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Jun. 7 2010 - 5:08 pm | 1,924 views | 1 recommendation | 23 comments

Have We No Sense of Decency, Sir, at Long Last?: On Adult Diapers, Erectile Dysfunction, and Other Joys of Oversharing

IN HIS MAY 20 TIME ESSAY, “Web Privacy: In Praise of Oversharing,” Steven Johnson uses Jeff Jarvis’s catheter-and-all chronicle of his battle with prostate cancer as an object lesson in the civic virtues of turning our private lives inside-out.

(Jarvis, if you haven’t been following the why-is-journalism-rotting-from-the-head-down? debate, is a new-media wonk whose breathless Web triumphalism often makes him sound like Unfrozen Cyber Guy from the Wired ’90s. He’s best known for swanning around Davos, tossing off gnomic one-liners like “stuff sucks,” meaning: the material world is so over, now that we’re all brainplugged into the Matrix.

Which is very Nicholas “bits-not-atoms” Negroponte, if you think about it. Negroponte was the tassel-loafered Jarvis of the Wired ’90s. He wrote a book called Being Digulous, a kind of Chicken Soup for the Replicant Soul. Now, at a moment when 1.1 billion people have no access to safe drinking water and as a result 1.6 million of them drop dead every year from diseases like cholera—90% of them children under five—he’s working to get the world’s poorest kids…laptops.

I miss Nicholas Negroponte.

But anyway! Jarvis is best known for blogging about how Newspapers Should Just Die and Anyone Can Commit an Act of Journalism and Not Get Paid For It, Too. And for writing a business book called What Would Google Do?, exhaustively researched by talking to nobody at Google. And getting brutally owned by Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum, who dubbed him “the Sarah Palin of gurus” and lambasted him for gulling the managerial rubes with PowerPoint koans like “‘The link changes everything’…’Atoms are a drag,’ and—yes, his contribution to the ‘X is the new Y’ genre—’Small is the new big.’” Oh, and setting the land speed record in talking. The guy could speedtalk circles around Camille Paglia with his uvula tied behind his back.)

AS THE DRAMA OF HIS CANCER UNFOLDED, Jarvis kept Constant Reader updated on the anatomy of melancholy, or the melancholy of his anatomy, or whatever: “He blogged about the humiliation of wearing adult diapers,” writes Johnson. “He blogged about his erectile dysfunction…” Did I mention “the harpoons up the ass for biopsies; the garden hose out of the dick after surgery“?

To Johnson, this is How We Live Now: we can read the bad news in our doctor’s eyes as she looks up from the pathology report—It’s the Big C!—and “the instinctive response is, I’d better tweet this up right away.” In Jarvis’s online chronicle of a death averted, Johnson sees a Web Age parable about the value of “publicness” (a gratingly unmusical word, but both he and Jarvis insist on it). Jarvis opted for radical transparency, even in such a searingly personal matter, because as he told Johnson, “there was value that I wanted back from this community.” Translated from the original corporate-consultantspeak, this means: he wanted to share his tragedy with his wider social world, in search of some buoying compassion. Then, too, there was the journalist’s reflexive inclination to crowdsource his crisis, soliciting (in Johnson’s words) “specific advice from personal experience: what to expect in the immediate aftermath of the surgery, tips for dealing with the inconveniences of the recovery process.”

The moral of Jarvis’s story, for Johnson, is that, “by taking this most intimate of experiences and making it radically public, [he] built an improvised support group around his blog: a space of solidarity, compassion, and shared expertise.” Thus, we must “acknowledge that certain kinds of sharing can, in fact, advance a wider public good, as well as satisfy our own needs for compassion and counsel. [...] We habitually think of oversharers as egoists and self-aggrandizers. But what Jarvis rightly points out is that there is something profoundly selfish in not sharing.”

THIS, I THINK, IS A CATHETER TOO FAR. The contention that civic duty demands we narrate the Director’s Cut version of a Fantastic Voyage up our anal canals is the point where rectum meets reductio ad absurdum.

