The Naked Crowd

America's culture of self-revelation spells the end of privacy and the promotion of a smothering conformity

Jeffrey Rosen

Topics Politics

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After 9/11, the most celebrated ritual of mourning was the New York Times’s Portraits of Grief. For months after the attack, the New York Times published more than 1,800 sketches of those who died in the collapse of the World Trade Centre. Not designed as obituaries in the traditional sense – at 200 words, there was no space for a full accounting of the lives that had been cut short – the Portraits were offered up as ‘brief, informal, and impressionistic, often centred on a single story or idiosyncratic detail’, intended not ‘to recount a person’s résumé, but rather to give a snapshot of each victim’s personality, of a life lived’.

The Portraits were intended to be democratic – showing the personal lives of janitors as well as chief executives. Above all, they attempted to recognise the victims as distinctive individuals, each distinguished from the crowd. ‘One felt, looking at those pages every day, that real lives were jumping out at you’, said Paul Auster, the novelist, when interviewed by the New York Times about the profiles. ‘We weren’t mourning an anonymous mass of people, we were mourning thousands of individuals. And the more we knew about them, the more we could wrestle with our own grief.’ (1)

Although public criticism of the Portraits of Grief was hard to detect during the months of their publication, a few dissident voices emerged after the series came to an end. More than 80 percent of the victims’ families agreed to talk to the New York Times, but a handful of them later complained that the Portraits had failed to capture the people they had known. In an eloquent essay in the American Scholar, the literary critic Thomas Mallon echoed this criticism, arguing that in the process of trying to individualise their subjects, the Portraits of Grief had managed to homogenise them instead. ‘To read the Portraits one would believe that work counted for next to nothing, that every hard charging bond trader and daredevil fireman preferred – and managed – to spend more time with his family than at the office’, Mallon wrote.

American obituaries, to a certain extent, tend to obey the convention of speaking well of the dead (British obituaries are far nastier), but the Portraits of Grief were not successful on their own terms: instead of recognising the public achievements of lives that had reached some kind of fulfilment, the Portraits instead trivialised their subjects by emphasising one or two private hobbies or quirks. As a result, any genuine achievements or complexity of personality were airbrushed away in the narrative effort to reduce each person to a single, memorable, and democratically accessible detail. ‘If Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had perished in the attacks, as he nearly did’, Mallon concluded, ‘he would be remembered in the Portraits as a rabid Yankee fan who sometimes liked to put on lipstick’ (2).

The homogenising effects of the Portraits of Grief were inherent in the project itself. The New York Times instructed its reporters to convey a sense of the victims as distinct individuals by extracting from conversations with their families a single representative detail about their lives that would give readers the illusion of having known them. In each case, complexity and accuracy had to be sacrificed to the narrative imperative of finding a memorable quirk of personality with which the audience could quickly identify.

But the Portraits of Grief were not designed to do justice to the victims in all of their complexity. They were designed as a form of therapy for the families of the victims and as a source of emotional connection for the readers of the New York Times. They aspired to give all Americans the illusion of identifying with the victims, and therefore allowing them to feel that they themselves had somehow been touched by the horrific event. What was flattened out in this juggernaut of democratic connection was the individuality of the victims themselves.

This flattening resulted from a broader demand: the crowd’s insistence on emotionally memorable images at the expense of genuine human individuality. The crowd, which thinks in terms of images rather than arguments, demands a sense of emotional connection with everyone who catches its fleeting attention. This means that everyone who is subject to the scrutiny of the crowd – from celebrities to political candidates to the families of terrorists’ victims – will feel pressure to parcel out bits of personal information in order to allow unseen strangers to experience a sense of vicarious identification.

But revealing one or two personal details to strangers is inevitably a trivialising experience that leads us to be judged out of context. It’s impossible to know someone on the basis of snippets of information; genuine knowledge is something that can only be achieved slowly, over time, behind a shield of privacy, with the handful of people to whom we’ve chosen to reveal ourselves whole.

