hen I first moved from Seattle to the idyllic California mountain town of Ojai, it seemed like paradise. Tucked between high desert ridges and groves of orange and avocado, Ojai was relaxed and easy. Soon after arriving, I found a job at the local café and bookstore.
I told a few customers about my life in Seattle and why I’d moved. They seemed genuinely interested. What I hadn’t anticipated was how fast news traveled in a small town. Within a matter of hours, strangers I’d never met knew my saga. “So, you’re the girl who just moved here from Seattle,” said one, who approached me at the counter. “I heard you were depressed by the weather and couldn’t wait to get out of the gray. How are you liking it here?”
I was shocked. I’d never met the person before and certainly wouldn’t have confided my stories of my depression. That was my first taste of small town life and it taught me to keep my mouth shut lest the whole town know my business. I lasted a year before I had to get out.
I mention the incident when talking about the joys of living in a big city. The anonymity provided by New York is wonderfully freeing. No one follows your every move or endlessly gossips about the company you keep. Your life is private — or so I thought.
Recently, I was sitting at my desk at the office and a girl I barely knew came up and asked me where I was traveling next. She went on to tell me how jealous she was of my recent trip to Alaska. “What was it like to walk on glaciers and kayak with whales?” she wanted to know.
“What?” I thought. I don’t even remember this person’s name and yet she knows I was walking on glaciers just weeks ago. How on earth does she know and who could have told her?
Then I remembered.
The “who” was me and the “how” was Facebook. I’d completely forgotten that years ago I had accepted her “friend” request.
At the time, it seemed like saying, “yes” to a Facebook friend request was social protocol, like shaking a hand or saying hello in passing. Now I realized that by inviting her and others into my world, I had inadvertently created the same small town I’d come to New York to escape.
I went to my homepage and looked at what I had posted. I found virtual photo albums of nearly every trip I had taken over the years. Images of me with my closest friends and family, posted with intention of sharing them intimately, I realized, were now there for every voyeuristic “friend” I had. I shuttered and clicked on the privacy settings.
While reviewing the choices, I had the distinct feeling of wanting to run and hide from everyone. Picking and choosing wasn’t an option. I needed my privacy back. Those who wanted to reach me certainly knew how.
When I hit “deactivate my account,” a sigh of relief came over me. Instantly, my world felt bigger and the worldwide web felt small in comparison. A smile stretched over my face.
It wasn’t exactly like the feeling of arriving in expansive Ojai Valley from cluttered Seattle those many years ago, but for a simple keystroke and click, it would do just fine. I now had regained the anonymity of city living in the virtual world as well. My life was again just mine.