Privacy is the new celebrity


In a recent interview with Fast Company, Ashton Kutcher – the celebrity-turned-Internet-mogel – said that privacy is more valuable than celebrity. This makes sense to me.

On the Internet everyone is a celebrity. I think Rebecca Blood was the first person to introduce this concept to me when she said Generation Y manages itself like celebrities online, so privacy is not necessary for them. I think the proof of this is that gen Y prefers communicating via social media rather than email; news travels faster, via larger groups of people.

Marketers and publicists have made a science out of getting benefits from being a celebrity—sponsors, a fun network, great opportunities that lead to even greater opportunities. In the age of transparency Gen Y can see how to do this and they don’t need permission from MGM or Capitol Records to act like a celebrity.

I am constantly telling people to get a strong career by managing their professional profile online . The way to a solid career is to be known for what you’re good at. All good workers are celebrities—a far cry from Horatio Alger and the Protestant work ethic, but a much more relevant trope for the new millennium.

Pace University reports that 99 percent of Gen Y is on Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn, and Redbook reports that one out of five moms is blogging. In this era, if you’re at all relevant in this day and age, you can google your name, and you will find photos, quotes, and some sort of history of your life, in a few lines or a few million lines. If you already have everything that being a celebrity can get you, then you can be private.

I am struck by the way Prince William and Kate Middleton handle the media in England.

The paparazzi are all over Kate, who has been dating William for nine years and is pretty much a lock-in to be the next queen of England. (A testament to how in love the media is with William and Kate: The throne will skip William’s father, Charles, because he is so unpopular with the public, and go straight to William.)

William is still livid with the paparazzi because he blames the death of his mom, Princess Diana, on the car chase for photos of her with her date. So after Princess Caroline won a court battle against the paparazzi, William vowed to sue any photographer who violates Kate’s right to privacy. To this end, William is well versed in the laws, and Kate is well-versed in conducting herself in a way that exercises her rights on a regular basis.

This is a great video, for example: Kate is with her sister, both are non-royals at an unofficial event, so it is, by law, considered her private life. On video, Kate asserts (in a relatively kind way) that she is not taking her hand from her face because “this is my private life.”

Once she says that, the photographers leave, because it is true that it’s private, and they have, officially, violated the law. (Still, William pressured Kate to sue, in an effort to keep the paparazzi in line. She won and gave the money to charity.)

William and Kate can do this because they do not need any benefits as celebrities. They will definitely become king and queen, they definitely know enough people for the rest of their lives and do not need to widen their circle of contacts, and they definitely do not need more money. Celebrity is not valuable to them any longer. Privacy is more valuable.

Royal family member Peter Phillips, on the other hand, is eleventh from the throne and almost a commoner. He needs cash, so he sold the rights to his wedding to Hello! Magazine for roughly $1 million.

The problem is that what he really did was sell privacy. Not just his but William’s and Kate’s. There were thirteen photos of Kate in Hello!, which did not violate the law because the publication paid for access.

Now, circle back to the commoners of the Internet. Most people making money from the Internet do, in some way, sell their privacy. I remember, for example, hanging out at SXSW with Guy Kawasaki.

We drove around in a limo to a bunch of parties, and everywhere people swarmed to take photos with Guy. I said, “How can you cope with all this?”

He said, “I don’t mind it, and anyway, it’s my job. And I always remind myself there are way worse jobs than this. At least I’m not a garbage collector.”

He has a point. But still, I ended up sitting in the limo while he went into parties. I needed quiet.

I need quiet, but I am not in a position to guard my privacy like Kate Middleton. I want too much more that mere celebrity status can get me. I want to trade interesting ideas with interesting people. I want to create a constant flow of fun opportunities. I want to write for an audience rather than just for myself. So I have to show myself.

The farmer and I have this conversation all the time: He wants to be with a woman who is intellectual and worldly and who will live on the farm in the boondocks. Very few women would choose this life without being able to make this life better by supporting the family financially. And the way I support myself is writing about myself, and the way I stay engaged in the world is to write about it. Which means I give up my privacy in exchange for being able to live where I want and write about what I want. It seems like a good trade to me.