The sociologist Thomas Mathiesen has contrasted Michel Foucault’s Panopticon – a surveillance house in which the few watched the many – with what he called the ‘Synopticon’ created by modern television, in which the many watch the few. But in the age of the internet, we are experiencing something that might be called the ‘Omnipticon’ in which the many are watching the many, even though no one knows precisely who is watching or being watched at any given time. The homogenisation wrought by the Portraits of Grief is a symptom of the identity crisis that Americans are experiencing as they attempt to negotiate the challenges of the Omnipticon – a world in which more and more citizens are subject to the scrutiny of strangers. The challenges of interacting with strangers have increased the pressures on Americans to trade privacy for an illusory sense of security and connection, turning many of us into virtual portraits of grief.

  • Exposing ourselves

The British sociologist Anthony Giddens has described the ways that citizens in a risk society can no longer rely on tradition or fixed hierarchies to establish their identity or to give them reliable guidance about whom to trust in a society of strangers. Confused and anxious about status in a world where status is constantly shifting, we feel increasing pressure to expose details of our personal lives to strangers in order to win their trust, and we demand that they expose themselves in order to win our trust in return. ‘Trust – in a person or in a system, such as a banking system – can be a means of coping with risk, while acceptance of risk can be a means of generating trust’, Giddens writes (3).

In the past, intimate relationships of trust – such as marriage, friendship, and business associations – were based on rigidly controlled status hierarchies, which brought with them codes of expected behaviours: you could behave one way with your wife and another with your servant and another with your boss, because you had no doubt where you stood in relationship to each of them, and where they stood in relation to you. Today, by contrast, intimacy and trust are increasingly obtained not by shared experiences or fixed social status but by self-revelation: people try to prove their trustworthiness by revealing details of their personal lives to prove that they have nothing to hide before a crowd whose gaze is turned increasingly on all the individuals that compose it.

A world where individuals have to prove their trustworthiness and value every day before the crowd, choosing among an infinite range of lifestyles, behaviours, clothes, and values, is inevitably a world that creates great anxiety about identity. Rather than conforming to preexisting social roles, individuals are expected to find their true selves and constantly to market themselves to a sceptical world. In the 1950s, Eric Fromm wrote about the ‘marketing orientation’ of the American self, in which ‘man experiences himself as a thing to be employed successfully on the market…. His sense of value depends on his success: on whether he can sell himself favourably…. If the individual fails in a profitable investment of himself, he feels that he is a failure; if he succeeds, he is a success.’ (4) Fromm worried that the marketed personality, whose precarious sense of self-worth was entirely dependent on the fickle judgements of the market, would be wracked by alienation and anxiety.

The internet has vastly increased the opportunities for individuals to subject themselves to the demands of the personality market, resulting in ever increasing confusion and anxiety about how much of ourselves to reveal to strangers. The logic of Fromm’s marketed self is being extended into a virtual world where the easiest way to attract the attention and winning the trust of strangers is to establish an emotional connection with them by projecting a consistent, memorable, and trustworthy image. In an ideal relationship of trust, self-revelation should be reciprocal. In the age of the internet, however, we are increasingly forced to interact with strangers whom we will never meet face-to-face. As a result, individuals find themselves in more and more situations where they feel pressure to reveal details of their personal lives without being able to gauge the audience’s reaction. But the quest for attention from and emotional connection with strangers is fraught with peril (5).

In 2000, for example, Laurence Tribe, the constitutional scholar from Harvard Law School, posted a personal statement on his family’s website. ‘I’m Larry’, Tribe wrote. ‘I love brilliant magenta sunsets, unagi, Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, the fish tank at MGH, T.S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, eating, my stairmaster, looking at the ocean, dreaming about impossible things, New Yorker cartoons, the twist in a short story, The Hotel New Hampshire, good (and even not-so-good) movies, rereading The Great Gatsby and Ethan Frome, and Monet and Vermeer.’ Several websites devoted to media gossip posted links mocking Tribe’s statement for displaying the overly intimate tones of a personal ad. Embarrassed by the public reaction, Tribe tried to remove the statement, but one of the media gossip sites resurrected it from the archives of Google, the popular internet search engine. Tribe was then ridiculed more for his attempt to cover his tracks than for his initial act of self-exposure.

