We live in public — some of the time

Fred Wilson of A VC made the same connection I did when he read the piece by Emily Gould — formerly of Gawker — in this morning’s New York Times magazine. It reminded me a lot of what Josh Harris did with the Pseudo network in the late 1990s, when he scattered video cameras around his loft apartment to track virtually everything (and I mean everything) that he and his girlfriend were doing, as part of an experiment into how much of our lives we can live in public. In many ways, it was the first Web-based reality TV show along the lines of Big Brother.

Emily Gould conducted a similar experiment — except she didn’t see it that way until later. While she was working at Gawker, writing snarky posts about the private lives of celebrities, she was also blogging about her own personal life at a site called Heartbreak Soup, including her ill-fated relationship with fellow Gawker writer Joshua David Stein. He has written his own account of what happened in Page Six magazine, which you can see excerpted in large quantities at This Recording. As I was reading both pieces, it also reminded me of the very public life of Julia Allison, who blogged about her on-again, off-again relationship with troubled geek millionaire Jakob Lodwick of Vimeo and CollegeHumor.com.

Julia broke up very publicly with Jakob, and Emily did the same with Josh; and in both cases, their public sharing of intimate emotions and situations was undoubtedly a big part of the reason. So why did they do it? It almost seems to be a pathological approach to a relationship — or at the very least, a kind of stress-testing approach, as though by subjecting that person to the full glare of the public floodlights, they could ensure that their significant other was good enough to hang onto. And then if it didn’t work out, they would have something to blame. Both also clearly got addicted to the attention of their readers and “fans.” Gould quotes Allison as saying that “Attention is my drug.” And she describes her own relationship with her readers this way:

“They were co-workers, sort of, giving me ideas for posts, rewriting my punch lines. They were creeps hitting on me at a bar. They were fans, sycophantically praising even my lamer efforts. They were enemies, articulating my worst fears about my limitations. They were the voices in my head. They could be ignored sometimes. Or, if I let them, they could become my whole world.”

Emily’s experience seems to be just the latest example of what Gawker calls “oversharing,” and also of what can happen when the lines between blogger/writer and quasi-celebrity get blurred. We had a panel at the mesh 2008 conference this week called Private vs. Public, with U of T philosopher Mark Kingwell, sociologist Nancy Baym from the University of Kansas and Ken Anderson from the Ontario privacy commission (moderated by the always wonderful Rachel Sklar from Huffington Post, who has her own take on the Gould saga), but it didn’t really touch on the deep-seated desire that seems to exist in people like Emily and Julia to compulsively share every detail of their lives. Is this just the latest version of a new, Internet-enabled disorder?

Update:

There’s another piece in the NYT mag that makes for an interesting counterpoint to Emily Gould’s article: it’s a column by the co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in which he describes research that shows human beings aren’t necessarily smarter than chimpanzees on an individual level, but they are smarter in groups — primarily because they are more social.

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