Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Duff: Emily Gould warns bloggers about the consequences of 'oversharing' on the web

Duff: Emily Gould warns bloggers about the consequences of ‘oversharing’ on the web

Emily Gould is a new kind of celebrity, a type of celebrity so new that we don’t even know what to call it yet.

Emily started with a modest personal blog, just like the one started last week by your sister, your cousin or your kids. She talked about her job and her boyfriend, about childhood memories and stuff she was reading. She kept it up for a while and soon had a small community of people reading and commenting on what she wrote.

Emily’s blog was sharp and well-written, interesting and intensely personal. She shared stories, jokes and intimate details about her daily life; the kind of thing you’d find in a personal letter. But what happens when the letter is written in public, to an audience of a dozen friends at once? What happens when that audience grows to 50? 100? More?

Suddenly your intimate revelations aren’t so intimate anymore. When you publish an embarrassing quote from your boyfriend, you’re not just sharing it with a tight group of friends who already know and love him; you’re sharing it with a group of strangers who know him exclusively through what you write.

Emily slowly gained an audience and caught the attention of Nick Denton at Gawker Media, who made her the editor of his powerhouse gossip site in 2006. Suddenly, Emily had an audience of thousands, a platform read by some of the most influential publishing and media figures in New York.

She covered New York culture with the same intimate style she used on her personal blog, and the commenters loved her for it. At the height of her popularity, Emily realized that the more personal she made her posts, the more her public responded.

But can you really maintain an intimate relationship with 10,000 people? Can you really turn a major metropolitan city into your new best friend? And once you cross the line and give your soul to the Net, how can you possibly take it back?

The mob is fickle after all. Every flattering comment was matched by an equal or greater insult. You tell yourself not to take it personally, but how can you not? When you share the intimate details of your life in public, you are inviting strangers to know you and, inevitably, to judge you.

Blog authors build reputations by revealing their most intimate thoughts, but critics can fire back without revealing anything at all. This is the sad contradiction of personal blogging. For most people, trust has to be earned. You don’t walk up and start discussing your relationship problems with random people on the street. You discuss them with friends and family and people you trust, people who know you and love you and have your best interests at heart. We share things with friends because our friends know enough to take us in context.

Bloggers skip that step and give themselves to everyone, sharing personal details with people who don’t know (and don’t care) what came before. Some readers are smart enough to withhold judgment when they comment, but most of them dive straight in.

I know Emily’s story because it’s my story, too. I started a personal blog in 1996, sharing intimate thoughts, office gossip and overwrought political commentary with a small audience of friends.

My audience grew and my commentary got meaner, feeding off the attention I got when I tore people up. No matter what side of the argument I was on, I could always spin it to make myself look right. Loyal readers egged me on and close friends started to withdraw from me, scared that their comments would be analyzed, or maybe even mocked, in my public blog.

Every time someone complained I would do damage control and lecture them about “freedom of expression.”

Today my old blog posts are buried in archives and Emily Gould is starting a new project for the New York Times. Emily has diagnosed her condition as chronic “oversharing.” I wish I’d heard the word 10 years ago, back when it would have done me some good.

Emily’s fighting with her therapist because she doesn’t know if she’s a celebrity or not. I had the same problem in 2002. I decided that on the Internet, a person can enjoy all the downsides of fame without actually being famous.

You can inflate your ego, betray your friends, alienate your family and earn the contempt of strangers without earning a penny in extra income. You may think your blog is only being read by a dozen close friends, but you never know who’s going to link to you, and search engines can spit out secrets faster than you can take them down.

I hope fledgling bloggers will learn from Emily’s example and think twice before they take their personal lives public. You may think you can pacify your friends and ignore your critics, but you can’t predict what people are going to be sensitive about, and once a critic decides to turn your words against you, there’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle.

MICHAEL DUFF writes an Internet culture column for the Avalanche-Journal, but no one actually knows what that means.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 7, 2008 at 13:33

Posted in Columns

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