What stopped me was the fact that Nomadagascar was not just another attractive stranger on a dating website. I had seen this photograph before. His real name is Jonathan Harris, and I was familiar with the artwork to which his profile referred.
Every week for years, I wrote a column about websites for a small newspaper in Virginia. Tuesday morning after Tuesday morning, I would sit down and write 300 pithy words in praise of yet another site at which one could—if one chose—waste hours. That said, until recently I had never explored the world of online dating. But one evening about a year ago, the bottle of red beside me was offering diminishing returns and before I knew it, I was scanning the faces on the sex and dating website Nerve.com, wondering if the fedora-wearing charmer from a television commercial I’d seen really existed.
I had spent about an hour profile-surfing when I saw him: Nomadagascar, sandwiched between Photofilmguy and Anil2469. According to his profile, Nomadagascar was a 28-year-old, sandy-haired, gap-toothed, 5’10,” artist/designer based in Brooklyn, a non-smoker, a light/social drinker, who said the five items he can’t live without are “a sketchbook, a red pen, espresso, silence, noise,” and who described the pace of his life as “manic hermit.” What stopped me was the fact that Nomadagascar was not just another attractive stranger on a dating website. I had seen this photograph before. His real name is Jonathan Harris, and I was familiar with the artwork to which his profile referred.
Two years earlier, I had been doing research for my column when I stumbled across a site called “We Feel Fine” that seamlessly married ideas of “website” and “art.” People can go to the site and type in a word that describes a human emotion—“lonely,” “volatile,” “exposed,” “alive,” “connected,” “safe,” “better”—and, in a matter of seconds, the site runs an algorithmic program that searches blogs and websites all over the world for phrases beginning with the words “I feel” or “I am feeling,” plus the word you just typed. Results then pop up on the screen indicating who else out there in the blogosphere, in the online world, is feeling—or has recently felt—what you were feeling in that moment. A visit to the site reveals that hundreds of people are typing “I feel lonely” or “I am feeling alive” or “I feel better” into the void at any given hour on any given day. The viewer can also type in certain demographic, geographic and atmospheric specifications (26-year-old woman, Charlottesville, Virginia, partly cloudy), and the site then takes the emotional temperature of other people who match those specifications online in that moment of time.
For me, the website was both reassuring and disconcerting, simultaneously creating a community of emotion, and acknowledging the utter solitude of human existence. It made me feel alone, but part of a collective loneliness, and that was something. If I began to feel that old sense of dread in my stomach, I could go to this site and find someone else (perhaps a 57-year-old man living in Bucharest) who was feeling what I felt, who understood if not me, then at least my passing mood; such a stranger’s emotional plight diminished the anxiety I felt about my own (we’re all in this together; we’re both alone and not alone, etc.). In short, I thought the site was brilliant. I believed that whoever had produced this idea was someone who had succeeded in creating a virtual space that was both intensely emotional and deeply intelligent. Here was someone, I told myself, with utter sympathy, complete sensitivity, for what it means to be human in an age that too often relies on technology as a substitute for what has historically sustained us: person-to-person connection.
Curiosity piqued, I googled the two people responsible for the site. One was a man named Sep Kamvar; the other was a man named Jonathan Harris. Jonathan, I gathered was the ringleader. On his personal website, he identified himself as a Princeton grad artistically exploring humanity and the world through computers and technology. Posted with his bio was the photograph I saw on Nerve: a sepia-toned shot of Jonathan wearing a thermal shirt and standing in front of a forest of evergreens. His eyes are squinting, his mouth is closed, and he’s not quite smiling. His blond hair is tousled, a shell necklace hangs around his neck. He looks kind and open. Sitting surrounded by dirty coffee mugs at my windowless basement cubicle, a column deadline looming, I felt as though my world had opened up.
Perhaps I should have fallen for that anxious 57-year-old man in Bucharest, but instead I was falling for the architect of the entire project. It wasn’t the individual stranger plucked out of the void who fascinated me, but the person who wanted that stranger to be plucked at all. It was the equivalent of going to a play and falling not for an actor on the stage, but for the director.