‘The website itself was a thing our son helped Carolyn and me put together one Christmas’, Tribe emailed me later, reflecting on his experience. ‘I was having fun letting my hair down, as it were, in just chatting about myself as unselfconsciously as I could, not giving much of a thought to who might read it but probably assuming, naively it now seems, that it wouldn’t really be of interest to anybody. When I learned that people were finding it a source of public amusement, I do admit to being nonplussed and unsure of what to do.’ Tribe’s understandable error shows how hard it is to strike a decent balance between personal disclosure and the projection of a consistent image, especially on the internet.

Many citizens, of course, don’t care if they embarrass themselves before strangers on the internet, as the proliferation of personal websites shows. It is now commonplace on a website to reveal hobbies, favourite foods and music, and pictures of children, in an effort to create an illusion of intimacy. Even the most intimate moments of life, such as a wedding, are now being posted on the web for public consumption. The private moments offered up for public consumption tend to be generic tropes of informality which, like the Portraits of Grief, have a homogenising effect. Instead of the beginning of a romantic partnership, one often has the impression of watching a particularly excruciating episode of The Dating Game. And then there are the reality TV shows, which represent the most absurd examples of the application of the values of the public opinion society to the most intimate activities of life.

One way of understanding privacy is not whether we choose to expose personal information in public – we all do at different times and places – but the ease with which we can return to being private. The internet, however, is complicating our ability to negotiate the boundary between public and private, making it hard to recover a private self that has been voluntarily exposed. Consider the proliferation of weblogs – personal internet journals that often combine political musings with intimate disclosures about daily life. There are more than half a million, according to a recent estimate (6). Some are devoted exclusively to public affairs, while others are nothing more than published diaries. A website called collects more than 5,000 journals from self-styled ‘online exhibitionists’ (7). Often, these diaries are virtually unreadable examples of self display, dreary accounts of daily navel gazing whose primary function seems to be therapeutic. But they reflect a common but treacherous error: that thoughts appropriate to reveal to friends and intimates are also appropriate to reveal to the world.

In a pluralistic society, people are and should be free to have different instincts about the proper balance between reticence and self-revelation. If exercises in personal exhibitionism give pleasure to the exhibitionists and an illusory sense of emotional connection for the virtual audience, there’s no harm done except to the dignity of the individuals concerned, and that’s nobody’s business but their own. But the growing pressure to expose ourselves in front of strangers has obvious and important consequences for a democracy’s ability to strike a reasonable balance between liberty and security. The ease with which we reveal ourselves suggests that in the face of widespread anxiety about identity, people are more concerned with the feeling of connection than with the personal and social costs of exposure. Why is it that American anxiety about identity has led us to value exposure over privacy? Why, in short, are we so eager to become members of the Naked Crowd, in which we have the illusion of belonging only when we are exposed?

  • From sincerity to authenticity

Anxiety about how much of ourselves to reveal to strangers has always been a defining trait of the American character. But the form of the anxiety changed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reflecting changes in society and technology. In the late nineteenth century, conceptions of personal truthfulness changed in a way that the critic Lionel Trilling has described as a change from sincerity to authenticity (8).

By sincerity, Trilling meant the expectation that individuals should avoid duplicity in their dealings with each other: there should be an honest correlation between what is exposed in public and what is felt in private; but not everything that is felt has to be exposed. By authenticity, Trilling meant the expectation that instead of being honest with each other, individuals should be honest with themselves, and should have no compunction about directly exposing strangers to their most intimate emotions. Sincerity requires that whatever is exposed must be true; authenticity requires that everything must be exposed as long as it is deeply felt.

In an age of sincerity, the fine clothes and family crest of an aristocrat were the markers of the self; in an age of authenticity, as the sociologist Peter Berger has noted, ‘the escutcheons hide the true self. It is precisely the naked man, and even more specifically the naked man expressing his sexuality, who represents himself more truthfully.’ (9) The motto for the age of sincerity came from the Delphic Oracle: Know Thyself. The motto for the age of authenticity comes from the therapist: Be Thyself.

