Is online privacy an unreasonable expectation?

online privacyJanet at Dear Author has a well-argued opinion piece up today on the whole Kathleen Hale story—I’d actually been reading up about it before Paul covered it yesterday but I still had not formulated my response to it and was content to let another Teleread contributor beat me to the punch.

Janet makes some good points that I think bear highlighting, and that sum up a lot of what my own musings were on this story. Firstly, this:

“That, for example, The Guardian saw fit to publish the Hale piece, despite all of its obvious problems, is not merely baffling to me, but downright horrifying.”

Hear, hear. I worked for several journalism entities in the days before the internet was a big thing, and I remember how big a part of my job fact-checking was. There were whole mornings spent playing Solitaire on the computer because the East Coast sources were on lunch, the West Coasters had not arrived at the office yet, and no further work could proceed until some vital facts were checked. Compare that to the present style of journalism—post allegations now, then post follow-ups later once the facts come in—and I can see where Janet’s horror is coming from.

And this:

“And perhaps worst of all, The Guardian, in running that piece without context or counter-point, threw their considerable journalistic weight on the side of vigilante injustice and thus far seems content to hold to that position.”

So even if you take this as a pure opinion piece, with no facts needed verification—still. Where is the response from the publisher on why they gave the blogger’s information away? Where is the disclaimer from The Guardian stating that they do not endorse the stalking behaviour Hale confesses to in the piece? She impersonated someone to a publisher to get a person’s real-life personal information! Then went to their house, peeked in their car, looked through their car, called them at work…how is ANY of that okay?

And here was the part where I went ‘aha!’ most of all:

“That there are authors who are endorsing Hale’s behavior is reflective of how twisted the power relationship between authors/publishers and readers is. Authors who are professionally producing commercial products for profit feel entitled to hunt down those who have expressed their dislike of those products, but authors are the powerless ones here? This skewed dynamic, by the way, is one of the reasons I think it’s so important to fight the ‘specialness of books’ rhetoric – because the more we buy into that kind of exclusivity, the more we seem to be removing authors (and publishers) from the realm of commercial producers, and, therefore, from their role as business people and even corporations unto themselves.”

I have said this all along, as both a book lover and a writer myself: books are NOT special, from a product standpoint. And we have to stop thinking of them that way. From a creation standpoint, they may be an alchemical, magical thing. But as a product—as a sales SKU with units to be moved—they are no different from any other product. The desire of their creator is to produce them affordably enough to generate a profit and then to move as many units as they possibly can. And of course their desire is to do this while pleasing the maximum number of customers.

But pleasing ALL of the customers is never going to happen, because people are capricious entities. In another niche community I participate in, the exercise video world, I have seen people reject otherwise sound video releases because they didn’t like the outfits they were wearing, or because the music had too much Jesus in it, or not ENOUGH Jesus, or any number of other special snowflake issues. I once gave away a yoga tape because the instructor’s mat was crooked and it drove me crazy every time I used it. That was my reason. It might not be yours, and you might hear it and say that is ridiculous and decide it’s the video for you. You are perfectly entitled, I truly hope you enjoy it, and I mean no malice at all to the crooked-matted instructor when I explain that this was the reason I gave away her workout.

I wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that books are such special snowflakes that we need to certify people with credentials in order for their opinions on them to have value. And I disagree with the notion that anyone who fails to provide such full credentials is somehow sinister and malicious. It doesn’t sound, from anything I have seen on this story, like the reviewer was truly being malicious. It sounds like there were aspects of the book she didn’t like, and she explained what they were in full enough detail that people could read her opinion and decide whether the objections she raised mattered to them or not. She did the book review equivalent of saying “I didn’t like that the yoga mat was crooked.” The crooked mat might matter to you, or it might not. It’s up to you to decide.

As for the issue of the blogger using a name online that’s not her real-life name, to that I say who cares? Tons of people use pseudonyms online—myself included—for completely non-sinister reasons. In my own case, I have a very unique last name and feel that it makes me identifiable. I prefer to use a close-but-not-quite variant that makes me feel less vulnerable to exactly this sort of stalker-type thing. I also prefer not to have my mother, my boss or other potentially sensitive people be able to read everything I say with just one click. That’s a perfectly valid decision.

I think Hale’s behaviour is indefensible. I wish The Guardian thought so too.

1 Comment on Is online privacy an unreasonable expectation?

  1. You raise an important question, to wit: What makes an opinion valuable?
    If you say, “I think that A is a good person” or you say “I think A is a bad person” and fail to support your assertion with both verifiable facts and sound, logical reasoning, have you said anything of value? I think not.
    When people have the opportunity to defend their opinion and fail to do so, that’s their failing. We should disregard such opinion. However, there are those who make it impossible to express a defensible opinion by providing only stars or numbers or up/down-pointing thumbs.
    The rise of internet opinion gathering that ignores the basis of opinion may be conditioning us all to believe that all opinions are created equal when, we should know, they are not.
    I refuse to have my opinions reduced to 1-5 stars.

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