I can’t stop thinking about this New Yorker article I read last week, “Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy,” by Joshua Rothman. To be clear—and I write this feeling incredibly sheepish—I have not read much Virginia Woolf. In particular, I’ve not read Mrs. Dalloway, which Rothman focuses on specifically in this article.
But thinking about privacy, and what that means today when there’s a constant opportunity to share, and over-share on the Interwebs, fascinates me. This is a rather long excerpt, but it’s important regarding how Woolf’s sense of privacy could remain relevant today in the world of Facebook (all emphasis is mine):
Woolf’s abstract, inner sense of privacy bears the stamp, of course, of a very particular time and place (not to mention Woolf’s very particular biography—she had an unusually rich hidden life). It’s indebted to feminism, and to the realization that men, but not women, have long been granted a right to solitude. It also flows from the particularly modernist idea that there is a coherent, hidden, inner self from which art springs. Today, we may be more likely to see art as a collaborative process—the product of a scene, rather than a person. We are also, I suspect, especially aware of how much we rely upon on social networks to help us know ourselves. In recent years, philosophers have argued that other people may know us better than we do.Now, while I haven’t read Mrs. Dalloway (how did I get that English degree? I forget), I did read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., last summer. I don’t know about Clarissa, but Nate was mostly just an asshole. I look forward to reading and seeing how Clarissa relates to his character.
To me, though, Woolf’s sense of privacy still feels relevant; when I keep it in mind, I see it everywhere. Adelle Waldman’s novel “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” is, among many other things, a gender-reversed retelling of the love story at the center of “Mrs. Dalloway”: like Clarissa, Nate chooses the lover who can’t know him over the lover who’s determined to. (He does this, in part, so that he can continue to surprise himself—that is, continue to create.) Meanwhile, on Tumblr and Facebook, we seek out the same private sociality that Woolf described. Usually, we think of social media as a forum for exhibitionism. But, inevitably, the extroverted cataloguing of everyday minutiae—meals, workouts, thoughts about politics, books, and music—reaches its own limits; it ends up emphasizing what can’t be shared. Talking so freely about your life helps you to know the weight of those feelings which are too vague, or too spiritual, to express—left unspoken and unexplored, they throw your own private existence into relief. “Sharing” is, in fact, the opposite of what we do: like one of Woolf’s hostesses, we rehearse a limited openness so that we can feel the solidity of our own private selves.
Do I rely on my social network to know myself? What do other people know about me—or more accurately, think they know about me, based on my social network persona? Recently I met up with my friend Beth as she was finishing up a work happy hour. She introduced me to one of her colleagues, who gave me a knowing look and said, “Oh, you’re ‘alisoncomposes,’” as if we’d met before.
What does that even mean? Who is "alisoncomposes"?
I think about, with some degree of nervousness, how much a complete stranger could learn about me from a quick glimpse at my Twitter feed. If Stranger on the Internet looked at tweets from the last two weeks, for instance, he or she would learn: I’m a Planned Parenthood supporter; my mother is dead, and her birthday was last Tuesday; I’m a John Legend fan; and that I may or may not have have watched ‘Coming to America” recently. Among other things.
That’s a lot! And it’s also nothing at all! Because:
But, inevitably, the extroverted cataloguing of everyday minutiae—meals, workouts, thoughts about politics, books, and music—reaches its own limits; it ends up emphasizing what can’t be shared. Talking so freely about your life helps you to know the weight of those feelings which are too vague, or too spiritual, to express—left unspoken and unexplored, they throw your own private existence into relief.
With all that sharing, there was still much left inside, and off my Twitter feed. With the “limited openness” of sharing these moments online, it did exactly what Rothman writes about: “emphasizing what can’t be shared.” I’m not sure if my “private existence” was thrown into relief by tweeting, “My mom would have turned 63 today, so I'm celebrating her life while I work the only way I can: blasting Fleetwood Mac in my earbuds.”
Those 140 characters shared a lot, all at once. But certainly, there was much, much left unsaid with those 140 characters, and those are complicated feelings I hold on to tight, unable — and frankly, unwilling— to share with anyone, especially the Internet.
Because, well, it’s private.
There’s so much more to this article than I just gibbered about. Read it now, will you?