Preoccupation with the private lives of others is a longstanding human habit, recently made easier by the internet-induced saturation of personal information. Yet status updates and tweets present a one-faceted view of a life, relaying only what someone wants the world to know. As such, there is still something highly seductive about reading personal correspondences or private writings.
Like John Steinbeck scrutinising a previous guest’s hotel room rubbish in Travels with Charley, we can use words not edited for general consumption to piece together both insights into an individual life and commonalities of human emotions and behaviour. This kind of raw, intimate information about others provides a basis of comparison for our own lives, a benchmark against which we can measure our progresses, successes, and shortfalls. It can evoke a kinship with humanity based on similarities, or help us appreciate or discern unique differences.
While the desire to privately observe and analyse others’ privates thoughts and feelings is most often sated by things like published collections of journals or letters, fellow voyeur of words Miranda July created a more immediate, current, and potentially relevant outlet: the We Think Alone project. When you visit the project’s website, you are simply invited to submit your email address. Every following Monday until 11 November (the project began 1 July), a ‘themed compendium of ten emails’ will arrive in your inbox. Curated by themes such as fear, the email contains the personal correspondence of ten public figures. The informality and intimacy of the medium makes it feel as though you have intercepted the correspondence surreptitiously. You can slowly and privately digest each one, looking for clues into the person’s life, attempting to glean meaning from it for your own.
WE THINK ALONE has given me the excuse to read my friends’ emails and the emails of some people I wish I was friends with and for better or worse it’s changed the way I see all of them. I think I really know them now. But our inner life is not actually the same thing as our life on the computer — a quiet person might !!!! a lot. A person with a busy mind might write almost nothing. And of course while none of these emails were originally intended to be read by me (much less you*) they were all carefully selected by their authors in response to my list of email genres — so self-portraiture is quietly at work here. Privacy, the art of it, is evolving. Radical self-exposure and classically manicured discretion can both be powerful, both be elegant.
The only downside of the project is that, as it only exists via email, there is no way to catch up on previous editions. To ensure you don’t miss any more, visit We Think Alone, sign up, and anticipate some juicy snooping on Monday morning.