Sharing is creepy

A while back, I wrote about the affliction of avatar anxiety, in which one’s self-consciousness about one’s online self amplifies one’s self-consciousness about one’s actual self. Here’s the nub:

Your online self … is entirely self-created, and because it determines your identity and social standing in an internet community, each decision you make about how you portray yourself – about which facts (or falsehoods) to reveal, which photos to upload, which people “to friend,” which bands or movies or books to list as favorites, which words to put in a blog – is fraught, subtly or not, with a kind of existential danger. And you are entirely responsible for the consequences as you navigate that danger. You are, after all, your avatar’s parents; there’s no one else to blame. So leaving the real world to participate in an online community – or a virtual world like Second Life – doesn’t relieve the anxiety of self-consciousness; it magnifies it. You become more, not less, exposed.

So far as I know, avatar anxiety has not yet been declared an actual illness by the American Psychiatric Association, but I have no doubt that it will eventually make the grade, particularly after reading a brief article by Steven Levy, called “The Burden of Twitter,” in the new edition of Wired. Levy says that he “adores” social networking but that at the same time he is consumed with guilt and remorse over the activities of his online self. The guilt comes when he fails to participate – when he doesn’t post to his blog or when he lets his tweetstream go dry. “I worry,” he writes, “that I’m snatching morsels from the information food bank without making any donation.” That’s not so surprising. Much more interesting is the remorse, which he says he feels when he does participate:

As my participation increases, I invariably suffer another psychic downside of social networking: remorse. The more I upload the details of my existence, even in the form of random observations and casual location updates, the more I worry about giving away too much. It’s one thing to share intimacies person- to-person. But with a community? Creepy.

Levy ends by turning his affliction into a knowing little joke: “So now I’m feeling guilty—for being remorseful. Maybe I should complain about it in my next tweet.” The dismissiveness of the joke strikes me as unfortunate, because I think Levy is expressing something important here. I wish, in fact, that the article were longer, that he had spent more time delving into the source of his feeling of remorse and his sense of creepiness (both of which, by the way, I share completely). He does give a hint about that source when he refers to the fact that in the Web 2.0 world we talk intimately, or at least familiarly, not just with people we actually know but with complete strangers (even if they’re sometimes given the designation of “friend”). In describing what it’s like to send tweets to hundreds of faceless followers, Levy writes:

Since I don’t know many in this mob, I try not to be personally revealing. Still, no matter how innocuous your individual tweets, the aggregate ends up being the foundation of a scary-deep self-portrait. It’s like a psychographic version of strip poker—I’m disrobing, 140 characters at a time.

Though he never names it, what Levy is really talking about here is shame. And the shame comes from something deeper than just self-exposure, though that’s certainly part of it. There’s an arrogance to sharing the details of one’s life in public with strangers – it’s the arrogance of power, the assumption that such details somehow deserve to be broadly aired. And as for the people, those strangers, on the receiving end of the disclosures, they suffer, through their desire to hear the details, to hungrily listen in, a kind of debasement. At the risk of going too far, I’d argue that there’s a certain sadomasochistic quality to the exchange (it’s a variation on the exchange that takes place between celebrity and fan). And I’m pretty sure that Levy’s remorse comes from his realization, conscious or not, that he is, in a very subtle but nonetheless real way, displaying an undeserved and unappetizing arrogance while also contributing to the debasement of others.

The power relationships in social networking, and their psychological and social consequences, is a subject that deserves more discussion. I’m glad Levy has focused some attention on the subject.

After I click the publish button for this post, I’m going to go wash my hands.

8 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

8 Responses to Sharing is creepy

  1. “(it’s a variation on the exchange that takes place between celebrity and fan)”

    Exactly. One part of “Web 2.0″ is commoditizing celebrity. This is one of the few real things going on, in the sense of extending the celebrity (aka “A-listers”) to audience relationship, far more widely. That’s what Twitter is – low-level celebrity for the chattering class.

    The above article is basically a writer’s version of “Being a celebrity is weird!”

  2. I think you have put your finger on something real. Let me be unappetizingly arrogant for a moment and repost something I put in my blog “about page” when I started it, comparing blog posting to book writing.

    With a book, you have to get a stamp of approval before inflicting your thoughts on readers (in the form of a publishing contract), so there is something un-egotistical about a book: “I’m not the one claiming that my scribblings are worth reading, someone else thinks they are too”. But with a blog, or other intermediary-free publishing mechanism, there is something about the effort — “Here Are My Thoughts, Listen To Them!” — that is presumptious, almost distasteful.

    With twitter (which I don’t use) I think this presumption may be, in some contexts at least, amplified.

  3. alsomike

    I agree, although I don’t know why we should limit those observations to just online identities. Even in real life, we are faced with the possibility (or the requirement) that we construct our identities in just the same way: revealing facts or falsehoods, who we hang out with, which bands/movies/books, etc. Isn’t it the case that virtually all the types of things that exists on a Facebook profile are directly drawn from what is relevant to the construction of real life identities? These social technologies expose the ultimate nihilistic and narcissistic tendency of the postmodern subject.

    I personally don’t feel ashamed at revealing trivial meaningless details of life; instead, I opt for contempt for the people who want to hear what I had for breakfast :)

  4. alan

    The linked image suffices to display just how fine a line exists between narcissism and self-consciousness, guilt, remorse and all the other described identity challenges in your post!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo_Caravaggio_065.jpg

    Regards, Alan

  5. Clark & Sara

    Insightful, including the comments. Rings true for me.

    At the same time, what’s the alternative? If blogging and twittering are corrupt, what practices are better, more pure? Is this a value-judgment, and if so, what is there that is redeeming or positive? What of the value of relationships, connecting with others, engaging in conversation? To be known requires risk and danger. Are we not simply learning to embrace the consequences of being in relationship, online or otherwise?

    Moreover, even our online selves are not fully self-created. Blogger or Facebook and the media themselves all have a decisive role to play, constraining some kinds and encouraging other kinds of self-disclosure, framing it all. The frame makes the picture. So Google and Twitter have a strong hand in making our online selves too.

    I’m sort of sidestepping the power/celebrity issues that were raised. All the same, I’m curious about your response.

  6. Clark & Sara

    Insightful, including the comments. Rings true for me.

    At the same time, what’s the alternative? If blogging and twittering are corrupt, what practices are better, more pure? Is this a value-judgment, and if so, what is there that is redeeming or positive? What of the value of relationships, connecting with others, engaging in conversation? To be known requires risk and danger. Are we not simply learning to embrace the consequences of being in relationship, online or otherwise?

    Moreover, even our online selves are not fully self-created. Blogger or Facebook and the media themselves all have a decisive role to play, constraining some kinds and encouraging other kinds of self-disclosure, framing it all. The frame makes the picture. So Google and Twitter have a strong hand in making our online selves too.

    I’m sort of sidestepping the power/celebrity issues that were raised. All the same, I’m curious about your response.

  7. Maybe we should all re-read Castiglione’s The Courtier, the handbook for shaping a persona that is viewed and reviewed.

  8. The fact that the online persona may be from a practical stand-point more important than the physical one, leads to the possibility that anonymity may take on the status of a universal human right. I think French law has some kind of “right to be forgotten” bubbling up from common law. So, the idea of a right to anonymity might not be far fetched.