It seems obvious to me now that anytime you write about a person online they are likely to read what you’ve written, so you should keep that in mind while writing. It’s odd to think that there was a time — relatively recently! — when I didn’t know this. It’s even odder to read things that are written by people who still haven’t realized this. I mean, either people haven’t realized this or they have zero ethical qualms about hurting other people. Sometimes it’s the latter. That’s a boring line of inquiry, right? Still, people have written entire books about: ‘Whoa, the Internet is such a mean, mean place,’ and my feeling is always, well, duh. Some people are mean. Some people have always been mean, and when you overstimulate mean people and reward them with attention and also vouchsafe quasi-anonymity to them, they’ll get meaner by orders of magnitude. As Lamar Van Dyke might say, “well, yeah. That’d be yeah.”
The interesting thing, to me, is when people write online in a way that belies their belief that they’re passing some kind of secret private note that the person they’re eviscerating — or, more accurately, the received-idea-of-person they’re eviscerating — will never see. I understand this mentality because I used to embody it, uh, approximately 12 times a day. When I thought of the audience for my Gawker posts, I thought about how many people would agree with me, how we’d all bond over my witty observation about how thing/person X sucked in this particular way or had said some impolitic or dumb thing. I really did not ever think of the person I was writing about sitting there and reading what I’d written. I sincerely thought that the kind of people who got written about were somehow different from me.
Well, maybe some people don’t, but I read every single god damn thing that people write about me. All of it. If it is possible to find via a Google Blog or a Technorati search, I have read it. I’m not so obsessive that I will read all the comments on a blog post, and I definitely haven’t read all the comments on the Times magazine story (I made Choire skim them to find “questions” that I could “answer” when I had to do that for the Times’ website), but I am fairly thorough with my online self-flagellation/self-gratification. Probably this admission will not change the mind of anyone who thinks I’m a narcissist. But honestly, guys, can you sit there and tell me you don’t do the same thing? If you don’t, it might just be because there’s only so obsessed you can get when the third result after your LinkedIn profile is a track meet score from high school. But if you are a writer or performer or artist or have any kind of online presence beyond social networking sites, you engage in what Joanne McNeil has dubbed “narci-searching.” (Guess how I found that blog post!) Don’t tell me that you don’t. Actually, do tell me that you don’t! Write me an email and tell me how you avoid doing this. I would love to know your secret. Because even when I have taken breaks from the Internet, I’ve always had well-meaning friends who’ve been like “Oooh, saw the thing about you … sucks, right? Haha, weird.” Far from avoidable, knowledge of every dumb (or occasionally nice!) thing anyone writes about the cloud of concepts they perceive to represent “Emily Gould” is, for me, inevitable.
I am trying to get to a point here and the point had to do with, I was sitting on the subway today reading last week’s New Yorker, which was the best New Yorker of all time, pretty much. Ryan Lizza’s Rahm Emanuel profile. Ariel Levy on Van Lesbians. Rebecca Mead making some opera lady interesting. And then this week there was that D. T. Max David Foster Wallace piece, which I read online in its 13-page entirety, sometimes through tears. Basically the New Yorker is so good lately that whenever there’s a particularly Dad-funny Shouts and Murmurs or, say, an annoying Adam Gopnik thing about Damon Runyon and Guys and Dolls, it really clunks loudly. So I was thinking about this and suddenly my mind started to whirr with ideas for an old-school blog post about all the mockery-ripe Gopniky moments (“And then, just as it takes a naïf to find Paris cafés adorable—the natives find them about as interesting as diners—it took another kind of naïf to think that the lowlifes of Broadway were charming”) in that piece and how I’d dissect them (I know, ha ha.) Then I thought about how long it had been since I’d written something like that and I started to think about why, exactly, that was.
Here is an example of someone who wrote about me who, it seems clear, didn’t think I would ever read what she’d written.
This is someone I met when my ex-boyfriend was in a band with her husband. She wrote this post on a blog that seems to be otherwise comprised of sweet observations about her infant daughter and wry observations about her job teaching in a NYC public school. Based on that stuff, I’d assume that she is a person who has ethical qualms about hurting others. She really did not think I’d ever read this. Right?
Oh hmm. Wait. “I remember that my husband hung out at their apartment once, bringing home to Manhattan the opinion that they were a really nice couple as well as a copy of a fun novelty book from Emily’s publishing company. Emily, if you read this, I think we still have that book – do you want it back?”
Okay, so. She does assume I’ll read her blog post. Except, maybe this is a rhetorical device? You know, “An Open Letter to [X].” Because what kind of person would want someone they’d met a couple times and been friendly with in real life to read something like this:
“I find Emily’s career arc to be slightly distasteful – the lack of general seriousness, the rise to public prominence for no meaningful reason, the dependence on celebrity/gossip culture, the exhibitionism, etc.”
Or, well, this:
“THE TATTOOS. Emily, if you read this, I am so, so sorry, I truly am, but HOLY GOD THE TATTOOS. Yes, I know I have a tattoo also, BUT IT IS NOT OF THE SEQUINNED FLOWERS ON GRAM PARSON’S NUDIE SUIT. IT JUST ISN’T, OK? Emily, if you read this, you totally know that there is a difference between just getting a tattoo and getting THAT TATTOO. I know you know there’s a difference, because that’s why you got that tattoo, but you think it’s a GOOD DIFFERENCE and I think it’s a BAD DIFFERENCE. AND KNOWING ABOUT IT MAKES IT REALLY HARD FOR ME TO TAKE YOUR WORK SERIOUSLY. I’M SORRY. There. I said it. (But not really. I typed it. Your article is sort of about the difference between those two things. Maybe it would have been a better article if it had been more specifically, thoughtfully about the difference between those two things. I don’t know. I’m just glad I didn’t have to write it.)”
Wow. Um. I wish I remembered what tattoo this woman has, that is so much better than my tattoo. Ostensibly it is a kind of tattoo that would lead you to take someone’s work more, not less, seriously — assuming, of course, that you were the kind of person who judges the seriousness of someone’s work based on her tattoos.
And then then there is this paragraph, which is where I begin to feel physically sick.
“The worst thing I have to say about the article (and also Emily Magazine) is that it’s often not particularly compelling writing. (Emily, if you read this, I am really sorry. I have no wish to cause you personal pain, even though that is of course what I might be doing. Really, I should just shut up and go back to staring moodily at my sleeping babymy perineum or my new sandals or my recent trip to Ikea. Because who elected me Ms. Critic of the Universe and gave me the right to talk trash about other people’s creative productions? Nobody, that’s who. But I’m going to keep writing this anyway, and then I’m going to post it online where everyone can see it forever. Because, just like you did, I feel driven to do it, and I feel like it’s some sort of innate right. I feel you, girlfriend. I really feel you. Though, Emily, if you read this, you probably hate the fact that I just called you “girlfriend.” Sorry for that, too.) She is not an especially bad writer, and I guess I ought to salute her for that, as there are lots of especially bad writers out there, but she is not amazing either. For the most part (and there are exceptions), I cannot hear a strong, lively voice behind her words; I cannot pick out the clear, individual consciousness that makes any piece of writing more than just the story that it tells, thus lifting it out of tedium [...]“
“I am really sorry.” That’s what gets me.
Right now, I am writing in a medium that can deceive its participants into thinking that real people — people who’ve invited us into their thought processes, or even people who have invited us into their literal homes — should be written about the same way we’d write about a character on a tv show that we hate-watch.
I am aware of this now and I will try not to be deceived.