Friday, June 6, 2008

On Writing About Your Kids - Oversharing?

Slate writer Emily Bazelon has just written a piece in which she struggles with the ethical code of writing about one's children. It is a topic that is very much related to "oversharing," the problem that plagued Emily Gould, as Bazelon mentions toward the end of her article:

In my paranoid moments, I worry that by writing about our kids, we're encouraging them to loosen or lose their own boundaries. Then someday, they'll hurtle toward the vortex that produced the awful, self-destructive oversharing of former Gawker editor Emily Gould, as she related at such length in the New York Times Magazine recently.

I'd like to think, like many of the writers I talked to, that the small revelations I offer about my kids are harmless. But what if they're not? A few weeks ago, after writing about my 5-year-old son's frustrated search for his pre-soccer snacks, I got an e-mail from reader Marc Naimark. "I was just about to post the following to the Fray," he wrote. "Fortunately Emily uses her maiden name.

Otherwise she is being cruel level 9 on a scale of 10 to her kid. Stuff on the internet lasts forever, and I'm not sure that 16-year-old Simon is going to be pleased for his friends to learn that he used to scream bloody murder about not finding his friggin' veggie sticks." This gave me pause. Maybe I need new ground rules. Or maybe at some point it will be time to stop. Except not just yet. Last night, I was talking with Eli about his misadventures at recess and thought, ah, good topic.

A problem with writing about one's kids is that the writer may not realize that he or she will be creating the first published narrative of a person's life. As Bazelon notes, in the bottomless Internet, what we write will be around for a long, long time. In my view, an ethical approach to capturing a child's life on a blog would include a eye toward fairness. If you are setting the permanent record on one's beginnings, would it be something that person would be proud of later on? Is it fair for you to be making it public? How would you feel if your kid were blogging about your life?

The Slate article generated a lot of discussion from the Fray. One posting applied the Golden Rule:
As with any ethical question, the golden rule is a pretty good guide, in my opinion. Here it is stretched by time and perspective:
1) Would the child presently want to be written about in the story as published?
2) Would the child AT ANY POINT IN THE FUTURE want to have been written about in the story as published?
It seems to me that there is such uncertainty in both these questions, especially the second, that the governing presumption must be not to publish, with only occassional (sic) exceptions. As there is certainly some wisdom to be gained by the writing and by the reading of others' writing on the subject of one's child-raising experiences, here is an additional ethically safe route, it seems to me:
1) write anything and everything one likes
2) publish nothing, or only that which passes the strict golden rule test above
3) when one's children reach some age of majority and independence, present the material for their assent or veto and publish accordingly

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Ethics of Friending and Gossip

This is interesting. An old article on the ethics of Facebook de-friending in Slate magazine is now on the most emailed list. Here is the author's advice on de-friending in 2007:

Is it OK to de-friend someone?

Say you've been too generous with your friending policy, and a gaggle of strangers is now hogging your News Feed. You too can launch a Great Facebook Purge. The beauty of this is that no headline or notification pops up in your ex-friend's inbox announcing, "You've suffered a humiliating rejection at the hands of _________." It's all very stealthy, thus making it the perfect way to deal with promiscuous frienders.

But what if your so-called friend scans through their friend list and notices that you've gone missing? First off, anyone who is policing their Facebook account this rigorously is morbidly obsessed and thus best kept at arm's length. If she confronts you about it, the best strategy is to plead ignorance: Perhaps the site's massive growth has led to some unexpected technical difficulties? Re-friend, then wait at least six months before trying another de-friending.

When we started this blog, people thought an Internet ethics was far fetched, but the idea seems to be catching on--even with those who are not completely aware of it. You may have seen the expose, tell-all story in the New York Times last weekend from the woman who gossiped her way to stardom but now feels a bit dirty about it. This is a funny excerpt from the article (funny in a sad way):

As Henry and I fought, I kept coming back to the idea that I had a right to say whatever I wanted. I don’t think I understood then that I could be right about being free to express myself but wrong about my right to make that self-expression public in a permanent way. I described my feelings in the language of empowerment: I was being creative, and Henry wanted to shut me up. His point of view was just as extreme: I wasn’t generously sharing my thoughts; I was compulsively seeking gratification from strangers at the expense of the feelings of someone I actually knew and loved. I told him that writing, especially writing about myself and my surroundings, was a fundamental part of my personality, and that if he wanted to remain in my life, he would need to reconcile himself to being part of the world I described.

After a standoff, he conceded that I should be allowed to put the post back up. As he sulked in the other room, I retyped what I’d written, feeling vindicated but slightly queasy for reasons I didn’t quite understand yet.

That "queasy" feeling is your moral compass trying to tell you something: Stop what you are doing.

Total freedom to act with pure impunity is not a good thing. It is something moral philosophers have talked about throughout history. Sometimes restraint is the kindest thing you can do.

The ironic thing is that this meta-narrative of how the author felt bad about doing something only worked to promote her story and (probably) compound the damage to those hurt. I gave a talk at Net Impact in San Francisco on Friday about Internet ethics. I asked who had read this New York Times article. Everyone had read it but no one could finish it because they were so repulsed by the actions of the author.

If you did make it to the end of the article, you would have seen that the author came around:

I understand that by writing here about how I revealed my intimate life online, I’ve now revealed even more about what happened during the period when I was most exposed. Well, I’m an oversharer — it’s not like I’m entirely reformed. But lately, online, I’ve found myself doing something unexpected: keeping the personal details of my current life to myself. This doesn’t make me feel stifled so much as it makes me feel protected, as if my thoughts might actually be worth honing rather than spewing. But I still have Emily Magazine as a place to spew when I need to. It will never again be the friendly place that it was in 2004 — there are plenty of negative comments now, and I don’t delete them. I still think about closing the door to my online life and locking them out, but then I think of everything else I’d be locking out, and I leave it open.