Public

A Letter

In August of 2012, an 84-year-old widow named Cecilia Giménez attempted to restore a fresco of Jesus in her local church in Borja, Spain. She then went on holiday, expecting to finish the effort when she returned. But her work would soon become known as the worst restoration in history, drawing scorn, laughter, and attention—both friendly and otherwise—from the world over. (I don’t even have to link to the painting in question, you know precisely what it looks like.)

Years later, Giménez recalls, “A week after the scandal, I received flowers and a card with a message of support. It was little gestures like that kept me going during the first month. It was so hard. I lost six kilos. I had to take medication for anxiety.”

Last week, Marco Arment, former lead developer at Tumblr and creator of Instapaper, dashed off a quick post about how Apple’s software just isn’t what it used to be. Arment writes frequently (and often caustically) about programming and related topics, and his posts have a certain amount of popularity within that community. But they rarely extend beyond that. This post, however, had just the right timing and antagonism to get picked up; Arment soon discovered that his hasty blog post was being repeated by Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, CNBC, and others. He quickly issued a retraction.

Over the holiday break, Eric Meyer—another well-known member of the web development community—wrote about an unfortunate consequence of Facebook’s year-in-review feature. The feature was promoted via a happy and seemingly banal greeting card design that surrounded one of your most “popular” photos of the year. As it happens, in Meyer’s case, that photo was of his young daughter, who died last year of cancer.

I was offline for much of the break, and learned about Meyer’s post when my husband, a filmmaker, saw it reported in Hollywood Reporter. Meyer subsequently followed up, saying, “I honestly expected [that post] to be read by maybe two or three hundred people over the next couple of weeks, all of them friends, colleagues, and friends who are colleagues. I hoped that I’d maybe give a few of them something new and interesting to think about, but it was really mostly just me thinking out loud about a shortcoming in our field. I never expected widespread linking, let alone mainstream media coverage.”

A common refrain when people find themselves caught up in an internet storm they didn’t anticipate (or whenever Facebook inevitably changes their privacy settings) goes something like this: “Everything on the internet is public! Don’t share something if you don’t expect it to get seen!” But that is a reductive stance that doesn’t map to what’s really going on. What does it mean to be “public,” anyway? Is something either public or private—on or off—or is there a vast space between those two extremes?

Part of why I’m fond of the word working—as in, A Working Library, A Working Letter—is that I consider what writing and reading I do in these spaces to be a work in progress. That is, I’m working off of other materials, and through them, and doing so in some kind of public. I’ve actually come to think of that kind of thinking out loud as one of the great things about the web: it makes transparent the iteration and revision necessary to any creative endeavor (where I define creative expansively), and adds a layer of conversation and collaboration that makes that work better. But how much public is necessary? How much is too much?

The Society of Professional Journalists maintains a code of ethics that includes this guideline: “Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence, or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.” But who counts as a “public figure” any more? And what information is “personal”? Am I “seeking attention” if I tweet or blog about my experiences? Keep in mind, a social media presence is a prerequisite to access the most lucrative and humane jobs these days; and it is likewise a significant vector by which professional work proliferates and evolves. Is Eric Meyer a public figure? Is Marco Arment? Am I? Are you? (Kirby Delauter is, that much is certain.)

Relatedly, EFF published an excellent manifesto on the problem of online harassment. Notably, EFF takes a stand against two commonly proposed solutions to online harassment: more laws and more restrictions from social media platforms. On the former, they note that we already have quite a few laws, but that police are neither wont nor really equipped to enforce them. On the latter, EFF raises very real concerns about platform restrictions, and the risk that any rules against certain kinds of speech are just as likely to be used against victims of harassment as against their perpetrators. But they do not let platforms off the hook: rather, they call for tools that allow users to police their own communities. That is, rather than rely on the judgement of the platforms—who, let’s be honest, are beholden only to their shareholders—they propose that said platforms provide tools that permit communities to determine how best to protect and support their own people. And, critically, they say that if the platforms aren’t willing or able to build these tools themselves, then they need to let others do it. Thus, EFF’s proposal is also simultaneously a moral case for why software should be free (as in speech, not beer): API and third-party restrictions are an impediment to making social media safe.

Kathy Sierra responded to EFF’s post with a critical additional point: that while fighting for free speech remains of paramount importance, it’s not necessary to simultaneously bolster that speech. I could not help but think of the response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in the same light: many people seemed to think it necessary to defend the cartoons in the same breath as they condemned the murders. But it is by no means inconsistent to condemn the cartoons and the murders, to say both that the cartoons are vile and the murders unjustified. Jacob Canfield put it best: “Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons. Fuck those cartoons.”