I soon learned Jonathan’s work had been featured on CNN and Reuters, in The New York Times and the Centre Pompidou. He had won Webby Awards, lectured at the TED conference and at Google. From that day forward, when asked in jest by friends to conjure my ideal man, he was the person I would describe. “You never know,” they would say, “it can be a remarkably small world.” I was less optimistic. Nearly three years passed.
At the time I stumbled across Nomadagascar’s profile, the most recent piece Jonathan had completed was an online photo gallery called “The Whale Hunt.” It is a series of 3,214 photographs taken at intervals throughout the course of a nine-day trip Jonathan took to the northernmost Alaskan settlement of Inupiat Eskimos to witness a whale hunt. The intervals at which the photographs were taken are intended to mimic the way a human heart beats—the more exciting the moment in time, the shorter the intervals, and vice versa. My heart beat as his heart beat. My heart beat as some theoretical heart beat.
The photographs document everything from packing for the trip to the airports traversed to the days spent on the ice waiting and waiting and waiting to the moments of the actual killings and harvestings. Over the course of two hours, as the 3,214 photographs passed in front of my eyes, I traveled alongside Jonathan, exploring with him both the tedium and the intensity of life and death that lurks in the images. We went through a lot together—him and me—that afternoon. I wondered whether sharing heartbeats was Jonathan’s way of convincing himself he was not alone out there.
Both the photograph of Jonathan I had first encountered three years earlier, and one of him engulfed in an anorak and about to embark on the whale hunt, were posted on his profile. Within moments, I had signed up for a trial membership (Protagoniste, 28-year-old woman in Brooklyn, New York, 5’4”, light/social drinker, who, if she had a million dollars would not give it to the Scientologists, and who is looking for “someone who has a strange fascination with Ben Franklin”) and sent Jonathan an email:
Hi there, I recognize the photograph you posted from ‘The Whale Hunt.’ I love your work. In fact, I’ve written about it for a newspaper I work for. What are you working on now?
That night, in between answering one of the site’s required generic questions about myself (“I sometimes daydream about how, if I ever have a baby, I don’t want to send out baby announcements that say ‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’ What I want to do instead is send out baby announcements that say, ‘It’s a panda!’”) and another (“Gram Parsons, the Decemberists, the Shirelles, Bill Monroe”) I couldn’t help myself: I would gaze at Jonathan’s blond curls and envision our wedding on the Vermont farm where he grew up. He was like that apartment you see on Craigslist, the one you fall in love with and know you can’t afford; the one you arrange to see in person just because you can; the one you still daydream about how it would look with your couch placed here, your rug just so, and your favorite lamp throwing a light on the dark wall over there without a window.
Jonathan didn’t write back to me as quickly as I hoped he would. While I waited, I spent hours memorizing his profile. That way, when we did finally meet face to face, I would have an arsenal of informed questions for him. He loves big spaces, silence, cold air, and even has a weird thing for the smell of skunks. (I always breathe extra deeply when I smell skunk! What about garlic? Do you love garlic breath? I do.) The farm where he grew up is right on the shores of Lake Champlain, so he could teach me the secrets of effortless stone-skipping, and his mother’s favorite activity is hunting for sea glass among the slate stones, so he did that too as a kid. (I bet that farmhouse is filled with little piles of sea glass placed haphazardly here and there. I bet that house is beautiful.) The best movie he saw last year was The Lives of Others. (Same here! After seeing it I felt as if the anonymous eyes of strangers were kinder, more forgiving, somehow less anonymous. I felt the tension between how we watch each other and how we watch over each other. Is that how you felt? Or did you feel something else? What?) He has kept sketchbooks his whole life, filled with writing, watercolors, drawings, dead insects, pasted ticket stubs, and most anything else that can be glued or taped to a page. (Those books, do you recall where each scrap came from? Could you tell me every story? What do you know of the faces behind these fragments of ephemera? Do you remember it all?)
One week, one week and a day, one week and two days, one week and three days. Still no word. I needed to be patient: he would get around to me, eventually.
