What we can learn from Prince, Bowie and Beyoncé.
In case you missed it, Kim Kardashian was robbed by five men at her Paris apartment back in October. Kardashian said the robbers tied her up and made off with over $10 million in jewelry. Police later said Kardashian’s social media postings had helped the thieves execute their plan.
The businesswoman and reality TV star has based her career partly on opening her private life to the internet. In the days before she was assaulted in Paris, Kardashian told her followers on Twitter and Instagram?—?who number 132 million in total?—?not only where she was going but what kinds of expensive jewelry she was wearing. That included a photo of a gargantuan diamond ring believed to have been given to her by her husband, Kanye West.
Anyone with a smartphone could have seen that her accessories made for rich pickings. Now, what happened to Kardashian is not a joke. Home invasion and armed robbery are brutal crimes that can traumatize their victims for life. And how she chooses to handle her publicity is her business, not mine.
But what happened to her makes me think about what we give up when we share so much with our friends, and even strangers online.
For people who came of age in the era of social media, it may feel totally normal to publicly share intimate details about yourself. But a lot of people who were already adults when Web 2.0 hit in the early 2000s also share seemingly every aspect of their lives with their followers. Even baby boomers, who’ve come to social media later in life or even after retirement, have little problem opening up online (usually on Facebook, and usually with embarrassing results.)
While some school districts prohibit the photographing of minors without parental consent, many parents post pics of their kids at school and even publish the name and location of the school. Less dangerously, but perhaps more irritatingly, we also tell our followers when we’re depressed, when we’re angry with our partner, what we had for lunch and even when we go to the bathroom.
There are lots of great things about making friends with people all over the world, but you have to wonder: What have we lost?
It’s one very simple thing?—?mystery.
I remember having a crush on an exchange student in high school. Since I had no idea what her schedule was, the best I could hope for was to run into her between classes. In those brief conversations before the next bell rang, I tried to figure out what she was like. What music did she listen to? What did she like to do for fun? In the end, things didn’t work out between us; she left the country a year later, still very much a mystery.
Now, in a few minutes on her Facebook page, I can see that she owns a cat and likes watching animal videos, that she has a fascination with classical history and is a commercial mosaic tile artist (and not a bad one, either). She doesn’t post all that often, certainly less than a lot of people I know. Nevertheless, her life is highly visible to me and hundreds of other people.
In an episode of the animated TV series “Son of Zorn,” which came out this year, a hapless barbarian father named Zorn uses a magic stone to peer into the life of the girl his son has a crush on. He does this as a way of getting closer to his son, but Zorn’s son ends up feeling guilty about his father’s stalking of his crush. I guess the show’s writers didn’t have internet connections; if they did, they’d know that Facebook has made stalkers of us all.
Morality aside, learning too much about someone too soon isn’t necessarily a good thing. When I began my first relationship of the social media era, I insisted that my partner and I not look at each other’s Facebook pages. We weren’t even “friends” for a year. Why? I wanted to discover everything about her by actually talking to her, in real life, not by staring at a computer screen.
Consider the implications of Facebook Live. Launched in April, the technology allows for live video streaming on Facebook from your phone. Media companies, celebrities and normies alike have begun using it in large numbers.
Facebook has been relentlessly pushing its new technology with ad campaigns designed to get users to broadcast their lives to whoever wants to watch. Imagine: 1.7 billion tiny TV stations.
Facebook would do well to learn a lesson from Beyoncé. The former Destiny’s Child star is one celebrity who gets that it isn’t always better to let people know everything about you. As New York Times magazine reporter Jenna Wortham wrote in September, Beyoncé…
“…has never live-streamed a day in her life. She rarely gives interviews, so what we know is scraped from her social-media presence?—?which isn’t much. I can tell you what outfit and hairstyle Beyoncé posted on social media last week, but I couldn’t tell you where in the world she was, what the inside of her house looks like or even which continent her primary residence is on.”
Did you get that? A technology writer for the New York Times can’t figure out what continent Beyoncé’s primary residence is on by looking at Beyoncé’s social media postings.
But has Beyoncé’s careful use of Instagram affected her influence? Hell no. “Lemonade” was the fourth best selling album of the year, for God’s sake.
Other pop stars have gone to great lengths to keep their personal lives private, with the result that their public personas have taken on a magnetic mystique. Prince, for example, rarely gave interviews and lived a reclusive life in his Minnesota mansion, from which whispers emerged now and then that increased his inscrutability. Lou Reed was famously combative with anyone who tried to interview him.
But the king (or queen) of enigma was David Bowie. Throughout his career he was a chameleon, building up characters for public consumption before tearing them down and creating new ones. One year he was a cross-dresser, the next an androgynous alien. Later he’d be a slick businessman with Nazi leanings or just another anonymous member of a rock band.
What can we draw from these examples? As much as your social media presence is a reflection of you, it’s not all of you. It requires a bit of humility to accept this, but just as no one wants to see how the sausage is made, no one wants to see your dirty laundry.
Think of the possibilities! You have the power to project any image of yourself that you choose, and you can change that image to something else on a whim. At the same time you can prevent abuse and invasion of privacy, preserve your dignity, and yeah?—?even cultivate a bit of mystery.