Can We Live In Public?

At the start of this decade, Josh Harris (always ahead of his time) created a experimental web video project called We Live In Public.

This Wired magazine piece from 2001 explains the whole story. Josh outfitted his entire apartment with video cameras and it led to the breakup of his relationship and eventually his departure from the interactive technology scene in NYC, first to the Catskills, then Spain, and now LA. As Josh’s girlfriend at the time Tanya explained:

"Life under surveillance was making me jumpy," she wrote. "I started
looking for hidden cameras in public places and friends’€™ apartments. I
bought Mace and stopped answering the door. I began spending a lot of
time outside the house, focusing on yoga and friends while maintaining
the press schedule Josh had set up."

Fast forward to 2008 and Emily Gould’s story in this weekend’s NY Times Magazine tells an eerily similar story, but this time it was her boyfriend Henry who wasn’t digging the public life that Emily was leading as a blogger who "overshared".

The only difference between 2000 and 2008 is that when Josh was living in public he was basically alone in his extroversion. Today, Emily’s story could have been written by many people, including me.

Between this blog, my tumblog, my twitter stream, my flickr stream, my friend feed, and a host of other social media sites, it’s easy to be a stalker if you were so inclined.

You’d know, for example, that we are out in Long Island this weekend, that we are listening to Bob Dylan records (old school vinyl) this morning, that I went to see two plays this week, Good Boys And True with my wife, and August: Osage County with my daughter. You’d know that we had lunch at 2nd Ave Deli yesterday.

You’d should know (but don’t) that we went to see Indiana Jones last night and I didn’t like it. You should know (but don’t) that I played golf on thursday morning with two VCs and an entrepreneur and that I ate both lunch and dinner at the Spotted Pig that day (and both meals were excellent).

My point is that although I do choose to live in public at times, I also turn it off quite a bit. It’s something I’ve learned to do the hard way. I once posted a picture of myself on vacation living the good life and got a ton of hate email/comments. I once posted a picture of my girls on the beach and was aghast to see that picture had been favorited by a bunch of guys on flickr who collected pictures of girls in bikinis in their flickr account (i deleted that photo from flickr and never did that again). There have been many more instances of bad judgment on my part.

This blog is read by somewhere around 8-10,000 people a day between the web and my feed. I’ve cut out most of my personal stuff from this blog and moved it elsewhere. It’s still public but in places that less people frequent. I don’t think you can expose yourself to 10,000 people a day and not get hurt on a regular basis.

The other thing I’ve learned to do is not take the comments personally. Jessica Coen advised Emily Gould not to read the comments when she started working at Gawker. Emily ignored that advice and got caught up in the thrill of the social interaction with people she did not know. I get off on that thrill too. It’s fun to see over 100 people commenting on a post, something that happens on this blog at least once a week.

But there will be mean things said in the comments. It’s easy to say mean things to a computer. Harder to someone’s face. I’ve learned to take the hit and move on. I never delete the comments unless they are spam or porn or hate speech (and I don’t mean hating me). I figure by leaving them there, I am airing their hateful views for everyone to see. And I love it when Jackson or someone else who knows me well gives them a piece of mind.

The worst is when my wife, the Gotham Gal, gets annoyed at something I do online. It happens for sure. She blogs too so she knows the rules and she calls me out every once in a while. And that’s a good thing. Having a strong wife is the best thing in life. You have to have some balance.

So, back to the title of this post. Can we live in public? I think so. But it’s not for everyone. And you have to learn how to do it. Josh Harris learned. Emily Gould learned. And a lot other people are learning. My kids are learning as teenagers, with their Facebook profiles and all of the social interaction that happens there. We’ll all make mistakes and I hope they’ll be little ones we can recover from. Sadly, some will make bigger mistakes that will be harder to recover from.

But why live in public? It is necessary? No it is not. But humans are social beings. We were social in caves. We are social in cyberspace. And those who are extroverts will be extroverts online. And there is a lot to be gained from living publicly online. As long as you know where to draw the line.