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Compulsive self-revelation

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Monday, Mar 5, 2007

In a recent New York magazine story, Emily Nussbaum argued that a generation gap now exists between an older cohort, sensitive to privacy concerns, and a younger group who are comfortable with surveillance and perhaps transliterate this in their minds into “attention.” The gist of her case is that the new generation grew up with the internet and reality TV as a given, so they are comfortable with the potential for an audience for everything we do and the pressure to achieve such an audience. Nussbaum doesn’t think their indifference to privacy is a matter of ignorance (the usual take on the question, with which I happen to agree) but rather, it may be a matter of the older cohort’s jealousy and fear of the opportunities for self-publicity and exhibitionism they never had in their own youth.


More young people are putting more personal information out in public than any older person ever would—and yet they seem mysteriously healthy and normal, save for an entirely different definition of privacy. From their perspective, it’s the extreme caution of the earlier generation that’s the narcissistic thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, “Why not? What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone’s gonna find your picture? Just make sure it’s a great picture.”


I suppose it could be seen as narcissistic to imagine anyone cares enough about your specific personal information that you need to make it private—this is my attitude, actually, when I don’t shred my mail or take care to send email over secure WiFi networks, and that sort of thing. I have this naive blind faith in my own irrelevance. It would be great if I could bring myself to believe that the nitwits on The Real World were on the show because they didn’t take themselves too seriously, but I can’t make that leap of faith (or logic). The sheer performativity of living your life as if it were stocking a public archive seems to me of a different order of self-obsession than being punctilious about what one reveals to people who really don’t care. When you watch a show like The Real World, you have the palpable sense that surveillance is the breath of life to them—they seem afraid that they’ll cease to exist the minute people stop watching them.


I’ve generally argued that compulsive self-revelation is search for recognition in a society that trains us to pay attention to products and brands—using the technological tools available, we commodify ourselves and allow others to notice us by, in essence, shopping for us—programming our number into their phone, adding us as a friend on whatever social networking site is considered important at the time to your chosen demographic, hooking up an RSS feed for our blog or Flickr stream, evaluating one of our personal profiles on which we’ve calculated our most flattering preferences and interests, and so on. Nussbaum spins this kind of recognition as “community” and perhaps it’s all that is left of the vaunted Habermasian public sphere—actually it’s probably an improvement over what was left of it before the internet took off. One can promulgate various identities and investigate all sorts of subcultures and so on but at the expense of objectifying something of one’s spirit to make it susceptible to digital dissemination. Is this true of social interaction generally, that it objectifies us as its price? Then the difference is the material record technology generates of this process, confronting us with our compiling multiplicity. I shudder to consider the many poor identity-related choices I’ve made in the past (e.g., 1980s haircuts); presumably the new generation is not concerned with this, or any accusations of hypocrisy that might ensue. This I cannot understand, and I’m not convinced that youth are simply more “thick-skinned” than the rest of us. They just have not yet realized all the ways in which this technology can weaponized.

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