Elena Ferrante and Privacy As A Part of Writing and Reading

The “real” identity of Italian writer Elena Ferrante was recently unmasked by a male journalist who, with an investigative intensity usually reserved for political and critical cases, used financial records to prove his case. Camila Domonoske wrote a great, concise round up of the case and reactions for NPR, aptly titled “For Literary World, Unmasking Elena Ferrante’s Not A Scoop, It’s A Disgrace.”

I want to also recommend a particularly insightful text on the issue by Dayna Tortorici for n+1. Tortorici describes how crucial the pseudonymity is for Ferrante’s writing, how beneficial it is for the reader, and how the unmasking in this case is basically a form of silencing:

Ferrante’s readers were quick to denounce Gatti’s revelation. I myself was irritated. Even the stones know that Ferrante is Ferrante, and that’s the way her readers want it. More than Ferrante herself, her readers have benefited from her choice, spared so much extradiegetic noise. We are as invested in her anonymity—and her autonomy—as she is. It is a compact: she won’t tell us, we won’t ask, and she won’t change her mind and tell us anyway. In exchange, she’ll write books and we’ll read them. The feminist defense of Ferrante’s privacy was especially swift. It’s difficult to read a man’s attempt to “out” a writer who has said she would stop writing if she were ever identified as anything but an attempt to make her stop writing.

The reason that I get grouchy is that I hate how the risks that we’re concerned about are shaped by the fears of privileged parents, not the risks of those who are already under constant surveillance, those who are economically disadvantaged, and those who are in the school-prison pipeline.

Trolls, Public and Private Space, And the Need to Stop Being Dicks

I have to comment on this passage from a Salon interview with law professor Danielle Citron, discussing the difference between trolling and cyber harassment:

My book truly deals with actionable harassment, not abuse that cannot be regulated (often called “trolling,” a loose term). Consider one of the earliest cases, of game developer and blogger […], where there are repeated credible threats of rape, doctored photographs of her being strangled, and lies about her. Then, a cybermob posted her Social Security number and home address, as well as defamatory lies about her. Whoever was responsible for those actions, even just some of them, would be treading on legal grounds –we can regulate true threats, defamation and certain privacy disclosures such as the disclosure of SSNs (which is like publishing your bank account number). To be sure, some of the folks who doxxed [the tech blogger] and published her SSN were self-proclaimed trolls, but nonetheless they engaged in unprotected activity by spreading defamatory lies and publishing her SSN.

By contrast, there the case of Zelda Williams. The person who repeatedly told her her father was ashamed of her may be called a troll, but that person is engaging in protected speech. So, too, the person who posted pictures of dead bodies. Even if that person did it repeatedly, it might not even amount to regulable intentional infliction of emotional distress, because Robin Williams’ death could be said to constitute a matter of public importance, rather than a purely private matter.


(I can recommend the interview in full.) I have no doubt in her assessment of the legality here. I just finished her book, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, and liked it a lot, I might write a review of it soon. But the situation she describes above is similar to the situations that got me interested in the topic of hateful speech on the Internet. It really irks me.

For once, I personally think it is perverse that the death of a man, husband and father is considered a “matter of public importance” in this context. It is interesting to the public, without a doubt. I, like many others, was deeply affected by it. But not in the way the people who actually shared their lives with him are affected. I fail to understand why this harassment needs to be protected by the U.S. constitution: For Zelda Williams, it is a private matter. What kind of public discourse, what truth is improved by sending a young woman pictures of corpses and telling her her dad was ashamed of her?

Personally I think people who “troll” a grieving person in this manner can go and have their  CPUs overheat. But I think this story shows more than one problem facing us in the digital 21st century. With (social) media technology becoming ubiquitous the the lines between public and private spheres are blurring, and the form/degree of access to individuals for anyone is changing.  While this can be great, the new possibilities challenge our understanding of concepts like “public” and “private.” Years ago, no one would have sought out the postal address of a celebrity’s daughter to send her manipulated photos. Almost no one would’ve yelled such horrendous things at her in bars, schools, streets, .. public places.

Many will easily dismiss what happened to Zelda Williams (and countless others pushed out of social media) as it did not happen “in real life” and she only quit twitter. Honestly: For me, that would feel like not being able to walk through a part of my neighborhood, close to my home, filled with neighbors I like, because of aggressive strangers. For me, this is hypothetical, a mental excercise I can easily engage in.  Add the cyber harassment to the daily (street) harassment women* experience, and the world just got a whole lot narrower.

I’m not against these Internet-mediated changes in interpersonal communication, wonderful things are happening thanks to social media. But I do think that we need to find a way to use the amazing possibilities of teh Interweb and promote free speech while not being such colossal dicks to people. That way might not lead us through the legal or legislative system, but we need to find one. I cannot accept that this vicious form of “trolling” is something “we” can’t regulate. 

Respect Your Street View Views.

These days, Germany is buzzing with the discussion surrounding the activation of Google’s Street View service for our country. Personally, I like the service – I love to digitally roam around San Francisco, for example. I personally have no privacy concerns – it is, after all, only a picture of the facade of my house. Something everyone walking down my street can see. So people can now also see my house when they digitally walk down my street. The net, in my opinion, is also part of the real world. 

However, I can understand when people have concerns regarding Street View and do not want their house to be part of the service. I do not share their concerns, but I have to respect them. There are people (of course) who do not share this respect for others – and want to take pictures of houses not included in Street View and connect the images with Geodata services. Not cool, Jens Best et.al., not cool at all.