Gawker’s Nick Denton: “Privacy has never really existed”

Posted: February 24th, 2014 under journalism.
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Thought-provoking take in a Playboy interview of Gawker Media’s Nick Denton, one of the most-hated men on the internet. Also, one of the most successful.

His premise may be a little self-serving, in light of his whole net worth being based on prying into people’s lives and then shaming the shit out of them on his web properties. Then again, you might also legitimately say that his web properties are devoted to outing/shaming/calling B.S. on people because that’s the ethos he lives by.

PLAYBOY: You’re more willing than most people to organize your life according to principle and see how the experiment turns out.

Nick Denton, displaying some of the “let it all hang out” spirit.
Photo credit: Village Voice Blogs

DENTON: You could argue that privacy has never really existed. Usually people’s friends or others in the village had a pretty good idea what was going on. You could look at this as the resurrection of or a return to the essential nature of human existence: We were surrounded by obvious scandal throughout most of human existence, when everybody knew everything. Then there was a brief period when people moved to the cities and social connections were frayed, and there was a brief period of sufficient anonymity to allow for transgressive behavior no one ever found out about. That brief era is now coming to an end.

PLAYBOY: That doesn’t jibe with your other theory about how we’ll judge one another more kindly when we have no privacy. Human history is not a history of tolerance for deviation from the norm.

DENTON: You don’t think there was a kind of peasant realism? You hear these stories about a small town, seemingly conservative, and actually there’s a surprising amount of tolerance. “So-and-so’s a good guy. Who cares if he’s a pig fucker? His wife brought a really lovely pie over when Mama was sick.”

I grew up in Small Town America in the 1970s. Tucked back into a musty corner of the Upper Midwest, rural Wisconsin pretty much ran along the lines that Denton is describing. You can’t live with a family for generations without pretty much knowing all about their business.

You’d know without asking what their opinion was on pretty much any matter of import without having to ask, because their opinions were shaped by their grandparents, their parents, their siblings, and their life experiences.

As were yours.

The idea that we are free to become who we say we are, to invent ourselves – that is a curiously American concept, and one that functions only in fairly large urban environments. Even there, if you become suitably prominent, all the locals will pretty much be all up in your bidness, as the Southerners say.

So in that light: does social media represent a phase in human evolution wherein we all voluntarily put ourselves back into that small-town pressure cooker, where everybody knows all they need to know about us all at a glance? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? Can we even stop it at this juncture – and if we did, would we really want to?

Because there is this thing about small towns: after a certain amount of time, it becomes next to impossible to really pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.

It’s like my career with the paparazzi taught me. Somebody talks.

Somebody ALWAYS talks.

In our modern media landscape, so littered with charlatans who take advantage of ignorance and misinformation to skin the rubes, maybe this kind of brutal enforced honesty is not the worst thing after all.

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