A few weeks later, I had a day off and decided to spend it at the Museum of Modern Art. I had heard that an exhibit called “Design and the Elastic Mind” was worth seeing, so I ventured to Fifty-Third Street, took the escalator to the sixth floor, and proceeded to make my way through the show. The cavernous rooms were crowded—so much so that each piece had a group of people three-deep around it, and the pace of the horde through the space was slow and claustrophobic. There was a piece that tracked the movements of San Francisco taxi cabs through the night, a piece that fabricated plastic furniture based on the motions made when a person drew a wand through the air, and a piece that tallied, by block, the number of people from the Brownsville, Brooklyn housing project serving time in federal prison.
About halfway through, I approached a three-and-a-half-foot-tall by two-and-a-half-foot-wide computerized screen hung against a black wall. I immediately recognized this as Jonathan’s work. I walked up and staked out space for myself in the crowd around it. The piece was entitled “I Want You to Want Me.” Pink, blue, and mauve-colored balloons floated across the screen and, as the curator’s blurb explained, “each balloon represents a single real person’s dating profile collected from the Internet in real time.” I felt as though I had walked up to the “Homo Sapiens, Romanticus, 2008” cage at the Zoo of Human Emotion. Against each balloon was projected the silhouette of a person performing solitary tasks: folding clothes, flipping through a magazine, doing push-ups, putting up an umbrella, curtsying to no one, but facing forward nonetheless, so that the curtsy was directed at the viewer.
The piece had five movements. If a viewer touched the link on the screen to the first movement—“Who I Am”—balloons shot up from the bottom of the screen and floated towards the top. If the viewer then touched a balloon as it was floating upwards, a thought bubble beginning with the phrase, “I am” would pop up next to the balloon and a photograph of the person (taken from his or her dating profile) responsible for the text would appear swinging from the end of a virtual string attached to the balloon, so that you could see the face of the person behind the words. Balloons not popped by the fingers of curious museum-goers floated off the screen, disappearing into nowhere.
The second “movement” of the piece was called “What I Want.” If the viewer touched the link to this movement, balloons shot up from the bottom of the screen and formed one large, pulsating heart of balloons. When touched, they revealed desires beginning with the phrase, “I am looking for.” The third movement was called “Openers” and when that link was touched, balloons sprang forth and formed a field of bursting flowers that, when plucked by MoMA tourists, elicited pick-up lines. In the fourth movement, “Closers,” the balloons formed a grid of final thoughts (“fingers crossed,” “looking forward to hearing from you,” etc.). The fifth, “Taglines,” displayed profile subject lines (“Hunter or gatherer?” “Looking 4 a real girl”) and the balloons formed a spinning DNA double helix. A bonus feature was the “Matchmaker” function, which when touched by a viewer, algorithmically paired people based on their descriptions of who they are and what they are looking for.
The piece was visually stunning. The balloons were mesmerizing and the colors vibrant, almost pulsating, as if saturated with life. The way the piece beckoned for you to reach out and touch it was seductive; I was seduced. And yet, standing there, reading popped balloons, was to become an accidental eavesdropper on an unconscious choir of desire. The problem was that the only people aware of this particular performance were not the audience for whom these singers, with their mouths wide open, sang. This symphony was being both composed and pirated simultaneously:
I think I am a great singer, but no one agrees. I am the coolest dork you will ever meet. I am looking for someone who appreciates the fact that I’ve never worn my cell phone clipped onto my belt. I like the way sidewalks smell after it rains. I bet you *really* want to hear how yet another dude just loves his ipod! The last great book I read was The Secret Agent (Joseph Conrad). Who would have thought it is FULL of fat people jokes? I’m 1960’s modern in love with 1970’s avant-garde. Jessica Alba is sexy; Greta Wodele is sexier. I’m Jewish according to mom. Dating is not as funny as it should be.
I didn’t know what to think. On the one hand, the images of that pulsating heart of balloons and that field of bursting flowers, seemed to imply sympathy for the people contained within the heart and field of flowers; on the other hand, these were people who were looking for something, and their words and their faces and their desires and their loneliness were being put on display on the wall of a major museum without their permission or knowledge. On the one hand, this was found art; on the other hand, was it? On the one hand, these people had put this information onto the Internet themselves and had no legal expectation to privacy; on the other hand, the piece seemed to take advantage of naïve people who didn’t understand what little ownership they have over the information about themselves available on the Internet. On the one hand, information is taken from the Internet all the time and reprinted in different contexts; on the other hand, faces and emotions and private lives on a museum wall take appropriation to a whole new level. The project seemed kind to the idea of loneliness, yet it seemed to disregard the actual people to whom that loneliness belonged.
