Joshua Cohen, author of the recent novel Witz (Dalkey Archive Press), was at a bar recently telling a girl he’d met an hour and a half earlier about a family member who was being treated for cancer. The next day, he saw that she was writing about it on her blog. And even though all she said was that she hoped Cohen’s relative recovered, it made him queasy, like he was living in Soviet Russia.
“Whenever I say something to a person, I’m trying my best to consider just that person, not that person’s larger audience or constituency,” Cohen said. “I think if I start thinking that way, I’ll become even more of a loathsome person than I already am. That’s essentially living like a politician, or a Supreme Court justice during confirmation hearings, where you can’t give your opinion, you just want to get by.”
Cohen, 29, has friends who have become so reserved out of fear of being quoted on acquaintances’ blogs that when he is in casual social situations with them, he is self-conscious about looking like an irritating loudmouth in comparison.
“I fear becoming, through really no fault of mine, a caricature,” he said. “It’s my natural personality to say what I feel, and I feel like more and more, because so many other people are guarding their tongues, I’m going to look like some old obnoxious Jew, just screaming at people. It used to be that you were your opinions. Now it’s almost like you only consist of your discretion.”
What are people so afraid of? They are not always sure. Sometimes it’s that they don’t want to offend someone. Other times, they don’t want a person they only kind of know finding out that they were talking or thinking about them. Everyone just wants to be in control, but control is getting harder and harder to come by. “It is a fear of unknown repercussions,” said Brian Stelter, a media reporter for The New York Times. “The repercussions are not obvious here.”
So much for the new transparency. Although Web evangelists will tell you that society is on the verge of a new era in which everyone is always honest and secrets don’t exist, the reality is that people are keeping more from each other than ever before and watching what they say with unprecedented vigilance. They have more secrets than they ever did, and they have never been more afraid or calculated in their day-to-day interactions.
Thus, what constitutes a secret has expanded to include even the most seemingly innocuous details, and the circumstances under which the disclosure of facts can turn into social inconveniences have proliferated. This phenomenon threatens to destroy personalities, or at least render us dull to talk to.
Reporters have been dealing with this conundrum as long as there have been newspapers. In recent years, though, it’s grown far beyond journalistic circles, as the range of circumstances under which anything can potentially be made public grows larger. It takes on different forms, of course. “Don’t write about this on your blog.” “Don’t Tweet what I just said.” “Don’t mention I was here if you write about this party.” “Don’t tag me if you put that picture on Facebook.”
Stelter said he’s probably not going to be saying “off the record” to his wife. Short of that, he said, he and his friends tend to stay on their toes. When Stelter, 24, went out for brunch a few weeks ago with a group of friends—among them a TV producer, a lawyer, a magazine columnist and a couple of bloggers—it didn’t take long for someone to stop the conversation and make sure that everything said at the table was going to stay at the table.
“People were so nervous,” Stelter said. “Not even because they were saying inappropriate things, but because we just don’t always know the parameters of these conversations.”
So what were they talking about, anyway? The story of Dave Weigel, of course, the columnist who recently resigned from The Washington Post after coming under fire for e-mails he sent to a list-serv. Although the list was meant to be a confidential forum for friends in the media to discuss current events among themselves, Weigel’s e-mails were leaked. His is a cautionary tale, not only for journalists but for anyone who has ever used e-mail to express thoughts that weren’t intended for a big audience.
Cases like Weigel’s, in which an indiscreet remark made public results in some degree of ruin, have turned people into a timid breed of paranoids, always hedging and holding back. It doesn’t help that there are vultures out there such as Andrew Breitbart, who has offered a $100,000 reward to anyone willing to leak the full archive of JournoList, the list-serv that got Weigel in trouble.
“We’ve lived for about five years sharing everything and saying everything out loud, and we keep hearing about people who suffer the consequences of doing that,” Stelter said. “We’re at the point where ‘off the record’ is shorthand for ‘I’m gonna say something that’s gonna surprise you.’”
“The making sure it’s OK, the asking, is always kind of sad because it essentially implies that I don’t really know people’s boundaries,” said Meaghan O’Connell, the 25-year-old outreach director of Tumblr, who is known for blogging in exuberant detail about her personal life. “I want people to trust me, obviously, and not feel like I am going to humiliate them on my Tumblr or say things they wouldn’t be comfortable with.” Hrag Vartanian is an art blogger at Hyperallergic so dedicated to writing about his personal life that he had to warn his husband when they started dating that he couldn’t dictate what he did and didn’t blog about.
“I had to make it clear and say, ‘Look, just so you know, everything is fair game,’” Vartanian said. “It’s just the nature of what I do. You’re just gonna have to deal with it.”
Vartanian, 37, balks when acquaintances tell him not to Tweet about something they’ve said, or declare a banal observation to be “off the record.”
“I don’t understand it at all, especially when it’s something as simple as ‘so-and-so dated so-and-so but don’t tell them I told you,’” Vartanian said. “I’m like, who cares? Something simple like that? We’re in New York City! I mean, everyone’s dated everyone, you know?”
As far as Vartanian is concerned, if something really happened, people shouldn’t be embarrassed to discuss it. “I’m like, either it’s a fact or it isn’t!” he explained.
But even evangelists of blanket transparency such as Vartanian admit that they’re keeping more to themselves than ever before.
“I’m starting to think about it more and more—I love to joke around and be snarky, but I’m being much more conscientious about it than I used to be because you realize people can take that and transform it,” he said.
For Nathan Heller, a 26-year-old writer for Slate, there are rewards in resisting the pressure to be unobjectionable.
“A few weeks ago, I went to see an illustrious 60-something poet read his work at a jazz club—he’s done this for years; it’s his thing—and the poems he read carried him into this uncomfortable, sometimes confessional-type place,” Heller said in an e-mail. “He seemed to come apart a little at the microphone. It was a sharp, immediate performance, and a moving one, because it was so candid. And I realized that I couldn’t imagine anyone our age doing this, ever—not something that raw and exposed. Which alarmed me.”
Heller cited a remark a colleague of his made to him not long ago: “Tweet that, coward! You make a career by getting on people’s shitlists, not by staying off them.”
Heller noted that he was paraphrasing, and declined to disclose the name of his colleague, just in case.