As a relatively new parent, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I owe my children, particularly in terms of their privacy. Extreme cases seem fairly obvious; I can tell friends at a dinner party an amusing anecdote about their (mis)-behavior and not feel that I’ve violated their privacy. But what if I told that story in a lecture hall to 100+ students? What if I gave a TED talk based on it, viewed by millions of people and living forever on the internet, where their future classmates/lovers/employers could find it? At some point, even if it were helping to support them financially, I would feel that I’d crossed a line and violated their privacy to slake my own thirst for attention (publicity).
When I was a law student (sometime around 2006, 2007), I remember feeling somewhat uncomfortable with the notion that there was one set of privacy expectations that applied to “ordinary people” and another that applied to people of “public interest” (i.e., celebrities). At the time, that may have been true. I was unlikely to be photographed in a public place (except as part of a general crowd), while a famous athlete, musician, or actor might expect that paparazzi and cellphone cameras would turn up wherever they went. Now, however, there are “aspiring celebrities” nearly everywhere. So-called influencers who the overwhelming majority of the world would not recognize seek out celebrity treatment, and even those of us who don’t particularly desire fame are told to “build our personal brands.” Cameras are everywhere, as is the technology (and platforms) to “tag” people even in large crowds. Can any of us reasonably expect privacy any more?
I’d argue that this lack of public privacy increases the importance of our respecting the privacy of those we love. I might want to write about things that my children do (or my wife, or my siblings) because they’d make for an interesting story or illustrate an idea that I want to explore publicly, but my own code of ethics holds that without explicit permission to tell that story in a public setting, I owe it to the people I love (and who would be relatively easily individually identifiable from the story) not to do it.
Co-workers or employers present a trickier scenario. I don’t love them like family, they will change over time, and they’re less readily identifiable. Some stories could be easily anonymized: if someone spilled a beverage in the office, for example, no one outside of the context could easily identify that individual. Others, though, might be more problematic- if I said “My boss in 201X was THE WORST.” It would be pretty easy for anyone who wanted to to identify that individual. I’d rather err on the side of caution, and try to tell the story in a way such that it could plausibly be about at least three different people (former managers, for example).
I thought of these questions in part while reading the New York Times’ recent Essay on Selling Out: describing how famous actors (or others) seek to cash in on their followings by endorsing products. I understand the urge to capitalize on potentially fleeting fame while one can, and perhaps this is simple sour grapes (since I don’t really have a social media presence and can’t imagine anyone paying me to ), but I find it heartbreaking, no, that’s too strong a word, but at least disappointing that wealthy, talented people who’ve done well in one domain feel compelled (entitled?) to parlay that expertise and audience into otherwise ordinary businesses. At one level, it’s perhaps a fair inversion of the absurd conflation of business figures with lifestyle icons (Steve Jobs’ favorite shirts! Elon Musk’s diet! Jeff Bezos’ workout routine!) but it also feels like it further undermines the value of expertise. There are things that actors know very well; considering that none of them do their own hair and makeup or costuming, one might imagine that they would similarly be sensitive to the areas about which they know little/nothing.
I do try to be thoughtful about the products that I purchase. I try to prioritize made in the USA (or other first-world countries, where I hope the workers are less likely to be exploited), high-quality, and sold direct from the manufacturer (or at least not on Amazon). I was able to earn a little extra from conducting private career coaching sessions last month, and decided to buy a good pair of sunglasses (after years of wearing cheap ones that had been giveaways at events). I settled on the Randolph Engineering Aviators. They’re made in the US and seemed to be high quality (lifetime guarantee on the joints, for whatever that’s worth). I’m very happy with them; they feel solid, fit my face comfortably, and I think they look attractive. But I could never tell someone that they’re the best sunglasses in the world; I didn’t do THAT much research, and I’m not enough of an engineer (or designer) to make that kind of assertion. Again, maybe this is all a version of the grenade test where we all think we’d do the right thing, but few do in the moment, but I don’t mind having a day job so much that I’d be willing to oversell my enthusiasm for a product and sacrifice my integrity for the sake of extra money.
If we’re all quasi-celebrities performing our lives for a miniscule audience now, then privacy and authenticity are in short supply. I can at least try to give the former to the people I interact with and maintain the latter for myself.