Did you know that on a farm, dinner is lunch and supper is dinner? The only people who lunch, I guess, are city people. I mix this up all the time and my kids correct me, which is how I imagine it is for immigrants who cannot learn the new language as fast as their children.

Anyway, here is a photo of the farmer and me having dinner on the farm. And it’s telling that I share a private moment, of my own volition, because I’m not next in line for the throne.

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  1. LPC
    LPC says:

    You never fail to surprise me. A) I agree with you on privacy. Actually that doesn’t surprise me. B) You appear to have color-coordinated the farmer with his chair. That does:).

  2. Anna
    Anna says:

    Can you address what made the farmer change his views about privacy re: his appearance your blog?

    I thought that would be what this post was getting at, and it never happened. You put together the perfect setup for this discussion, and then didn’t go through with it.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Good point. Basically, though, we went through the discussion that I laid out here. It took months. Maybe it took years. I’m not sure. We have an understanding that writing about my life is something that I have done since I was four, so I’m not going to stop now. And I’m lucky that I can get paid to do it.

      At first he just wanted me to stop writing. But he realized that my ability to make a good living and not have to leave the farm is unique, and helps him have the life he wants — to farm and have a family.

      Also, he wants me to be happy, and it’s hard to imagine me being happy and not being able to write. It’s like him wanting to farm and not being able to marry someone who would interfere with his farming.

      Also, he is used to worry about what people would think about us if I wrote about us. But he is finding, I think, that it’s a relief to not hide stuff. It’s nice to just be honest about who we are and try to be better and better as life goes on.

      I have found in my life that the problems I have because of the blog are not actually because of the blog — they were there all the time but the blog forces me to stop ignoring them. I think the farmer has found the same thing about his life.

      I hope this makes sense. I hope he is not frustrated that I just tried to explain his point of view. I’m sure he would explain it differently.

      Finally. I feel very very grateful that he is willing to let me keep writing the blog how I want. It’s extremely generous and supportive and trusting and maybe this is ending up being a love letter to the farmer…


  3. Regina
    Regina says:

    I like this topic because I do sometimes worry about privacy with my blog and my life. I realize that I have to put myself out there for my personal branding to work. Nice hat :)

  4. dl
    dl says:

    That’s because she’s been hanging out with Maria Killam, of And is that a bottle of Wollersheim on the table? Yummm.

    Nice post, P!

  5. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    Kate is a commoner from the upper middle class. I wonder if she can become Queen of England even if she does marry William.

  6. jacqjolie
    jacqjolie says:

    I do believe the farmer is wearing cornflower blue shorts? :-)

    I reveal a lot of financial information and slightly bizarre stories about my family on my blog just because that’s what it’s about and I think it provides credibility. Also to me, numbers tell a story just as pictures do. I can tell what either a company or an individual is about by looking at nothing but how they make and spend money. At first I was hesitant to go into this level of exposure or detail but I don’t like pretending or people who aren’t WYSIWYG. If one of my embarrassing posts helps even one person make the move to get out of debt or fulfill some of their dreams, it’s worth it. And that’s one of the things I want to be known for in my little niche – no secrets.

  7. lynne whiteside
    lynne whiteside says:

    BTW – do you know how much a ‘garbage man’ makes in this city, let alone stock in the company?

    I’m not all that concerned about my privacy, if I don’t put it out there then it’s still private.

  8. Kate
    Kate says:

    I sometimes wonder what my blog would be like if I moved to the country (which I fantasize about doing). My strange, random, constant interactions with people here in Manhattan definitely inform the content. And despite the relationships I develop and the information I access online, it still feels a little like many great stories are rooted in more physical interactions. I mean, other than fingers on the keys.

    And not everyone is online. My parents and their friends don’t have blogs. They aren’t even on Facebook often. And they’re still very much alive and influential.

