Is There Such a Thing as Online Private Thoughts?
December 13, 2016
Is There Such a Thing as Online Private Thoughts?

By Lisa Messinger

I didn't mean to get to know Sonia Jean Royce* intimately. It was tempting, though, since, just like her dad, who I'd known when he was her age-20-she was tall, willowy thin, with long flowing blonde locks and a mischievous grin, as I could see on her Facebook page. Just like he'd looked like a beach bum, so much so that he was immediately dubbed Surfer Joe at our highly competitive TV page audience relations job, but was really a genius, so clearly was she. I could tell from her blog.

What is the etiquette for reading a stranger's online personal thoughts you stumble upon accidentally? Would you ever contact someone you only knew from the internet if you thought you could be helpful to them?

I wondered, just because it was "unlocked," was I supposed to be reading her intimate blog and know she sometimes feels so empty she wants to crawl up and sleep for the rest of the semester, and how she's so tired of being both financially and emotionally broke, and how she's completely torn between becoming a dancer or a writer, but deep down doesn't know if she's worth much at either?

It all started innocently enough, Sonia and my virtual relationship, just like millions of yours, mine, and countless other Google searches before it. Where was her dad? He's who I was looking for. Was Joe on Facebook after all these years? Boy, he didn't post much, literally nothing, but I did see he listed Sonia as his daughter with a link to her Facebook page. Click to Sonia. Easy to get caught up in her freewheeling, Bohemian dancer's life at a party school university on the West Coast on her unlocked Facebook page. Then, there it was, a link at the bottom - "My Website," with something about "Sonia's Snippets on Tumblr."           

I had never heard of Tumblr before that, but now of course I know it's mainly the college set's free blog software of choice, where they can not only write their yearnings, but easily post music, art and other links. After reading a few of Sonia's grabbing diary entries (they read just like they were from an old-fashioned journal), I thought, was I reading my own writing?            

Among other things, I had written about Sonia's dad Joe for 18 months when he was 20 and I was 18 and we were both TV pages shepherding audiences in to see TV shows in Hollywood. The stuff Sonia was confessing on Tumblr could have been me writing about her dreamy dad years earlier in a journal that my journalism professors at the University of Southern California helped make sure became a paperback book that was also published as a second edition 20 years later. Now, through a click to Facebook and a further click to Tumblr, even though I've never met her or spoken to her, I know Sonia Jean Royce better than some of my longtime friends (or it gives me the illusion I do). This is one neat chick. One tough cookie. This is most obviously not the sweet, retiring, straight-A, bouncy-haired brunette (like me) offspring I might have sprung with Joe. But I think she seems great and would have loved to have told her that everything's probably going to be OK-especially with writing talent and passion like hers.

Just as you may have found while clicking around cyberspace, when it comes to stumbling around Tumblr and other blog sites, there are lots more deep thought chroniclers out there similar to Sonia. Like me, you may have wandered right into one of your friend's or their kids' tangled beds of feelings. While on another Google search for an old chum, I came across a not necessarily public, but unlocked, blog of Jenny, one of her daughters. The family was going through a tough emotional time and she wrote some harsh things about her mom and also about herself.

Is it OK to "eavesdrop" like this when it is an unlocked account? Would you contact them, their parents or others if you thought they sounded troubled?

In fact, Drew Foster, from the University of Michigan, in the academic journal Teaching Sociology in 2015 referred to the term as "semipublic reflective blog posts" in his article Private Journals versus Public Blogs. In a comparative content analysis of more than 2,000 private reflective journal entries and semipublic reflective blog posts in two large college introductory sociology courses, he found that people take more personal risks when writing privately and more intellectual risks when writing semipublicly.
Of course, as experts recommend, if when online you read suicide threats, details of abuse or statements specifying violent plans, contact authorities and the person's loved ones. However, in more usual circumstances, just like with old-fashioned diaries that had flimsy locks, I think those who do "semipublic reflective blogging" don't desire intrusive comments, even if it is to let them know you think they are an excellent writer. Sonia figured that out on her own in the weeks her blog progressed. Jenny warmed up both to her mom and herself after a few more months of writing. The very best idea of all may be to start a semipublic reflective blog of your own.

*Names have been changed.

Lisa Messinger has a graduate certificate in Strategic Communication Management from Purdue University and is a contracted blogger for the university's Master of Science in Communication program. She is a longtime columnist at Creators Syndicate and before that Copley News Service and a manager of editorial quality assurance within iHeartMedia, Inc. She has won multiple national first-place writing awards and is the author of seven nonfiction books, including "My Thin Excuse: Understanding, Recognizing, and Overcoming Eating Disorders" with Merle Cantor Goldberg, LCSW. Permission granted for use on 


Posted by Staff at 11:32 AM