A friend of mine, Syndi Zook, shook her head ruefully the other day and observed, “We used to worry that Big Brother was always watching us. Well, we don’t need Big Brother anymore. We have each other.”
Zook was referring to the social networking site, Facebook, which she still refers to with the technical term “facespace or whatever,” and the tendency many of us have to use our cell phones and cameras to chronicle every moment of our lives and then post the photos on the Web. Those small (and large) indiscretions that once were private are now very, very public and the ramifications range from embarrassing to career-killing.
The latest private impropriety to have gone public? Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps using all the lung power that helped him to amass eight gold medals to breathe deep from what looks suspiciously like a bong. He was at a house party in Columbia, S.C. Once the photo went viral, he was suspended from competition for three months by USA Swimming and Kellogg’s announced it was not going to renew its sponsorship contract with him. That’s right, the swimmer’s almost life-size face will no longer be having breakfast with us when we bring down a box of corn flakes from the pantry.
I spend my life writing, but I’m married to a photographer: I know a picture is worth a thousand words — or in this case, serious endorsement clout. We all know the power a single image can hold. Imagine, just for a moment, how different history might be if someone had had a cell phone handy when a young Rhodes Scholar from Arkansas was handed a marijuana joint while in England. “I didn’t inhale and never tried it again,” William Jefferson Clinton would tell us later. Still, a cell phone picture of the lad with the evidence emerging in 1992 would not have boded well for his presidential campaign.
Or picture this: There is a story — myth or reality, I have no idea — that the 26-year-old George W. Bush ran over a garbage can and continued to drive with the metal container lodged under his car until he arrived at his parents’ home in Washington, D.C. If someone had had a camera phone, the Texas Rangers might have a different owner today and David Letterman would have had a lot tougher time finding material. And, oh by the way, IBM might not be shrinking faster than its microchips.
In any case, I am continually astonished by the photos that friends of mine add to Facebook. Older people, younger people, all of them seriously hammered. Seriously compromised. (I am also amazed at the number of spectacular parties out there that clearly I am never invited to, but that’s another story.)
Either Phelps didn’t know someone was photographing him or he didn’t expect someone would make the image public. He’s 23. He has apologized and said his behavior was regrettable.
It was. But it was also, in my opinion, forgivable.
The irony is that despite the reality that we are all acting as each other’s Big Brother, we’re not behaving any better than generations before us. We’re behaving as we always did. The big differences now? There is photographic evidence. And we’ve all discovered we’re either exhibitionists or voyeurs at heart.
The sad thing is that this may also be a lost opportunity. My friend Stephen Kiernan contends that the residents of small towns may behave a little more virtuously than their peers in big cities because there is no anonymity: You misbehave, the neighbors will see you and shame you. But instead of the Web encouraging us all to watch each other’s backs, it’s leading us instead to watch each other’s bongs.
(This article originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on February 15, 2009.)