McCallum: Privacy And Social Media

Apr 24, 2018

This spring, the Vermont General Assembly passed a resolution commemorating the 100th anniversary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s birth.

Ten years after the death of the famed Russian author, historian and Nobel Prize winner, I was struck by how this most public occasion contrasted with his exceptionally private life.

In 1976, after fleeing the Soviet Union, he relocated his family to Cavendish, Vermont and for eighteen years was afforded a level of privacy that’s almost impossible to imagine in today’s social media driven world.

The small town surrounded by steep forested hills reminded Solzhenitsyn of his native Russia, and Cavendish respected and protected his privacy. And a sign hung outside the Cavendish General Store declaring “No Directions to the Solzhenitsyn Home” to discourage gawkers. He was a local celebrity and literary giant the likes of which Cavendish hadn’t seen since famous New York writer Cornelia Otis Skinner summered there in the ‘40s.

But I imagine if Skinner and Solzhenitsyn were to land in today’s Cavendish, things might be different. The moment they stepped outside the privacy of their homes, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram would light up with folks in pursuit of selfies with the esteemed authors.

GPS could enable eager out-of-towners to locate the Nobel laureate’s secluded estate and instantly post photos on Facebook of themselves standing next to the security camera at the end of his driveway. And since time does march on, Skinner’s summer home is now a bed and breakfast where visitors can snap photos of themselves in her old bedroom.

We now inhabit a culture where privacy is seen as a quaint notion – called by some “the 21st century’s newest luxury item,” and selling privacy protection tools for online life is big business. Political spats, once done behind closed doors, have become public Tweets and re-Tweets for all to see. More than 2,500 of them issued from the Oval Office last year. And the old card game strategy of playing it close to the vest now seems like a relic from another time.

I wonder if Solzhenitsyn, that icon of privacy, would discourage reporters and tourists from beating a path to his Cavendish door, today. One hundred years after his birth, he has a digital presence in the online Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Center, that includes a blog, and in an ironic twist, clickable icons for email, Twitter and YouTube.

And that great privacy pirate, Facebook.