To be sure, Jarvis’s decision to publicize his cancer scare as a wake-up call to men of a certain age, a sort of PSA about PSAs, is truly generous of spirit. That said, the unquestioned assumption that, as Johnson puts it, “we get news that we’re facing a life-threatening disease, and the instinctive response is, I’d better tweet this up right away,” warrants closer scrutiny. Jarvis’s desire to reach out to his online flock in his hour of need is understandable enough. But his near-inability to restrain himself from broadcasting the bad news before his son gets home from camp—he managed to hold his fire, so the kid wouldn’t learn about his dad’s disease on Twitter—says more about the blogorrheic, tweet-expulsive times we live in, when so many of us feel the need to broadcast our every thought, at every minute, to everyone than it does about the civic virtues of making our private lives public.

Shouldn’t an intimate circle of close friends meet most peoples’ needs when it comes to sympathy and wise counsel? If we zoom out to a wide-angle shot that contextualizes Jarvis’s actions in the larger societal landscape, we’re inclined to wonder if this tendency toward arena-rock confessionalism—sharing our private lives not just with our closest confidantes, but with a stadium full of virtual friends—isn’t symptomatic of the culture of confession that began with the Puritans and persists in afternoon talkshows and the ritual absolution of celebrity sins by Barbara Walters. Is the desire to broadcast the most mortifyingly details not only of our private lives but of our private parts really about the desire to Feel the Love on an epic scale? If so, isn’t it selfish, rather than selfless? Tea and sympathy from friends and family are fine and well, but once we’ve felt that tidal wave of compassion rolling over us,  in comment threads hundreds of posts long, can we ever go back to entrusting our secret pain to an intimate few?

As for the notion that taking the private public enables us to leverage the collective expertise of the million, crowdsourcing is only as good as the crowd being sourced. Anyone who’s spent a cancer year in full-battle rattle, desperately combing the Web for information about his disease and worming every factlet he can out of his overworked doctors—and yes, I’ve been there—will tell you that the Wisdom of Crowds is overrated, unless the crowd in question has answered the casting call for America’s Next Top Oncologist. When the word went out that I had cancer, one friend offered invaluable war stories about his close brush with the Big C. But too many took it as an opportunity to tug on my lapel about their pet miracle cures: pendulum alignment, past-life regression, jackfruit enemas, a high colonic while listening to Satie’s “Sketches and Exasperations of A Big Boob Made of Wood,” you name it. Jarvis’s mileage may vary, but I recommend a thorough review of the medical literature, the battle-tested advice of any friends who’ve been there, and a doctor named House.

THAT SAID, the most confounding thing about the Johnson-Jarvis argument for more oversharing, more radical transparency, is its seeming obliviousness to the ways in which our nonstop social networking—let’s call it the Age of Always Connect—is dissolving the membrane between private “I” and public self.

The most obvious evidence of that cultural dynamic lies in those moments where the real and the virtual collide. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the totemic technologies of our times—the cellphone, the iPod, the Blackberry—are turning our psyches inside out, reversing the polarities of public and private. They make solitude portable, encapsulating the solipsistic self in a media bubble. More and more, we’re alone in public, oblivious to the world around us. Thus the ubiquitous obscenity of couples sitting together in restaurants, each gazing vacantly into the middle distance as he or she brays into a phone, or of people unashamedly texting away in the midst of social gatherings or, even more scandalously, during movies, the screen’s glow distracting everyone nearby. (A friend recently witnessed a scuffle between a compulsive texter and another moviegoer, who in a paroxysm of irritation snatched the woman’s phone from her.) Yet more dramatic evidence of the growing tension between electronic solipsism in public spaces can be found in the ever more common phenomenon of the stranger with the headset, chattering blithely about her irritable bowel as she elbows past you at the supermarket meat counter, or—even more appallingly—the cellphone conversation floating out of a bathroom stall, punctuated by the unmistakable plop of a bowel movement in progress. (Is there a surer sign that Western civilization is in its terminal stages?)

We are redrawing the boundaries of publicly acceptable behavior along medieval lines, when privacy, in the modern sense, was virtually unknown.

Do we really need more radical transparency?

THEN, TOO, there’s the question of the individual costs of oversharing, or even just compulsive social networking. What unconsidered intellectual, spiritual and psychological collateral damage are we inflicting on ourselves by being so outward-focused, so frenetically interactive, so terminally social that we get a death letter and “the instinctive response is, I’d better tweet this up right away.”

