Friday, October 14, 2011
The Anti-Social Network
"You Know You Want It"
-- Tagline from the 1995 Kathryn Bigelow film Strange Days, which centers around a character who deals in "clips" of people's lives, extracted directly from their cerebral cortexes
Christopher Chaney now says he's sorry.
For those who haven't been playing along at home, Chaney is the 35-year old Jacksonville, Florida man who admits to hacking the e-mail accounts of a few dozen celebrities, including Scarlett Johansson, Christina Aguilera and Mila Kunis. (Yeah, I didn't know anyone in Jacksonville knew how to use a computer either.) He says that once he got in, he set up a forward feature that basically sent a copy of any e-mail to and from his victims' accounts directly to him. Chaney's actions may have been what led to nude photos of Johansson leaking out onto the internet, so if you feel like writing to thank him, at least he'll have a pretty stable address for the next 121 years or so.
In a recent interview with a Fox News affiliate, Chaney fell all over himself to grovel at the feet of the starlets whose privacy he invaded, saying that what started as a minor diversion quickly became a full-blown obsession for him. He describes himself as having ultimately become "addicted" to the 24/7 streams that gave him unfiltered access to some of the most famous women in the world -- and he says that when the FBI finally battering-rammed his door and ripped his computer out of the wall, it was actually something of a relief.
Of course what Chaney did was unequivocally wrong. But two things: First, would you be able to give up that kind of rush once you'd mainlined it? Would you be able to just walk away from a window into the uncensored, real life of, say, Mila Kunis? Second, how thoroughly have we as a culture devalued privacy anyway? For many of us, the threshold at which we lose our tolerance for our once-guarded lives being made public has risen considerably over the past several years. If you're reading this, there's a pretty good chance you know more about me than you ever could have known were we all living in the 1950s -- or really at any period before the advent of social networking and the rise of reality television. What's more, you know what goes on in my life because I offer it to you willingly -- on Facebook and Twitter, through this site and even in a memoir. Like millions of other people -- millions of you -- I live my life at least partially in the public eye, not as some kind of celebrity but just as an average person who's chosen to allow you a glimpse into his life. For all I know, my "reality" is your prime time entertainment -- as is the reality of a whole lot of other people.
But how real is what I'm offering you? If I have the ability to share only as much as I want, even if it seems to you like it's an immense amount, how can you be sure you're getting something genuine? And does the specifically edited slice of life that I or anyone else provides online -- or that television producers engineer on so-called "reality TV" -- simply whet your appetite for the whole pie? Might you even feel entitled to know the truth?
Social media sell the illusion of intimacy and honesty -- and we're admittedly a more exposed society than any that's come before us. But after a while, surrounded by all of this supposed openness, I have to believe that our cynical institutional memory kicks into overdrive and we start to question whether the honesty itself is a lie. Again, if that threshold has shifted drastically and what's being pitched almost constantly as "real" isn't real at all -- if our entire popular culture is now nothing but the Matrix -- imagine how far you'd have to go to experience the authentic. How much of an obsession it would become to get beyond the lie.
Maybe that was part of the thrill for Christopher Chaney. The tearing down of the artifice. The peek behind the curtain -- a curtain that's often sold to the public as partially transparent, but which we know damn well isn't at all.
Although there's a pretty good chance Chaney was just hoping to see Scarlett Johansson and Vanessa Hudgens naked. And I guess I can't blame him for that.
I've written before about our invasive entertainment culture and how privacy is quickly becoming an archaic notion. Even before the recent News Corp hacking scandal -- which centers around acts that I maintain were committed as a matter of policy, mostly because the notion of privacy has become such an afterthought -- I dug into it a little in a piece from October of last year on the suicide of Rutgers Student Tyler Clementi. The column drew all kinds of fire at the Huffington Post.
"Tyler's Burden" (Originally Published, 10.7.10)
By any standard, the death of Tyler Clementi is a tragedy.
At this point, you're probably well aware that late last month Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student, killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge between New York and New Jersey; he did this apparently because his college roommate and a friend had surreptitiously set up a web-cam in his dorm room and streamed a sexual encounter he had with another man on the internet. Clementi's death is the latest in a series of recent and highly publicized suicides of kids, some of whom were or believed they might be gay, two of whom were only 13.
Once again, genuinely heartbreaking tragedies? Absolutely.
But an epidemic? Not a chance.
And yet that's not stopping many in the media from desperately attempting to connect dots that in reality have no connection whatsoever and trying to draw some larger conclusion from the series of similar but entirely unrelated events. Statistically, there's been no recent increase in the number of documented bullying incidents, nor has there been an increase in the number of teen suicides nationwide; there's simply coincidence and an American press that's suddenly attuned to spot items of a certain kind and broadcast them far and wide, creating a strangely symbiotic feeding frenzy wherein the stories reported in the news seem to inspire new incidents like the ones that created those stories in the first place. There weren't really more sharks making the conscious decision to attack unfortunate swimmers in the summer of 2001; there were just more reported -- and reported on -- shark attacks.
