When I was little, one of my parents’ friends climbed Everest. I remember sitting with a small crowd in somebody’s dark living room, watching a slide-show of his photos. There were clunky transitions, problems with focus, lengthy stories that accompanied each shot. Then, after an hour or two, that was it. The slides were put back in a box, where they stayed, unless someone asked to see them.
That was how social media used to work. Now, the living room is a cinema with enough seats for the entire population, and once you put the slides up, they stay on the screen forever.
It would be easy to point to all the things wrong with our new model of oversharing. There are legitimate concerns for the mental health of people who project their entire life for others to watch. You’ll find plenty of diatribes online about why we ought not to be chasing online affirmation, or scare-mongering about what bots are doing with what we’re sharing, and how quickly our freedoms are disappearing. But I don’t want to talk about those things. I have an Instagram account for my cat. I’m no better than anyone.
I want to talk about something that’s easily lost in the argy-bargy for online attention: the enjoyment of privacy. Not its moral value, or its security. The fun of privacy; the delight of it.
The first thing privacy does is free you from attachment to a particular identity. When no one is watching, you don’t have to worry that everything you do will alter the impression people have of you. You’re a reflective, intelligent academic? In private, you can be a belligerent slob, and still preserve that public identity. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but we’ve become a society obsessed with individuated identity, and it’s easy to forget that acting “out of character” is an essential part of being a healthy, learning, adaptive human. In private, you can stop self-regulating for a minute, and see what comes out naturally.
Publicly, I’d say I’m a pretty calm, empathetic sort of person. I don’t lose my temper. But a few times, in private, I’ve experimented with anger. I truly terrified my cat with a rage roar that came from goodness knows where. Perhaps that sounds unpleasant, but the truth is it was fun. Some people might find themselves flailing along to The Spice Girls, but my version of it was screaming bloody murder. Either way, the fun part, the relief of it, is dependent on the fact that nobody is watching (except the cat).
With this freedom comes the space to make mistakes. It’s become the norm for public figures, or interviewees, to have their whole pasts scoured for slip-ups, and it’s making us extra afraid of putting a foot wrong in the present. We all know that making mistakes is important for learning, but it’s also crucial for experiencing the comedy in life. Here’s a suggestion: If there’s not enough laughter in your day-to-day, it may well be because you’re not giving yourself the breathing room to be the clown you are. I’m not suggesting you act out some slapstick routine. Simply spend some time by yourself, with no screen, and you’ll soon find yourself squealing at the sight of your own shoe lace, or accidentally microwaving your hairbrush, and suddenly, life will seem lighter. Yes, it might make a good tweet, and you might be tempted to share it, but don’t. That chuckle it gave you is just yours, and would get thinned out by sharing.
Finally, privacy gives you the protected space in which you can stop being a grown up. The more the seriousness of the outside world encroaches on your private space, the harder it is to remember that at our core, we humans aren’t sensible, severe beings. We’re playful. We have the capacity to enjoy things that are totally unproductive. We are nourished by immersion, imagination, and unregulated creativity. Forget being the person who makes videos of themselves building complex domino lines to post on youtube, because they’re really an adult hoping to elevate their public approval rating. Try being the person who’s spent the last two hours sprawled on the living room floor, surrounded by decimated magazines, making a giant collage, just because.
It’s crazy how many of us have forgotten that play is fun. But we have, and this is why: put any kind of play in the public arena, and it earns you something, whether that’s money, renown, or even ridicule. But the moment play earns you anything, it is no longer play. The only sure way to protect it as play, with all its lightness and fun, is to do it away from prying eyes.
There’s a question that’s often printed under a stock photo of a mountain top, and pinned to the wall above the office printer: What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? My version of it: What would you do if you knew you couldn’t show anyone?
Answer that question, and, more often than not, you’ll be heading in the direction of joy.