This is a disease of the psyche. Its primary symptom is the obsessive need to connect, blogging and tweeting and retweeting, liking and poking on Facebook, telling the world that you Digg it and Reddit and StumbledUpon it, as if the world were waiting with bated breath.

This is partly about the media-age article of faith that nothing is really real unless it’s recorded and, increasingly, shared. Don DeLillo parodied this postmodern state of mind in White Noise, in the dryly funny set piece about the Most Photographed Barn in America, where tourists are so busy taking snapshots of the barn that as one character remarks, “No one sees the barn.” Likewise, the New York Times recently reported on the trend, among foodies, of compulsively photographing food while the dish grows colder by the minute. “One guy arrived with the wrong lens or something on his camera and left his wife sitting at the table for an hour while he went home to get it,” says a restaurant manager quoted in the article. Typically, people don’t waste a minute e-mailing the images to their friends or posting them on Facebook or Chowhound. Recording the moment, then sharing it with All the People Who Aren’t Here, matters as much, or more, than experiencing the moment and savoring it with the people who are here—for instance, your wife, sitting across the table from you. Welcome to the Dessert of the Real.

IN HIS TIME ESSAY, Johnson argues that “something is lost in not bringing” our private selves—for example, “the intensities of sex and romantic love”—into the online space between “privacy and celebrity,” a liminal zone that Johnson calls “the valley of intimate strangers.” Taking the private public enriches our souls, he implies, and makes the public sphere a better place. “Somewhere in the world there exists another couple that would benefit from reading a transcript of your lover’s quarrel last night, or from watching it live on the webcam. Even a simple what-I-had-for-breakfast tweet might just steer a nearby Twitterer to a good meal.”

This is so reality-challenged, so head-in-the-data-cloud it’s effectively its own rebuttal, at least to anyone not lifecasting, 24/7, live from Laputa. What, exactly, is the benefit, to a pair of strangers, in reviewing the unredacted transcript of last night’s reenactment of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring me, my wife, and the better part of a bottle of Rumple Minze, let alone watching the whole sordid affair on a webcam? Undoubtedly, someone somewhere would watch this, and maybe even claim to “benefit” from it. But there are those who claim to benefit from 2 Girls 1 Cup, for chrissakes. Have we no sense of decency, sir, at long last?

As for the argument that we must Always Connect so that some passing Twit can have a “good meal” through our Random Act of Kindness, oh, ick.

IN ALL SERIOUSNESS, THOUGH, Johnson’s focus on oversharing in its more virtuous, civic-minded manifestations—Jarvis’s transformation of his blog to create a “space of solidarity, compassion, and shared expertise”; his decision to publicize his cancer in order to spread the gospel of early detection—overlooks the fact that, too often, our motivations in taking our personal lives public, through technology, have nothing to do with “advanc[ing] a wider public good” and everything to do with our media-age fixation on fame. When Johnson argues that his “valley of intimate strangers” is “a much richer and more connected place than the old divide between privacy and celebrity worship was,” he’s forgetting that connection doesn’t always equal intimacy, that exhibitionism is a form of social dominance, and that we fetishize fame more than ever.

Isn’t that the motivation for much of what we call oversharing, online? Ours is the age of nanocelebrity: broadcasts created by us and, too often, for us and us alone. How many YouTube videos and blog posts and Flickr sets languish, their discussion threads registering a melancholy zero comments, their feature attractions playing to a spellbound audience of one? We’re all Norma Desmond, ready for our close-up. In the age of reality TV and Paris Hilton, American Idol and YouTube (which has the power, if your video goes viral, to turn you into a global celebrity, even if you’re just some guitar geek shredding Pachelbel’s Canon), we see fame as our Warholian birthright. In his book, Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction, Jake Halpern notes that 30% of American teenagers believe they’re destined to be famous. The middle-school students he surveyed seemed to see becoming famous as a goal unto itself, rather than a by-product of doing something that merited renown.

Thus, we’re increasingly comfortable with the disappearance of privacy and the prying media eye, not only because it affords a few minutes of Warholian fame but because, like the characters in White Noise, we only feel that we truly exist when we see ourselves reflected in the media eye, because that’s where the real reality is, these days: on the other side of the screen. As ever, the visionary sci-fi novelist J.G. Ballard was prescient. In 1996, he said, “Nothing is real until you put it in the VCR.” Our blithe acceptance of the Death of Privacy makes Foucault’s portentous ruminations on life in surveillance culture seem like so much twitchy-eyed paranoia; in the age of YouTube and Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, we’ve learned to stop worrying and love the panopticon.


