After reading Steven Johnson’s wonderful essay on publicness, Mark Dery came to the conclusion that I should not talk about my cancer and my penis. He says I and so-called oversharers like me have a “disease of the psyche.” He says we are “redrawing the boundaries of publicly acceptable behavior.” That is to say, he doesn’t deem it acceptable.
But in this, Dery reveals far more about himself than I reveal about me. All you know about me is that my penis doesn’t work well. What we know about Dery is that he’s prudish, disapproving, controlling, Victorian, media-obsessed, retrograde, predictable, snippy, snarky, and self-righteous with some apparent penis and anus problems he should be discussing with his shrink.What’s it to him if I talk about my cancer? He may object because he is offended (though he makes more ass jokes than I do) or doesn’t like me (which he long ago established) or wants attention (damn, and here I am giving it to him) or because he mistakenly thinks this web thing is a medium he wants edited to his liking and now I’ve schmutzed it (he hates it when I call the web a conversation but that’s what it is; would he also edit the talk at a Dunkin’ Donuts?). Whatever. I really don’t give a damn what he thinks of me.
I bring up Dery because I think that when we hear such disapproval of our publicness, we need to turn it around and look at what it says about the critic, not the criticized. I’ve just been writing that section of my book, arguing that when gays had to hide in the closet because their behavior was deemed unacceptable, that was a commentary not on their lives but on society. The solution was to come out in public and dare the bigots and prudes to continue their disapproval. The bigots’ behavior is what is becoming unacceptable.
This is what I said to Julia Allison when she tried to interview me but instead, I interviewed her on the topic of publicness during Internet Week. Julia is quite the public figure and she draws an army of snarkers far cruder than Dery. “I have a very active group of detractors on the web who like to seize on everything I do — everything — and criticize it,” she said.
She is torn. On the one hand, she began our conversation identifying herself as “a professional sharer — not oversharer.” On the other hand, I asked whether she feels burned — “yes, yes I do” — and trapped — “yes, absolutely, I do feel trapped by this…. I’ve lost jobs because of it. I’ve lost relationships because of it.” Why do they do this to her? She’s self-aware enough to respond: “Oh, I’ve got a little bit of an ego.” So why not join a nunnery? “I continually play around with that,” she said — continuing with little apparent irony, “I went to an ashram last month and went completely off the web.” But she returned. It’s a living. “I can pay my rent because of sharing on the internet,” she said.
Then why not ignore her detractors? I know I’m being a bit glib asking this, as I’m a man and not the subject of the kind of attack she’s under. Still, I said that she and I have at least one detractor in common and I told her I don’t listen to him and only see his bile in the occasional Twitter search and when I do, I say, “fuck him.” At the end of our talk, she came around to agree at least that much: “But then at a certain point you do say fuck it.”
Dery should be concerned that Allison is more insightful on this topic than he is. The two of them agree in some ways. He thinks there should be standards (which he sets). She thinks we need more decorum and protection from bullying. But she understands the internet better than he does. She understands that it is, whether he likes it or not, a conversation. When friends talk about their lives they don’t accuse each other of oversharing. But online, strangers think they should. Oversharing, she said, is “a distinctively pejorative term.”
When I talked about my cancer, Facebook hater Jason Calacanis — then still on Facebook — left a comment saying only: “Overshare.” I responded that he was the one who had just overshared. Did he need to say that? Why? What was he trying to prove? What did he add — what information, ideas, challenges, experience, support, value? He and Dery — like Steve Jobs — would simply like to tell us what not to say on the internet. Well, they’re the ones with the problem.
The problem is that they see the internet in their own image as a medium they want to edit, package, and control. “This is partly about the media-age article of faith that nothing is really real unless it’s recorded and, increasingly, shared,” Dery wrote. Later he said, “Thus, we’re increasingly comfortable with the disappearance of privacy and the prying media eye… we only feel that we truly exist when we see ourselves reflected in the media eye, because that’s where the real reality is…” He said my talking about my cancer has “everything to do with our media-age fixation of fame.”
Oh, yes, I want to be famous for my limp and leaky dick.
The irony is that Dery accuses me of making media when I am merely living. Dery can’t recognize real life when he sees it; he’s the one who measures the world in media terms. He says this is a case of the “real and virtual” colliding as if you were virtual and media were real. You are what’s real.
When I tell my friends online about my cancer — and receive no end of valuable advice and information from my wise crowd, which I would not have received had I not — Dery thinks that “says more about the blogorrheic, tweet-expulsive times we live in, when so many of us feel the need to broadcast our every thought, at every minute, to everyone than it does about the civic virtues of making our private lives public.” Note his verb: “broadcast.” He thinks the web is a TV station rather than a means for people — real people — to connect with each other.
“Is the desire,” he continues and continues, “to broadcast the most mortifying details not only of our private lives but of our private parts really about the desire to Feel the Love on an epic scale? If so, isn’t it selfish, rather than selfless?” Note the judgment: “mortifying.” In his judgment, cancer and penises are embarrassing. He said that “exhibitionism is a form of social dominance.” How, because he doesn’t want to see the word penis? No, it’s that sort of imposed prurience that is a form of social dominance. As I said, that’s his problem. If we continue to think — like little boys growing up in a Puritanical world — that penises are embarrassing, then as men they will continue to not get checked and more will die. Then it’s society’s problem.
Dery argues that we reverse “the polarities of public and private here” and: “More and more, we’re alone in public, oblivious to the world around us.” No, I’m merely oblivious to his disapproval. Had I not talked aloud, I would have been much more alone.
A few paragraphs later, he contradicts himself asking: “What unconsidered intellectual, spiritual and psychological collateral damage are we inflicting on ourselves by being so outward-focused, so frenetically interactive, so terminally social that we get a death letter and ‘the instinctive response is, I’d better tweet this up right away.’” Ah, so he does see that we are being social.
Dery at least acknowledges that this trend train is moving with or without him. “[W]e’re increasingly comfortable with the disappearance of privacy and the prying media.” Almost, Mark. We’re increasingly comfortable with the disappearance of privacy and the connections with people that allows.
This isn’t media, Mark. This is life. Whether you like it or not, life, unlike media, is messy. That’s what makes it real.
Before I end, I should note that we learn one more thing about Dery from this essay, like so many of his others: If I am guilty of oversharing, he is guilty of overwriting (“The contention that civic duty demands we narrate the Director’s Cut version of a Fantastic Voyage up our anal canals is the point where rectum meets reductio ad absurdum“) — not to mention criminal use of clichés (“We’re all Norma Desmond, ready for our close-up”).
Hate to tell you this, Mark, but I have another operation coming up this summer that I’ll mention here later. You won’t like that. But the solution is not to tell me what not to talk about. The solution is for you not to read me. Anyway, I’m not talking to you. I’m talking with my friends.
: LATER: Note interesting comments not only here but under Dery’s piece. Sadly, Dery doesn’t engage in the ideas there but only finds more excuses for overwritten insults. But his readers have of value much to say.