Things we don’t say online…

Last night I went to see the amazing Neil Gaiman. I was prepared for him to be NOT WORTH IT, as huge events for celebrity-type-writers are often NOT WORTH IT. Celebrities can coast.

But this guy doesn’t. Really, he was gracious and honest and engaged with the audience. He’s a great great reader of his own work, and good on his feet. He seemed to be a truth-teller, fully reacting in the moment, and he played well to the hoards of clove-smoking college kids and the small children running around too.  He’s a pro, and  this was a performance for sure, but it wasn’t at all canned. Really, it was a stellar event.

Hurrah for Neil, and Hurrah for  the nice folks at Little Shop of Stories, who regularly work magic!

But the thing I took away from the event, more than anything, was a thought about these here interwebs of ours. See, in the Q&A portion of the evening, someone asked Neil about “the line.” They wanted to know how he draws a line between his public (social networking) persona and his personal life.

His response (I’m paraphrasing) was that he can’t tell us what the line is, but that he knows it when he sees it. However, he added, his girlfriend (Amanda Palmer) draws the line 2.5 miles after he does. He joked about that a little, and then moved on…

But this got me thinking.  What’s the line? For me, what’s the line?

See, in my own life I’m the Amanda Palmer (minus the sexy lingerie and hoards of fans). I only mean to say that I’m the one who draws the line 2.5 miles down he road. My first blog (back in 2001) was called Autobiography of Lost Loves, OR The Particular Boots I’ve Knocked (cringeworthy, I know…)    It led to a lot of uncomfortable situations, and taught me a lot about what I wanted to reveal/conceal.  In the radio commentaries I’ve done and the poems I’ve published, I’ve made these same missteps from time to time.  But I try to learn from them. Because while I don’t seem to have any qualms about embarrassing myself, I do feel bad when I reveal secrets and stories about the people I love. Or even the people I loathe.

Plus, my husband is an especially private person.  Which is why you don’t hear much about him here.

So I thought that I’d share with you the three things I consider before I reveal something online, through this blog, or on Twitter or Facebook:

1. Is it MY story? Obviously, people’s lives intersect, and we do share stories, but if I feel a story belongs more to someone else than to me, I tend to leave it out.  Like, a story about how MY pants came off on the subway is MINE. But a story about how YOUR pants came off while I was standing next to you is YOUR story. If I use it, I’ll probably change names and places. I’ll obscure the details.  (Which is hard with a husband or a sister.  I can’t say, “One of my many husbands… but I won’t tell you which…”)  If the tramp stamp above is MY new tattoo, I can tweet it. If it belongs to my best-friend-with-a-minister-daddy, I’d probably better not.

2. Is it a story I’d share with my pediatrician? With social networking, I tend to have a specific reader in mind.  Jenny is pretty much  my smartest, funniest, best online friend, and when I’m trying to be funny or clever, she’s who I have in mind as a reader.  But she‘s not who I have to worry about, is she?  She’s much less offendable than, say, my Grandmother’s neighbor, or my stodgy English lit professor from college.  AND THEY ARE ALL READING BLOGS!  Whoever it is that you least want to read your Twitter feed will be the person who does. So I find it’s helpful to think of someone I’m careful in front of, someone I hope thinks well of me, and ask if I want them reading my posts… (Hi, Dr. Herrmann!)

3. Is it funny or smart? This is a very basic rule of writing, but it REEEEEEALLY extends to blogland.  If you are planning to offend someone by writing something dirty or naughty or secret, for God’s sake, do it well!  It is one thing to tell the world about your mother’s underpants in your dark, brilliant novel, and quite another to get tipsy on Hot Damn and text all your friends about those same leather panties.  If you win a Pulitzer, your mother will probably find a way to understand.  If the text gets forwarded to her boss, who points out that you don’t know how to spell the word LETTHER or the word UNDERPANTZ, she is less likely to forgive you anytime soon.

Well, that’s it. Thats what I got.  Be brilliant, be careful and be respectful of the line between your life and the lives of other people, who might not like to tell the word all their secrets.