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    Your public-private critique seems largely irrelevant given that Prof. Jarvis is already problematizing our status quo conceptions of “public” and “private” e.g. his new book project.

    Overall, interesting piece and I look forward to seeing the debate materialize as technological innovation and social norms undergo further transformation.

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      Drew, are you one of the Good Professor’s students? Just curious; the use of the honorific made me wonder. Anyway: Details, please? How, exactly, is he problematizing received notions of public and private? More to the point, my critique questioned his (and Johnson’s) incuriousity regarding most peoples’ *motivations* for oversharing, which as I argue have a lot to do with the Death of Shame, celebrity worship, and the Warholian cult of nanofame (the national obsession that has also given us Wife Swap, MTV’s Real World, Jersey Shore, the White House party-crashers, the fake balloon boy, et. al.). Any high-minded arm-waving about oversharing as a civic virtue has to make sense of that role within the larger cultural context I’ve just mapped, here and in my essay above.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        Nope- *A* student but not *his* student. Primarily, I am an avid reader of both trueslant’s work and Prof. Jarvis’s contributions to the tech and academic field.

        (Apologies for the lack of editing)

        My comment was primarily in reaction to your statement that: “the most confounding thing about the Johnson-Jarvis argument for more oversharing, more radical transparency, is its seeming obliviousness to the ways in which our nonstop social networking—let’s call it the Age of Always Connect—is dissolving the membrane between private “I” and public self.” AND “We are redrawing the boundaries of publicly acceptable behavior along medieval lines, when privacy, in the modern sense, was virtually unknown.”

        This medieval conception of public and private is exactly what I perceive Jarvis as attempting to deconstruct. He advocates a redeployment of the terms “public” and “private” such that they more accurately reflect 21st century norms and a flourishing technological environment.

        AND your claim that “Typically, people don’t waste a minute e-mailing the images to their friends or posting them on Facebook or Chowhound. Recording the moment, then sharing it with All the People Who Aren’t Here, matters as much, or more, than experiencing the moment and savoring it with the people who are here—for instance, your wife, sitting across the table from you. Welcome to the Dessert of the Real.”

        The point is that people *actually* are there and that even if you are correct that an individual doesn’t see the value of the picture at the initial moment of capture, he/she is given a multiplicity of insights that he/she would never have been privy to without the existence of a connected world. The power of “publicness” isn’t solely in the act of transmitting a picture, but in the act of receiving, discussing and reinterpreting the photo via valuable and potentially contentious perspectives.

        His self-description of the project:

        “In Public Parts, I’ll argue… that in our current privacy mania we are not talking enough about the value of publicness. If we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections the internet brings: meeting people, collaborating with them, gathering the wisdom of our crowd, and holding the powerful to public account. Yes, I believe we have a right and need to protect our privacy — to control our information and identities — but I also want the conversation and our decisions to include consideration of the value of sharing and linking. I also want to protect what’s public as a public good; that includes our internet. We have plenty of privacy advocates. I want to be a publicness advocate.” (http://www.buzzmachine.com/2010/05/20/public-parts/)

        1) It seems clear that a large degree of his actions are performative insofar as he is attempting to push self-proclaimed privacy advocates towards a meaningful debate about the public-private dichotomy. Even if we can’t agree that his particular alternative is desirable, I think there is a consensus that such a project is itself beneficial.

        2) In several interviews and exposition pieces Prof. Jarvis focuses on channeling Habermas and tacitly Foucaludian and Derridian literature on Public-Private. Specifically, Jarvis indicates that notions of publicness have undergone a historical and social transformation similar to what happened with Habermas’s notion of a public sphere and communicative action.