The chances were slim, but what if I suddenly saw my own face—that photograph of me, on a hike in Colorado smiling from beneath the brim of a hat while hugging my dog—appear in the wake of a popped balloon? While I was certain I would feel exposed and taken advantage of and betrayed, I did not know how I would respond to the outside world. Would the people standing next to me recognize my face? Would I blush? Would the blush be in anger or embarrassment? Would I say something, or just walk away and try to disappear into the crush of bodies?
Surely Jonathan understood the moral implications of a piece like this. I wondered whether he had posted his own profile in order to make himself as potentially vulnerable—in theory—as the people he was using to create his artwork. Did he think that, if there was a chance that his face, too, could appear on a computer screen in the Museum of Modern Art, that all was fair and equal between him and his unwitting muses? Did he create the piece to get people like me thinking about things like this? Had Jonathan anointed himself “professor” to teach people a lesson about the age in which we live? Did he believe that people who put themselves on a dating website wouldn’t mind being put on the wall of a museum? I had no idea. All I knew was that he had to know exactly what he was doing.
Jonathan must have decided for himself long ago where he drew the line between what was his for the taking and what was not. I could picture Jonathan as a little boy walking the shores of Lake Champlain with his mother and sister, picking up pieces of broken glass from among the slate stones and putting them in his pockets. Those shards were just another incarnation of what I saw on this wall: things washed ashore randomly, beautiful when examined, pieces of an unknown whole, pieces that when piled together in a glass jar evidenced a gorgeous collection of flaws and vulnerabilities.
As I was standing there, thinking about what to think, watching balloons either pop and reveal a piece of a person, or float off untouched into virtual oblivion, a boy of not more than four years old made his way to the front of the crowd. He giggled gleefully at the balloons exploding across the wall and, every so often, would slap the screen and shriek as balloons scattered and thought bubbles burst open indiscriminately. Each time, he hit the screen harder than he had before; after a few minutes of watching him have fun, I had to stop myself from bending down and whispering in his ear, “Careful, there. That’s breakable.”
Privacy and the Internet are two ideas that have not yet learned to coexist in peace: one is constantly stepping on the toes of the other, as the one cries “None of your business!” and the other bleats, “First Amendment!” The law in this area is hopelessly out of date, the last major legislation dealing with the issue having gone through in 1986. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act is an updated version of the original 1968 incarnation of the same name, implemented to curtail federal wiretapping. The 1986 EPCA expanded the original to include federal monitoring of personal email and digital messaging. But then came the Patriot Act and various executive orders that more or less shredded our right to privacy on the phone or Internet.
In short, as the laws currently stand, so long as the profiles were public and not set to “private” or “restricted access,” Jonathan was free to make use of—and do what he pleased with—whatever information about other people he might have at his disposal via dating websites. In some ways, he was not doing anything that the websites themselves were not already doing, but with one key difference: he was taking those profiles, created for a specific purpose and with specific expectations in mind, to a museum exhibition wall and placing them beside a zoo-like museum blurb. He was exposing these people in ways that they could not have imagined, much less intended.
You would think that people would have learned by now to exercise caution when putting themselves online, but every week, it seems, there is a new controversy concerning the Internet, privacy, and who can reveal what when about whom and in what context. There is the case of Jason Fortuny, a Seattle computer nerd, and the hoax he perpetrated on the local Craigslist personals when he posed as a woman looking for a dominant male sex partner, and then proceeded to post online the nearly 200 responses he received, complete with personal photographs and contact information. In the fallout from the so-called “Craigslist Experiment,” two of the men who responded lost their jobs, and a third filed an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit which is still pending. There’s the Vermont divorce case in which the husband began a “fictional” blog about his wife that revealed deeply personal and negative things about her. He plead the First Amendment when she took him to court; the court ruled in her favor, he fled to Florida, and the law has yet to pursue him. There’s the instance of teenagers at the tony New York prep school, Horace Mann, starting Facebook pages that mocked and belittled their teachers; in the end, the consensus was that the students, in their free time, are allowed to say whatever they want on Facebook.