And if you believe quite a few news outlets, that's what the autumn of 2010 is shaping up to be: the new Summer of the Shark. Only with bullies.
There's nothing particularly wrong with drawing attention to an issue that negatively impacts a lot of people, and obviously kids getting the crap kicked out of them by bigger, more popular, more obnoxious kids has been a problem for generations. Throw in digital age technology, which now allows for the psychological torment that used to be confined only to school to be relentless and omnipresent, and you've certainly got yourself a topic that on the whole is worth discussing. But it's one that can and should be reported without the sort of hype that accompanies a supposed "epidemic"; the story is good enough on its own without having to create a bombastic news peg to blow it out of proportion, making it sound like, no matter who you are, bullies are waiting right outside your door to shake you down for your lunch money or have told everyone online that you're gay. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that the gay angle that many in the media are putting front and center right now is really the least controversial thing about the death of Tyler Clementi. That's because of one undeniable fact: Tyler Clementi isn't really dead because he was gay.
Don't get me wrong, as with at least three other cases this year in which a young person was harassed to the point of suicide, Tyler Clementi had his personal life splashed all over the internet because that personal life included the desire to be intimate with someone of the same sex. The desperate wish not to see that exposed, ostensibly, led him to kill himself. But this doesn't explain why his tormentors, the roommate and friend, felt no compunction about violating Clementi's privacy in such an egregious and cruel manner. They didn't feel like they could do it because, well, the kid's a queer, so who cares. They felt like they could do it because everybody does it. A good portion of our media culture is now based on prurient voyeurism and a constant invasion of privacy. The public disclosure of a person's most intimate secrets and moments is no longer considered shameful or condemnable -- it's just called entertainment. Why wouldn't a couple of college kids turn their classmate into an unwitting reality TV star? It's basically the same toxic horseshit they grew up watching on MTV, VH1 and E! For all they knew, maybe Tyler Clementi would've loved the mainline of notoriety. If the dipshits on Jersey Shore don't have a problem mining their most repugnant traits in the name of 15 minutes of fame -- if anyone can go to YouTube and post video of a guy complaining about how there are rapists in his neighborhood and suddenly turn that guy into a viral sensation and his complaints into a catch phrase -- why the hell can't two Rutgers freshmen live-stream a roommate in bed with a man? This is the age of the unauthorized sex tape. This is Bentham's Panopticon come to fruition on a global scale. You're always being watched. You're always on camera. You have no expectation of privacy. Clementi should have known that, right?
Which brings me to the person whose name I'm loathe to even mention for fear it'll give him more publicity and credibility than he already gets and has: Perez Hilton.
The erstwhile Mario Lavandeira has joined a group of celebrities advocating understanding and tolerance for gay young people and reaching out to them in an effort to let them know that suicide isn't the answer if they're being victimized by bullies -- particularly cyber-bullies, who mercilessly persecute their prey via the internet. Perez says that he's "beyond sad, crushed" that there are kids like Tyler Clementi out there being bullied because they're gay or think they might be gay, and that he's stepping up to provide a "role model" for the LGBT youth of America. Someone they can look to and realize that there may very well be untold wealth and success at the end of the, pardon the pun, rainbow. In case you're missing the staggering irony of all this, let me spell it out for you: Perez Hilton is the world's most famous cyber-bully. His entire career is based on publicly humiliating anyone he personally feels deserves it and he and his website are at the forefront of America's culture of shameless voyeurism and a constant, irrepressible invasion of privacy. It's because someone like Perez Hilton has spent the past few years making himself rich by indiscriminately circulating images of Miley Cyrus's crotch to the world that the two teenagers who tortured Tyler Clementi likely didn't think that what they were doing was a big deal.
What's more, the hypocrisy of Perez coming to the defense of Clementi -- a kid who was outed against his will -- is just fucking stupefying. This is the same sanctimonious turd who took credit for personally outing Lance Bass and who's been on an almost non-stop crusade to expose anyone gay he omnipotently deems necessary. The guy who delights in labeling certain men who prefer not to discuss their sexuality "fags," who draws semen on their faces, and who once said, "If I have to drag some people screaming out of the closet, I will." So what's the difference between "some people" and, say, Tyler Clementi? The difference, I'm sure Perez would say, is that Clementi wasn't a celebrity.
But here's the thing: If he had savored the attention brought on by his very public private sexual encounter instead of letting it destroy him, given our current culture, he may very well have become one.
In some ways, he became one regardless.
(A portion of this was inspired by comments made by Jim Norton yesterday on The Opie and Anthony Show, Sirius XM radio. Thanks, Jimmy, for helping to put into words what had been bugging me for a week.)