        3) My reading of Jarvis’s advocacy isn’t that he disregards alternative motivational factors but that these motivations are largely irrelevant. A world of “publicness” provides tangible and ideational benefits even if not every advocate is attempting to propagate these benefits. Therefore, it is largely inconsequential that any particular person may have “shameful” or “non-civic” motivations but only that the movement as a whole is civically minded. In fact, it seems likely that civic action at the individual level could always be self-interested, but ` when these individuals are aggregated up to the collective level there demonstrably useful implications (e.g. freedom, tolerance, political discourse, etc). Consequently, any given individual motivation is irrelevant to the entire project since civic-ness is primarily an emergent feature of the movement as a whole.

        Finally your statement that “Our blithe acceptance of the Death of Privacy makes Foucault’s portentous ruminations on life in surveillance culture seem like so much twitchy-eyed paranoia; in the age of YouTube and Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, we’ve learned to stop worrying and love the panopticon”

        Seems to work on the assumption that publicness will either (i) be co-opted by bio-political governance or (ii) exert some sort of coercive effect onto our individual identity. Neither of these seems to follow from an open and public world. Traditional power relations can be challenge through a rejuvenated and overlapping public sphere. Moreover, our “private identities” are already greatly influenced by public considerations. We naturally define ourselves vis-à-vis others and the political such that we can’t have a stable or meaningful self-identity in the absence of the other. In fact, it seems possible that a larger role for publicness may be capable of enriching and focusing our self-identities through public discourse and readily accessible alternative identities.

        Ultimately, I think the key upshot of Prof. Jarvis’s arguments is that publicness and public conceptions of identity are currently marginalized and therefore any potential value is ignored. All sides seem reasonable enough to agree that there should be an in-depth and *public* debate on the subject such that the positive implications of all advocacies can be heard.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          Bottom line—and I’m afraid have to be brief, since I don’t have time to address, in point-by-point fashion, your lengthy comment—I don’t believe for a minute there’s any such thing as a “publicness” (god, does that ungrammatical, inelegant term gouge the ear!) “movement.” So far, the parade and its leader seem to have a headcount of one: Jarvis. You freight his rhetoric, which impresses me as about a millimeter-deep, philosophically, with *much* more intellectual weight than he invests it with. He’s quoting Foucault now? And Habermas? I’ll be buggered! Most of his wisdom seems copied from Bartlett’s Familiar. Or managerial inspirational lit in the Seth Godin-Tom Peters mold. As well, you’re inflecting his call for publicness with *much* more political consciousness than it has, as least as articulated by Jarvis. In Jarvis’s blog posts, and in this whole prostate affair, he’s lobbying partly for the virtues of selfishness—”there was value that *I* wanted back from this community,” namely: tea and sympathy; crowdsourced advice on my disease—and partly for social responsibility, i.e., share your experiences so you can add to the publicly available corpus of wisdom about this disease, and to raise consciousness about the importance of early detection. I interrogated the value of vastly overrated Wisdom of the Crowd, which every carnival-midway tech-wonk is enamored with these days, and wondered aloud about the need to wallow in the sympathy of the online mob when friends and family are ready to hand. As for the generosity inherent in sharing your wisdom and spreading the gospel of early detection, fine and well, but this is hardly radical enough, or original enough, to merit the Million-Man March he seems to want to lead.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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            As for the generosity inherent in sharing your wisdom and spreading the gospel of early detection, fine and well, but this is hardly radical enough, or original enough, to merit the Million-Man March he seems to want to lead.

            Gahh – you sacrificed your queen with “fine and well,” particularly in the eyes of Facebookies who can’t figure out how to google Ask A Nurse. Ready the panoplies.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
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          He advocates a redeployment of the terms “public” and “private” such that they more accurately reflect 21st century norms and a flourishing technological environment.

          We already have that. We call one “reality” and the other “vacuous fake-ass bread/circus bullshit.”

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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          This is where I think it’s worth pointing out that “Prof. Jarvis” as you call him isn’t a professor in the conventional sense. He only has a Bachelor’s degree and a couple or so years teaching experience (and I think he has tenure at that!).

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Are people oversharing privately because they are undersharing privately? i.e. their “intimates”are too busy texting or emailing or whatever to sit still and really listen with their undivided attention and give us what we most want — to be listened to and understood. That takes time and focus.

    It feels like a Moebius strip; if everyone is too busy paying attention to someone else (or trumpeting their dramas), who is left to listen and care?

