Dear Mr. Smith: My boyfriend and I are going through a breakup. He has moved out - and has started writing a blog about the process. I am a private person and would never publish my diary. I am upset because he may have every right to write about his private life, but he is also writing about mine. What are the ethical rules here?
We tend to think of what you describe as a recent problem, but it is by no means a dilemma invented by the digital age: It's in fact as old as publishing itself. The breakup memoir is a classic (though juvenile) means of revenge. There is a longer delay when you're talking about publishing a book or a magazine article, but the effects for the ex-partner can be just as painful when the thing appears on the stands. Even outside books, propaganda about who is the victim has long been circulated by breakupees through social networks long before social networks were virtual. The PR over breakups has now become so crucial to celebrities that they have lawyers draft their press releases about them.
It seems worse to you because, in this age of easy celebrity, you have suddenly become important enough to be discussed in a public and universally accessible forum. I know it seems weird, but there's nothing you can do about it - just as there was nothing anyone could do about someone's published memoir in 1950.
I'm assuming, of course, that your ex is being truthful in his account - as soon as he becomes libellous or brings your professional reputation down for no good reason, you can put the knife between your lawyer's teeth and hand her the grappling hooks. It is also useful to know that he doesn't have the right to quote from any of your letters or e-mail without your permission. Even though they may be his physical property, you can argue that you own the copyright on the content. (His lawyer may fight this, but at least he will have to fight.)
Legal questions aside, is it ethically right of him? Let's just say that it's at least uncool. It's insensitive to you, and it's undignified and pretentious and self-aggrandizing - but those are attributes so common in Internet culture that they are almost respected there. Young people are so accustomed to displaying and dissecting every bowel movement online that these seem like archaic and irrelevant criticisms.
You can only try to keep your head high and out of it. Whatever you do, don't succumb to the temptation to start publishing a rival account - then you will also look like a child, and coincidentally attract far more attention to his ramblings.
Russell Smith's latest novel, Girl Crazy , was recently released.