As self-disclosure became the yardstick of trustworthiness, individuals began to relate to strangers in psychological terms. Politicians, like actors on the stage, came to be judged as trustworthy only if they could convincingly dramatise their own emotions and motivations. ‘The content of political belief recedes as in public, people become more interested in the content of the politician’s life’, Richard Sennett writes. ‘The modern charismatic leader destroys any distance between his own sentiments and impulses and those of his audience, and so, focusing his followers on his motivations, deflects them from measuring him in terms of his acts.’ (10) The earnest nod, the brow furrowed by concern, and the well-timed tear are now more important for politicians than traditional skills of oratory.

In The Image, Daniel Boorstin explored the way the growth of movies, radio, print, and television had transformed the nature of political authority, which came to be exercised not by distant and remote heroes but instead by celebrities, whom Boorstin defined as ‘a person who is known for his well-knownness’. ‘Neither good nor bad’, a celebrity is ‘morally neutral’, ‘the human pseudo-event’, who has been ‘fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness’ (11). While the heroes of old exercised authority by being remote and mysterious, modern celebrities exercise authority by being familiar and intelligible, creating the impression – but not the reality – of emotional accessibility. Heroes were distinguished by their achievement, celebrities by their images or trademarks or ‘name brands’.

In an age when images were becoming more important than reality, Boorstin lamented the fact that politicians were trying to hold the attention of the crowd by recasting themselves in the mould of celebrities, projecting an image of emotional authenticity through selective self-disclosure. He feared that as synthesised images took the place of complicated human reality, the result would be a proliferation of conformity: politicians would have to alter their personalities to fit with the images that the crowd expected them to present; and the believability of the image would become more important than the underlying human truth.

Boorstin wrote before the development of the internet. But as life increasingly takes place in cyberspace, private citizens are now facing some of the same social pressures and technological opportunities as politicians to expose and market themselves to strangers, with similarly homogenising results. As the internet has increased the circumstances in which ordinary citizens are forced to present a coherent image to strangers, the methodology of public relations is increasingly being applied to the presentation of the self. Ordinary citizens are now being forced to market themselves like pseudo-events, using techniques that used to be reserved for politicians, corporations, and celebrities. In an eerie fulfilment of Boorstin’s fears, business gurus today are urging individuals to project a consistent image to the crowd by creating a personal brand.

  • Personal branding

The idea of selling people as products began to appear in magazines like Ad Age as early as the 1970s; but the idea of personal branding didn’t proliferate until the 1990s, when a series of business books emerged with names like Brand You, The Personal Branding Phenomenon, and Be Your Own Brand: A Breakthrough Formula for Standing Out from the Crowd. To invent a successful brand you have to establish trust with strangers, argues the personal branding guru, Tom Peters. A brand is a ‘trust mark’ that ‘reaches out with a powerful connecting experience’. To connect with colleagues and customers, you have to decide the one thing you want them to know about you and create an ‘emotional context’ by telling stories about yourself. Peters’s nostrums are an example of the banalisation of Gustave Le Bon; and Be Your Own Brand is in the same vein. It defines a personal brand as ‘a perception or emotion, maintained by somebody other than you, that describes the total experience of having a relationship with you.’

Like the brand of a corporation or product, personal brands are defined by whether people trust, like, remember, and value you: ‘your brand, just like the brand of a product, exists on the basis of a set of perceptions and emotions stored in someone else’s head’. To create a strong personal brand that makes and maintains an emotional connection with strangers, individuals are advised to be ‘distinctive, relevant, and consistent’.

To achieve the goals of distinctiveness, relevance, and consistency, branded individuals are urged to simplify the complex characteristics that make up a genuine individual. Following the model of the Portraits of Grief, personal branders urge their clients to write down a list of the adjectives that best describe their personal style and values, and to incorporate three of them in a ‘personal brand promise’ that can easily be remembered. For example, a surgeon who says he is ‘humble, collaborative, and friendly’ promises ‘the discipline to achieve world-class results’; a writer who claims to be ‘enthusiastic, energetic, and professional’ promises ‘enthusiasm that will make your day’. These brand attributes are so abstract and banal that they are impossible to remember, which is why the entire enterprise seems dubious, even on its own terms; but they neatly achieve the goal of turning individuals into stereotypes, for the purpose of making them intelligible to strangers with short attention spans.

