Are We Selling Our Privacy to the Highest Bidder?
On making a living from the first-person industrial complex
Am I sharing this in the spirit of service? Knowing what to disclose and when to hold back is key to preserving privacy, not just yours but that of the people in your life as well.
When personal essays are your livelihood, it’s easy to sell your life piecemeal for short-term gain. But focusing on eyeballs, clicks, and bucks right now could come back to haunt you or your loved ones at a later date.
Mommy bloggers share pictures of their kids because they believe it makes their copy more relatable. But don’t children have a right to grow up carefree away from the public eye, instead of having their existence monetized?
Nothing tugs at the heartstrings of the commentariat more than the picture of a young child. But when a single mom uses such pictures to justify sharing every single aspect of her life online, how much is too much?
Where does survival stop and exploitation start? And what will little Emma’s future classmates make of her mama’s graphic descriptions of what she likes to get up to behind closed doors?
To many Gen X folks like me, who grew up without the internet, thinking of it as an ephemeral medium is a grave mistake.
As a journalist, I tend to treat it as print, with the caveat that some media organizations I work for may choose to archive or delete my work at a later date. It has happened but it isn’t always the norm; as far as I’m concerned, the internet is forever.
The internet has democratized writing.
As a result, the global conversation is a lot fairer. Those whose voice had been suppressed for years or even generations are finally getting a word in edgewise, thus helping us understand that our own human experience isn’t the only one there is.
We no longer have to wait for traditional media gatekeepers to give us a shot at self-expression; we can take it whenever the need arises.
As long as you enjoy tech privilege, then communication, belonging, and validation are basic human needs the internet can help you meet.
In the Western world, most of us carry it in our pocket. Wi-Fi abounds in public places, and we often have it at home, too, so we needn’t ever be cut off from the world.
Even when we’re housebound.
This was my case during the five years I lost to major depressive disorder, and it is thanks to the internet that I’m now rebuilding a life, word by word.
While not everything I write is a personal essay, that currently forms the bulk of my work, even though it isn’t a format I’m completely comfortable with. But I’ve embraced it in the name of mental health advocacy after I realized I had amassed enough material to document how depression can stall a life.
And attempt to destroy it and its host.
If turning the pen on myself remains counterintuitive, I do so to humanize a much-maligned illness often invisible to the naked eye.
Inevitably, this calls for a certain amount of disclosure, none of which I undertake lightly. I write about domestic abuse against children with openness because I didn’t always know my upbringing was abnormal. I write about spousal abuse with candor because it wasn’t until I exited my first marriage that I realized how abusive it had been. I write about sexuality and love because the shame inherent to the absence of emotional support in my marriage nearly killed me.
In this sense, sharing personal details is necessary to reach those in dire need of solace and those who do not yet understand what depression is.
And yet, I remain a very private person.
While I’m approachable and open about the unspeakable, my private life isn’t for sale, neither is my husband’s, my family’s, or my friends’. I write under my legal name because I’ve chosen to be accountable for my work, in line with my profession’s code of conduct. But I always withhold identifying details that could jeopardize someone else’s privacy.
Few of my loved ones read my work but those who do sometimes see moments of our life pop up on the page through snippets of conversation or anecdotes. Because we think together, our daily reality is a constant cross-pollination of ideas. Sometimes this intellectual symbiosis informs what we write about or how we write about it.
With nearly every essay of mine, the underlying message is clear: all humans have value, all humans are worthy of love and support. Further, no medical diagnosis or relationship should ever make you feel lesser than.
To convey this message, there’s no need to disclose my every sexual preference right down to visuals, post a naked selfie, or put myself down in print. Those are not tricks of the trade but the preserve of money-hungry amateurs who put personal gain before human dignity. Typically, they write at us to sell us their greatness, not to us to add value to our lives.
Capitalism commodifies everything, so it’s no surprise that some people’s sense of self-worth should be entirely dependent on metrics and earnings.
I may be open and outspoken about human sexuality, but what I’m into is for me to know and for my partner(s) to discover.
The personal essays I write are not WikiHows about my person, because I’m not that interesting. Instead, they’re about you, they’re about us.
What makes personal essays so compelling is that they afford us a rare glimpse into how another human does human. We write them to feel less alone, less ashamed, less vulnerable. Because the moment you articulate and document taboos, for example, they can no longer control you.
We read personal essays to understand one another better and for clues on how to deal with universal predicaments.
Because writing is a radical act of human communication.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.