I'm having a "how much information is too much information" dilemma.
I work as a newspaper reporter, and I've had aspirations of working as a reporter for even longer, so I've been thinking about information sharing for a long time, and basically have arrived at the conclusion that privacy is not only way overrated but harmful, at least in present quantities. I do not believe in a right to privacy, although I am more open minded about curtailing the government's monitoring abilities.
The essence of my job, as I see and as I at times have practiced it, is to take proprietary information public. This happens to achieve the betterment of society, although I do not consider this when deciding whether to chase a story. Sometimes information is proprietary because someone has gone to the trouble of marking it secret, sometimes it is fragmented into so many pieces it becomes proprietary, sometimes it is not officially secret but made hard to get by obstruction (bureaucracy) and evasion and social pressure.
When it comes to getting this information, it matters little to me whether it falls in what is commonly thought of as public or private life, only whether it is of sufficient interest to myself or others.
I am determined to be as open in sharing my own information as I would have others be with theirs, but something stands in the way, I'm not sure if it is fear, conformity, or appropriate restraint.
For example, last week I was having lunch with a CEO I have begun to interview regularly, who wrote a book on management I had little hope for (it opens with a quote from Fast Company) but came to enjoy thoroughly . I had prepared a great number of questions to ask him, but was caught off guard by his questions of me. I know how to give easy, superficial answers for the people who ask "How ya doin'?" and don't mean it, but I sensed he was looking for more genuine answers, and honesty, openness and compassion are major themes in his book and business life.
So to the question, "what is your family like" and "what was it like to see your family in Houston," in reference to a weeklong trip to Houston, I chipped in answers that were more honest than usual. I mentioned that, of my mom and her three sisters, two have been through divorces, the other a separation followed by her husband's death, the other happily single, and how that made for a colorful holiday. I also mentioned some of my extended family's peculiarities, including one or two of the dysfunctions (I refuse to name any of them), and the fact that many of us seem to be drawn to professions that at least lurch into periods of intense maniacal stress (ER nurse, clinical social worker, reporter--although now that I'm on a weekly deadline things are way less maniacal).
I think the CEO appreciated my honesty, but I don't know if I went too far. He didn't open up as much about his family, but I don't take that as a bad sign, as he has more to lose as the subject rather than the writer. Yet I wonder if I gave Too Much Information.
Opening up is a challenge for me to begin with, as I was often a rather shy child, or at least felt that way, and tend to be reserved and introverted. Over time I have learned to worry a lot less, to lose shame and gain confidence and humor. This has only accelerated in the past year. But when you're pushing yourself to open up, and going outside your comfort zone, and taking risks, it is quite easy to go too far. This goes for anything you are learning. You are simply going to make mistakes -- such is the process of learning. But boy would I like to avoid as many of those as possible! :--)
Then there is this weblog. Boy is it scary to post personal thoughts online. My guard is way down. Where are my editors? Where is my detached objective tone? Where are my multiply sourced facts? Not only can people call my writing stupid, they can now call it pointless to boot, and half the time I don't think I can mount much of a defense!
But there are concerns beyond that. By posting some of my more private thoughts online, I risk alienating sources and opening myself up to PR attacks.
A few months back, I emailed iconoclastic weblog pioneer and software entrepreneur Dave Winer, a onetime source and longtime inspiration, several paragraphs of frank thoughts on a couple of companies I have covered in my dot-com past. He said the writing was dynamite and I should get it online on a blog. I probably could have had a link from Scripting News!
I considered doing so, but ultimately rejected the idea. What if I cover these companies again in the future? Where would my credibility be? I would go in seeking an interview, but executives and their handlers would have reason to think the story had a negative slant before it was even written. And the thing is, they would actually have a point. It is one thing to form some fleeting thoughts about a topic; it is quite another to set them down in public type and stake your name to them. Once that happens, you become more attached to the opinion, you tend to want to prove it true. To do otherwise would negate the value of your original writing and even the trustworthiness of your voice. So blogging all my thoughts might actually hinder my attempts at objectivity. And while I do not think journalists can be truly objective, I think what makes them special and in some cases great is that they try, they try to be objective, they try to step outside themselves.
Also, PR. I know for a fact that some publicists read my website before, during and after dealing with me. They also occasionally get angry about potentially embarrassing stories, even accurate ones. Do I really want the enraged publicist to know how little sleep I have been getting lately, or that I privately think they are being silly?
It's probably not best to live your life trying to block all possible accusations from the enraged publicist. But what about prospective employers? My current and last bosses both saw my website before they saw my resume. Do I really want them knowing all the crazy things I did at New Year's?
Well, dear reader, and I do mean singular "reader", luckily for you I have chosen what I like to think of as the Oprah Way. Admit to being human, then revel in it, then keep being honest about it, then explore it, and let people think what they may. I am going to be like Oprah. Except a much bigger fan of the tabloids.