Storytelling: Intimacy, privacy and social media

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Privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of … self-development.  – Julie E. Cohen

This is me and my girls on Newsnight two years ago. I hustled us across the road to avoid being captured on film. I didn’t know if the camera was on, or why it was there, but removed us as quickly as possible from its viewpoint. The cameraman didn’t bother to find out how I felt and footage of us was used that night during a report on child abuse. I only got to know about it because a few people asked me why I was on Newsnight.

According to UK media law, the cameraman owns that footage so he can do what he likes with it but the idea of being filmed without my consent, with my children, and played on national television filled me with inexplicable dread and anxiety. But, it also gave me an insight into how people feel when they have no control over how they are presented online in a digital culture where honesty, privacy and sensitivity are alas, still being defined.

Last week Ken Bone, a power plant worker asked a question during the second presidential debate and was turned into an Internet star. He was discussed and tweeted ad infinitum, with comments about his dress, his weight, his opinions and every last thing he has ever done online has been dug up and used either to promote or discredit him.

Similarly, there are those memes of Jennifer Aniston on the announcement of  the Brangalina divorce. Apparently, this is people having fun with her Friend’s character. And, it is tame compared to the things discussed in an excellent but horrific article in the Atlantic: outline abuse, rape footage, and moments which have been taken out of an intimate consensual context, turned into porn, and put online. The slut-shaming (a term which is gender specific and has no male equivalent) comes later.

And then, there is catfishing. People create fake identities for the sole purpose of become romantically involved with people they target online, specifically so that they can record and release private conversation and other intimate moments for their own gain, be it fame or fortune. Recently it was Coronation Star Shayne Ward. Last year, it was sister wife Meri Brown. These two celebrities are in the public eye and hopefully have a lot of support. But what about private individuals? Sadly, the linked Atlantic article describes one young lady for whom life became so unbearable, she ended it. She was 14-years old.

As author Jonathan Franzen put it in the Guardian last year, the Internet is a protection racket and lives get destroyed: Who wants to feed that machine? Plenty of people do, as it turns out.

Contrived perfection made to get attention

Last year after Essena O’Neill, an Australian teenager, quit Instagram saying it was contrived, the Guardian ran an article about young women on Instagram. These girls take lots of pictures to present the most attractive versions of their lives. Some make money, others just do it to impress their friends/followers.

Harpers Bazaar reports that brands spend more than a $1 billion per year on sponsored Instagram posts, particularly in fashion, in order to create moments which look real but, you know, also beautiful, perfect and not fake like in a magazine.

The silver bubble problem

And, it is not just fashion which gets a make over, depression has turned into beautiful suffering with memes and imagery, especially on forums like Tumblr, which encourages teenagers to ruminate in a like-minded group. This is known as the silver bubble problem. Teenagers search for things repeatedly and retrieve similar memes and articles to the ones they’ve already seen. Then they ruminate further instead of learning to judge if they are really depressed or just disappointed over some event in life at which point they need to learn strategies to manage their disappointment. As davidji puts it:

We all visit the land of pain and sadness, we just don’t need to live there.

Sadly, teenagers can be seduced into thinking that it is the place to be, because they are young and insecure and just want to belong somewhere.


Back in 1996 Jenni Ringley streamed her life whilst she was at College (University). This was during the days of dial-up with one grainy photograph uploaded every 15 seconds which viewers watched avidly as they assembled it into a story. In an interview with on the podcast Reply All in 2014, she explains how she was a typical 19 year old person: insecure and seeking approval. And yet, she lived so freely knowing that her mother was watching.

This was well before The Trueman Show (1998) and Big Brother (2000), MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), and Twitter (2006). No one had done this before. The first time she kissed her boyfriend the site went down under the amount of hits it got.

Today anyone can stream themselves online from their phone using Periscope or Meerkat and instantly get a crowd. The two guys who interviewed Jenni tried it out and said that their followers were encouraging mayhem: Kick a dog, steal something, which left them both feeling anxious and overwhelmed. The followers were looking for drama and a story, and didn’t care who gave it. It was more like entertainment.

Actress Helena Bonham Carter has expressed her concern about young people who are sharing their whole lives on social media:

It reminds me of what it was like when I was very young and famous. It’s very difficult when you have no sense of self yet and now you’re reading about yourself. That’s what they’re inviting in: asking strangers to make opinions and judge them. It’s so vulnerable and precarious — and also meaningless.

The intimate digital space

Offline, in our normal day to day activities, we normally only share our lives and stories with our intimate circle of people around us – our strong links. And indeed, we know these people so well, we can predict what they will say about something. Occasionally, we share our stories with our consequential strangers – those people (weak links) we see regularly in the gym or at a cafe. And rarely, we share private information with a complete stranger – like the stranger on the train – someone we won’t see again, but with whom we have an honest connection. Sometimes this can be empowering. These strangers complement our strong relationships by providing us with fresh advice and insights.

However, the main ingredient which encourages us to share a story is intimacy. And, intimacy, like self-development, only grows in a private space, such as a gym changing room where we are naked and vulnerable; or, a carriage compartment on a train: there is only you, me and the four walls. Heady secret stuff. But also important stuff, where we learn about ourselves and grow as humans. Historically, we have been limited in our chances of intimacy. But, nowadays we have our digital secret spaces. Where is there a more intimate place than the inside of our phones? Those late night taps into a tiny screen. There is no need to even whisper.

It is easy to lean in, to feel that special connection when your cute person in the instant and private messenging section of your favourite social media platform is telling you that they find you cute too. Be still my beating heart. You know exactly how they feel, you feel the same way… except you don’t, you don’t know how they feel, you might not even know what they look like, you don’t know them AT ALL. But because it is exciting and feels good, and seemingly intimate/private, it is too easy to think you do know them and get swept away into a story, a fantasy, which is mainly playing out inside your own head.

Connection is what gives our lives meaning, even those horrendous trolls who abuse are connecting in their own twisted way. We all want to be seen and heard. We all want to be loved and admired, but the Internet is not the private space we think it is. Privacy is a different place altogether. The Internet is a public place, even instant messenging, and most servers are public – no data is ever unreadable. The Internet is a place where people go for entertainment and distraction, whatever form that make take, and because we access it through a screen, it is only as real as we decide it to be.

We cannot ever know how our stories, our connections and lovely moments will be used. On the other hand, we don’t need to distrust absolutely everyone we meet neither. Connection is our life force.

We just need to be honest with ourselves. What is my intention by sending this cute message? How would I feel if it got plastered across the Internet? Could I tell my other half what I’m doing online?

And, if we can’t or don’t want to answer any of those questions, then we probably shouldn’t be doing it all.