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      >>It feels like a Moebius strip; if everyone is too busy paying attention to someone else (or trumpeting their dramas), who is left to listen and care?<<
      Well put. That was one of the points in my blast of rhetorical buckshot. (Which, hopefully, was something more than just that…) I assume you mean "oversharing publicly because they are undersharing privately"? If so, yes, although your phrasing implies a causality that reverses mine; I argue, above, that our online public soul- (and gonad-) baring *causes* us to devote less psychological, emotional, and social focus to the embodied world and the immediate moment. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day, and cognitive neuroscience is teaching us that our mythic mastery of multitasking is just that: a myth. The guy obsessed with getting an awesome-tastic close-up of his flash-fried monkfish, then posting it to Chowhound with a droll comment, can't possibly be talking, in any depth, or even listening with any real attentiveness to his dining companions. As I say: this frenzy of social networking enables a portable solipsism, not a movable feast.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I may only be reiterating implicit points from the original post, but following up on Caitlin Kelly’s comment about a loss of intimacy, we might focus on the shift of “friend” from a noun into a verb. Jarvis’s phrase “intimate strangers” (is this a euphemism for johns/tricks/punters?) wants to suggest a new relationship circle somewhere between friends and strangers, but it seems unlikely that such a realm appears ex nihlio without affecting other realms, and we can argue that the rise of nanocelebrityhood corresponds with a decrease in the average number of intimate friends, at least in America.

    So to expand on Mark’s points a little, I’d look at the decline in the average number of confidants per American since 1985. (The following is summarized from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendship#Decline_of_friendships_in_the_U.S.) The referenced study found that the average number of confidants has dropped from 4 to 2, with 25% of Americans saying they have NO close confidants. Who, then, makes up the difference? Would 1000 Twitter followers equate to 2 close, flesh-and-blood confidants? 2000? 4000?

    Mark touches on the social dominance aspect of “publicness,” as well, which strikes me as related. Right now Jeff Jarvis has 43,950 Twitter followers and follows 906. I think it’s fair to equate this with “talking” to 43,950 people while “listening” to 906. In other words, Jarvis owns the room — that’s the socially dominant aspect of celebrityhood. I find it difficult to be friends with someone who’s constantly broadcasting and rarely receiving: without symmetric communication, you can’t have mutual intimacy. Instead, you have person shouting out his maladies, then a chorus of whispered sympathies.

    You might distinguish this from broadcast media, because it offers a degree of interactivity. Yes, the audience can talk back, but I don’t think at any point does Jarvis’s Twitter feed not feel like The Jeff Jarvis Show. (A talk radio analogy might be appropriate here: you, audience member, do get to speak, but when and for how long the host allows.) Facebook makes this visually explicit through larger fonts for initial posts, then small, dark-backgrounded text for the follow-up comments.

    So, if the wort kind of a Twitter/Facebook nano-celebrity is the mediated equivalent of the person at the party who talks too much and listens too little, I’d like to see the overlap between the 25% of Americans who have no close confidants and the 30% of teenagers who believe they’re going to be famous (cited above, Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction). Hasn’t the cautionary-tale aspect of fame always been that celebrities have no friends? That they’re alone in the crowd, and no one really knows them because they’re always “on,” always being what the public wants of them?

    Celebrity requires maintenance; no less so if it’s of the nano/online variety. Jarvis and Johnson’s “publicness” sounds like a party filled with carefully cultivated personae all talking at one another while plugging their ears.

    It sounds like Brooklyn, in other words.

    I kid. But not really.

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      Jesse: Really, *really* smart. I hadn’t heard about the sociological study cited in the Wikipedia entry, which is fascinating, albeit eyebrow-raising. (What, for example, is “physiological regression”?!?) I’m curious to know how large, and how diverse across class, age, race/ethnicity, and geography their sample was. Certainly, the shift from reliance on friends outside the family to spouse and family is intriguing, though not by definition alarming in my book. Perhaps it’s symptomatic of the trend toward cocooning (trendspotting’s kinder, gentler term for circling the wagons in an Age of High Anxiety)? As for your thoughts on the Alpha Wonk social-dominance aspect of Twitter, where it’s imperative that one always ensure that one’s list of followers is far longer than the list of those one is following: size matters, in geekdom as in the locker room. As I said in somewhat more roundabout fashion above, I simply don’t buy Jarvis’s stated motives. He waves a lot of gilt-edged platitudes about civic virtue, but his initial, er, prophlyactic (“I may be an exhibitionist”) gives the game away: when all of the PSAs about PSAs are said and done, this is about a lack of vowel control—the inability NOT to transmit every thought that swims through our fishbowl heads, 24/7. It’s partly about the fame monster—building Brand Me—and partly about the gregariousness of the naked ape taken to absurd extremes.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I hope Jeff inspires men to get tested for a serious but often treatable disease, and I think he’s brave to bring attention to it in this way.