In The Lonely Crowd, his classic study of the American self in the 1950s, the sociologist David Riesman distinguished between the inner-directed individual, who derives his identity from an internal moral gyroscope, and the outer-directed individual, who derives his identity from the expectations of the crowd. By measuring individuals in terms of their success on the personality market, the personal branding strategy seems at first to be an apotheosis of outer-directedness. But the personal branding books deny this, emphasising that successfully branded individuals must first look inward, to discover their authentic selves, and then turn outward, attempting to market that self to the world.

‘Trust is built faster and maintained longer when people believe you are being real, not putting on a false front to cover up what’s really going on inside of you’, the branding manual counsels. ‘When it comes to relationships, authenticity is what others say they want most from us. We make the most lasting and vivid impressions when people witness us being true to our beliefs, staying in alignment with who and what we really are.’ (12) The self constructed by the personal branders, then, is an anxious hybrid of Riesman’s two types: a form of marketed authenticity in which the self is turned inside out, and then sold to the world.

Although the phenomenon of personal brand management is in its infancy, it represents the logical application of marketing technologies to the most intimate aspects of the self. But its hazards are already becoming evident; and they have to do with the substitution of image-making for genuine individuality. As early as 1997, the New York Times reported that an unhappy bachelor had convened a focus group of the single women who had rejected him. As he watched from behind a one-way mirror, they evaluated his dating performance, and offered advice for improvement. Meeting in the studios of a market research company called Focus Suites, where consumers usually gather to criticise soap or cereal, the women urged him to bolster his confidence and change his wardrobe. ‘I think it’s really alarming that we let a market economy dictate our human relationships’, the head of the company told the New York Times. ‘I think it’s much more healthy for the human model to dictate to the business world than for the business model to inform human life.’ (13)

Allowing public opinion to expand into the recesses of the soul, the entrepreneurs of the self insist that personal branding is a spiritual as well as an economic imperative. Nick Shore, the head of a New York advertising agency called the Way Group, is writing a book called Who Are You: The Search for Your Authentic Self in Business. Over the phone, Shore told me that his personal ‘brand DNA’ was ‘a punk rocker in a pinstripe suit – that’s how I understand myself’. But when I met him at his stylish loft office in the Chelsea Market, he turned out to be a young British man in khakis and a sweater. ‘The classical distinctions between personal life, professional life, what I do in my family, how I set up my business, how I plan my career’ are breaking down, Shore said. ‘It’s this whole postmodern idea of the script to life just basically being thrown away and no one quite knows exactly what they’re supposed to do in any given situation…. If I can’t find true worth by looking to the corporation that I work for or by looking to the government or the queen, then ultimately you end up with yourself, you have to find your own truth.’

In the 1950s, the organisation man was told to find what the marketplace wants and supply it. But in a talent economy, Shore says, ‘it’s the other way around: find out what you are then go look for the space in the market place that needs that’. Successful brands must be authentic because ‘the marketplace smells a rat’, and consumers, in deciding whom to trust, are suspicious of any gaps between the image of the person or product being marked and the underlying reality. ‘In the old days somebody would look at a business card and say, “oh, this guy’s a vice president; I’ll put him on a hierarchy”. Now they look at your haircut and your shirt and a box of other stuff, and they say, “this is the box this guy fits in”. And if what he’s doing is not real, if he’s only trying to protect an image, they notice.’

This leads to the phenomenon of marketed authenticity. ‘Because consumers are sensitive to inauthenticity, you have to look inside out, not outside in: you have to start from the core and then move outward’, Shore said. Only those whose public and private reality are aligned can sustain the attention of the marketplace. Far from trying to capture the authentic self in all of its complexities, however, branding is a technology for the simplification of identity, a response to the short attention spans of the audience. ‘In marketing terms, it’s always been about, strip away, strip away’, Shore emphasised. ‘People are troubled about thinking about more than one thing at once. If you’re trying to project something and you try to be penetrative into people’s consciousness you have to be absolutely simple and to the point about it all – otherwise people can’t hold it.’ In trying to excavate a person’s ‘brand DNA’, Shore says that he is suspicious of long lists of abstract characteristics. ‘It’s too complicated, it’s too generic. If I said, you are an “Individualistic Maverick”, that can describe all people. But if I tell you that someone’s a “Modern-Day Robin Hood”, that’s pointed. You’ll remember “Modern-Day Robin Hood” for 10 years.’ (A few hours later, when I tried to repeat this slogan to my wife, I had already managed to forget it.)