    So plenty of people have privacy without any effort at all. And even as a blogger, I have the ability to choose which aspects of my life to reveal, and which to keep private. Though sometimes something’s simply too good to conceal.

    But I still love the photo of you dining.

  9. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, actually. I don’t think you have privacy in the country. Everyone knows you. For example, my ex took the kids to the pool in Darlington. I have talked with one person who works at the pool. On the phone. And my ex walked up to the window, without a pass, and here’s what happened:

    The kids have a pass and I need to buy one.

    Aren’t you the kid’s dad?


    Don’t you have a pass?


    Oh, those are Penelope’s kids, right?

    My ex (who lived with me in LA and NYC and now comes to Darlington) was absolutely floored, and so was I. Because in the city there is anonymity. There’s too much going on for people to focus on the new person in town. People just don’t care. And people move in and out of a city, so no mishap feels like it’s for life.

    In the country, everyone knows everything about everyone, very fast. So I think it’s the city people who give up their privacy online. I have a hunch that compared to the level of anonymity that city people have, country people don’t have the privacy to give up.


  10. Alex @ Happiness in this World
    Alex @ Happiness in this World says:

    Your reply to a commenter above summarizes my own feelings about privacy well. In America, a country built on the sanctity of individual rights, privacy is a very big deal. And yet, what information do we give away online that’s so important to keep private: our purchasing preferences? Our personal beliefs? Our mistakes? Why should we want to hide any of those? And if we do, how hard is it, really?

    When you say the problems you’ve had because of this blog aren’t because of this blog but were in fact present the whole time, I think you’re right on. One nice benefit of putting it all out there for others to read is it incentivizes you to behave in a way that’s esteemable. I wrote a post you might find interesting about the effect of trying to tell the truth here:

  11. Barchbo
    Barchbo says:

    I didn’t realize until you posted this photo how much I based my image of farmers on Michael Landon and Merlin Olsen from Little House on the Prairie.

    And are you two wearing matching pants/shorts?

    Glad you are happy and everyone is adjusting. Because life seems to be all about constant adjustments, sometimes.

  12. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Alex, when you post a url (which you do almost every time :) it goes into moderation. And then my web admin approves it. (Or, in this case, I just approved your comment.) You can send an email directly to me if you want stuff approved immediately.


  13. malinger
    malinger says:

    “Ashton Kutcher – €“ the celebrity-turned-Internet-mogel – said that privacy is more valuable than celebrity??” maybe Ashton should shut the f*ck up then..

  14. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Just curious— you’ve posted a photo to show that you’re ok with not preserving your privacy. It’s interesting that the viewer can’t see your face. It’s hidden much in the same way to how celebrities often hide their faces from the paparazzi. Great post– I love your writing. But this did strike me. I know you’ve shown other photos of yourself, such as of your wedding. However, the topic of this post, together with this photo is what I noticed.

  15. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    Another intriguing post, Penelope. I was just talking to my friend Leslie about privacy, only ten minutes ago.

    I think there are two kinds of privacy – the kind that holds back information about what we are DOING, and the kind that masks what we are THINKING. Or more importantly, FEELING. I’m an ex-hippy, and consequently, wary of Big Brother. But I also know, if we wish to do business in this country, our society doesn’t allow financial and personal identity privacy. So I grudgingly accept the rules. (I just found out my cell phone uploads all my phone numbers to a central server, at night, while I’m asleep! OMG! They know my friends!)

    Now, the masking of intentions and feelings, that’s another story. I’ve always felt our inner selves should be out in the open, because feelings don’t lie. It’s our feelings, and honesty about them, that unites our souls. So in that regard, I’m not afraid of losing my internal privacy because I do NOT want to be separated from the human race. I am definitely a joiner in that regard. Even on the internet, as I creep into social media.

    That’s why I cling to your blog, Penelope. You share your FEELINGS, and I can identify with them. Besides that, your emotional journey is just so damn interesting! It’s drama, as opposed to just content. I’ve mentioned that before, but it’s true. I’m a people person, and that’s what you write about – PEOPLE!

