Credit: Reuters/Stringer Shanghai
Twenty-odd years ago, back when the Internet was mostly a plaything of academics and geeks willing to wrangle TCP/IP plug-in cards, some wise folks predicted it was about to change everything. Soon, they proposed, people would do everything on the Net: shop, bank, entertain themselves, open up businesses, and make friends halfway across the planet. Because it happened on the network, everything would be recorded and nothing would be lost. The Internet would become the memory center of society, the thing that never forgets.
One of the results, they said, would be the dawn of a new era of accountability. People would have to become more responsible for their stupid or malicious behavior because the world would be watching, and anyone could call up their sordid past with a few taps on the keyboard.
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Most of this has indeed come to pass. Everyone on the Internet now has their own persona, real or otherwise. We act out increasingly larger parts of our life in public. We are all performers and pundits now, even if only 140 characters at a time.
The grand plan backfires
Here's the thing: Instead of becoming more accountable and responsible (and presumably better) people, the opposite has happened. Pseudonymity has allowed people to become nastier without fear of retribution and to engage in reckless behavior under the mistaken notion they can't be identified.
Because everything is recorded, no single act matters as much. Our misdeeds are drowned out by the sheer volume of material that amasses every day. A new form of voyeurism has taken hold where people leap from one scandal to the next, gobbling them up as quickly as possible so they can regurgitate them as tweets and GIFs and blog posts not unlike the one you're reading now. Our appetites have grown while our attention spans have shrunk. Going on the Internet today is like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and walking away hungrier than when you came in.
All of these thoughts came to me, strangely enough, while contemplating the return of Weinergate. When the story broke in May 2011, the Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal was a total gift to headline writers and snarkmeisters, the kind of thing people like me dream of. People in power doing incredibly asinine things has been a staple of comedy since the 17th century, if not before. And this one was a doozy.