Although presented in the therapeutic language of self-actualisation, personal branding is ultimately a technology for the rigid control of personal identity. Personal branding claims to help individuals be distinctive, so that they can differentiate themselves from the crowd and become more successful competitors in the marketplace of the self. But in the process of seeking distinctiveness, personal branding is ultimately a recipe for a smothering conformity. Branding confuses distinctiveness and individuality.

Products can be differentiated from each other, with the techniques of advertising and public relations. But the application of branding technologies to the self is based on a category error: individuals can’t distinguish themselves from the crowd by measuring their value to the crowd. All of the private attributes of human individuality change shape when they are turned outward and presented to the public: Eros becomes sex; sin becomes crime; guilt becomes shame.

When everything is exposed to the crowd, as John Stuart Mill recognised, individuality is impossible. ‘As the various social eminences which enabled persons entrenched on them to disregard the opinion of the multitude, gradually become levelled; as the very idea of resisting the will of the public, when it is positively known that they have a will disappears more and more from the minds of practical politicians; there ceases to be any social support for nonconformity’, Mill lamented. ‘It is individuality we war against’, he concluded, because of the ‘ascendancy of public opinion in the State’ (14).

We can now appreciate with special force the distinction between the individuality praised by Mill and the individualism lamented by Alexis de Tocqueville, which he defined as the tendency of citizens in a democracy to isolate themselves from each other and to focus obsessively on their own self-interest. Even more than the Victorian era, ours is an age of individualism rather than individuality. The growth of media technologies such as the internet and television have increased the overwhelming authority of public opinion, as citizens in the Omnipticon find more and more aspects of their personal and public lives observed and evaluated by strangers. These technologies tend to encourage citizens to be self-absorbed, as terrifying images from across the country or across the globe give them an exaggerated sense of personal vulnerability.

At the same time, by decreasing the distance between central authorities and individual citizens, these technologies lead people to expect personal protection from national leaders, rather than taking responsibility for their own freedom and security at a local level. The related feelings of personal anxiety and personal helplessness feed on themselves, and the technology now exists to bring about the conformity that Mill most feared.

  • The comfort of strangers?

The personal branding movement is based on the same fantasy that underlay the Portraits of Grief, which is the fantasy that people can achieve emotional intimacy with strangers. But there is no such thing as public intimacy. Intimacy can be achieved only with those who know us; and strangers cannot know us; they can only have information about us or impressions of us. To offer up personal information that has been taken out of context, in an effort to create the illusion of emotional connection with strangers, requires us to homogenise and standardise the very qualities that made the information personal in the first place. The family members of the 9/11 victims who offered up details of their mourning to the New York Times are not so different from the family members of the victim of a car crash who, moments after the accident, weep on cue for the local news. What is most alarming about these scenes is not the tears but the fact that, even at moments of tragedy, we instinctively look at the camera and talk into the microphone.

The personal branding phenomenon is a crude attempt to provide regulated forms of self-exposure, to maintain some kind of boundary between public and private in a world where self-revelation has become a social imperative. And of course most citizens will never resort to expert assistance in their efforts to present a coherent face to the world. But living in the Omnipticon, where we are increasingly unsure about who is observing us, individuals will have to worry more about acting consistently in public and private, in precisely the way the branding advisors prescribe.

In the 1980s, before the proliferation of the web, the sociologist Joshua Meyrowitz discussed the way the electronic media were changing what he called the ‘situational geography’ of social life (15). As television made us one large audience to performances that occurred in other places, the old walls that separated backstage areas, where people could let down their hair and rehearse for public performances, from the frontstage areas, where the formal performances occurred, began to collapse. Television made viewers aware of the discrepancy between front- and backstage behaviour (such as the woman who plays hard to get, or the fearful man who acts confident in a reality TV dating show), and it became increasingly hard for people to project different images in public and in private without appearing artificial or inauthentic.