I, too, had had my own brush with the messy intersection of the Internet and privacy rights a few months earlier after discovering that an ex-boyfriend had been writing a blog entitled “Nell’s Gone.” He posted photographs of me, discussed things I had done in private, and things I had said to him in confidence. He recounted times I had spoken unkindly about people I love. He wanted, he said, to “show the world who she really is.” He wrote that I didn’t deserve to find happiness, and he swore he was going to destroy me by verbally accosting my family and friends with unflattering things I had said about them.
People read the blog, and some of them, including me, were hurt. I had numerous conversations with the police trying to find a law somewhere that could protect me from this abuse, but there was nothing I could do. The First Amendment protected him. I understood why the law could not help me in this situation, and yet, it still seemed to be somehow falling short. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I contacted his parents and told them their son was sick and that he was undermining my sanity and sense of safety. The blog came down within days. That was about four months before my afternoon at the MoMA. So, when I came across Jonathan’s piece, those feelings of being watched and expropriated came rushing back. In short, “I Want You To Want Me,” struck me in a tender, bruised spot.
Without a doubt, Jonathan’s project falls on the harmless end of the scale on which issues of the Internet and privacy rest. It’s clear jobs aren’t on the line and that people’s physical safety is ensured. I am confident that Jonathan meant no harm, rather to simply examine the disconnect between the way we present ourselves online and the lives we actually live. And yet, the question of whether these profiles are—not legally speaking, but morally—Jonathan’s for the taking and for the profiting remains. Maybe some people would be thrilled to see themselves hung up on a wall at MoMA, and maybe some people wouldn’t care one way or the other, but I cannot believe I am the only one who found “I Want You To Want Me” troubling. People’s individual ideas of themselves, fractured and packaged as they may be, are not conventional materials for artistic manipulation like clay or paint or film or Photoshop, and if they are going to be used as such, the artist should secure the subject’s consent. Otherwise, the people on the wall are nothing more than monkeys in cages at a zoo.
When I returned to my apartment from my MoMA excursion, I signed onto the dating website for the first time in days and there was a message from Jonathan:
ah, i’ve been found out!
thanks for the nice note.
The email puzzled me. He seemed aware of his deception, yet not remorseful for it. Had he assumed I already had seen the MoMA piece when I emailed him, and that I was trying to subtly chastise him? I wondered whether Nomadagascar was solely an artistic endeavor; perhaps Jonathan-the-Man was already happily in love. I wondered whether he was just not that into my profile. I wondered whether he had gotten other emails like mine, and his was a canned response. I wondered whether Jonathan could both earnestly date online and also do research for his work.
I no longer wanted to not talk to Jonathan so much as interview him. But maybe it didn’t matter. The piece was done. It had been featured in The New York Times and Business Week. Thousands of MoMA visitors had shuffled past it without complaining. I didn’t write back, and shortly thereafter I removed my online dating profile.
With no access to Jonathan, I decided to explore the questions I had about “I Want You to Want Me,” online dating, privacy, and the Internet by writing an essay. In the course of my research I watched an old online news story Jonathan had done with Reuters about the “We Feel Fine” project. The woman reporter introduces the basic premise of the project, then continues, “Harris contends that [the site] allows viewers to play armchair anthropologist, studying patterns of human behavior without the subjects being aware that they are being watched.”
The screen then cuts to a shot of Jonathan as he says, “You can go on there and you can say, ‘Show me feelings from women in their twenties in London when it’s raining.’” The camera cuts to a close-up shot of “We Feel Fine.” The black background of the computer screen is covered with colored dots and, as a cursor in the shape of a rudimentary human hand passes over each dot, a different emotion—presumably belonging to a twenty-something female on a rainy London day—is revealed. Jonathan continues, “Using queries like this, you can start to ask yourself questions about the world like, um, do men or women feel sad more often, or does rainy weather affect how I feel?”
