25 July

In The World Of Social Media, Defining The Boundaries Of Life

by Jon Katz
The Boundaries Of Public Life
The Boundaries Of Public Life

I got an e-mail recently from a couple who moved to  a nearby town in my county in upstate New York. They had come from Ohio.

“We have read your books and follow your blog and Maria’s blog closely. I’ve tried to call you  but can’t seem to find your number. We were wondering when we could get together, we’d love to meet you and the animals on the farm.”

It was a curious message to get from complete strangers, I had never heard their name or spoke with them in any form. Another woman, a freelance writer, wrote Maria and was annoyed. She had messaged me on Twitter about wanting to meet us, I hadn’t replied. (I post my blog on Twitter, I don’t go there.)

This happens frequently, and I’m never quite sure how to respond. When I was a book writer, people loved the idea of me, I had groupies and stalkers,  in part because they didn’t know me as a human, only as a story in a book. They came in large numbers to my reading, heard me talk, shook my hand and left excited and pleased at meeting someone whose words they had read.

There was an element of mystery, even glamour to being a public person who could have a private life, you came out once in a while to receive your plaudits and take a victory lap, but no one out there every really got to you enough to be disappointed in you.

People came to hear me speak or go get a book signed, there was no suggestion that they really knew me, it would have seemed completely inappropriate for a stranger to have asked for a visit in a book line. And it would have made me uncomfortable. Bookstore people or escorts would have moved in quickly and shuffled the offender along the line, perhaps even out the door.

And I am the farthest thing imaginable from a movie star.

Such an approach is no longer considered odd, it happens almost every day.

Online, there is really little space now between me and the people who read me,  many people have no conception of boundaries. That is a profound change in the lives of public people.  Many celebrities and CEO’s  hire people who answer messages and pretend to be everyone’s pal.

I would find that creepy.

Some of this interaction has been good for me – I have made real friendships online and with readers, I get much support online, but I find myself struggling to define boundaries almost every day.

On the Creative Group at Bedlam Farm, an online creativity-sharing community I started a few years ago, I have found real friends I often talk to and look forward to seeing. But I also meet people who had one idea of me from reading my work and quite another upon meeting me. Some became friends, others fled in horror. They never really wanted to know me, only the idea of me.

In a book, the writer controls every word about himself. In real life, people meet the real thing.

It isn’t always pretty, I am told.

The Internet and social media – e-mail, texts, Facebook and its messaging tentacles – destroyed the natural boundaries that exist around public figures or ordinary people.  People have no compunction about offering advice and criticism, or presuming that being a Facebook friend is the same thing as being a real friend. Friendships can and do grow on social media, but it takes more than a message.

Hollywood stars retreat behind gated palaces and bodyguards, writers who wish to survive interact with the public and their readers all the time. It is often both worthwhile and enjoyable. And I have embraced that new reality, it has, in some ways, saved me. It has also challenged me, as it has many others.

But the boundary thing is constant.  People wish me good morning every morning on Facebook Messenger and tell me how their lives are going, what they have read, about their marital problems, and which political figures have pissed them off. No one ever asks me if I wish to know.

A woman e-mailed me last week to tell me I had made a terrible mistake in removing the shutters on my house, I had published a photo of our shutterlless home. “You will regret it,” she insisted, “put them back up.” As some of you know, this is a lingering issue for me, and instead of ignoring her, which is mostly what I do with messages like that, I responded: We like our house without the shutters, I said, and I don’t recall asking you for your opinion about it. We weren’t taking a vote.

She was, as I expected, offended.

“Well,” she wrote, “if you ask people for subscriptions, you have to expect that they have the right to give you opinions about what you are doing.” Another hot button. I answered back: My subscriptions and voluntary payments are payment for my work. People do not get to buy me, own me, rent me or tell me what to do.  I’ll be happy to send a refund. Offended, she went away, seething no doubt at my reply.

I didn’t even tell her what I was really thinking, that would have been over the line.

