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Internet's gaze strips away any hope of privacy

 [By Jiao Haiyang/China.org.cn]

It's not been an easy life for celebrities recently, especially those who can't keep it in their pants. From Manchester United footballer Ryan Giggs being exposed as the target of a possible blackmail attempt by his ex-lover, Imogen Thomas, to the revelations about former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's illegitimate child, there have been plenty of red faces in grand mansions.

It doesn't matter whether it's politicians, actors, or even ordinary people. Once they are caught up in affairs with celebrities, the Internet will strip them of their dignities and turn them into absurd fools.

In the UK, courts tried to impose injunctions that can protect the privacy of figures like Giggs, in whose case the court forbids the British press from naming the people involved. But these legal attempts have been overturned by the power of the Internet, particularly influential microblog services.

In China, celebrity news and reports of officials' mistresses spread like wildfire through Weibo.

For most people, this kind of gossip is ultimately meaningless. After all, how does the love life of someone they've never met affect them? But we can't help following gossip because of curiosity and excitement.

The popularity of the Internet has created a record-breaking amount of onlookers, and consequently broadened the open extent of the private affairs. Private lives are no longer limited to individual interests.

Celebrity gossip has been part of Western culture since the 1920s and even earlier, but on the Chinese mainland it's now inextricably tied in with the open nature of the Internet.

The media and cyberspace expose people's behavior, and demonstrates private life's huge impact on public life. Personal affairs are no longer individual issues; instead, they trigger a public chase. The public and media follow every revelation closely, as though these trivial affairs were matters of the utmost public morality. In turn, all are facing the possibility that they will be exposed one day, which reinforces people's social anxiety.

The phenomenon can be viewed from two aspects.

On the one hand, the public figures today are not always traditional ones. For example, Wang Gongquan, a businessman who eloped with his girlfriend, suddenly became famous overnight. In the case of Internet celebrities like the invincible "Sister Feng" and the "sexy" Sister Furong, these people are trying to attract public attention by acting at the edge of social norms.

On the other hand, the public figures are more strictly regulated. The public supervision is everywhere, making any profligate behavior powerful enough to ruin a person's life. This requires the public figures to be very careful of their behavior and words. It's impossible, even with the most heavy-handed efforts, to keep a private scandal from reaching the ears of the public.

Individuals, the public, the media and the Internet need to control themselves and keep calm. Such affairs are not entirely private anymore, but nor should they be everyone's business.

We need both to be aware of how easily our own foibles might be exposed and to respect the privacy of others while possible.