The reporter then concludes the story, saying, “Since the site went up more than a year ago it has gathered data on more than eight million feelings and its database is growing by about 20,000 feelings a day. While it may not replace old-fashioned scientific surveys, it certainly is a mesmerizing scientific experiment that can capture the imagination.”
I half-smiled to myself at the term “armchair anthropologist,” and shook my head at my own naïveté. I had been missing Jonathan’s point: he didn’t care about the 57-year-old man feeling anxious in Bucharest per se, nor the 28-year-old woman feeling similarly in Brooklyn. The people his spotlight landed on were incidental; what he cared about was the data he could collect with the benefit of well-lit subjects. Jonathan’s sympathy for people and their stories, big and small, is sympathy intellectualized.
I then looked up the “I Want You To Want Me” project online at www.iwantyoutowantme.org. Against the black background of the homepage is a photograph depicting the dark silhouette of a person framed against the blue computer screen of the piece as it had been hung in the museum. The shadow is reaching up, fingers tense and ready to pop a balloon that will then tell the shadow reaching for it something about a stranger that that stranger thinks will turn him or her from a stranger into a real person. The balloons are swimming across the screen and beneath the fingers of the shadow like amoeba in a laboratory subjected to the gaze of scientist.
Gone was the mental image of a kind face with a half-smile and angelic curls and a forest of evergreens. What I now saw when I pictured Jonathan Harris was a faceless man playing amateur scientist, taking Petri dishes full of miniscule human beings and systematically putting them under a microscope in his kitchen. The tiny, helpless people were waving frantically, trying to distinguish themselves, each one was saying something, each one was trying to make himself or herself heard or seen or felt, as Jonathan peered—lips pursed in concentration—through the lens of technology and recorded meticulous notes for some unknown end.
A couple months later I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop on a Friday evening, head bowed to my computer. The coffee shop is on a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood, and is no bigger than the size of two horse stalls put together. Its customers are neighborhood people. It was late October and the leaves were changing and for the first time that fall the weather had that autumn briskness in the air.
I had been working all afternoon on the essay about Jonathan, trying to figure out what, exactly, I thought about the relationship between the real world and the virtual one, what happens when they collide, whether they should collide. For hours I struggled with the ending. I was trying to be fair to both him and to myself, and having difficulty finding a balance that worked. Piled on the table by my computer were earlier drafts. It was about 6:45; the place closes at 7. Aside from the barista and me, there was only one other person in the room, also working silently away at his computer. Fela Kuti played on the radio.
The door to the coffee shop opened, and there, framed by the darkness outside the door, was Jonathan, like a shadow come to life. He looked exactly as he did in pictures: squinty eyes, jeans and a fleece, blond curls, and his cheeks, a little pink from the cold. He was taller than I thought he would be, taller than I thought 5’10” could be. He ordered a latte, then picked up a section of The New York Times to read while he waited. I could have reached out and touched him. I could have said his name.
Instead, I stared at my computer screen. I hastily turned over my papers so he wouldn’t catch sight of his name or the words “I want you to want me.” I pulled up my email and began madly emailing friends, trying to see if there was anyone out there who could help me figure out what to do in this bizarrely uncomfortable moment. Here was the very intersection of the real and the virtual I had been struggling with on paper, and I knew nothing about it except for the fact that it left me shaking and bewildered. In the very moment I could have lived in the real world, I retreated further into the safety of the virtual one.
“Oh my fucking god,” I typed, “Jonathan Harris just walked into the fucking coffee shop as I was writing a fucking essay about his work!” “Should I say, ‘Hi’?” “Should I tell him I’m the girl who wrote to him on Nerve?” “Should I give him a copy of this thing?” “What would be weird?” “What would be crazy?” “What would be normal?”
No one out there that I was reaching for seemed to know the answers to my questions. “Weird.” “Does he have on that shell necklace?” “You are insane.” “Maybe just say something. What have you got to lose?” “You are so funny.” “Are you sure it’s him?” were the responses I got.
I wanted to tell him I recognized him from “The Whale Hunt.” I wanted to ask him what he was working on. I wanted to tell him I had written about him. I wanted to tell him I was writing about him. I wanted to tell him that I love silence and big spaces and the smell of skunk. I wanted to ask him what it was about The Lives of Others that so moved him, if it really had moved him. I wanted to tell him that none of this had anything to do with him at all.
