Two years ago Emily Gould's personal and professional problems spilled out across several blogs, a New York Post article and, finally, onto the cover of the New York Times Magazine. As strange and interesting as that journalistic moment was, her recently published memoir, And The Heart Says Whatever, fills in the story of a young woman in New York armed with an Internet connection and an addiction to snark power and blog celebrity.
While still working at Gawker, Gould once defended the site's scorched-earth approach to gossip aggregation in an op-ed, stating: "Supermarket tabloids and gossip columns still sell the illusion that stars live in a different world from the rest of us; but the Internet has created a new reality, and we're all living in it together."
Gould's private-is-public maxim is still true, but in her memoir she describes symptoms of a new breed of anxiety. On a subway ride home after a publishing party she recalls composing a Gawker post in her head: "Nothing too mean about the author, whom I liked…So who could I safely mock? The rich people for being rich, I supposed, and the heiress-by-marriage for talking about lactation. And the finance guy for wearing a stupid shirt and for being a tool and working in finance. And myself, for being intimidated by a party held in a rich person's home…I was getting better and better at cranking these things out, better and better at scanning a room or a page and isolating the appropriate things to hate."
Later on in her memoir Gould describes feeling "disgusted with the job and with myself." Is her turnaround part of a new push for propriety?
Recently, Facebook's constant tweaks to its privacy settings have been pilloried everywhere from major media to, ironically, Facebook status updates, but statistics show we would have gotten used to it, even without the social network acquiescing to user demands.
When I ask Benjamin Walker - the radio journalist behind the show Too Much Information - whether there is a backlash against oversharing and monetized openness, he succinctly explains the enduring phenomena as double-edged: "Oversharing is still the new black. [It's]like the force - Darth Vader is just cooler."
Likewise, Gould's book is more about finding equilibrium with daily autobiography than renouncing it altogether, the dark side included. Now that our online footprint is a common ethical question, it's easy to forget that only five years ago crowd-sourcing for approval, revenge or product promotion was a new thing for the general population.
"I'm great at being mean," Gould tells me in an e-mail exchange when I ask her about the differences between her online writing then and now. "I still notice the most damning or unflattering details about a person or situation first; I'm still great at describing those details. The challenge for me is finding a way to deploy that information judiciously - the difference, as I've said before, is between being honest and thinking 'being honest' means being an asshole."
In 2006, the then-24-year-old was an editorial assistant at a publishing house by day and a personal blogger by night, where she discovered, according to her New York Times Magazine mea culpa, the fealty of digital bonding: "As nerdy and one-dimensional as my relationships with these people were, they were important to me. They made me feel like a part of some kind of community, and that made the giant city I lived in seem smaller and more manageable."
When Gawker offered her the - at the time - rare job of paid blogging, she was facing down the prospect of being promoted at work only to edit the autobiography of a bounty hunter with a reality TV show. There was no question: She took the job with the website. "For a young blogger in New York in 2006," she wrote, "becoming an editor at Gawker was an achievement so lofty that I had never even imagined it could happen to me. The interview and audition process felt a little surreal, like a dream. But when I got the job, I had the strange and sudden feeling that it had been somehow inevitable."
She also described, using the metaphor of addiction, the thrill and crash of instant love and hate from the millions-strong Gawker readership. "The metaphor is so exact," she admitted. "Maybe it isn't a metaphor at all."
Near the end of her tenure at Gawker, she began an affair with co-worker Joshua Stein and broke off her long-term relationship with a musician, all of which became fodder for a new blog Gould created, one she believed to be both anonymous and private. In a turn of events indicative of the time and place, this online contretemps would become an in-print battle, first in an article in the New York Post by Stein, and then in Gould's New York Times Magazine article.
It's no secret that the lives and bombastic statements of newspaper columnists have been innervating, and attracting, readers for decades. That feedback loop, as Gould calls it, is an old one, but the speed of the media world she entered into in the mid-aughts was accelerating the loop into 12-posts-a-day dementia.
While Gould did walk away from that, the question is: Is And The Heart Says Whatever an extension of her experience during the boom time of blogging, or an answer to it?
One anecdote involves post-breakup sex after having the ex in question vet an article about their breakup. In that complex vein, Gould's book is the story of just what stories one can tell under the various guises of blogger, journalist or author.
As such, it's a valuable sociological document of a transformative time in journalism and also, thanks to Gould's evocative writing, deliciously readable. From Marxist creative writing classes at the New School to jobs at tourist bars and an unending stream of roach-occupied railroad apartments, Gould's book is the most realistic Manhattan bildungsroman in years. The only shopping stories involve sale racks at H&M.
"I don't know," Gould tells me when I ask whether we're getting better at being public figures as a matter of everyday life. "My hope is that people are developing online identities that are more congruent with their 'real world' selves; in other words, not having a secret dark side that posts nasty comments under an alias. I've written very frankly about my life online; that doesn't mean everyone has to, and I think people run into trouble when they expect, as I once very stupidly did, that there is a way to have part of your online identity be truly 'secret.' My sense is that people younger than I am know how to deal with this stuff better because it has never not been a part of their social lives."
In the final pages of And The Heart Says Whatever, Gould ends with a meditation on "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" by photographer Nan Goldin, an intimate documentation of the photographer's friends that is real, staged, brilliant and fraught with questions.
Gould isn't exactly equating her writing to Goldin's work but there is a hat tip to what the author has learned, and everyone should heed that we can now publish with a click. Writing needs truth but, for the heart's sake, use fake names.
Brian Joseph Davis is the author of the fiction collection Ronald Reagan, My Father and the co-founder of the literary website Joyland. He spends far too much time online.