Now that the internet is allowing strangers to observe us even as we observe them, ordinary citizens have to worry more about being caught off guard, like actors with their wigs off. As a form of self-defence, all citizens face the same pressures that confused Laurence Tribe: we will increasingly adopt what Meyrowitz called ‘middle region’ behaviour in public: a blend of the formal frontstage and informal backstage, with a bias toward self-conscious informality. As private concerns like sexual behaviour and depression, anxieties and doubts become harder to conceal, they have to be integrated into the public performance. The result can create an illusion of familiarity – the crazy heavy metal rock star Ozzy Osborne looked cuddlier (though still scatological) as MTV cameras recorded every moment of his domestic life for a reality TV show. But the cuddly domesticated Osborne was far less eccentric, and far less distinctive, than his onstage persona had led audiences to expect.

Like Boorstin, Meyrowitz worried that conformity and homogeneity would result as the electronic media expanded the middle region at the expense of front- and backstage behaviour. In addition to blurring the boundaries between political leaders and followers, Meyrowitz predicted that the electronic technologies of exposure would blur the boundaries between the behaviour of men and women, as well as children and adults. All of these groups speak and act differently when they are segregated from each other; and once the boundaries that separate the groups began to collapse, each of these groups would begin to act more like the others. Now the democratising technology of the internet is fulfilling Meyrowitz’s fears: as more personal information about ourselves is available on the web, private figures are feeling the same pressure that public figures have long experienced to expose details of their personal lives as a form of self-defence; and men, women, and children are blurring into a indistinguishable cacophony of intimate exposure.

To the degree that self-revelation to strangers is a bid for relief from anxiety about identity, however, it may not succeed. Social psychologists who have studied the therapeutic effects of emotional disclosure have discovered a consistent pattern: people who receive positive social support for their emotional disclosures tend to feel better as a result, while those who receive negative responses – from indifference to hostility – feel worse.

For example, a nationwide study of psychological responses to 9/11 found that those who sought social support and vented their anxieties without receiving positive reinforcement were more likely to feel greater distress during the six months after the attack than those who engaged in more social coping activities such as giving blood or attending memorial services (16). This is consistent with studies of Vietnam veterans and survivors of the California firestorms, who actually felt worse after sharing their feelings with strangers who made clear they didn’t want to listen. (‘Thank you for not sharing your earthquake story’, read an especially wounding T-shirt.) Those who shared their pain with unreceptive audiences felt worse than those who didn’t talk at all, although not as good as those who shared their pain with a receptive audience.

Studies of the benefits of writing as well as talking about emotional experiences confirm the same insight: emotional disclosure can have therapeutic effects when it helps people to become less isolated and more integrated with social networks, but it can have negative effects when it leads people to vent their feelings in a void, without the support of a receptive audience (17). This suggests that therapeutic venting on the internet to a faceless audience in an unreciprocated bid for attention and emotional support is unlikely to help, and may well make things worse.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera examines the phenomenon of graphomania – the pathological desire to express yourself in writing before a public of unknown readers. ‘General isolation breeds graphomania, and generalised graphomania in turn intensifies and worsens isolation’, Kundera writes. ‘Everyone [is] surrounded by his own words as by a wall of mirrors, which allows no voice to filter through from outside.’ Kundera contrasts the reticence of his heroine, who is mortified by the idea that anyone except for her beloved might read her love letters, with the graphomania of a writer like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who is convinced that his worth as a human being will be called into question if a single human being fails to read his words. The difference between the lover and Goethe, he says, ‘is the difference between a human being and a writer’.

In an indifferent and socially atomised universe, ‘everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen’ as a result, everyone is tempted to become a writer, turning himself ‘into a universe of words’. But ‘when everyone wakes up as a writer’, Kundera warns, ‘the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived’ (18). Now, we are living in an age of graphomania; we are experiencing the constant din of intimate typing – in email, in chatrooms, on the web and in the workplace. The clacking noise we hear in the air is the noise of endless personal disclosure. But as Kundera recognised, instead of forging emotional connections with strangers, personal exposure in a vacuum may increase social isolation, rather than alleviate it.

