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8 October 2021

Can anyone “steal” your life from social media?

The viral story “Who Is The Bad Art Friend?” shows we don’t own the versions of ourselves we project online.

By Sarah Manavis

Can art imitate life too closely? On Tuesday (5 October), the New York Times Magazine asked this question when it published a 10,000-word piece entitled “Who Is The Bad Art Friend?”, a story about an ongoing legal case between two women from the same writers’ group based in Boston. 

It all started when one of the women, Dawn Dorland, chose to donate a kidney to a stranger in 2015. She documented the process in posts to a private Facebook group, sharing her feelings about doing something so selfless, and posting the letter she’d sent to the recipient of her kidney. Another (more successful) writer in the group, Sonya Larson, saw Dorland’s posts and didn’t engage with them: she found them self-aggrandising. A few years later, Dorland discovered that Larson had written a short story about a woman who donated her kidney, and that it included, almost verbatim, Dorland’s letter to the kidney recipient. (Later, Larson edited the story to make the letter less recognisably Dorland’s). Larson’s story was about a wealthy white saviour who obsessively sought validation for donating her kidney to an Asian woman. Dorland is now suing Larson. The New York Times story went viral, referred to simply as “Bad Art Friend”.

Bad Art Friend is the latest in a long line of moments in popular culture where the question is asked: do we own our stories? In July, the writer Alexis Nowicki suggested in Slate that details of her life were used as the foundation for the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person”; over the summer, A’Ziah King, whose viral Twitter thread became the subject of the film Zola, spoke about having her life twisted into something unrecognisable. Last autumn, the supermodel Emily Ratajkowski wrote a viral essay for The Cut about paying tens of thousands of dollars to buy back an image of herself that she had posted on her Instagram account. A similar – yes, viral – essay by the influencer Caroline Calloway’s ex-friend, Natalie Beach, also in The Cut, was published a year before, claiming that Calloway had repurposed Beach’s life story – sometimes with her consent – in order to gain a cult following.

While this question is currently being considered in a very contemporary, online context, it’s nothing new. Literature has always debated the ethics of using people’s lives in fiction. Ernest Hemingway even complained about it to F Scott Fitzgerald. Art often reckons with this idea directly: in Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, Frances writes a short story based on the life of her flatmate, Bobbi. In the sitcom 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s character Liz gets in trouble for using another character’s personality as the basis for her bestselling book (to make things square, she gives him her life rights). Both Bad Art Friend and Alex Nowicki’s article in Slate prompted a slew of authors to argue that fiction fundamentally steals from real people’s real experiences – and always has done.

But this debate has intensified in recent years, as so many of us now document so much of our lives on the internet. Dorland’s kidney donation story was cribbed from her Facebook posts; Nowicki’s details were lifted from her Facebook profile; King had a film adapted from her Twitter thread; Ratajkowski’s images were repurposed from her Instagram. When we record our thoughts and experiences in this way, our selves can arguably become defined commodities, things we can point to and say: that’s me, you can see it, this is mine. Social media has exacerbated this idea of self ownership, because it provides us with a ledger of our lives that exists for public consumption.

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[see also: How 9/11 internet culture created a blueprint for modern conspiracy theories]

Before social media, of course, people still felt aggrieved if their life stories were taken and used for someone else’s art. But it was difficult to clearly prove this had happened, and they had few opportunities to object. With the internet, it has become much easier to “prove” that someone has peered over our shoulder, looked at our life and “taken” it. When we read about it happening to others, it’s easy to relate to – anyone could do it to your Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

The grand trick of social media – capitalising on the validation many sought before its existence – is that it encourages us to believe we are all truly unique. This is what motivates us to post even inconsequential details from our lives: to make a collage of our individuality online. While to some degree, this is true (for example, I’m certain I’m the only “Sarah Manavis” in the world), even the most niche aspects of our lives have almost always been lived by someone else (I’m not the first American woman to move to the UK and become a writer) or have at the very least spoken to a universal experience (my life could be flattened out to apply to any expat). 

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This feeling of having your life stolen is hard to reckon with. For Dorland, seeing her own words parroted back to her understandably felt like theft. But is she the only person in the world to have donated a kidney in this way? Just because she posted it publicly, was it unique? I’m sure it hurt to see her actions represented negatively, but is it wrong for Larson to have seen this story as part of a bigger social trend of white saviourism? 

It may be challenging or even painful to do so, but we must accept the limits of our individuality and try to understand that most of the time there is no real harm to someone else interpreting our lives differently to how we see ourselves. We do not own the things that happen to us, just because we document them for the world. 

Bad Art Friend touches on many complex aspects of human psychology that cannot be summarised here (the motivation behind bitchy group chats, the point when eccentric behaviour becomes harassment or stalking, the neuroses that could cause someone to sincerely ask the question: “Do writers not care about my kidney donation?”). But at its core, Bad Art Friend points to a popular delusion, widespread even after 30 years of the internet and nearly 20 years of social media. In reality, what we put online is not us staking our claim over who we are, but relinquishing parts of ourselves to whoever might happen to come across them.

[see also: What online discourse gets wrong about therapy]

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