Interpreting the Data

Blogs and Facebook and other social media give you a chance to snoop around in other people’s lives (and allows other people to observe you) in a way that just wasn’t possible before. If you’re hanging out on line, you’re performing parts of your life in public.

When Neil Gaiman wanted to make his relationship with Amanda Palmer public he cleared the ground first. He had never mentioned his first wife much on his blog, just enough to give the impression that she was there but desired privacy. But he gradually changed the way he referred to her, not “my wife” but “the children’s mother,” and he began describing his home life in a way that made it increasingly clear that he was living alone. Then an enterprising reader just flat-out asked him if he was divorced and he took the chance to make a formal announcement that yes, he was no longer married. And, while all this was playing out, Amanda Palmer appeared more and more often in the blog and it was clear that they were travelling to see one another. Obviously dating, I thought to myself. But many of his readers didn’t pick up on that until they announced their engagement and still others had missed the whole divorce announcement and wondered what the hell was going on.

Just after this one of my Facebook friends started referring to her partner as “the children’s father,” in status updates and I knew that they’d separated because of the familiar word usage. And yesterday, I looked at another friend’s updates and realised that he and his wife had probably separated, not because he’d made any announcement, but because of the accumulation of comments about moving and buying kitchen equipment and wondering what to feed his kids and where to take them at the weekend.

It’s an odd position to be in, making deductions based on clues in status updates and comments in exactly the way I would if I were making a close reading of any other kind of text or performance (a novel, a play, a movie), and analysing a life from the outside as if it’s a story.

My friend is choosing of course what to make public and what to keep private but he’s still offering up a part of his life for nearly 400 friends, family, colleagues, school and university friends he hasn’t seen for 20 years, ex-colleagues, friends of friends, etc, etc. Many of whom don’t know him well enough to call him up and ask him what’s going on and how he is. So it’s a peculiar relationship, at once revelatory and remote. And this is true of all the online media I consume, whether it’s writers’ blogs or friends’ Facebook updates.

I don’t link my Facebook stuff with my blog because my Facebook friends are mostly extended family (mine and Travis’s) and ex-colleagues (only a very select few are connected to me in both places!), and the thought of them reading over my shoulder would freeze me into silence. But the blog comes up in searches on my name, so I am findable should anyone really want to look for me. And I suppose that if anyone bothered, an attentive reading of the blog would tell a fair bit about me and possibly reveal things I don’t realise I’m revealing. But I keep posting away as if no-one’s looking…

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