When I was in Catholic school, the nuns used to say that we should be good in every moment because God was always watching. It freaked me out a little, this Big Brother deity. I spent way too much time I should have been playing with my Barbies wondering instead about the logistics of this godly surveillance. Was everything I did and thought recorded, as if by an omniscient paparazzo? It led me down rabbit holes, like wondering if God had a record of exactly how many times I’d sneezed in my life. There was an absolute truth (number of sneezes) and, somewhere, someone – God – could know it.
I strayed away from the nuns and their omniscient god, eventually, and tested the limits of what I could do when no one was watching. Then, I grew up and learned that, for the most part, it’s not bad to live as if someone is watching all the time. Which is a good thing, because then social media came.
I was reminded of the omniscience of social media when, after the Newtown massacre, a post called “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” kept popping up in my Facebook feed. First one friend, then another and another, began to post the harrowing essay of a mother who fears her son could one day act with the inexplicable violence that ended so many lives in the sleepy Connecticut town.
As someone who rarely posts pictures of her children on Facebook, my first thought was for the author’s 13-year-old son. I keep my children off Facebook, to the contrary of most of my mommy friends, because the social media giant has privacy holes like a junkie has track marks. I wondered about the writer’s son: would any of his friends see his mother’s post comparing him to a mass murderer? Would his teachers? Although she used a fake name for him, she used her real one and his real age, as well as a picture of him in younger days. How many 13-year-old sons does she have? At the very least, it wouldn’t take long for the people in their lives to do the grim math.
Then her post went viral, exposing what sounds like a troubled young boy not just to his mother’s readers’ judgment, but to the world’s. A companion piece, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Psychiatrist,” showed up on my feed. Then, another post, “Want the Truth Behind “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother? Read Her Blog,” popped up, exposing more about the young boy’s life and about his mother, giving me Real Housewives’-level gossip about the parents’ rancorous divorce and the kid in question.
I was left to think, again, about the issues of privacy and expression, of commenting and keeping one’s own counsel. As a writer, I often draw on my own life for inspiration. I even once kept a blog chronicling every first date I had, and grappled with what parts of the story were mine to tell and which too private to share. (I too, changed first names to protect the innocent. And the guilty). I have kept my children out of my writing for the most part, except for a few feel-good pieces about something cute or remarkable they’ve said or done (I’ve been lucky that my kids have mostly only done cute and remarkable things, so there is not much to keep from writing). I have not posted their pictures or their milestones because I believe they should control how their life story is splashed on the internet when they are old enough to make those decisions. I was appalled by “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” not because a mother could have the unthinkable thought that her son might be a mass murderer in the making, but because she could so carelessly expose him to the kind of ridicule and ostracism that might just trigger such actions in an unstable enough mind.
For purposes of this essay, I put aside the question of whether there is a higher power recording all our deeds. But I often note that the “someone is always watching” world the nuns talked about really does exist today, right here on Earth. We’re watched not by a benevolent spirit looking to guide us to eternal bliss but by a massive recording mechanism without sentiment or context, simply grabbing pieces of our lives on surveillance cameras and websites, to be possibly pieced together later in ways we can’t foresee or control. It is wonderful and terrifying and democratizing and intrusive. Whatever our thoughts on it, it’s real and it’s happening.
The best we can do is live as if someone is always watching and be sure to live lives that honor our loved ones, uphold our values and represent us well.