When you share your life on a blog, you should, in fact, expect that people will feel like you friend sometimes. And you will get feedback about what you write.  I try to be polite about it. But I also often have to fight for my identity, and for the boundaries around my life. Sharing my life is not the same thing as giving it away. And I’m not even famous, thank God.

I do not accept a world without manners or boundaries. The dimensions of my life and space are up to me.

Online, there is this idea that if you write about yourself you are asking for it, and have no right to complain. I have a different idea. A few days ago, a writer in Wisconsin wrote me to ask that I guide her in finding an agent for a book she wanted to write, at age 45, she had an interesting experience with a dog and was sure it would be a successful book. Would I help her, please, and if I couldn’t help her, would I please write her back soon and tell her why.

I did write her back – I have this fellow writer thing –  and said I could not help her, I did not know her, nor did I buy, sell or edit books.

I suggested she do the same thing I did when I started writing, go to the library, get a list of agents and send them samples of my work. One agent bit after several hundred letters, and she sold my first novel. I could hardly imagine (I didn’t write this) sending a letter like that to an author many miles away, a total stranger, asking him or her to guide me through the process.

E.B. White once wrote in frustration that there was one of him, and “10,000 of you,” a desperate response to the many people sending him letters and waiting impatiently for replies. This was before the Internet. There is one of me and many tens of millions of you. Monday I offended a reader whose best friend lost her border collie. “She loves your work and I am calling to ask you to call her up and cheer up. She’s torn up and would just love hearing from you.”

There is a kind of extortion thing with digital messages. If you don’t reply, and quickly, then you are one of those arrogant assholes. If you do reply, you will have no time to think or write.

I told this woman she was a good friend and I didn’t wish to be rude by not replying (I knew, of course, how this would end), but that I could not offer solace to every person who reads my books or my blog whose dog or cat has died. As it is, I get thousands of messages a year from people describing in horrific detail how their dogs died and how much they suffer from it. I lost some wonderful dogs recently, I cried a bit and mourned a bit, and then went and got more wonderful dogs.

That’s the way I do it, I’m not the person to wall much in grief.

Most of these are good and grounded people, but they have also lost a sense of boundaries. I told this good friend that my writing would have to do, that’s why I write blog posts and books, my ideas are there, I can’t offer private sessions.  I’m grateful her friend likes my work, but that does not mean I have to be responsible for cheering her up.

She was clearly annoyed, replying coldly that what she had asked me was a small thing. To her, perhaps, but not to me. I don’t like disappointing people, but I won’t give large chunks of me away, there would soon be nothing left.

I can’t answer all of the messages for help I get, and should not really be asked to. I tell people every day that I am not a dog trainer or a vet, I cannot tell people via e-mail why their dog is eating carpets or fighting with other dogs or throwing up green stuff. This is a vivid example of the loss of boundary.

Hard to imagine someone calling up E.B. White when their dog or cow died and asking for a private counseling session.

Some weeks ago, a reader of the blog began sending me Facebook messages telling me she had started a blog and demanding that I read it. She didn’t say why, she just insisted that I read it.  I’ve gotten five or six of these messages – the sender is growing increasingly impatient with my lack of response. I am thinking of writing her and telling her that I am busy, and that I wasn’t aware that I was working for her, or that I have no intention of reading her blog.

But responding is often fuel for the fire. Another enemy is made.

In the summer, there are messages daily or weekly from people coming to the Northeast on vacation who want to come to the farm, meet me and or Maria, and meet the animals. Curiously, many of them have dying mothers who are great fans of mine and wish to meet me on what may  be their last  opportunity.

I fell for this once or twice, and met some healthy and vigorous moms who wanted to meet the dogs and pet a donkey, maybe even Maria. Sometimes, we have no choice but to get cynical.

I always try to be polite and explain that we have two Open Houses so people can meet us, but that we have work to do, the farm is a private home, not a public facility or an entertainment park, and the animals can get rattled by strange people. Once I even huffed pompously that we were not Disney World (Duh!)

