The End of Trust

The writer Joshua Cohen, author of the recent novel Witz, was at a bar recently telling a girl he’d met an hour and a half earlier about a family member who was being treated for cancer. The next day, he saw that she was writing about it on her blog. And even though all she said was that she hoped Mr. Cohen’s relative recovered, it made him queasy, like he was living in Soviet Russia.


“Whenever I say something to a person, I’m trying my best to consider just that person, not that person’s larger audience or constituency,” Mr. Cohen said. “I think if I start thinking that way, I’ll become even more of a loathsome person than I already am. That’s essentially living like a politician, or a Supreme Court justice during confirmation hearings, where you can’t give your opinion, you just want to get by.”

Web evangelists will tell you that society is on the verge of a new era in which everyone is always honest and secrets don’t exist. But the reality is that New Yorkers are keeping more from each other than ever before and watching what they say with unprecedented vigilance.

Mr. Cohen, 29, has friends who have become so reserved out of fear of being quoted on acquaintances’ blogs that when he is in casual social situations with them, he is self-conscious about looking like an irritating loudmouth in comparison.

“I fear becoming, through really no fault of mine, a caricature,” he said. “It’s my natural personality to say what I feel, and I feel like more and more, because so many other people are guarding their tongues, I’m going to look like some old obnoxious Jew, just screaming at people. It used to be that you were your opinions. Now it’s almost like you only consist of your discretion.”

What are people so afraid of? They are not always sure. Sometimes it’s that they don’t want to offend someone. Other times, they don’t want a person they only kind of know finding out that they were talking or thinking about them. Everyone just wants to be in control, but control is getting harder and harder to come by. “It is a fear of unknown repercussions,” said Brian Stelter, a media reporter for The New York Times. “The repercussions are not obvious here.”

So much for the new transparency. Though Web evangelists will tell you that society is on the verge of a new era in which everyone is always honest and secrets don’t exist, the reality is that New Yorkers are keeping more from each other than ever before and watching what they say with unprecedented vigilance. They have more secrets than they ever did, and they have never been more afraid or calculated in their day-to-day interactions.

Thus, what constitutes a secret has expanded to include even the most seemingly innocuous details, and the circumstances under which the disclosure of facts can turn into social inconveniences have proliferated. This phenomenon threatens to destroy personalities, or at least render us dull to talk to.

Reporters have been dealing with this conundrum as long as there have been newspapers. In recent years, though, it’s grown far beyond journalistic circles, as the range of circumstances under which anything can potentially be made public grows larger. It takes on different forms, of course. “Don’t write about this on your blog.” “Don’t tweet what I just said.” “Don’t mention I was here if you write about this party.” “Don’t tag me if you put that picture on Facebook.” “If you link to my blog, don’t use my real name.”

Mr. Stelter said he’s probably not going to be saying “off the record” to his wife. Short of that, he said, he and his friends tend to stay on their toes. When Mr. Stelter, 24, went out for brunch a few weeks ago with a group of friends-among them a TV producer, a lawyer, a magazine columnist and a couple of bloggers-it didn’t take long for someone to stop the conversation and make sure that everything said at the table was going to stay at the table.

“People were so nervous,” Mr. Stelter said. “Not even because they were saying inappropriate things, but because we just don’t always know the parameters of these conversations.”

So what were they talking about, anyway? The story of Dave Weigel, of course, the columnist who recently resigned from The Washington Post after coming under fire for emails he sent to a list-serv. Though the list was meant to be a confidential forum for friends in the media to discuss current events among themselves, Mr. Weigel’s emails were leaked. His is a cautionary tale, not only for journalists but for anyone who has ever used email to express thoughts that weren’t intended for a large audience.

Cases like Mr. Weigel’s, in which an indiscreet remark made public results in some degree of ruin, have turned New Yorkers into a timid breed of paranoids, always hedging and always holding back. We have seen people get raked through the coals online for doing nothing essentially wrong-remember that poor Condé Nast intern who was photographed recently at the 4 Times Square cafeteria and mocked on Facebook for his tight pants and silly shoes?-and we have internalized the notion that saying or doing the wrong thing in the presence of the wrong person can have devastating consequences. It doesn’t help that there are vultures out there like Andrew Breitbart, who has offered a $100,000 reward to anyone willing to leak the full archive of JournoList, the list-serv that got Mr. Weigel in trouble.

“We’ve lived for about five years sharing everything and saying everything out loud, and we keep hearing about people who suffer the consequences of doing that,” Mr. Stelter said. “We’re at the point where ‘off the record’ is shorthand for ‘I’m gonna say something that’s gonna surprise you,’ or ‘I’m gonna say something that might be taken the wrong way.'”

“The making sure it’s O.K., the asking, is always kind of sad because it essentially implies that I don’t really know people’s boundaries,” said Meaghan O’Connell, the 25-year-old outreach director of Tumblr, who is known for blogging in exuberant detail about her personal life. “I want people to trust me, obviously, and not feel like I am going to humiliate them on my Tumblr or say things they wouldn’t be comfortable with.”

People have asked Ms. O’Connell more than once to remove posts from her Tumblr, and the experience has been excruciating for her every time.

“It always makes me feel really awful,” she said. “Not because, you know, I am so sad the world won’t be able to hear this hilarious thing my mom said, but more because it is a bit of an implication that I didn’t consider my mom’s feelings enough when I Twittered that she wasn’t wearing any underwear.”


The End of Trust