Just over a year ago, a young man of my acquaintance ‘met’ a young woman on Twitter and began a real-life relationship with her. He proudly showed his family her Twitter avatar. Yes, she was very attractive, but eyes were drawn down to her tweets, which contained some highly inflammatory and provocative political opinions, rising to ‘Long live Bin Laden!’ on the day of the announcement of his death. The persona that emerged from the tweets was someone rather cold, sometimes cruel about other women’s physical shortcomings and frequently coming out with the kind of adolescent political nonsense spouted by Rick in The Young Ones.
‘But it’s just Twitter,’ the young man cried. ‘What’s that got to do with anything? In real life she’s a lovely person, Twitter is just the place where she goes to let off steam.’
In my own youth, I can remember saying that revolution was the orgasm of history (Lenin, I think) and it was a pity that the IRA hadn’t managed to kill Mrs Thatcher when they bombed her hotel in Brighton, sentiments that make me deeply ashamed now. The difference is, these remarks were made during drunken pub conversation, forgotten in the morning’s hangover, not put down in a public forum to be read by anyone on the planet with access to a computer – indelible, part of a digital history that would follow me round for the rest of my life.
Could she not see, I pointed out, that any future employer, looking to check up on her on social networking sites, would see this stream of invective and form an opinion about her, not to mention members of his family effectively spying on her without her knowledge?
But for those who barely remember life before the internet – and this pair were in their mid-twenties – the distinction between the private and public has dissolved to the point where the very notion of privacy is as antiquated as the typewriter. When a campaign was launched against ID cards and the spread of CCTV cameras, what many seemed to ignore was the extent to which we already give away our secrets simply by going online.
I limit my Facebook friends to people I know personally, or know exactly who they are, and have tightened all the available security nuts. However, on a writer friend’s wall, a group of us were discussing, in less than flattering terms, a new novel by a well-known name, and we were aghast to find our remarks published in a weekly magazine’s diary column. My security was fine, but the wall on which we were commenting was wide open; just by Googling my friend’s name, anyone could read his status updates, even if you weren’t on Facebook. It was a nasty wake-up call – that private gossip between friends was in the public domain.
Until recently, it wasn’t even possible to delete a Facebook account. What started out as a means by which Harvard students could keep in touch with each other has grown into one of the world’s largest ad agencies, and we can be monitored for the whole of our lives, from the first proud baby photographs to our digital gravestones. But even if we opt out of Facebook, automatic methods of obtaining information leave behind them a complex and full digital trail.
Credit agencies and insurance providers use data aggregators to mine your Google searches. If you Google ‘diabetes’, then health plans can assume you have a pre-existing condition. Facebook and Google know my age, where I live, where I shop online, that I appear to be terminally ill (my hypochondria – I look up every single twinge), my weight, my dress and shoe size, my taste in books and music, my holiday destinations, what I eat and drink and, if I used online pornography, what my sexual predilections and fantasies are.
I could not have predicted that reality TV programmes such as The Only Way Is Essex or Big Brother would have millions of people clamouring to expose themselves for the amusement of strangers. At first I thought they were just exhibitionists, but now I suspect that some people only feel themselves to be real when they are in public, that fame is the only acceptable condition.
To be a celeb is to be three-dimensional, and it is the right of the public, according to the tabloids, to invade every aspect of their lives. Gordon Brown was not permitted to absorb the news of his newborn son’s life-limiting health condition before someone – in what was claimed to be the public interest – outed him to the press. As the Leveson inquiry into press standards has demonstrated, parts of the media do not recognise that privacy exists.
It is true that privacy has only recently become the norm in everyday life. Until the twentieth century almost everyone shared a bedroom, and complete strangers arriving at inns would find themselves sharing a bed. Houses were too small and families too large to allow for private space; communities were too tight knit for everyone not to know your business. Privacy grows up as a result of prosperity and the ability to travel from your home, to reinvent yourself.
It may be a modern notion to believe that our private thoughts and feelings belong to ourselves alone. It might even be a particularly middle-class and Western idea, yet without the ability to be alone with oneself, to speak freely only with those we trust and feel intimate with, to enjoy one’s own solitude without it being monitored 24 hours a day, do we really possess our own souls?
Working alone, at home, I enjoy the banter with strangers on Twitter and the chance to catch up with friends on Facebook. I also accept that as a writer I have a public persona and that those who read my novels may feel that they ‘know’ me. But novels are not autobiography, they are the work of the imagination, which belongs in the most private place of all, the unconscious. There is no more a chance of turning off the internet than there is of uninventing the car. Perhaps we are witnessing the transformation of the human condition and where it chooses to live – inside ourselves or permanently on display in the external world.
Linda Grant is an Orange Prize-winning novelist and the author of We Had It So Good