Maria and I have made some wonderful friends from people who write us and get to know us and eventually come to meet us.

Sometimes, online relationships and messaging clicks.

It isn’t all one thing or another. The lack of boundaries can open up a life as well as threaten it. The challenge, I think, is for people not to assume they are best friends with people they have never met and do not know. We work hard and we do care about privacy, even though we are determined to share our lives. I don’t want to live in a guarded moat, I like people, we learn so much from them.

Maria feels the same way.

Last weekend, I got an alarmed message from a blog reader who was worried if Maria and I were still alive (my mother used to do this if I hadn’t called in a few days), this because I hadn’t posted on Saturday morning. I appreciate the concern, but it can go too far. We should be able to sleep late without causing trauma.

This business of boundaries is complex. Social media is quite new and creates radical change. It devours the very idea of boundaries, the point of it is to demolish boundaries so the company can make more billions of dollars. People who aren’t available can’t be reached by advertisers. They will never leave us alone. Corporatism is a shark-like thing, it has to grow and grow or it dies.

I will never be able to stop defining the boundaries of my life. That is now an elemental part of being a writer or a semi-public person. It will take time and thought. And a lot of messages some people won’t like. The changing world calls out to me to change with it, and I do, soul cries out for dignity and privacy and identity. In some ways, this is the challenge of modern life.

I like the idea of people getting to know us, sending us messages if they wish, sharing some of themselves with us before we take the plunge.  Everyone ought to have the opportunity to decide for themselves if they wish to respond to messages or not. I now get about 1,000 a day.

Inevitably, I will have to leave Facebook one day to keep my self intact.

As a rule, I don’t ever respond to personal messages from people online, not via text, messaging systems or e-mail. This is not friendship, it is something new, something else. That is a boundary. Nor can I answer people who wish me a good morning or good night’s rest or share a cute story about a dog and a squirrel in their local paper.

I do not pay attention to unsolicited advice from strangers – I don’t know who they are –  or feel obliged to respond to every query or request. I don’t have to reply to every message and won’t.

I do not argue my life or decisions with strangers on the Internet. Ever. That is not accountability or good marketing, it is simply insanity.

And I do not accept the testimony or diagnoses of people I don’t know or have never meet. You get what you pay for. If you don’t like my decisions about my shutters, I don’t really need to know about it. My life is not a survey.

I don’t agree to see or meet people I don’t know, just because they have moved into the region or are heading to Vermont or Maine for a vacation. I am not a snob, neither is Maria, and I have no wish to offend people. But I won’t give up my identity either, it has been hard won. People who see me as a close friend because they read my book or blog are mistaken. They are not my close friend.  It takes more than that, on both ends. They will be disappointed.

Interestingly,  there is the sense of community forming around my blog and the people who read it on social media or online. It is, in many ways, a community, one I increasingly cherish and appreciate. And one which has lead to real friendships. But any community requires boundaries, friendship is a rare and complex and rich connection, it can never be taken for granted or assumed.

Identify is sacred to me, and I will always cling to the right to define myself, protect my privacy and my work and my time. That means the setting of boundaries, and that is such a strange thing to many people that they assume they are being rejected and take offense. I suppose that is the price one pays for boundaries, and for identity. Many things that are good are not free.

I love my work in this new realm, and for grateful for every person who reads me. I will continue to work to figure it out, and share the experience with you. If we are going to co-exist in this new kind of community, we will all have to learn about boundaries and respect them, or we will end up devouring one another in pieces, as so many are already beginning to do.

The couple from Ohio wrote back in a huff, as I knew they would, their message sounded as if they were hurt and disappointed.  They just wanted to say hello, they said, and introduced themselves. I thanked them for asking. We were pretty busy, I said, and since I didn’t know them, I would put off meeting them for now.

Perhaps, I said,  we would run into one another one day and get to know one another. Why do I know it will never happen?

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