Some have argued that Anthony Weiner’s mistake was not to realize that what you say or write or send online is not in some super-secret, personal dimension where the rest of the world cannot tread – but totally, irrevocably public. His delusionary sense of security and privacy came, in part, I think from the context – you’re often online in a private space and tend to regard emails or tweets like a phone call. But, of course, emails are not phone-calls or even letters. Everything has a record, especially digital photographs, and can be dispersed immediately to all four corners of the earth. (Ask yourself: would this mean anything if Weiner had merely had unrecorded sex talks with consenting adults over the phone? No: this was all about the power of a dick pic.) And the older you are, the likelier it is you may get tripped up by this, because the less likely you will be to have learned these disasters in adolescence.
But living online exactly as you live off-line doesn’t work either, as this lovely little video-ad for a new production at London’s ENO illustrates:
We have discovered a new way of living socially, and we haven’t quite figured out how to square it with our other lives. Jonathan Franzen wrote an exquisite piece about this a week or so ago. Money quote:
A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)
But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.
Hence Palin’s obsessive corralling of fans to pad her Facebook stats or swarm Wikipedia to conform reality to her insanity. And I don’t honestly believe that if Weiner were chatting up an admirer in a bar, he would have whipped out his impressive, briefed bulge or exposed his ripped, manly pecs (are you not, by the way, impressed by how in shape these congressmen are?).
In online sex chat, you can disaggregate yourself, figuratively dismember yourself, become a body without a head (or a mind), be a pair of strained underpants, or actually send a picture of your own Favre in seconds. You can become porn. You can enjoy many of the best parts of sex without any complicating emotion or relationship or accountability. And you will not get an STD.
This is not real life. And you are not, in this interaction, a real or rounded person. You are a sexual avatar of sorts. You are your pecs; or your dick. Love is not the object here; “like” is.
The online world creates an outlet for the feelings that sexual adultery or sexual adventure create – but without actual sex, without actual intimacy, without our actual full selves. For gay men, it’s win-win – a harmless online playground where you flirt the hours away and never really get your feelings hurt and remain, as they say in the brutal jungle of online sex, “disease-free”. For straight men, it’s tougher to find willing partners who don’t think you’re creepy (most men and women are just wired differently in sexual matters), but still win-win until wives or girlfriends find out, and they do not see the virtual/real distinction. But, to my mind, the appeal of anonymity and of losing oneself in a virtual sexual encounter is so powerful and easily available it will never cease being popular. It’s as irresistible a mindless outlet as bad television or Angry Birds – and much more interactive and addictive. You can even send pictures of people other than yourself and pretend to be utterly other. Does that make it better or worse? Discuss …
All I can say is that we’re adjustng, slowly, and Weiner was a victim of this shift. Maybe more married or committed couples would do well to talk about it, set some rules, and make some preparation. Judging by the “shocked! shocked!” responses of some writers like Megan McArdle, there are a lot of conversations still to be had.