Recently I fell down the well of Downton Abbey, and am only just emerging, clutching my hat and pearls and breathless with delight at the great good fun of it all. What cutting remark will the razor-tongued heart-of-gold Dowager Countess issue next? Will the scheming Mrs. Bates ever be vanquished? Will Lady Mary ever find true happiness, and will O’Brien ever find her comeuppance? These are the questions that have obsessed me recently, in this telenovela for the teacups-and-corsets set.
What I want to know is, how do they do it? How do the upstairs folk manage to live with this little army of servants constantly trooping about, tidying their linens and sharing their space, buttoning their cufflinks, fastening their jewels, overhearing their confidences? All I have to go on is my own life and my own tortured relationship with domestic help. Whenever we have hired housecleaners, I have found it impossible to interact normally with them. These are people IN MY HOUSE. I know I hired them; I know they are perfectly nice, friendly people. I still can’t help it. THEY ARE IN MY HOUSE. It’s an introvert’s nightmare: my most private space, overrun and invaded by people I don’t at all know, people who are TOUCHING MY THINGS. It’s an agony. If I return home and the housecleaners are for some reason still there, I have been known to sit in my car in the driveway until they were done so I would not have to witness it. That way, see, my house is clean, and I can continue to fantasize that it was all done by invisible moon fairies. I don’t have to suffer any convulsions of shame at seeing someone else do what I secretly feel I ought to be doing. When it comes to domestic help, I have no idea how they did it, all those Edwardian grandees—share their house, their space, their lives with other people so freely and graciously. The thought of it gives me the cold willies.
We have evolved expectations of privacy that our ancestors never had, in our sex lives, our reproductive lives, our social lives, our medical lives, our religious lives. We live behind hedges of protection now, and that’s a good thing: I don’t personally know anyone who yearns for the days when birth control was illegal, homosexuality was a punishable offense, and the divorced were social pariahs (okay, probably the Santorums yearn for those days, but I don’t personally know them.) But our expectation of constant unquestioned privacy affects how we navigate public spaces, too. We’re talking about a society that gets nervous if people stand too close in the elevator, and I’m the worst offender: I practically need Xanax if someone bumps into me in line at the Starbucks. I like the fro-yo place where I can fill my trough in solitary glory at the dispenser, and I make a bee-line for the self-checkout line at the Kroger. Don’t touch my groceries! Hands off my pistachio-pumpkin-gummi-worm yogurt! LIVE FREE OR DIE!
The strangest manifestation of our privacy obsession, to me, is online. Many people think of being online as an extension of their house space, and they expect the same rules of privacy to apply. (I’m thinking here of the occasional dumb-ass politician who decides the Internet is the right place to air homophobia, racism, or pictures of their whatnots.) There is no such thing as a private e-mail, a personal status update, an opinion you share with just a few “friends.” Isn’t that right, stupid douchebag who circulated the picture of the White House surrounded by watermelons, or hapless high school kid who tweeted her distaste for the Governor of Kansas? Online space does not equal personal space, under any circumstances—just ask former Rep. Anthony Weiner. Better yet, ask his wife.
So this is why I’m sad that in the wake of Facebook’s recent IPO, I’ve seen some friends declare their intention to leave Facebook altogether. Some are throwing up their hands, packing their bags, declaring it’s now just all about data-mining. And maybe they’re right, I don’t know. But I can’t help but feel that this reaction fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of one of our last truly public spaces. The Internet has given us another chance at rewriting those public/private boundaries. It’s given us an opportunity to rediscover the joys of the public space—a chance once again to sit in a busy village square and watch the comings and goings of our neighbors, to listen to snatches of their conversation, to witness their daily passions and opinions and foolishness, and to air some of our own. It’s a chance to collapse time and distance, to reimagine everything we think we know about being human. Facebook and social media are not some nice add-on to our lives; they are the very reinvention of human society.
Yes, blogs like this one are great. But this is basically a house, and you have to detour out of your way to walk into it. I can’t retreat into my house and demand that everyone I know come follow me here. It’s not a place of conversation; it’s a place of monologue, where I pontificate, and you tell me how clever you find me (for which please see the comment button below.) I love blogging, but it’s not a place of interaction.
I live in a part of the country where we know what it is to lose our public spaces. Public transportation, public swimming pools, public tennis courts, public golf courses, public schools—all of these suffered in the wake of integration in the Southern U.S., when whites, appalled at having to share these spaces with blacks, retreated to the private spaces they alone could afford. As blacks began to use the buses, parks, and schools that had been closed to them, whites created their own white-only enclaves in the ‘burbs. And of course, once those public spaces became “black” spaces, white politicians choked off the funding. A white person on a city bus? That’s a joke, where I live. Literally a joke: MARTA, the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, is said to stand for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta. White people don’t ride the buses because they’re gross, I was taught, and I was too young to know that was exactly backward: the buses are gross because white people don’t ride them. You think your local public high school looks like a shithole? You’re probably not wrong. Why don’t you take a tour of the closest white-majority private school? Now close your eyes and imagine that money, manpower, and commitment poured back into public sector education. Yeah, we call that Finland.
The point is, when public spaces are vacated, everybody loses. The Internet has given us a chance to reverse course here, to halt the retreat behind our hedgerows, to inch back into the village square. Will this inevitably mean the corporatization of that square? Absolutely. Every village square has pickpockets, thieves, and riffraff. Ignore them because what we are building in social media is something worthwhile. Ignore them because human community has value that exceeds, even, the value of privacy.
Stop hand-flapping about your right to privacy in the village square. Stop retreating when challenges to community arise. You want privacy, then go into your goddamn house and shut the door. But if you want to spend just a little time each day in the public forum of the world, if you actually give a shit about a chance to re-create the community we have been eroding for fifty years, then come on over to Facebook and friend me. Cut the world a little slack; rub some elbows with your corner of the globe for a while. Only you better not disagree with anything I’ve said here because I will defriend you so fast LOL #jk.
Let’s not give up on online community just yet. Let us erase social, economic, and racial boundaries in the name of digital liberation! Only don’t be defeatist, as Lady Grantham is always reminding us: it’s very middle class.