How Fantasy Becomes Reality

Growing conscious about how media influences individuals and cultures.

Digital Intimacy

Weinergate highlights new rules of engagement in the digital world

Just lately we learned some intimate details about Congressman Anthony Weiner.  His story got me thinking about the social psychology of electronic connections.

Perhaps the most striking facets of the read-write Internet revolution are those that relate to social connection. We share our lives now from the personal to the professional through electronic devices. You really couldn't find a more poignant example of this than the Anthony Weiner story.

The Intimacy of Distance  For me, the details of the Congressman's story are an example of how in our brave new (digital) world, there exists a juxtaposition of the personal and the impersonal---of intimacy and distance. We look into our portals at each other. We watch. We participate. Our laptops, iPhones, and iPads, Droids and Blackberries, wire us into the hive. We socialize about intimate matters from our many points of physical disconnection.

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In this social arena, what is real? Lest we forget the relationships at the core of this story, the Congressman seems to have been very engaged with these relationships, even though, according to him, they were never physical or in-person. It would seem self-evident that purely digital relationships can take on a reality and even an addictive quality.

In real life, how close you are to someone dictates the intimacy of your disclosures. Disclosure is a choice and it is a socially meaningful one. I think the Congressman's story shows us how the rules of disclosure and exposure have changed.

Tweet! Oops?!?! One aspect of the story that intrigues me is the way the Congressman purportedly outed himself, so to speak. He confessed that he meant to send a picture of his private parts to a particular woman, but then accidentally Tweeted the photo...from his official account...to...I guess the world at large.

Public Privates  Given that the Twitter page of a Congressman is one of the most overtly public spaces I can think of, this part of the story was a real head-scratcher to me. I couldn't figure out how a person could accidentally post a picture of his penis in such a public place. I wondered if a clinical psychologist would be a better person to answer that question than a media psychologist. If the question does fall at least partially into my purview, I would have to say that the Congressman may not have fully come to grips with the mix of public and private (pun intended) that exists in the digital mosh pit where we now live.

They say age has its rewards, and mine clearly saved me from a youth wherein one's ridiculous mistakes would be amplified, broadcast and set in proverbial stone forever, thanks to technology. We've all heard stories about the high schooler who sends a nude photo to her boyfriend, only to find the whole world instantly has a copy. The teen brain and irreversible decisions of a highly social nature really are a match made in hell.

Headline: Wolf Waves Man's Own Penis at Him  Of course, the Congressman is not a teenager. Some would say he just acted like one. But, to take a sympathetic stance for a moment, one aspect of Weinergate that made me feel sorry for Anthony Weiner was the giddy abandon with which  reporters covered the salacious details of the story. No one seemed to consider that repeatedly showing explicit photos of the Congressman probably fell outside the parameters of the public's "need to know." Clearly, if there is a line between journalism and gratuitous entertainment, this story crossed it.

In my view, voters have a right to know about a Congressman's pattern of judgments. But (full stop). Does that mean the public has a right to know intimate details about his anatomy? I mean, my goodness, Wolf Blitzer waved a blow up of the explicit photo at the Congressman so many times it became comical. Blitzer even asked Weiner if the underwear in the picture was his.  And all of this with the world watching...and discussing. Images have a way of staying in people's minds. In the past, stories like this were vague.  Now they're explicit.

Shaking the Spider's Web  One-to-many lines of public communication are quickly being replaced or modified. In their place are webs of many-to-many and many-to-some communications. In this flowchart of public and semi-public communications, single-headed arrows have become throwbacks.

On the bright side of all of this are the real conversations that happen as a result of our new global communications arena. Name a topic and we now know what quite a lot of people think about it. We know if our Facebook friends "like" it. We know what the bloggers are saying about it.

One fun example of the conversations that spun off of Weinergate is this bit between Kristen Schall and Jon Stewart in which Kristen quips, "Men need to realize: their penis has far more power over them than it does over us." Not only is this entertainment, but I'd say it's a real conversation starter.

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-june-7-2011/rash-of-penis-photos

Technology has changed the rules of social engagement. Moving forward, it will be a question of adaptation and of how much time it will take until even these new rules are no longer in play.

Karen Dill-Shackleford, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara.

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