The Decline and Fall of the Private Self
Once upon a time, people kept secrets. Today's tell-all bloggers and MySpace denizens have made the notion of a guarded personal life feel obsolete. What effect does such exposure have on the psyche?
By May 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
R= AKA Threesome Dude. Somebody I would rather forget about.
RS= My new office bf with whom I am embroiled in an office sex scandal.
W= Sugar daddy... Keep trying to end it with him, but the money is too good.
—Posted May 11, 2004, by Jessica Cutler, washingtonienne.blogspot.com
Jessica Cutler wrote a handy guide to keeping her love life straight and posted it on The Washingtonienne, a blog about her sexual adventures as a young Hill staffer. Five days later, on Cutler's 26th birthday, Wonkette, a political gossip site that draws about 80,000 daily visitors, linked to the blog. Wily Internet users easily deduced the identities of her high-powered paramours, and Cutler was soon denounced in the press as a privileged young woman who was cynical, loose, and proud of it.
Prostitution may be the world's oldest profession, but thinly disguised blogs about sex-for-cash are a new—and growing—phenomenon. Though she was fired from her job in the Senate, Cutler was rewarded generously for her extreme public disclosures with a centerfold in Playboy, a $300,000 book contract, and an HBO deal. She appearred in the papers in January, as Robert Steinbuch, the former Capitol Hill lawyer she identified as "RS"—her "current favorite"—sued her for $20 million. (The court date isn't yet set.)
A leading lady of tell-all bloggers, Cutler came to fame just as online diaries began to proliferate. They're now a nation more than 65 million strong, collectively dishing a lot of personal dirt. Bookstores and talk shows have long trafficked in the confessions of not-necessarily-notables, but the Internet has democratized and amplified personal gut spilling. Web sites such as postsecret.com and mysecret.tv bring bathroom-wall-variety confessions, such as "I only love two of my children," "I had gay sex at church camp," and "I pee in the sink," to—and from—the masses. Meanwhile, teenagers telegraph their deep thoughts and petty observations for YouTube prowlers hungry for novelty and diversion.
Such waves of revelation are fast eroding our notions of private identity. People have always been inclined to share their secrets, to unburden their consciences, and to show off, but in times past these admissions were aimed at confidants—priests, soul mates, diaries. Telling secrets can be therapeutic, but when confession targets the masses, what's really being processed, and who benefits from the disclosure?
Ironically, humans now enjoy more privacy than ever, says Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, president of the University of Haifa and author of Love Online: Emotions on the Internet. "Two hundred years ago, when people lived in villages or very dense cities, everyone's behavior was evident to many and it was extremely hard to hide it," he says. Today, e-mail and "chatting" online allow for completely anonymous interactions. We can talk and make plans without the whole household or office knowing. But if we're so able to keep things to ourselves, then why are we doing exactly the opposite?
For those engaging in online conversations or message-board discussions, the Internet can be more disinhibiting than the stiffest drink. Electronic disclosure eliminates the normal self-censorship mechanisms that have evolved over human history—and therein lies the primary explanation for the Jessica Cutler phenomenon.
"We've been shaped to be very sensitive to each other on a face-to-face basis," says Daniel Wegner, a Harvard psychologist. When someone is in front of you, you can read how they're reacting to your admissions, keeping track—as you're hardwired to do—of whether they're comfortable, disapproving, or rapt. But when you're alone in a room and typing on a computer, explains Wegner, it's easy to forget there's somebody on the other end of the line and become oblivious to the consequences of sharing information. "When people post to blogs, they may be thinking, 'I'm not going to worry too much about who the target of my revelation might be; I'm just going to go ahead and let go.' " Hairdressers, bartenders, and strangers on a train have long been recipients of anonymous confessions, but they're also participants who keep you from getting too lost in your head or revealing too much.
This is the trap that snared Cutler, who never expected an audience beyond her close, like-minded friends. "The big problem as I saw it was using e-mails, since those could get forwarded," says Cutler. "I thought my blog was a more private way to share stuff."
In exchange for his brutal honesty, he's suffered a barrage of online criticism and mockery. Though he considers most of his life's work to be infused with autobiographical elements, he did pause before writing the blog and a memoir: "I thought, do I want everyone to know the deep recesses of my sexuality, my parents, all that stuff? The fear was that then people would judge me, that perhaps they wouldn't like me. But I didn't want to act out of fear, so I asked myself, is there a positive reason to do this? And that would be connecting to people who appreciate me expressing myself and revealing my weaknesses."
Perhaps we simply have less to be ashamed of in an increasingly free-to-be-you-and-me era. "More and more people believe they are entitled to behave according to their own values and not the norms prevailing in society," Ben-Ze'ev says. That means there is less of a need to keep a protected private self, free from the scrutiny of strangers. Each of us has our own (sometimes curious) sense of what's appropriate: Cutler is more embarrassed about a blog entry in which she gushed about some now-outdated earrings than the ones about taking money from paramours. "I didn't tell them to pay me—that's their shame," she says. "I'm single. I can date as many people as I want. Apologizing for that would be stupid."
