumps privacy, because, honestly, who wants to keep it all bottled up at a time like this? Share enough, and maybe somebody will care enough.
This is who we will be: a single community; global; linked-in; variegated and living lives beyond the passé 20th century notions of borders, beyond languages; a new species almost, Philip K. Dick-ensian in our comfort with multiple on- and offline identities; keenly aware of the marketers and corporate data-mining that exist primarily to sell us back to ourselves; and able to take advantage of the strange sense of slow self-empowerment that arrived near fully formed once we realized privacy as it once was is no longer privacy as it has become, or needs to be. The more we share – online – the less we have to fear. Transparency is the new privacy, the new safety, the new community, the new flesh, the new you, me, I, we.
In 10 years' time, no one will remember that racy photo you uploaded to your MySpace profile following a drunken collegiate revel, even though it will still be there, for those who care to dig down through the Web 4.0, 3.0, 2.0, hacking back through the digital crust into the ever-present past. Ten years from now, your twentysomething predilection for obscurantist Japanese hentai B&D porn will seem more quaint than sordid or even titillating: archaic, digital daguerreotypes with tentacles. Does it matter? Do we care? We're digital pioneers birthing digital natives who will have to evolve, socially, psychologically, possibly physically, as fast as the data stream. Their very concepts of "self," "community," "privacy," and the way they view and mirror their world – as individual people and as part of a far greater, online whole earth – will be as different from our current definitions of the same, as the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux are to the digital artisans of EA or Rockstar Games. Long live the new unflesh? Maybe. Probably. Yes.
That was when. This is now:
Austinite Stephanie Klein knows a thing or two about sharing herself online. Her blog, Stephanie Klein's Greek Tragedy (www.stephanieklein.blogs.com), is one of a fistful of heavily trafficked personal blogs that have been around since 2004. That's 35 years in dog time but even more in cyber time, and Klein, one of the most articulate and generous (with personal information, punditry, and promise) longtime members of the blogosphere, is by anyone's online standard a veteran blogger with a magna cum laude from Barnard College and a brace of memoirs already behind her. She's as linked-in as a 34-year-old mother of 2-year-old twins can be at this point, and her readers are legion. (Note: All interviews for this article were conducted via e-mail.)
"In January of 2004, I was working full-time as an interactive art director, designing web sites, and by night I was posting – let's face it – my angst online, frustrated that I didn't know how to make myself happy," says Klein by way of explaining how she got from there to here. "As a New Year's resolution, I promised to write every day. Having a blog enabled me to create an online scrapbook of my life, complete with drawings, photos (I use a Nikon D300), and my daily musings. As more people began to stop by, I expanded the content to include lifestyle, fashion, photography, and food – all passions of mine. Being connected, for me, means being in touch with both trends and friends. If I'm being honest though, it also enables me to keep myself relevant to readers."
The urge to stay relevant, to be heard, if not always understood, is primal. But blogging the intimate details of daily life, no matter how media-savvy or eloquently phrased and parsed, raises questions of privacy – of "oversharing" – that will continue to escalate as the online world infuses what we used to call "reality." Those questions are imperative, and they need to be asked, but even as they are voiced, the answers are becoming fluid and unpredictable. Every gauge we've depended on to divine the immediate future has suddenly and irrevocably gone haywire. The interstitial world gestating between the keyboard and kitchen or classroom is nothing if not porous. Once you're linked in to the degree that Klein is – that everyone you know is – the whole notion of living an on- or offline life seems far beyond control. But still ...
Klein: "In the past week, I've actually made a move toward trying to disconnect more. Sometimes I feel like there's an unrequited love crazy that happens, leaving me hitting the refresh button, waiting to hear news from Hollywood about my latest projects. On days when I make an effort to unplug, and instead write longhand in a journal, I get a satisfaction I don't get when I'm always 'on.' The bottom line is that two Twitters, a new Facebook profile photo, and an email do not equal a phone call."
