Privacy, Voyeurism and S-Town

Have you listened to S-Town? S-Town is a new podcast from This American Life and Serial. It starts off teasing a potential murder mystery but quickly becomes an exploration of one man’s life and his complicated relationship with the small Alabama town in which he lives. The show is beautiful and literary, steeped in metaphors and southern gothic comparisons, both implied and direct. The man in question, John B. Macklemore himself, is a Faulkner fan and gives Brian Reed — the narrator and journalist behind the series — a copy of A Rose for Emily.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll try and keep this as high-level as possible. However, if you’ve just started the series and you’re worried about it, now is the exit point.

S-Town is not a true crime story, but it is a tragedy. There is a death and details of the deceased are investigated, plumbed, revealed, and eventually exposed. It is a fascinating story about a fascinating person. It’s also an interesting exploration of what we consider private and the narratives we create for ourselves and other people. S-Town is a rumination on loss, grief, memories, and storytelling itself. As Sarah Larson for The New Yorker puts it, ‘it also edges us closer to a discomfiting realm of well-intentioned voyeurism on a scale we haven’t quite experienced before.’ We all participate in voyeuristic exercises on a regular basis, although never quite at this scale or quality.

People scope potential crushes and partners on social media. Dating apps let you link your profiles so that you can show more of yourself, and provide more of a gallery than a snapshot of your life. We peak into each other’s lives all the time, and frequently, it’s to revisit or preserve an old feeling. Breakups, for example, can be that much harder when you still have your ex on Instagram or Snapchat. You see snippets of their life — but of course, not just snippets. The best snippets. Their presence on your feeds can be a constant reminder of a different time, and whether happier or sadder, a time that has passed.

We often think of social media tools as innovations that separate us from the past — we rarely consider the ways in which they help us stay hopelessly tethered. Jenna Wortham’s most recent article for The New York Times Magazine discusses why it is so difficult to tackle online harassment. Examining the origins of the net, its founding principles and the fact that online society reflects the people created it, she ends on a dark note:

‘As I talked to Cohen, another story of the internet began to take shape, one that looked more like a dystopia. It is entirely possible that these men never imagined the internet would free us from our earthly limitations. Instead they strove to create a world like the one we already know — one that never had equality to begin with.’

As Wortham reminds us, we often forget that our actions are not the product of the Internet, but that the Internet is a product of us. With its birth, there was much worrying and hand-wringing over the temporality of information and interactions. But the question of permanence is one that has come to plague us more often, not less, since the web was created. Browsing data, search results, buying history — it all amounts to a permanent collection of behaviour. In our line of business, screenshots afflict companies and individuals alike. Although we’ve all experienced it repeatedly, as a collective we still like to deny the indelibility of the net.

The digital age has awarded a kind of immortality to the everyday citizen that used to be reserved for celebrities, athletes and politicians: people with some sort of name recognition. Now, we can live forever on the Internet through our different social accounts. Facebook can turn your page into a memorial after you die. Instagram doesn’t have an official policy besides how to contact the company about a deceased user, but since they were acquired by Facebook in 2013, they may have a similar policy to Facebook that is not posted online.

There’s a very clear moment in S-Town when you wonder if a line is being crossed. There’s an ethical decision that Reed confronts and explains for the listener — but the entire production builds up to disclose very personal and intimate information. The story was three years in the making, meaning, for one thing, there was much more audio content than what we’re presented with within the framework of seven episodes. It slowly exposes the full picture of the man we’re left with at the end, but not all of that picture was expressly sanctioned by the subject. Personal social media use is selective exposure, but we are in control of what we’re producing. Through the photos and filters we choose, to the articles we share, and the videos we capture, we’re creating our own narrative. It’s us, but our curated selves. Whether we’re Valencia or Clarendon-filtered or trimmed down to an eight-second snap, it’s not raw.

Our terms of privacy, whether it’s through the disappearing messages of snapchat or a public Twitter account, is one that we’re constantly negotiating with a vast number of things: convenience, ignorance, and connection. Generally, we are fine with the trade-off, if what we’re forfeiting is portrayed in a positive light. Voyeurism is fine, until we have to ask ourselves what we get out of it. Tacit compliance is different than express consent, and in terms of our privacy, we seem to have a difficult time drawing a hard line until we feel it has been crossed.

Binging on S-Town leaves you exhausted because you delve deeply into one man’s life, but also into our society’s preoccupations. History and memory are the major themes of S-Town. One of the chief side explorations, threaded throughout, is time. John Macklemore loved sundials and he restored antique clocks. The man and the story seem of a different era, one that existed before the Internet age, which is part of its appeal. John Macklemore reached out to Brian Reed, a reporter, and over a number of months, told him about his life.

Facebook’s ‘memories’ function frequently encourages you to remember, preserve, and celebrate the past. Perhaps it’s because I’m part of the original Facebook generation that has now been using the platform for over a decade, but the shared memories, anniversary reminders, and insistence at nostalgia seems to be coming at me at an alarming rate. You can choose whether you want to keep these things to yourself or share them with your network. John gave Brian a copy of A Rose for Emily to try to help Brian understand the context of his Alabama town, of people who can’t let go of the past, a portrait of decay and stagnation. A Rose for Emily is a story about a private woman, intensely observed by the townspeople, who refused to share the details of her life and died secluded and alone.