New York Congressman Anthony Weiner faced reporters today and admitted that for the past three years he has been using social media and other means to send lewd messages and photos to some half a dozen young women. These activities commenced before his recent marriage to Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but did not entirely cease after it.
Before we relegate Weiner to the scrap heap of politicians cut down by a deluded sense of unbreakability, it’s worth reflecting that his particular brand of misbehavior is a new sort, enabled by the digital age. Eliot Spitzer visited a live prostitute. Jim McGreevey and John Edwards had physical affairs, as did Bill Clinton. Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly attempted to rape a maid in a hotel room, Larry Craig was accused of soliciting sex in an airport bathroom, and so on. But Weiner, if his story is true, never even met any of the women he carried on with online. In some sense, then, his offense differs from those of the more traditionally lecherous politicans; it’s a thoroughly modern one.
Pondering the nature of that difference leads us in some interesting directions. The nearest pre-digital analog would be someone who flirted via letters and postcards with a variety of partners whom he’d never met face-to-face. It would be up to the wronged significant other to decide whether that form of cheating rose to the level of the unforgivable, as it will now for the congressman’s wife. But while many affairs have been carried on via old-fashioned post, they typically began after the parties had met face-to-face and discovered a mutual attraction.
Twitter and Facebook enable a new and different flavor of relationship. Online social networks foster an immediacy that snail mail letters never could, a sense of being in the same “room,” even if it’s a virtual one. So we might see flirting and carrying on via social networks as more intimate, and thus more wrong.
I predict that Congressman Weiner’s virtual-cheating scandal represents not a weird anomaly but a leading edge. He was incredibly foolish to assume any communication sent over the internet was securely private, but so far we haven’t seen a lot of evidence that even those younger netizens who’ve truly grown up online take their privacy very seriously. As they move into the halls of power, they’ll find they should have wised up when they could – before they take their “private” dalliances online.