    That said, I now feel as if I know you. But do I? I’m sure, not enough. Yet, I feel as if we’re friends. Is that your intention? And how do you feel about exposure going one way – OUT to the blogshere. In the face-to-face world, exposure goes both ways, even when words drop away.


    PS: As you know, Irving Podolsky is not my real name. But then again, I am NOT my name. I am, what I write about. Just wanted to be honest about that.

  16. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    1) Delighted to finally get a chance to see the Farmer.

    2) The Lunch/Dinner/Supper thing has always confused me. I went to Wikipedia for an explanation, and it turns out that in the rural Upper Midwest (I believe Wisconsin qualifies), dinner is a larger noon-time meal, and supper is a lighter evening meal. I guess the terms originate from the old country (Northern Europe).

  17. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    This is true. My wife is German, so I’ve been to Germany many times. In that country, the main “Hot” meal is served at noon, followed by coffee and cake at four, followed by deli and sandwiches at seven.


  18. Office Secrets
    Office Secrets says:

    Three things:

    1. I’m glad you’re back, and
    2. This was part of the reason I created my website. Well, it was for me intially, but it serves for others, and
    3. I go back and forth between not caring what the world reads and caring too much. Ultimately, I censor myself a bit, but enjoy my freedom to blog, rant, and tweet ’til my fingers are raw!

  19. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    The Royal Family is a bad example to use to illustrate the privilege of privacy. Do you know, for instance, that HM The Queen Elizabeth II receives £7.9 Million from the civil list (it is further estimated that the Royal family costs us £41M or so to keep)? This covers the expenses of the Royal Households, a complicated concept to explain in a comment on a blog. In return, so to speak, she serves several constitutional and public duties. Nobody has ever willingly violated her privacy. But then she hardly goes boogeying in Boujis with her hangers-on. She knew the role she was born to fulfill and defined her life accordingly.

    The generation of Prince William however is a bit confused. They want the privileges of being royals, but also the freedoms of being a commoners. However while the latter freedom is being enjoyed, their security detail checks out a venue and sometimes riff-raff may be cleared off ahead of the Princes’ arrival. How do you square this muddle with the demands for privacy? Hence the constant negotiation between Prince William and the paparazzi. Sometimes one party wins, sometimes the other. Hardly a model for commoners to base their decisions on.

    However if you are really keen on how selling out privacy on one’s own terms can “work” for some, I suggest you look up “Jordan” or “Katie Price”. She is reportedly worth £40M, and gets paid every time her pictures appear anywhere. And every time her pictures appear somewhere, the red-tops and the glossies sell, so she can up the price of her pictures next time. And so it goes. She even raises funds for a charity. Works for her. Who are we to judge?

    The point about privacy is that it is highly personally calibrated and granular. I may discuss my work but not my clients’ names. I may discuss what I ate for dinner but not whom I ate it with. Being able to hold back what is precious to oneself – no matter what the “reward” on offer – is the privilege. And we don’t have to be celebrities to do that.

  20. Troy
    Troy says:

    “Did you know that on a farm, dinner is lunch and supper is dinner? The only people who lunch, I guess, are city people.”

    Yep, except there’s more to the story on “lunch.” I grew up on a farm in Minnesota. For us there was a “Lunch” — it was a very small meal that was eaten around 3:30 or 4:00, usually out in the field. Dinner was at 7:00, after the cows were milked.

    I have many fond memories of getting into the pickup with my grandma and driving a Mason jar of raw milk drawn from the bulk tank and a couple of big sugar cookies or maybe a ham sandwich (homemade hamburger bun, butter from the creamery, a thick slice of ham) and a thermos of coffee to my grandpa on the tractor. Invariably, my brothers and I would eat most of the cookies, but Grandpa never seemed to mind.

  21. Mark
    Mark says:

    For us (I grew up on a Wisconsin farm) lunch is when company comes over in the evening and generally consisted of a sandwich and coffee. Confuses my Coastie brother-in-law to this day.

