In Wired, writer Steven Levy admits that when he fails to update Twitter and the other social networks he participates in, he feels guilty. He loves the voyeuristic aspects of these services—“I’m fascinated by the quirks and preferences my “friends” reveal through comments, status reports, and alerts”—but feels his pleasure in this requires him to reveal more of his own life. Hence, he posts and inadvertently exposes more than he means to about himself: “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.”
Twitter boosters claim that it’s very natural to get into a flow of sharing, and admittedly it seems as though such sharing could conceivably promote some kind of laudable openness, a communal intimacy never before available to humankind. Or maybe such sharing is a perfected version of earlier forms of communal knowledge—you can get the small-town recognition without the mean-spiritedness. (Call it participatory surveillance.)
But when I conducted my Twitter experiment I found that I didn’t want to share. Mainly, I didn’t want to posture. And I didn’t really want to follow anybody. (Why would I want more small talk from people?) Nonetheless I wanted to participate. So in my latest attempt to Twitter, I tried to address my reluctance through a series of distancing techniques, writing bogus quotations of what I thought skeptics might say about me or about anyone pontificating recklessly online. Anytime I was filled with self-doubt or thought of a cynical rebuttal to something I had written earlier or had thought about writing, I tried to articulate it as a criticism of someone else and post it to Twitter. Or if I read a really good put-down, I’d appropriate it and modify it to fit my format. But in practice, this quickly threatened to become a “scary-deep self-portrait,” a waste of perfectly useful self-loathing. Moreover, I wasn’t sure what I was trying to accomplish by this, so I knocked it off. It was “creepy,” and it’s probably even creepier that I am writing about it here.
Nicholas Carr, in an astute commentary on Levy’s article, suggests that when Levy feels weird about sharing, he is experiencing not guilt but shame.
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.
That pretty much captures how I feel when I am thinking about posting to Twitter: a unsettling mix of arrogance and cravenness. As Carr had suggested in an earlier post, that moment is like self-consciousness squared. And at the same time, brevity becomes the soul of smugness.
I wonder whether those young enough to take social networks for granted experience these feelings, or if they lack the subject position from which to even recognize them, name them, understand that there are alternatives. It may be a meaningless matter for them; they have missed the social opportunity for a certain kind of privacy the same way I was born too late to discover whether I had any natural aptitude with horses. They disappeared from everyday life, and so may privacy as people my age have known it. Still, it seems that with all the tools for projecting our identity online, identity becomes that much more fragile. The apotheosis of social networks seems to be a generalized anomie, millions of people shouting into a deafening wind of discourse, everyone of them friends with all the rest.