    That said, the movement for “publicness” consists of Google and Facebook lobbyists, and one can’t help but wonder why Jeff can’t see this or ask tough questions about it.

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      Intriguing, Roblevine; can you provide any evidence, in the form of links to well-sourced stories, that support your claim that this is this grassroots enthusiasm for “publicness” is really corporate Astroturf?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        I’m not sure it’s astroturf, but I’m not sure it’s grassroots, either.

        Who does this movement consist of: Jeff, Steven Johnson, a couple of Wired editors, Facebook and Google? All of these people are very smart, but it’s a _very_ small movement. Most of the statements about how our values are already changing are made by Facebook – and the harsh feedback from their own users indicate that this is wrong. And Google was less than open about the fact that it was scanning open WiFi ports before it became a legal issue, so I’m disinclined to trust them.

        I don’t know that Google or Facebook is directly funding anyone – I’ve never looked into it. But they make up most of this “movement,” and they have a lot to gain. Any serious journalist would look at this.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I was intrigued by the W.H. Auden quote from “The Orators”

    “Private faces in public places
    Are wiser and nicer
    Than public faces in private places.”

    and stumbled upon this interesting article worth reading

    Part 1: Private/Public: The Evolution of the Distinction


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    Good stuff, Mark. I will tweet a link to this, if you don’t object. :)

    I have two comments. As I tried to say in the piece, I think it gets it wrong to describe this kind of sharing as the pursuit of “fame” or “celebrity” — nano or otherwise. I think it is much closer to the casual sharing you do among friends, which really has nothing to do with celebrity culture. No one blinks when you tell your friend on the phone what you’re having for breakfast, but somehow it plays differently when you do it via Twitter — because it is now happening via The Media, in public. But I still think it’s much closer in spirit to the phone chit-chat, which is generally pretty innocuous in my book.

    My second objection is that I think you have slightly misrepresented the tone of my Time piece, particularly the last section, which is not by any means saying that all sharing is good, but rather that we have to decide where we draw the lines, which we didn’t have to do in the old days. This paragraph in particular you selectively quote as if it is endorsing oversharing when in fact it is quite clearly doing just the opposite, if you read it in its entirety:

    “In our house, we have had health issues — fortunately not as debilitating as Jarvis’s or as tragic as Kewney’s — that we have chosen not to bring to the public sphere of the valley. We have kept them private not because we’re embarrassed by them, but because some things we already think about enough and would frankly rather think less about, and we don’t need to the extra prodding of 1,000 Facebook friends thinking alongside us. Every revelation sends ripples out into the world that collide and bounce back in unpredictable ways, and some human experiences are simply too intense to let loose in that environment. The support group isn’t worth the unexpected shrapnel. Most of us, I think, would put the intensities of sex and romantic love in that category: the intensity comes, in part, from the fact that the experience is shared only in the smallest of circles.”

    The point of that paragraph is that, while there are benefits to sharing these things, I have personally decided that they aren’t worth the negatives, and have thus refrained from sharing certain parts of my life online, etc. I don’t think that quite comes across in your rendition.


    • collapse expand

      sbj: *You’d better tweet this up right away!* But seriously: link at will. I’m always happy to bask in the reflected grandeur of the Johnson brand. (*Kidding*, dude.)

      Naturally, I don’t believe that every Twit who tweets the contents of his breakfast is bidding fair to become the next Julia Allison. I don’t imagine most overshare-y Twitterers, Facebookers, YouTubers or other “me”-media/social-networking types assume a tight feedback loop between “lifecasting” updates (braindroppings, in the eyes of the uncharitable) and blowing up worldwide.

