Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty
Earlier this week, Republican Senator Mitt Romney went viral on Twitter after Slate writer Ashley Feinberg uncovered his secret Twitter account. Romney — who’d chosen the pseudonym Pierre Delecto for his secret account — wasn’t using his Twitter presence to slide into women’s DMs, or engage in racist harassment, or do anything particularly out of character.
On the contrary, Pierre Delecto’s social media habits were utterly mundane. He followed the accounts of Romney’s family, friends, and professional colleagues.
He liked tweets that complimented Romney, or that aligned with his political views. At his most ambitious, he tweeted a few comments in defense of Romney’s politics — but really, nothing that would rise to the level of scandal.
For years, commentators predicted that as millennials edged into adulthood, our social mores would begin to relax. The first cohort that had come of age on the internet, millennials’ youthful dalliances and mistakes were literally broadcast on sites like Facebook.
And that, the predictions went, would necessarily shift social ideas about propriety. Revelations of debaucherous evenings that would have once been enough to wholly derail someone’s career would soon be shrugged off as relatively unremarkable.
As Irin Carmon noted in a 2010 Jezebel piece on congressional candidate Krystal Ball’s risque party photos, “endless digital photos of party indiscretions, on Facebook and elsewhere, trail Millennials in a way that just didn’t exist before.” With everyone exposed online, there would be nothing to cause shame.
Some have tried to accelerate social media’s ability to put an end to shame by shining light into the seedier corners of human behavior. PostShame, a social media campaign founded by Adam MacLean, encourages aspiring public figures to take ownership of their past indiscretions by broadcasting them online.
And when Jeff Bezos’ photos were the subject of scandal earlier this year, lauded sex columnist Dan Savage argued in the New York Times that Bezos would be doing a public service by releasing the s himself and putting an end to the shame that still surrounds an utterly mundane activity.
But the fuss around Romney’s extremely boring fake Twitter account underscores that 15 years after the launch of Facebook, social media’s impact on shame has been decidedly mixed. While it’s true that we live more in public than ever, with celebrities using Instagram to welcome fans into their homes and politicians livestreaming the most mundane moments of their lives—remember Beto’s dental appointment?—we haven’t quite reached the point of post-shame.
A number of public figures have found themselves at the center of scandals after relatively minor reveals — like journalist Kurt Eichenwald’s proclivity for tentacle porn or Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall tweeting out a porn link. We’ve reached a strange new point in our public conversation about people’s private lives.
Not only have we failed to fully end shame, we’re now treating innocuous, harmless behavior as something worthy of public scrutiny.
The loudest voices championing a coming end of shame have always seemed to assume that, as more of us publicize our supposedly shameful secrets, shame itself would naturally fall away like a vestigial organ.
But that calculation seems to have underestimated the human urge for voyeurism and gossip. Even as our ideas of what is shameful may shift and evolve, our desire to obsess over other people’s business seems completely intact.
And while social media has had a mixed track record when it comes to getting rid of our sense of shame, it’s been wildly successful at eradicating our ability to protect our privacy — which, in the process, has provided the public with that much more fodder for the gossip mill. It’s understandable that Mitt Romney might want a space online where he could keep up with family and friends, follow Conan O’Brien, and yes, even vent a little in his own defense.
Yet because of the nature of social media, it’s now difficult to do that without creating a public record for the press to pore over, one that’s now become subject of one of the most boring acts of voyeurism.
Maybe someday the post-shame contingent will prove to be right, and eventually all this oversharing will erode our willingness to mock each other for merely being human.
But I doubt that will be the case.
Members of the younger Generation Z — the cohort that’s never known a world without internet, and for whom digital literacy has been a lifelong requirement — don’t seem eager to carry on the fight against shame.
On the contrary, they’re far less willing to live in public than their millennial predecessors. Facebook use is down among the youth, who are more likely to document their lives through temporary posts like Instagram Stories and Snapchat, or on private “finstas” — secondary and usually private Instagram accounts.
Rather than being raised utterly without shame, the next generation seems eager to guard their privacy. And in a world where a politician can become headline news for nothing other than a poorly guarded finsta, it’s not hard to understand why.