We are social creatures. But we love our privacy, too. One of the reasons I love a good piece of fiction is that it often allows me into the minds of others in a very human way—often revealing personal struggles and deeply embedded worldviews in ways I might not have experienced. As such, I find that literature is an amazing way to come to understand the people and world around me.
But, I’m talking about fiction. And though an author’s narrative derives from personal experience, it’s couched in a story. Sometimes fiction mirrors reality so closely, real people are affected—I refer you to Thomas Mann’s roman à clef Buddenbrooks, which was so close to the people in his hometown, an entire family was scandalized.
Last week, a different kind of unfettered view into the mind of another human appeared on the Internet. And it’s not easy to grapple with.
Martin Manley was a fairly well-known former sportswriter and statistician for the Kansas City Star. And on Thursday, his 60th birthday, he committed suicide. And on that very same day, this website appeared. (Yahoo has taken down the site, but Anonymous has posted a mirrored site here.)
An unprecedented website, it’s filled with 12 webpages about his suicide and 34 additional webpages, with 44 subcategories, about his life. He includes thoughts about his first two loves, his parents, his health, interests, “cool stuff,” his IQ and much more.
In fact, so much time and thought went into this (apparently 14 months), it would be a project just to get through it all. It is filled with an incredible amount of his personal information, including a timeline of photos of himself, family and friends.
It’s a disconcertingly intimate portrait of his life and death.
As I perused some of the pages of the site, I felt like I was trespassing. In sharing his life, he shared parts of the lives of his family and friends. And I assume that’s why so much of the site has been disabled.
His decision to disclose his life went beyond his own privacy. It affected the privacy of others.
Of course, this is what many people do on Facebook and Twitter every day, whether through posting embarrassing old family photographs of siblings on "Throwback Thursday" or changing a relationship status from "In a Relationship" to "It's Complicated." Manley has simply taken this to the most extreme possible lengths.
In June, we had a number of digital artists present their views of data and introduced many of us to new ways of thinking about privacy. Lauren McCarthy is a resident artist and Eyebeam adjunct faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design and New York University. She presented an alluring and, often, humorous exploration of the many ways we use data to construct portraits of ourselves.
“Our personal data is deeply related to our identity,” she said. “It reveals insights into our lives and personalities, but it also shapes us. The systems and structures we build and use for gathering, storing and interacting with our data define the way we think about ourselves. The models of ourselves that we create with this data determine the actions that we take.”
Check out some of her tools to improve social interaction here (much more uplifting stuff):
As we grapple with public policy, business and personal decisions about what privacy means and how it’s defined, it’s clearly important to remember how interconnected we all are and how releasing personal information about ourselves can have a strong effect on others.
I think Lauren described this fickle interconnection best in her presentation:
“Opening your private life to the crowd, to machines, to the public can be freeing. It can deepen your connections and expand your understanding of yourself, but I think it’s also important to remember that sharing your personal life does not involve just you, it affects others. You’re a product of your relationships and interactions with others. And in giving up your own privacy, you’re giving up someone else’s privacy, too. When you put something private out in public, you no longer have full control over it, others will encounter it and have to deal with it, whether they decided to or agreed to or not. And you’re breaking down this line between yourself and others—which can be great—but it affects everyone else involved, for better or worse.”
I’m still unsure about how I feel about Manley’s suicide manifesto. At the same time, it’s morbid and disturbing, but impossible to ignore. It is an amazingly unusual look into the mind of another, but at what cost to even the strangers who’ve come across his website? When someone is so willing to share so much, does this change our understanding of what privacy means?
Update, Monday, August 19: Since writing this last Friday, Yahoo has taken down the website, claiming it violates their terms of service, but Manley's sister is trying to get Yahoo to put the site back up. She told Slate's Will Oremus:
"I am very saddened that Yahoo would dishonor my brother's contract that he made with them. I learned from my brother posthumously that he had worked on this website for over a year. Martin had been a very private person in many ways. It was incredibly important to him that all who cared for him be able to see who he really was. I speak for all of his friends and family, when I say that we want to be able to have access to this site.
A cursory read will tell the reader that Martin was not advocating suicide for others. There is nothing offensive about his site. While it is painful for me, I believe that he handled the topic very appropriately. Since Martin did have a pre-paid contract with Yahoo for the next five years, I am pleading with Yahoo to either republish the site, or allow the family to have the files so that we can find another way to carry out Martin's wishes."
Does this update undermine my thoughts above? I don't think it does. We all have different notions of what privacy means, and what we choose to disclose will often weigh, for better or worse, on those around us.