The barista handed him his latte.
“Thanks,” he said, folding the paper, reaching for the drink, and dropping a few coins into the tip jar. In another moment he was at the door again, his back framed against the darkness. I felt the cold air on my face. He pulled the door closed behind him, the bells jangled. From my side of the window, I watched him turn right and disappear.
With the strange gift of the evening’s non-encounter, I thought I had finally stumbled across the ending to this essay, or rather, that it had stumbled across me. I was fine with the fact that I hadn’t spoken to Jonathan when the opportunity presented itself, and believed it was a good thing not to have broken the barrier that existed between us, the barrier that he wasn’t even aware of. What hadn’t seemed creepy to me before—the fact that I had spent so much time watching Jonathan online—became creepy to me when faced with the actual human being. He was no longer an idea out in cyberspace that I was trying to understand, but a person beside me, living and breathing and potentially vulnerable to the arsenal of information about him with which I could have accosted him, with which I was accosting him on paper. I began to question why I was writing about him if, in writing about him, I was doing the same thing to him that he had done to me and others with “I Want You To Want Me”: spying, exposing, examining fragments of a subject without considering the whole to which it belongs. I rationalized my writing by telling myself that, as an artist with a piece of art on prominent display, Jonathan opened himself up to such criticisms and examinations.
On a basic level, the impulse to watch each other is not creepy. Sometimes we watch each other voyeuristically, sometimes we watch over each other protectively, sometimes those lines are blurred. When it comes right down to it, we are all armchair anthropologists, watching each other and hoping to learn something in the process. The Internet simply facilitates the impulse. The range of things you can learn about a person on the Internet are so different from the range of things you can learn about someone by watching them eat lunch at the table next to you for an hour. One way is a socially acceptable way of watching someone, the other is not. Both reveal intimate and not-so-intimate things about the person being watched. Having now had both real and virtual experiences with Jonathan, however, made me feel as though no matter how I responded to the situation, it would be the wrong response. Without fair warning, Jonathan-the-Real-Person was not supposed to interfere with all the thoughts I had spent so much time thinking about Jonathan-the-Cyber-Idea.
The following afternoon I was seated in the same spot I had been seated at the night before. As I continued trying to further parse where exactly I thought Jonathan’s work was brilliant and kind and empathetic, and where I thought he overstepped his boundaries, I had been watching a YouTube video of Jonathan’s presentation at the TED conference. The video had barely ended and Jonathan’s voice was still in my head when the door to the coffee shop opened and there he was again. He ordered his latte and took a seat on the couch at the back of the room.
With this second chance to face reality, I knew I had to stand up and make my way to the couch where he was seated.
“Are you Jonathan Harris?”
“I thought so. You see, you’re going to think I’m a total crazy person, but really, just five minutes before you walked through that door I was watching a YouTube video of the presentation you did at the TED Conference.”
“Yes, really. I know that sounds nuts.”
“What’s your name?”
“Nail? Like N-a-i-l?”
“No, Nell. N-e-l-l.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Nell.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too. I think your work is really…interesting.”
“Well…good luck,” he said.
“Yes, good luck to you, too.”
I stood up and we smiled at each other for a moment. I think we both meant it.
When I got back to my table I stared at the essay in front of me in which I spent thousands of words nailing Jonathan Harris to some cross of moral judgment I had erected in my mind. I knew that by writing this essay I belonged on such a cross as well and that, having been brought face-to-face with Jonathan Harris and not letting on to the deception I was playing on him, that I should take a second look at myself and what I was doing. I did. But I didn’t feel bad enough to stop nailing him, to go back and tell him the truth. I didn’t feel bad enough to come clean.
Postscript: When I learned this essay was going to be published, I decided to email it to Jonathan so that he wouldn’t be unpleasantly surprised. That same day, he replied with a kind email that made clear both how strange it had been for him to read the essay and his hesitancy over what to make of it. He concluded by wishing me good luck, understandably retracing the lines of his personal space with a polite finality. I, too, wish him good luck, and this time I am sure that we both truly mean it.