Nothing Is Personal in a Web 2.0 World

Posted on April 20, 2008
Filed Under Culture & Technology |

I’ve decided to dedicate all my posts this week to the topic of Culture & Technology.

The New York Times’ article on the increasing use of the Internet by ex-spouses to air dirty laundry is a stark reminder of one of the things that I find most disturbing about the confluence of America’s sad modern culture and the rise of technological tools that promote its further decline: that nothing is personal anymore.

Leslie Kaufman begins her article entitled “When the Ex Blogs, the Dirtiest Laundry Is Aired” by introducing the case of Tricia Walsh Smith, who has used a to ostensibly embarass her husband, who has filed for divorce. In the video, which can only be described as the work of a person who is clearly not in a healthy mental and emotional state, Smith promotes the fact that she never had sex with a husband who is twenty-five years her elder and who she claims has been “hoarding Viagra, pornography and condoms.”

The article goes on to detail how others have used blogs to reveal every last detail about their relationships and divorces, often in attempts to criticize and downright disparage their ex-spouses.

Many divorces aren’t amicable and divorce is almost always an emotionally-trying event. As such, those who are going through a divorce often have feelings of anger and betrayal. These feelings sometimes lower inhibitions and encourage people to say and do things they wouldn’t normally say or do.

And the truth is that we love when people say and do these things because, sadly, it’s a form of entertainment. Talk show hosts such as Jerry Springer and Maury Povich have built careers on this.

Obviously, however, only a small percentage of the population has the opportunity to use trashy television talk shows as platforms to broadcast juicy stories of martial drama to a wide population.

The tools of Web 2.0, on the other hand, give the entire population that opportunity. Instead of airing dirty laundry to those around you (friends, family, etc.), blogs and online video sharing services make it possible to broadcast dirty laundry to everybody. Tricia Walsh Smith’s YouTube video, for instance, has received nearly 3 million views.

Clearly, even things that were once considered private matters deserving of discretion, such as divorce, are no longer off limits for the public exhibitionism that Web 2.0 has popularized.

To be fair, Web 2.0 is certainly not responsible for creating a narcissistic, exhibitionist society in which individuals have lost respect for themselves and others and are willing to engage publicly in behavior that, in the past, would have been considered shameful, undignified and indecent.

But as I’ve argued before, it is fueling the fire. The Web 2.0 world we live in has convinced us that everyone is due their 15 minutes of fame and increasingly, the individuals who receive the most attention are the ones who push the boundaries of what is acceptable. Thus, Web 2.0 fuels a race to the bottom and serves as a positive feedback loop that encourages the degradation of basic values, such as decency and dignity.

None of this is healthy and I fear the consequences, cultural and otherwise, of living in a society where matters that should be personal and private become accepted as suitable for public consumption.

It’s one thing to degrade and embarass oneself by attacking an ex-spouse publicly on YouTube. It, ironically, says more about the person doing the attacking than the person being attacked and may impact the person’s life in many areas, from future relationships to employment opportunities. But it would be inherently narcissistic to believe that individuals who choose to air their dirty laundry online degrade and embarass only themselves.

The potential harm that is caused to the people around them cannot be underestimated, especially when children are involved. The possibility that children may have to cope with the fact that the most private details of their parents’ failed relationships are immortalized publicly on the Internet is not a pretty one.

Most unfortunately, some of the people who feel it necessary to engage in this selfish, self-indulgent behavior totally discount the ill effects it may have on their children. Penelope Trunk, for instance, has used her blog to write about her broken marriage. She told the New York Times:

It is a generational issue. We think it will be a big deal, but it won’t be to them. By the time they are old enough to read it, they will have spent their entire life online. It will be like, ‘Oh yeah, I expected that.’

I don’t know what’s scarier: the fact that Trunk brushes off the possibility that her children will be negatively impacted by learning all the details of their parents’ failed marriage online or the fact that she just might be right.

The interesting thing about the Web 2.0 world we live in is that we rarely care about the people involved. As one commenter points out, “Society at large cares not the minutia of your mutual failings.” Those who watch the Tricia Walsh Smith YouTube video may sadly be entertained by her self-degradation - for a few minutes - but few actually care about Smith and she will be quickly forgotten. After all, something even jucier and more self-degrading is certainly being uploaded as we speak.

I think Andy Warhol was only partially correct when he wrote “In the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” In a Web 2.0 world, 15 minutes of fame has, for the most part, been reduced to 15 seconds of fame.

This is perhaps the silver lining.

In a narcissistic society fueled by the tools of Web 2.0, when everybody is famous, nobody is famous. The dirty laundry aired by Tricia Walsh Smith and others like her will hopefully matter less and less because there will be far too many Tricia Walsh Smiths vying for attention.

Unfortunately, this is a dissatisfying silver lining because one can only imagine how distorted our values will have become by the time this happens.

A commenter named Simcha makes an excellent point and provides a cogent piece of advice.

Many blogs are empty exercises in narcissistic exhibitionism. As an introverted sort, I find this whole phenomenon quite interesting. The idea goes: Damn everybody, including my kids and immediate family, just so I can “vent” and draw attention to myself in the most undignified manner possible.

While I’m all for using the written word as a method to diffuse repressed anger and other toxic mental states, I often retreat to my paper journal for such purposes (an idea!). I’d be mortified at having some of my more, umm… crazed entries, especially the ones related to ex-beaus, emblazoned on some pixelated bulletin board. Use paper, people, please. And then file it away for everyone’s benefit, including your own.

Amen. When it comes to personal matters such as divorce, it is better to vent privately and be thought a whiny narcissist than to blog and remove all doubt.

Update: ABC News has on Trisha Walsh Smith. In an interview with ABC News, Smith claims that she simply wanted “attention” given to her “plight” and argues that her husband thowing her out with no money is basically a “life or death situation” that warranted her behavior. Given that many people who go through divorce are devastated financially, Smith’s apparent belief that her “plight” is unique and deserving of the world’s attention is yet another public demonstration of narcissism made possible by Web 2.0.

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