My private life isn’t for your consumption

As a public figure, I cultivate many different personas; like anyone who performs for the public to any degree, I face certain public expectations, as well as the natural desire to appeal to the people I write for, and with. My public personas aren’t fake, but they are facets of myself rather than the entirety of who I am at all times. They aren’t an unfiltered view of myself, the view that my personal friends see when they encounter me in private. They are components of a whole, parts of an identity, and I like it that way. I prefer to retain a private life and there are some things I don’t care to discuss in public.

The same is true of many other public figures — certainly of the people I talk to about the issue of private and public lives. We want to interact with people, we want to forge genuine connections with people, and we want to be active in our communities, but we also want to maintain distance. Otherwise, we become objects of public consumption, something that makes us deeply uncomfortable and that at times can be actively dangerous.

Yet, many of our fans seem to struggle with this. I hesitate to use the word ‘fan’ because it makes me feel weird, but people use it self-referentially, so I’m tentatively using it here. Despite the fact that what they see is only part of who we are, many exert a strong and troubling sense of ownership over us, and it’s especially disturbing in an era of collating data about every aspect of people’s lives. There is a sense of familiarity that can feel very offputting even as I encourage people to talk to me, to not be shy around me, because I genuinely like talking to people who enjoy my work or have interesting thoughts about it.

I see this as a passive observer sometimes when I see people with very high public profiles struggling to balance the desire and need to connect with their fans with their own personal desire to have private lives. The high-profile author who had to politely ask fans to stop ferreting out his old address and sending things to it because it was creeping out the people who bought his house from him. The author who was criticised for not providing details about a medical condition even as she was opening up about having health problems. The film star subjected to scrutiny for wanting to be left alone while doing ordinary public things like getting some food or going to, well, a movie. The person who wants to be able to ride the train without being photographed and mobbed.

It’s exciting to see someone who produces media that you know! It’s an experience I’ve had, and I’ve had the quietly starstruck experience too, of being too shy to introduce myself to someone who would probably like me just fine. I’ve also had the desire to say anything, something, anything at all, in the hopes of getting a response and being able to say I talked to someone I admire or enjoy. It’s exciting when you see that someone is active on social media or even lives in your community, because then there’s a deep sense of connection; you were a passive consumer of the media this person creates, but now you can be an active participant. You’re not just a fan anymore, you’re a friend. You’re a follower, a liker, someone who interacts. You can Tweet the object of your interests and depending on level of business, you might get a friendly reply or even start a whole conversation! Maybe someone will follow you back! Shares something funny you said or links to something you wrote to say it was enjoyable. Fannishness and appreciation isn’t a one way street and some of the funniest, most excellent people I’ve met are those who started out by hesitantly @replying me or sending me friendly emails.

This is super great: I love the ability of connection we’re able to have with each other now. When I read authors I loved as a kid, I had to write them painstaking letters care of their publishers if I wanted to express my adoration (none ever wrote back, if you’re wondering). With the rise of social media has come a high degree of interactivity — I can tweet at J.K. Rowling if I want and I can email her my nasty review if I want, too. Ms. Rowling can respond to me, even if it’s just to say ‘I totally love raspberry scones too!’ I can feel this warm and fuzzy sense of connection — J.K. Rowling talked to me! 

But there is a thing that gets obscured in all of this, which is that when you are talking to public figures, whether they’re J.K. Rowling or a columnist you like or a web cartoonist just starting out, people with any degree of public following from millions to tens, they’re not presenting their whole selves, for the most part. They’re protecting themselves, but they’re also bringing out the best parts of themselves for their work. Even funny, offhand comments about our personal lives to emphasise that we’re human don’t encompass our whole lives, and it’s creepy when people who don’t know us exert a degree of ownership or make presumptions that cross weird, uninvited lines.

We are all humans here and just as I cringe when public figures are abused because people abstract their humanity, I cringe when their fans fail to recognise, or respect, some distinctive and important lines. It can be hard to find that balance and it’s not always clean or obvious, but it’s important. Sometimes it comes down to something as simple as this: How would you feel if someone did the same to you?

Image: Private Area, Grant Hutchinson, Flickr