There used to be a sharp divide between your public life and your private life. There were a few exceptions, of course, public officials who pronounced on the importance of propriety and the family or who represented people by common mandate could find themselves undermined by revelations about their private life, but otherwise the two were kept fairly separate. The exception was when facets or details about someone’s private life became ‘in the public interest’.
That didn’t mean simply that ‘the public find this interesting’, but rather that their lives, health, livelihoods or other important life-aspects were placed under threat. It wasn’t really in the public interest if Lord Whatshisname was gay, particularly (unless he was making rulings on gay marriage etc) but it would be relevant if he were being blackmailed over that by criminal or other interest groups.
Public interest, of course, became ‘prurient interest’ and those living in the public eyes (celebrities of all sorts) became the subject of gossip magazines, paparazzi houndings, wild speculation and more. Even the legal recourse of taking people to trial for libel and slander was little deterrent. Too expensive and too time consuming given the sheer volume of material.
Now most of us live, to some extent, in the public eye via social media and this is having a massive, erosive effect on the institution of having a private life. Increasingly businesses believe they have a right to monitor and hold us responsible for our conduct outside of business hours and, furthermore, people who disagree with our stances and politics in our private lives seek to censor us by threatening our jobs and opportunities.
If you’ve read Trigger Warning there’s some fine examples of this issue relating to football, wherein private – somewhat racist – cell phone and text message conversations were leaked, revealing a side to certain managers, staff and players that had been entirely opaque in their public lives. One has to ask then, if such was undetectable in their public conduct, why it would matter what they said to each other in private. Especially when it’s not entirely clear how much may have simply been non-PC banter and blowing off frustration.
Away from there, to pick one of many examples from people’s normal lives there’s the Clementine Ford/Michael Nolan incident. He called her a slut, in response to other responses to her provocative pseudo-trolling style of journalism.
Is calling a woman a slut a nice thing to do? Even a contrarian controversy-baiting hatemonger like Ford? No, obviously not.
Is it any of Meriton’s business (the company he worked for) what he does in his own time? No, obviously not.
Is it acceptable or proportionate to go after someone’s livelihood over an online disagreement, however vociferous? No, obviously not.
Yet this happens more and more. Social media occupies a strange place between private and public communication and straying more towards one or the other depending how you use it.
If your Twitter is locked and you only use it for conversation and to follow a couple of hundred people that’s much more akin to a private account than one that doubles as a business outlet and which has a few thousand mutual follows.
Your personal Facebook should not be considered the same as any product or business pages you happen to run on there as well.
I tend to use the analogy of the pub to explain what social media conversations can be like. You’re out in a public space, with your friends, having a conversation at your table and with many other conversations going on around you, but others can eavesdrop, join or leave the conversation and even argue with you. It’s neither a fully public nor a fully private space.
Something has to change and the reassertion of the private space may be a part of that. It may even require changes in the law, so that it would be unfair dismissal to fire someone for their lawful expression outside of work hours. This is also another aspect of private censorship that we need to worry about, along with the ‘public square’ now being in private hands and immune to the protections free expression is afforded by the government.
If we respond with a ‘so what?’ to people’s private expression, made public, if companies can say “We can’t fire him, it’s a privately held opinion unrelated to the business,” then maybe we can claw back some of our collective freedom. After all, someone thinking ‘jet fuel can’t melt steel beams’ has no effect on their ability to fold t-shirts at GAP.