  22. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think the most important aspect of privacy is control. Control over the content and how it’s disseminated or not. We all desire control of our private life and details to varying extent whether it is online or offline. Sometimes we get ‘control’ and sometimes we don’t and many times it doesn’t really matter. I think privacy becomes a real issue when you expect it for whatever reason and you don’t get it. I like the photo ‘justice’ – two for the royalty and two for the commoners.

  23. Heather
    Heather says:

    I don’t know how people decide what they will reveal about themselves online. However I think that decision is very different in principle to how they decide what to reveal about close family and friends, especially kids. Conversations and interactions between these people are privelaged and I really believe permission should be sought and granted before anything is published about close friends and family. I don’t see this with mommy bloggers for example who sell their families’ privacy online. Most are not even aware that this is what they are doing. Surely their kids are too young to consent to their private lives being made public.

  24. sadya
    sadya says:

    i asked two people who tweet & blog under pseudonyms. interestingly one is a Brit living in Asia (he’s on BC), another is an Asian living in Ireland. both said somewhat the same thing ,under their real names, they experienced prejudices & even threats which they wouldn’t have normally , had they talked abt (the same topics) in face-to-face interactions. when u bring up the case of Prince William & his fierce protectiveness of his privacy, the aspect you bring in to is that giving up privacy could have life-threatening consequences. yes i know of the threats you received when u tweeted abt the miscarriage. so for me , the reason to treasure privacy is that the lack of it could cause you harm (not just problems/embarrassment for family & friends).

  25. Y
    Y says:

    I thought that Charles couldn’t be king because he got a divorce? not really the point i know but just wondering…

    love your blog!!

  26. A
    A says:

    Will’s got it right, and good on him for being so protective of his GF. (Couldn’t get sound on the video – darned speakers…)

    I grew up in the deep South and we had dinner at noon and supper around 6p. Sometimes we’d have a lunch around 3 or 4p; my Brit friends told me is tea time over there, but Southerners drink tea* all the time, so the concept of a time for tea was foreign to me. (HA! I rhymed!)

    In the Pacific NW now, and they say lunch & dinner (noon and evening, respectively) and use words like cupboard (instead of cabinet) and soda (instead of coke/pop/cola). They also snack A LOT, with no designated time.

    Cute dinner photo! Farmer does not dress like “a farmer.” Or what I think of as “a farmer,” I suppose.

    *Yes, it’s iced tea, but still tea!

  27. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot says:

    Sometimes it seems as if certain celebs act like they don’t want publicity in order to create more of a buzz around themselves. I think that’s advisable because when you start selling your story every time you can it gets boring fast. People who do anything for money aren’t really that interesting are they? People who really are interesting and conduct themselves with a vestige of privacy are much more sought after.

    I don’t want to be a celeb at all but if you want have a blog you have to put yourself out there for better or worse.

    Bon appetit!

  28. Jimmy
    Jimmy says:

    When the gen Ys start hitting their 40s they’ll understand. But it will be impossible to erase the past off the internet.

  29. Devon
    Devon says:

    :) There might be treasury documents that say William will be doing more public work, but he’s not next in line to the throne. The only way that would happen is if something happens to Charles or he renounces. It’s a rumor. People love William and he reminds us all of his mom, but Charles will be King.

  30. econobiker
    econobiker says:

    “William and Kate can do this because they do not need any benefits as celebrities.”

    and because they live in the UK / Euro market which has far more privacy laws than the US.

  31. Linda Ryan
    Linda Ryan says:

    I agree with Mark W – the reason people get hot under the collar about privacy is a fear and sometimes a reality that they may lose control of this information. Even for Gen Y, it is not great if an employer knocks them back because of an ill-judged photo or comment on facebook. Interestingly, sometimes, as in your case, Penelope, sharing details about your personal life has made it clear that sometimes the wider public has some pretty strong ideas about what should be shared and what shouldn’t be – and yet the same people appear to be avid consumers of rags which do not else but seek to relate salacious details of the lives of celebrities (ie it is only okay if private details are divulged by a third party). Rather worried about American interest in general in the Royal Family.

