Active Voice Column: Invading My Own Privacy
by P. Kristen Enos
(All rights reserved)
This January marked the one year anniversary of me breaking down and signing up for Facebook. In fact, I didn’t really know about or care for the social networking site until just a few months before my decision to finally sign up. Previously, I would listen to my friends tell FB stories without understanding the true depth of what it was that they were talking about. But when I finally started to seriously contemplate using FB, I had to evaluate my own privacy issues, which I don’t think are the typical ones that are the common concerns out in the news these days.
I semi-jokingly refer to my twenties as my hard-core activist years. I spoke on panels at various local colleges and universities, I supported various lesbian and gay social and political organizations, and I was a regular columnist for the Blade Magazine, which circulated around Orange County and Long Beach.
However, despite all of that, I did (and still do) consider myself to be a very private person. Just as I always tell people that there is a very strong line between my work and personal life, I considered my activist life to be a third division. It’s not about being closeted – because I certainly am not – but the conversations I’ll have with my coworkers are definitely different in tone and content compared to the conversations that I have with my activists colleagues or with my private friends.
While I felt that being an activist required me to be public, I wasn’t stupid or careless about existing in a world of potentially violent homophobia and sexism. Growing up with the phone book (and no internet), I always had my phone number unlisted – just like all of my other activist friends. In fact, it never occurred to me to look someone up in the phone book to get their number – I would just call someone else that I knew who would have it. I always had a post office box to get all of my mail. And I wasn’t about to go anywhere dark and dangerous without trusted company.
Then I spent my thirties living my life “privately” and now in my early 40’s, I decided to come out of my social and activist cocoon. So of course, my friends recommended that I join Facebook. Mainly as an easy and convenient means of keeping in contact with other people without having to individually track phone numbers and email addresses. And to perhaps reconnect with people I’ve lost contact with over the years.
So I finally and seriously looked at what Facebook had to offer. I immediately realized my biggest issue was that it almost made me feel like I was supposed to live my life online. And that wasn’t going to happen. Partially because of the privacy issue and also because I’m just not interested in that. While I am aware that FB offers the ability to partition your friends and contacts, I never bothered with those features because it was just too much hassle for someone who sometimes forgets she had a Facebook profile. (A year later, I don’t post even a 10th of what I do and experience in my real life, and even that percentage is highly inflated.) Still, I was willing to give it a chance, knowing that I could always delete the profile if I choose to abandon the site.
When I decided to create my profile, I soon realized that I had to develop “rules” that could work for all three sections of my life: Private Me, Work Me and Activist Me.
First of all, I made sure there was no mistake to anyone who views my profile that I’m a lesbian since I put that little word in my “quote” box. I would’ve used “dyke” but I didn’t think the people in my work world would understand my sense of humor, and maybe only half of the people in my activist world. (See what I mean by different levels of privacy?)
So with this full disclosure label, I felt completely free to post my more obnoxious comments and activities to coworkers who may have been a little more daring to “Friend Request” me. And anyone who wanted to take that step with me, even if they‘re just trying to add to their Friend Quota, I figured it was the honorable thing to accept such requests.
Of course, the other side of proactively labeling myself also meant that I wouldn’t Friend Request anyone unless it’s a special circumstance. Even twenty years later, I realize that various people could have concerns being “publicly” associated with a potentially obnoxious lesbian.
And as always, my common-sense privacy rules were also part of my Facebook profile by not listing my home address, my phone number or the company I work for. The way I looked at it: people who needed to know such information already knew it.
Now, I will admit that the one true benefit of FB for Ultimate Private Me is for my very specific and yet very broad interests in the arts and media. It was thrilling for me to find different artists and projects that I could “Like” and therefore be automatically updated of their activities without having to proactively hunt them down. I was equally thrilled to be noted as a fan of Margaret Cho as well as Pixar, knowing that my association could also be a form of social network promotion to people who are on my Friend list.
And this is where things got sticky.
As I hinted at earlier, Private Me has a different standard of interests and conduct that may not be easily understood by people who know the Activist Me and Work Me. My best friends may not be able to predict what will catch my interest, but when I explain where I’m coming from, they usually respond with “Oh, okay,” whereas other people could think I’m a hypocrite and/or downright… bizarre. (And I admit both are highly possible but we’re not going to go there right now.)
I am an absolute educational documentary geek. I bore my private and work friends to death with my gushing commentary about some video or DVD that I had watched. (For example: I just finished all episodes of a British series entitled “The Adventure of English”, which was the development of the English language from its infancy to modern times. I was very fascinated by it! Enough to forgive the annoying several minutes of actors and lecturers speaking in Old English in the first couple of episodes.)
(Though for the record: Do not mention “March of the Penguins” to me. I tried watching 5 minutes of it and the experience made me feel like I was sticking needles into my eyeballs.)
Some time last year, I discovered the Arts & Entertainment series “Paranormal State”, which is a student organization of paranormal investigators based out of Penn State. They try to help people who are terrified by possible paranormal activity in their homes. I like the way the cases evolve, and how most of the stories are just fascinating tales of human nature, regardless of whether or not you believe paranormal activity really exists.
Now, most of their episodes feature a “guest psychic”, someone who’ll come in and try to read the aura and spirits to get more of the story. And some of them are pretty damn cool!
So I was thrilled to find out that one of them had a Facebook page, Michelle Belanger. Though it wasn’t an official page for her, it had some reference links that would be handy to have in my FB interests section. I like to occasionally check my FB artists lists to see if any or them are doing nearby concerts or speaking engagements.
I was about to click on the “Like” button when I paused and read the profile in more detail. The words “erotic biting” and “dominatrix” kind of trigger my privacy alarm.
Where I wasn’t concerned about people connected to Private Me or Activist Me, those who knew only Work Me were a completely different matter. It’s one thing to give my coworkers a better understanding about why I decorate my work cubicle in the way that I do; it’s another to be associated with subjects that I am NOT going to discuss with people that I don‘t have confidence would understand or handle such issues well. This is especially true because of actual experiences with the annoyingly ignorant association of sexual orientation and perceived deviant sexual behavior. I have enough weird conversational moments with coworkers with just being me.
And I could just picture a recommendation box about Michelle with “Kristen likes this!” appearing on random Friends’ pages and someone clicking links out of bored curiosity.
To avoid this can of very awkward worms, I finally chose not to “Like” Michelle. I fully admit this act made me feel a little hypocritical as someone who usually doesn’t give a shit about what other people think about me and my life. But sometimes not every person and every circumstance lends to raw truth. A fact that Activist Me (and, of course, Private Me) knows very well.
(And if any of my coworkers actually read this column, then I figured their curiosity would outweigh my concerns about discretion.)