Nor do self-disclosers feel sheepish about craving the spotlight. "I've always thought of myself as being in a movie, that my world is larger than life," says Schaeffer. "There's a way in which our lives seem valid only if they obtain some veneer of media recognition," says Jefferson Singer, a psychologist at Connecticut College. A blog makes your mundane life into an electronic saga that turns you into something more than an anonymous drone in a technological and impersonal world. "You now have a story and perhaps you've even become the focus of other watchers and listeners," says Singer. "You become a character, a speaking part, in the larger theater of society." Even if you're playing the role of the loser—blogging about being unhappy and unattractive—at least you're part of the show.
Schaeffer is contemplative about the vitriol his blog has garnered. "I wonder why I am not an antihero. Maybe it's because other people purely play the schlub, whereas I claim my successes as well as my weaknesses. I embrace both."
What does all this gut spilling do for the spillers? Is it healthy to expose your struggles, fears, and adventures to an audience? In the second of his bestselling memoirs, Dry, Augusten Burroughs explains why public disclosure, at least in front of a small, like-minded audience, is so appealing to the confessor: "It's like some sort of love affair, stripped of the courtship phase. I feel bathed in safety."
He's right: Telling secrets has been shown to have a positive effect on the person who's doing the confessing, because keeping them requires a lot of mental work. Wegner has found that actively trying to suppress a thought (like trying not to think about a white bear) actually seems to repeatedly refresh your mental browser and bring it to mind. "It's almost as though there's a little corner of the mind that's looking for the very thing you're trying not to think about," he says. Sharing the secret, though, "unprimes" the information, freeing the mind to focus on other things and breaking the cycle of worry. By recounting their sins and lapses, the AA member and the blogger can unload pesky thoughts and mull more productive ones for the rest of the day.
Recording concerns in a journal or similar medium can be particularly effective. "When people write about secrets, they report feeling better; they acknowledge the events and can organize them," says Jamie Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. In one study, he asked subjects to write for 15 minutes a day for several days. They showed positive changes in immune function and psychological well-being. Other research shows that when couples are asked to keep reflective diaries in which they write about their relationship, they stay together longer.
Pennebaker isn't convinced that these benefits apply to public disclosers, because bloggers, who write for an audience, probably won't engage in the same level of emotional processing as they would if writing just for themselves. Though their audience may be small and their true identity concealed, bloggers type with an eye toward self-presentation. They may resist the urge to lie, but they'll be tempted to blunt the edges of ugly revelations with humorous comments.
"Blogging has elements of theater," he says. "If you're writing and you know lots of people are going to be looking at it, you're going to change things to make yourself look good." Whether he realizes it or not, the online scribe cultivates an identity that anticipates and responds to its audience. "Blogging as therapy is not a good idea," says Cutler. "When you're blogging, you're not thinking, 'What's my motivation?' You're thinking, 'This is what I did today.'"
She's even found that her "open diary" can be a helpful supplement to pillow talk. "Sometimes I wake up on a weekend morning and I'm really depressed but can't explain why," Kendall says. "So I'll sit down and post about what's going on in my head. And my fiance will realize what I'm doing. He'll read it and then he'll come in where I'm huddled under the covers, and he'll say, 'OK, I get this, let's talk about it.' "
That "post-posting" conversation is crucial to fostering intimacy and understanding in the wake of a disclosure. "Writing things down and getting reactions is a start, but I don't think it's an end point," says Singer. "You need a sustained reaction from a concerned and involved listener, so that the story doesn't just end, but keeps getting written. The two of you write it together."
Otherwise, Singer says, the solo secret teller runs the risk of turning herself into an object in a story, of dissociating from her "real" life to the point where she feels like events happen to her persona and not to her. Spinning questionable actions into an amusing read can even reduce her guilt—she may start feeling less responsible to the flesh-and-blood people in her life and more beholden to her online readers. "Those situations were funny to me," Cutler says of her blog material. "It's the sort of thing where you see things happening and you can feel detached, where you think, 'I can't wait to tell my friends about this!' Maybe it's a weird coping mechanism."
Blogging may have helped Cutler justify her own actions. Or maybe, as she says, she never had qualms about them in the first place. But without their permission, she dragged other characters onto her stage. Robert Steinbuch claims in his lawsuit that he was subjected to "humiliation and anguish beyond that which any reasonable person should be expected to bear in a decent and civilized society."
For every citizen who employs freedom of speech to the hilt, there's someone equally determined to keep a few gems—or at least trysts—to herself. And those impulses can co-exist in one person. Cutler says she gleaned insight into her D.C. affairs when writing her novel, The Washingtonienne. But she's not interested in disclosing it. "In a way," she says, "that's for me to know."