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War on Privacy

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-09-22


The relative failure of the documentary American Teen at the box office (less than $920,000 after eight weeks) surprised a lot of Hollywood experts. The Sundance hit was primed by its studio, Paramount, for a healthy run, and the film debuted during the heavy blockbuster months of summer, a classic example of studio counter-programming. But the large audience never materialized. Despite an intensive marketing campaign, which included a canny reboot of the iconic Breakfast Club poster, and generally positive reviews, the film didn't break out. The near-million dollar take for a documentary is no disgrace, but the studio clearly anticipated that film would reach beyond its niche audience and into the mainstream.

With apologies to the director, Nanette Burstein, to independent filmmaking, to arthouses (like Cinema Center) everywhere, and to Warsaw, Indiana, the hometown of the teens in the movie, I must say that the failure of American Teen is the best cultural news I've heard all summer. It is the first tiny sign that maybe America is just a little tired of the soul-baring that has been entrenched in popular culture for decades now, and that maybe people might think again about the importance of privacy. It is an unfortunate by-product of the Internet Age that people have willingly abdicated almost all sense of reserve and decorum when it comes to dispensing personal information. I hate to crack on teenagers, but the subjects in American Teen gave up such insane amounts or private, personal moments to the camera that you have to question their common sense. Unfortunately, though, it's not just teenagers who seem to have lost their minds about personal privacy. It's become universal.

For a few years now college graduates have been advised by business and hiring experts not to divulge too much personal information on their MySpace and FaceBook pages--telling the graduates that this easily obtainable information could negatively affect their desirability as potential employees. My step-daughter recently graduated from college, and I advised her, too, about appropriate Internet protocol with regards to her private life. Don't post sketchy material, I told her, and not because it won't help you get a job. Don't do it because it's creepy. People who will spill intimate details of their lives at the drop of a hat are inherently untrustworthy and a little spooky. And more importantly, it breaks what I think should be one of the individual's basic contracts with the rest of society namely, the simple respect to not gross out another person unnecessarily.

I know I seem hopelessly provincial here on the Internet, the most popular Blogs are usually the most personal ones yet I still believe there's a chance we can stuff that genie back in the bottle. Like a lot of people I've made the choice to post something revealing online, in the hope that my personal experience would illuminate a condition and resonate with some unidentified member of the Blogosphere. What I didn't recognize at the time (and have since learned) is that there is a big difference between sharing something important and pulling your pants down in public. A few days perspective gave me the chance to revisit my material, and I was horrified to discover how bad my judgment was in letting my blog stand online. I removed it at once. Online communication lends itself to impersonality, and the lack of face-to-face interaction loosened my usually strict standards of privacy and allowed me to feel free in stating things I should have kept close to the vest.

But this phenomenon is not linked exclusively to the Internet. I have loyal, dear friends who have unburdened themselves to me in deep and serious conversations, and I cherish that intimacy, but I've also had bare acquaintances announce to a room full of relative strangers their latest sexual conquests and misadventures. I'm pretty squeamish anyway, but the forthright manner in which this knowledge is deployed has intimidated me so much that I rarely go beyond the weather in public conversations. Jerry Seinfeld, never my favorite, still is a personal hero of mine for a response he had to a reporter who wouldn't stop prying into his private world. "I'm not even interested in my sex life," he told the reporter. "Why should you be?" Why indeed. I'm almost blushing when I write this, but I recall a conversation I had with a young woman, recently met, who ticked off a series of sexual achievements more befitting an aged brothel worker in Reno. I almost hid under the table.

It seems to be one of the great contradictions of our time, when one of the greatest sins lobbed at the Bush Administration was it's unconstitutional spying of the American people, and yet many people reveal so much more, unasked, in their various profiles on the Internet. You have to wonder how much money the government could have saved in surveillance fees by just signing up for FaceBook.

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