Klein is well aware that the concept of the "new privacy" does not equate with the old. And as has been discovered the world over by thousands if not millions of hormonally turbocharged teens – those "Digital Natives" (as defined by authors/lawyers/parents John Palfrey and Urs Gasser in their groundbreaking book, Born Digital, as anyone born after 1980) – sharing your every post-breakup/crush/lust-bomb mood swing online (with or without accompanying graphics) is just another pseudo-saucy way to blow your future résumé out of the water. But informational transparency isn't necessarily oversharing; it can also be a defensive weapon against haters, disarming attacks on a person's self-esteem that might otherwise lead to real-world depression or worse.
"[Informational transparency] happens to be a motto of mine," says Klein. "You know, if I were the motto type. I absolutely believe it's freeing, and it allows us to 'live out loud,' without the fear of someone exposing us. My first memoir, Straight Up and Dirty, is a raw and remarkably honest look at being divorced when I hadn't yet turned 30. People have asked me if I'd be nervous if my Wasband ever wrote a book from his point of view. Absolutely not. Because I already exposed everything there was to know, what he did wrong, and where I, myself, should have been bitch-slapped. I exposed the worst of me, so there's nothing to fear anymore. It's like I said above, the minute we start to censor our stories is the minute they lose their authenticity."
That said, Klein notes: "When it comes to going online, entering chat rooms, creating personal pages, listing 25-100 things about yourself, it becomes dangerous if your identity is still forming. You're still learning right from wrong, are trusting, do things for the approval of others, to become popular, to feel liked and loved, and you open yourself to possibly appearing on 'To Catch a Predator.' Teens are 'sexting' one another, texting x-rated photos of themselves to their friends, and there's been an onslaught of child pornography charges as a result. I think one of the greatest dangers inherent in an entire generation being born 'linked in' is the blurred line between self-expression and exploitation. It's the moral and legal gray areas that are dangerous, and not just to our youth. There's everything from online bullying to emotional infidelity via Instant Messenger.
"20/20 came to my house and filmed me a week after I gave birth to premature twins. They asked me how I had the guts to offer to the world that I 'wet the bed until I was in sixth grade,' that 'I don't like vibrators, but I love dirty talk in bed.' How can I put it all out there for everyone to see? It's simple. I don't care who's looking. That is, I believe all the things that embarrass us, that shame us into keeping secrets in the first place, should be exposed ... by us. Because they're so common. We're so scared of what people will think, how they'll judge us. But with my blog, I don't believe in holding back. The minute you begin to censor yourself is the moment you stop being authentic. Is there such a thing as too much information? Not for me."
Few persons live a less private life than a stripper. At 41, Kristin Casey (not her real name) has been a professional dancer since she was legal. She still disrobes and rocks it – not only for the income but because, at this stage of her career, she finds it overwhelmingly empowering – but Casey has also become an important voice in a massive online community of exotic dancers that has embraced the Internet and the communicative freedom it provides. Casey, offstage and online, proactively promotes strippers' issues, swaps stories of shady topless bars and their occasionally shadier clientele, and explains how best to avoid the inherent dangers of the naked life. (Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody is just the tip of the pasty when it comes to hyperliterate go-go gals, it turns out.)
Casey's blog (www.mydancerdiary.com), which began on New Year's Eve 2007, is fast becoming a cause célèbre among the topless cognoscenti. A recovering substance abuser who found her voice in the nonprivacy of the online squall, she's working on a pair of books – a meth memoir and a how-to manual/guide for aspiring dancers. Author Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight and I, Fatty) is a fan. And Cody and Casey are MySpace pals. Go figure.
Asked how sharing her (sometimes shocking, occasionally outrageous, perpetually fascinating) life online has changed her, Casey replies: "At this point in my life, being 'connected' is invaluable. My entire lifestyle would be compromised without it – my career, my relationships, everything. My relationships with my best regular customers would suffer and thus my income as well. My ability to market myself as a writer and adult industry activist would be crippled if not destroyed. My ability to share my writing and get the satisfaction & stimulus of a wide range of feedback would comparatively be almost non-existent. As someone who doesn't have time to get out much or socialize, my ability to even meet people would be quite limited, more drawn out and time consuming. I can learn about a guy through his Facebook or MySpace profile in minutes, and vice versa, what would take me weeks in person – weeks I don't have."