    In Australia, lunch is called dinner on farms as that is the main meal of the day. If you are shearing you would be in the shed by 7am at the latest, be hanging out for smoko around 9:30, have dinner at midday, then afternoon tea around 4pm. Your evening meal which would be lighter is simply called tea. You are dead to the world at the time anyone else would be having supper. However, if you own a substantial property eg the size of Texas, you probably still have lunch. My Protestant mother-in-law told me that speaking of lunch as dinner was a Catholic thing ie lower class thing to do. Good thing I come from a long line of peasants…

  32. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I think privacy is a modern invention, most especially when it comes to sex. After all, queens were put to bed by the entire court on their wedding nights, with some number often bedside to confirm consumation.

    At Plymoth, seven people to a shack the size of my bathroom, babies were conceived at a terrific rate with no closed doors.

    The village just got bigger, that’s all.

  33. john
    john says:

    I don’t know about that, i am sure that Ashton would easily change his mind about what was more important if he were dead broke. Just my two cents..

  34. Hattons
    Hattons says:

    Never did I think I would see the day when the star of ‘Dude, where’s my car’ would become an internet mogul! But fair play to the guy, if he makes a success of his venture. However I bet when he was trying to earn some money before he was famous he was all for stuffing his privacy to become the celebrity so I find it hard to take the guy serious.

    The only time celebrities want privacy is when they know they have done wrong, or they are having a bad day. The very next day you will see them trying to promote a film or whatever by jamming their faces in every camera available.

    And as for people complaining about their boss seeing an inappropriate comment they have made on the likes of facebook, then that is their fault and their own stupidity – they know who can see the comments and are all too willing to distribute comments and photos and other personal information, right up to the moment they realise they had accepted their boss as a friend.

    The word ‘world wide web’ says it all.

  35. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    Actually, I think what might have happened to Edward VII, may happen to Charles. As Victoria’s oldest son, he didn’t ascend to the throne till he was 59. He only lived to 66, and if his mother lived another 10 years, he would have died before her. As it was, Edward’s younger brother George became George V, and was Charles’ great-grandfather.

  36. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    Why not? The Queen Mum, William’s great-grandmother was a commoner when she married George VI.

  37. Francie Cooper
    Francie Cooper says:

    I’ve just started reading your blog and the idea of privacy struck a cord with me. I’m a Life Coach in private practice, have my own blog,( and struggle with how much to reveal about my personal life. Does anyone reading really want to know? Or does revealing snippets (your farm dinner for instance) make it more appealing? When does it slip into TMI?

    I love coaching Gen Y so I’d really appreciate some feedback from your perspective.

  38. Hope
    Hope says:

    Having grown up in the rural Midwest (U.P. of Michigan), I can attest that dinner is lunch and supper is dinner. @Linda Ryan…my family is half Protestant and half Catholic and both described them that way.

    Also want to confirm there is no privacy in rural areas. The story of the ex at the pool doesn’t surprise me a bit.

    Good post!

  39. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    I think being responsible is all we can do to keep our privacy online. Everything spreads faster on the internet without our control.

    By the way, your photo with the farmer is so sweet. :)

  40. theWiz
    theWiz says:

    I think this is a one of your better posts in awhile. The funny thing is that it is not so much the privacy aspect that caught me it is the leveraging of social media to be selling yourself to that network to make contacts, to create great opportunities, to share great ideas. In these days it is not just selling your professional self it is selling that entire package and the only way to do that is to tear down those privacy walls. It is a very interesting concept and very scary at the same time. But I think you are right, you don’t sell yourself by projecting a polished resume and a limited view of your world, you do it by reaching out and being honest. By being honest yourself you knock down other peoples walls and truly start to create those connections. It is a scary concept, but thank you for the reminder to a genXr of the power of social media.

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