      That point being readily granted, I *do* believe we’re witnessing the emergence of a sensibility (postmodern? Screen Age? Warholian?) whose unselfconscious oversharing is less *motivated* by the dream of fame, however fleeting, than convinced it is *already* famous, or at least Almost Famous.

      Facebook’s rollcall of friends, Twitter’s list of followers, and the incoming flood of texts and mails encourage that perception. As well, social technologies foster the subconscious assumption that, even in everyday life, we’re the cynosure of the media gaze, trailing our invisible audiences of friends, followers, and fans wherever we go—a historically unique phenomenon that I believe is at least partly responsible for the tendency toward oversharing. It’s as if each of us is (knowingly) starring in his own TRUMAN SHOW, tweeting what we had for breakfast, Facebooking what we’re reading or watching on the Web *as we read it*, reflexively reaching for the TWEET button to broadcast to our online audiences every banal thought that swims through our fishbowl heads.

      At the same time, this tendency is also the result, I think, of our elevation of celebrity to a secular state of grace, and of a culture of confession that extends from Barbara Walters all the way back to the Puritans.

      Respectfully, you seem to contradict yourself, and to argue my point, when you argue that Jarvis’s “publicness” is “much closer to the casual sharing you do among friends, which really has nothing to do with celebrity culture,” then concede, a sentence later, that a banal exchange that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, face to face, “somehow [plays differently] when you do it via Twitter — because it is now happening via The Media, in public.” My point precisely.

      Parenthetically, the phone analogy fails, to my mind, for the simple reason that few of us are in the habit of calling a friend to say, “I hate a leaky burrito” (as Jarvis did in a recent tweet), then hanging up. But Facebook, Twitter, and spaces like them seem to have a bizarrely disinhibiting effect on too many of their users, who routinely overshare such contentless inanities. Again, I think the Truman Effect—the sense of broadcasting to an unseen audience, 24/7—is to blame for the terminal ego bloat evinced by tweets like “I hate a leaky burrito.” The sort of mind that imagines anyone, anywhere *cares*, like the sort of mind whose reflexive impulse when it gets a potential death sentence is *I’d better tweet this up right away!*, is an epiphenomenon of the Age of Always Connect, an age of constant connectedness, compulsive gregariousness, and obsessive shariness.

      As for your point that I quote you selectively to serve my purposes, I’m not quite sure what you mean, since I didn’t quote the graph you cite at all. Point taken that your thinking about Jarvis’s gospel of publicness is more nuanced than his (which is a little like saying Reinhold Neibuhr’s theology is more nuanced than Joel Osteen’s). You are thoughtful, as the graph you quoted makes clear, about its downside. If I didn’t make that clear, I erred.

      However, I stand by my implication that your insistence, throughout most of your essay, on the civic virtues of Jarvisian “shariness” drowns out your misgivings, which strike me as too little, too late (in your article). You’re far more charitable in your assumptions about Jarvis’s motivations in particular and the motivations of most oversharers in general than I am. As well, you read the knee-jerk tendency to tweet things up right away, without regard to how mortifyingly personal or mind-crushingly banal they may be, as normative, whereas I see that cultural tropism as an emergent property of our moment, and a not entirely felicitous one, at that. I’m not as convinced as you are of the social benefits of radical personal transparency, especially given the examples you cite: Webcam-ing your lovers’ quarrel for the world’s reference; guiding the Twitterers of the world to a good meal. As I argue in my essay, the first example seems bizarre, almost pathologically VIDEODROME-ish; the second is a little too purple-unicorns-pooping-rainbows for this battlescarred cynic. Your mileage, as they used to say on the WELL, may vary.

      Even so, thanks for your thoughtful critique; I’m the better for its provocations.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I'm a cultural critic. Doom Patrol is a series of drive-by essays, mostly on America in the Age of Anxiety, as the title suggests, but also on whatever wild surmise crosses my mind. I've written for publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Rolling Stone, Bookforum to Cabinet. My books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. I'm associated with the concept of "culture jamming," the guerrilla media criticism movement I popularized through my 1993 essay "Culture Jamming," and "Afrofuturism," a term I coined in my 1994 essay "Black to the Future" (in the anthology Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, which I edited). More: http://www.markdery.com/author.html Mail: markdery at verizon dot net.

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