But also, I’ll add that people do get easily offended, and if you’re doing your best to respect them, you can’t beat yourself up for every offense. As private as my husband is, when I get worried about whether I might have upset someone with something I’ve written, he reminds me, “Are they mad because you said it, or mad because it’s true?”

By this he means, I think, that if I’m respectfully  telling the truth as I see it, I should stand behind what I’ve said.

This helps a lot when I’ve said something generally irritating to many people, and I’m getting floods of hatemail.  It does!

Anyone have rules to add?

8 Responses to “Things we don’t say online…”

  1. Jacqui Says:

    I think these are wise, wise words. I once had a great mentor who, when taught me, when making a decision, to write all the choices on index cards. Next, you split the deck into “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe.” Throw away all the Nos immediately. Then toss the maybes.

    That’s my rule of thumb when online — “Toss the maybes.” If I’m not sure if it’s okay, it’s not worth it.

  2. Carrie Ryan Says:

    This is a great question and one I think about often. I thought it about it a lot more when I started to blog but now I’m so used to concealing certain things online that it becomes second nature. Unfortunately, I’ve also noticed that the farther I’ve gone in this industry, the more I conceal.

  3. Kathryn Says:

    I’ve blogged since 2002 and have learned through some painful ways the fact that a blog doesn’t give blanket permission to write whatever one wants. The “Who owns the story?” question is valid. I don’t write anything deeply personal or emotional on my blog, or Facebook, or on Twitter (at least not in the confessional journal style). I’ve fashioned my blog more as a collection of things that I offer as resources to the world, or as glimpses into good things in my life.

    When my daughter turned two, I decided it was time to stop writing at any length about her growth and escapades in detail. She deserves to have her own life, one that’s not preserved on the internet forever — until SHE decides what to share.

    Once I came across a blog called True and Useful. The author’s premise is that we only need to voice ourselves when something is BOTH true and useful. So I ask myself: Does what I write serve a purpose of general good?

    Some people think that blogging is carte blanche to tell all, as if providing every detail of their lives (from their perspective) delivers them to the pinnacle of authenticity. I think that’s misguided; authenticity does not depend on personal details. Some people think that if others object to what they write (i.e., are upset that details of their own lives are on someone’s blog) that these folks are trying to censor them. The trend of the past few decades — starting with Jerry Springer shows, et al — has obscured the line of consideration and propriety, and this has damaged public discourse.

    Thanks for writing this post. It’s a good refresher for me.

  4. Kevin Hogan Says:

    There was a line I apparently crossed but I never saw as crossing.

    I started a blog about being a single father and in the course of this made posts which spoke of their mother, my x-wife. I was just providing background information on how I ended up being a single father; things like she left us and that she liked to drink a bit too much (I said ‘as any one who has ever lived with an alcoholic knows, it’s hard’), without ever mentioning her name. She got very angry. Well it came up in our divorce proceeding and as part of our divorce agreement I had to remove references to her in my blog. That was fine (not really, but I wanted the kids home with me without anymore court fights) and I did, she then decided that inferences to her were wrong, ideas like not wanting my kids to get tattoo’s b/c she ‘has them and I am only downing people with tattoo’s to make her look bad’.

    What I wrote would fall into True and Useful, I guess she was mad because what I said was true.

    Amor Fati….

  5. Sherrie Petersen Says:

    The longer I blog, the more I realize that no matter how transparent the author of the blog seems to be, there is so much more going on between the lines. And that’s usually a good thing :)

  6. henry Says:

    our mom has leather panties?
    i just puked in my mouth.

  7. Rebecca Loudon Says:

    I would divide my index cards into Boring and Not Boring and throwing away the boring pile. To hell with the rest. I write for myself.

  8. Janet Says:

    As someone with three blogs (only one of which I keep up with) and an unshakable Facebook addiction, I think a LOT about what I should post and what I should not. Factors complicating my decisions include a very private partner (who doesn’t like when our friends find out details about his life via MY Facebook updates) and a brand-new business (though never one prone to trash talk, I have to tread even more lightly now, as I don’t want to offend my neighbors and colleagues).

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