Yesterday at a news conference, Congressman Anthony Weiner admitted sending inappropriate photos of himself via the Internet. Specifically, he “confessed to sending a photo of himself in his underwear to a woman over Twitter, then lying about it.” He added that “the indiscretion was part of a pattern of sending inappropriate photos and messages to women he met over the Internet.”
Representative Weiner did not offer an explanation for his unseemly behavior:
Mr. Weiner, who paused several times to collect himself, said several times that he had no explanation to offer for his conduct. When a reporter asked, “What were you thinking?” he replied, “I don’t know what I was thinking. This was destructive things to do.”
He added, “If you’re looking for some kind of deep explanation for it, I simply don’t have one except that I’m sorry.”
In the days ahead, I’m sure the media will overflow with explanations of Weiner’s behavior. We’ll hear from pundits and therapists, from professors and cultural observers. There will be speculation about the state of Weiner’s mind and soul. No doubt it will be one giant festival of amateur psychoanalysis.
I’m going to throw my hat into this ring by suggesting some of what may have contributed to Anthony Weiner’s sending pictures of himself in various states of undress to women he “met” via the Internet. I’m not going to speculate about the psychological dimensions of exhibitionism because I have no expertise here. (Though, when if you look at what kids are putting up on Facebook these days, it seems as if exhibitionism is catching.) But, as a pastor and a person who uses the Internet, I have a hunch about part of what may have been going on in Weiner’s mind that led him to send those pictures. I believe that Anthony Weiner was bewitched by the seductive power of the Internet as it blends pseudo-anonymity with pseudo-privacy and pseudo-intimacy in a brew that has potential to poison individuals, families, and institutions. (By saying he was bewitched, I do not mean that he should not be held responsible for his behavior, including both the online communications and lying about them.)
One of the enchantments of the Internet is the opportunity to be out there in the digital world with apparent anonymity. Through the Internet, I can leave nasty comments on blogs without revealing who I am. I can create false identities that mask who I am in my day job. As a pastor, I have counseled with men and women who have done things online that they would never do in person. A man who would never risk buying a Playboy at the local liquor store for fear of being seen visited porn sites much worse than Playboy. A woman who never even flirted with one man besides her husband fell in love with a man she met in a chat room, even though she had never seen him. And so forth and so on.
The thought that we are anonymous online gives us permission to do what we would never do if we were known and held accountable. Yet, I have called this “pseudo-anonymity” because there is almost always a digital record of what people have done under the supposed cloak of secrecy. So, the man who visited porn sites is found out by a colleague who borrowed his computer. The husband of the woman who fell in love online accidentally discovered some of her chats that were left on her computer.
In the case of Anthony Weiner, it seems that he used his own social networking accounts to interact inappropriately with women. His was not pseudo-anonymity so much as semi-anonymity. Yet, clearly, he did not hide his identity very well. Nevertheless, he did seem to that he could be anonymous online.
Anthony Weiner did not expect his communications with women to be broadcast to the world. He thought they were private. In this belief, he showed himself to be as silly and naive as a teenager who sends nude pictures of himself to his girlfriend via his cell phone. When she breaks up with him, it’s open season on his privacy.
When we send communications via the Internet, whether in email, Facebook, Twitter, texting, or you name it, we seem to be communicating with a measure of privacy. But we fail to realize how easy it is for our supposedly private messages and pictures to be shared with unexpected recipients, if not the world. All it takes is for somebody to share what we have intended to be private with one other person and all bets are off.
Sometimes we are the ones who invade our own privacy. More than once, I have sent an email meant for Bob to the wrong Bob. One time my son received an intimate text message from an adult friend who thought he was communicating with his wife. He about died when I told him who had actually read the message, even though it was only rated PG.
Anthony Weiner’s mistaken assumption that he was communicating privately with someone led to his public shame. He confused pseudo-privacy with genuine privacy, which basically does not exist on the Internet.
Genuine intimacy happens as people share their full selves with other people. This does not happen on the Internet, though certain kinds of intimacy can occur digitally. But there is an alluring pseudo-intimacy associated with the Internet that snares people into thinking that they are experiencing something that is more complete, more real, and more emotionally fulfilling than reality. I call this pseudo-intimacy because, in so many ways, it is neither complete nor real. It is always mediated through digital bits and usually involves sharing only a small part of one’s life with another person. The woman in my congregation who fell in love with a chat room partner did not happen to share with him the fact that she was a mother of two teenagers, a Sunday school teacher, and the driver of a minivan. She felt emotional closeness to her digital lover, even though they barely knew each other.
A Noxious Combination
When you combine pseudo-anonymity with pseudo-privacy and pseudo-intimacy, you get a nasty concoction. People who have drunk this potion have told me of the emotional draw they have felt, one that led them to do things online they would never have imagined doing in person.
I experienced a bit of this enchantment in some small way about fifteen years ago. It happened in the initial days of America Online. I joined up so early that my email address was simply “firstname.lastname@example.org,” not “email@example.com.” I used AOL mostly as a news source and email host. I can still hear that friendly “You’ve got mail” as I opened my AOL account.
One evening, I decided to visit some chat rooms. I didn’t actually plan to chat. Nor did I visit rooms that were intended for anything illicit. I just eavesdropped quietly in several rooms, trying to learn how they functioned. All of a sudden, a separate window opened up with a message that someone wanted a private conversation. Intrigued, I accepted the invitation. A person who seemed to be female (You never actually know though, do you?) opened up with ordinary greetings. I responded with ordinary politeness. But within a couple minutes, I began to feel strange. Though our conversation was completely G-rated, it didn’t feel right. It felt like the early stages of flirtation. And, though I felt no temptation to continue the conversation, I realized that I was toying with something more potent than I had expected and I didn’t like it. In retrospect, I’d say that the combined force of apparent anonymity, privacy, and intimacy caught me by surprise and messed with my emotions. If I had been chatting with someone I actually knew in real life, I doubt I would have felt so uneasy.
I suppose I should have simply clicked out of the chat at that very moment, but I didn’t want to be rude. So I did the next best thing and typed in a couple of sentences about my wife. The person on the other end seemed to lose interest in me and that was that. I never again visited a chat room.
Reading my story, you might think of me as some sort of digital lightweight. If you’re used to chatting in all different sorts of online venues, my story might seem quaintly old-fashioned and way out of touch. The truth is that I probably am a digital lightweight who is both old-fashioned and out of touch in many ways. Nevertheless, I think my sense of how the Internet can impact our emotions is not completely dated and irrelevant. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts about this through comments or emails (but, no, not through live chatting). It seems to me that we all have much to learn from Anthony Weiner’s indiscretions.
I’m sure that Rep. Weiner is battling inner demons beyond the ones I’ve described in this post. Yet, whatever sirens might have been calling to him, their voices were amplified by the pseudo-anonymity, pseudo-privacy, and pseudo-intimacy of the Internet. Though you might not be tempted to send photos of yourself wearing only underwear to your social media “friends,” if you’re reading these words on a screen, then you should not write off Anthony Weiner as some irrelevant nutcase. He may have fallen prey to the very temptations that will someday knock on your door.