Which prompts the question: Since a stripper is first and foremost in the business of selling a fantasy – a second, supersexualized identity to those willing to pay upfront to have their respective libidinal fires stoked – what does it mean to be a stripper online? To have an entire other layer of self on top of the daily real and the nightly unreal? Is there a substantive difference between what is, in effect, three Kristin Caseys?
"Not very," she says. "Muriel Rukeyser said that if one woman were to tell the truth of her life, the world would split open. My goal has always been to just tell the truth of my life."
The truth, famously (and occasionally wrongly), shall set us free. But speaking the truth online and "oversharing" have overnight become virtually interchangeable. At least from a stripper's perspective:
"'Oversharing' is suddenly here on a grand scale but it's nothing new – my generation called it TMI (which, incidentally, is an easier phrase to text). But now with the internet I think we're going through an initial, massive 'group vomiting' of the toxic shame that's been stuffed down in each of us for a long time (certainly since the 1950s, anyway). Maybe it'll make room for a healthier bounty of ideas and progress and connectivity. Being and staying relevant is key. True oversharing will always have an expiration date. If it's not relevant, it'll fade away into obscurity. Five years from now a stripper blog about mean customers and sore feet won't get 3 readers. A stripper blog about male desire and female boundaries could change the world."
Change the world? Through sharing every aspect – even the most unseemly – of ourselves, inner and outer, past and present, online? Why not? As a species, we've been building walls and erecting boundaries, metaphorical and otherwise, since the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey upgraded bones and blood for bricks and mortar. Why not start cyber-kicking holes in the fences, the fortresses, the prisons with which we've surrounded ourselves? Personal and societal self-discovery on an epic, historical scale appears to be finally within striking distance for much of the online world. Humanity's me generation is being force-evolved by onrushing technology into some new state of we. (Or is that Wii?)
If the end of privacy and the beginning of a new online identity eases the identity issues that come with being human, how can that be, in the end, a bad thing?
Bruce Sterling, Austin's once-and-futurist post-cyberpunk seer, is glad you asked, because he has some sobering ideas on privacy – what it was and where it went.
"I don't know if 'privacy,' as we previously understood it, has any useful meaning any longer. ... If we had useful 'privacy protections,' you know who'd be the first to catch it in the neck? Nosey journalists. You know who'd be really joyfully 'private' then, just blissfully free from all prying oversight? Halliburton executives. You gotta be careful what you ask for in situations this turbulent."
As Sterling sees it, the online nightmare scenario has zero to do with digitizing your messy life for all the world to dissect and discuss. Oversharing – or whatever the next neat-o neologism is – is a plus: "I do think there's a lot to be said for being 'out.' Put a bold, Nicolas Sarkozy-style public face on your indiscretions.
"If you quiver all over, thinking you should privately hide in the back of the bus – 'I'm private and invisible here, no one should know I exist' – that just strengthens the hands of bossy people who want to keep you hidden in the back of the bus. Nobody outs Rosa Parks.
"The scare-story about 'kids on the Net these days' is silly. Of course the kids link-in and share too much. Every generation overdoes communications by the previous generation's standards. Crystal-set kids in the 1920s listened to too much radio. Media innovation is a big story, but it's not a new story and it's not an armageddon story."
So what is keeping Sterling awake at night? Infrastructure.
"The backbone of the Internet is just big rubber hoses on the bottom of the ocean. It's big fiber-optic pipes running on abandoned railway lines. ... We've got a lot of mission-critical software running on tender pipes that were built before the days of 9-11 and the Mumbai rampage. The Net was originally designed for atomic armageddon, but that was a long time ago. The vast bulk of today's Net was built cheap and easy in times of great peace and prosperity."
Who'd have guessed it? The ongoing gestation of a generation of tweeting blog-monkeys file-swapping nudie pix and IM'ing their fingers off isn't the problem we thought it was. True to our innate humanity, we're approaching the future backward and from the side. Turns out, the more we share, the more secure we may become. Or not. It's hard to track history with a capital "H" when you're living smack dab in the middle of it. Generation Overshare as societal saviors? Stranger things could happen. Stranger things are happening.
"Think about your grandchildren's future experience," says Sterling. "Wouldn't you prefer the parents of your grandchildren to be rather wily, seasoned, street-smart characters on top of their game? Well, if that's what you want from your grandchildren's parents, you need to take action now."