Many factors put tremendous pressure on individuals in the Naked Crowd, to expose personal details of their lives and strip themselves bare. The crowd demands exposure out of a combination of voyeurism, desire for emotional connection, fear of strangers, democratic suspicion of reticence as sign of elitism, demand for markers of trustworthiness, and an unwillingness to conceive of public events or to relate to public figures except in personal terms. From the perspective of the individual who is pursuing the attention of the crowd, there is, as Charles Derber has suggested, the hope of gaining a mass audience by self-exposure; the demands of a therapeutic culture, which rewards people who talk about intimate problems in public by casting them as victims and survivors; the narcissism that leads people obsessively to call attention to their own fears and insecurities about their identity, in a world where identity is always up for grabs; and the expansion of democratic technologies, which create so many new opportunities for individuals to expose themselves before the crowd (19). Above all, there is the desire to establish oneself as trustworthy in a risk society by proving – through exposure – that we have nothing to hide.

All this suggests little cause for optimism that, in the face of future terrorist threats, the crowd will strike the balance between personal security and personal exposure in a reasonable way. Individuals, as we’ve seen, don’t care much about privacy in the aggregate at all: faced with a choice between privacy and exposure, many people would rather be exposed than be private, because the crowd demands no less. Concerned mainly about controlling the conditions of their own exposure, many people are only too happy to reveal themselves promiscuously if they have the illusion of control

Anxious exhibitionists, trained from the cradle to believe that there is no more valuable currency than personal exposure, are not likely to object when their neighbors demand that they strip themselves bare. But just as public intimacy is a kind of delusion, so is the hope of distinguishing ourselves from the crowd by catering to the crowd’s insatiable demands for exposure. It is impossible to achieve genuine distinction without a certain heedlessness of public opinion. We can turn ourselves into Portraits of Grief only at the cost of looking more like each other. As both spectators and actors in the Naked Crowd, we are too willing to surrender privacy for an illusory sense of emotional connection and security. Perhaps we will realise what a poor bargain we have struck only after it is too late.

© Jeffrey Rosen

Jeffrey Rosen is professor of law at George Washington University, and legal affairs editor of the New Republic. This essay is an excerpt from his book The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age, and is reprinted with the permission of the author and publisher. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Read on:

The Naked Crowd, by Sandy Starr

(1) ‘Closing a Scrapbook Full of Life and Sorrow’, Janny Scott, New York Times, 31 December 2001

(2) ‘The Mourning Paper’, Thomas Mallon, The American Scholar, Spring 2002, p6-7

(3) Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity, Anthony Giddens and Christopher Pierson, Stanford University Press, 1998, p101

(4) The Sane Society, Erich Fromm, Reinhart, 1955, p141-42

(5) The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, Charles Derber, Oxford University Press, 2000, p81

(6) See ‘Online Diary: Blog Nation’, New York Times, 22 August 2002

(7) See the website

(8) Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling, Harvard University Press, 1972

(9) The Homeless Mind: Modernisation and Consciousness, Peter L Berger, Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner, Random House, 1973, p90

(10) The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett, WW Norton & Co, 1974, p196, 265

(11) The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel J. Boorstin, Atheneum, 1977, p57-58

(12) Be Your Own Brand: A Breakthrough Formula for Standing Out from the Crowd, David McNally and Karl D Speak, Berrett-Koehler, 2002, p4, 7, 11, 13, 47

(13) ‘Hold Me! Squeeze Me! Buy a Six-Pack!’, Alex Kuczynski, New York Times, 16 November 1997

(14) On Liberty, in On Liberty and Other Essays, John Stuart Mill, Oxford University Press, 1998, p82, 79

(15) No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behaviour, Joshua Meyrowitz, Oxford University Press, 1985, p6

(16) ‘Nationwide Longitudinal Study of Psychological Responses to September 11’, Roxane Cohen Silver, E Alison Holman, Daniel N McIntosh, Michael Poulin, and Virginia Gil-Rivas, 288 Journal of the American Medical Association 1235, p1241-1242, 2002

(17) ‘Patterns of Natural Language Use: Disclosure, Personality, and Social Integration’, JW Pennebaker and A Graybeal, 10 Current Directions In Psychological Science 92, 2001

(18) The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera, Perennial Classics, 1999, p127-28, 146, 147

(19) The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, Charles Derber, Oxford University Press, 2000, pxv-xviii

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