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On the Origin of ‘Sharing’

It didn’t start with Facebook.

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By STEVEN C. MUNSON
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The practice of “sharing” is now so widespread and ingrained in our daily lives that it bids fair to become the distinguishing feature of our age, much as the use of stone tools once defined an earlier period of progressive enlightenment. As with other important developments in our cultural and social life over the past four or five decades, “sharing” did not come out of nowhere. Nor did it start with the Internet, even though this may be the tool most people use these days to “share.” On the contrary, the origins of “sharing” are ideological, and predate such lucrative enterprises as Twitter and Facebook.

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Another proud legacy.

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Like the childish self-absorption of the contemporary “guy” personality, the calculated selfishness of the culture of hooking-up, and the oblivious vanity (“self-esteem”) and sense of entitlement displayed by many people today, “sharing” is a realization of ideas about solipsism and narcissism that came to the fore with the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s.

Once seen as unhelpful tendencies that we were supposed to be educated out of as we grew up, solipsism and narcissism were heralded as the basis of a new consciousness by such leading theorists of the counterculture as Charles Reich, Germaine Greer, and Theodore Roszak. In his 1970 book The Greening of America, Reich announced that the new consciousness “starts with self. .  .  . [It] declares that the individual self is the only true reality.” And in her 1970 book The Female Eunuch, Greer advanced “the principle of love that is reaffirmed in the relationship of the narcissistic self to the world of which it is a part.”

This redefinition of love as self-love​—​and the subsequent reconceiving of narcissism and solipsism as personal virtues rather than undesirable personal tendencies​—​produced the mode of consciousness that was disparagingly, but justly, called “navel gazing.” In his 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture, Theodore Roszak celebrated this propensity, “grounded in an intensive examination of the self,” as comprising the “distinctive character” of the “bohemian fringe of our youth culture.” And Charles Reich envisioned a time when the results of such self-contemplation would be freely communicated to​—​or shared with​—​other people. 

As Reich wrote in The Greening of America, complaining about such forms of social interaction as dinners, cocktail parties, and lunches among friends, people “do not talk about philosophy or subjective experience. They do not strive for genuine relationships, but keep their conversation at the level of sociability, one-upmanship, and banter, all of which leave the individual himself uncommitted, and not vulnerable. Above all, there is no exchange of brotherhood and love.”

This general lack of social conversation about “subjective experience” was soon to be remedied. Navel-gazing spread quickly from the “bohemian fringe of the youth culture” to all reaches of society. It was observing the increasingly active expressions of this tendency that led Tom Wolfe to label the 1970s the “Me Decade,” a period that, now nearing the “me half-century,” shows no signs of exhaustion.

The navel-gazing mode of consciousness has come to permeate our personal, cultural, and intellectual life, something quite evident in the vast growth of the “self-improvement” industry, the immense popularity of “self-help” books, and the predominance of confessional and “reality” television programs, as well as in a great deal of what passes under the name of art, literature, and a college education. This mode of consciousness has also come to permeate our social life, as evidenced by the practice of “sharing.” Indeed, one could say that “sharing” is the foreign policy of the navel-gazer.

The invasive character of this personal form of foreign policy​—​of this exporting, as it were, of “subjective experience”​—​has been made abundantly clear in recent years. This is especially true with regard to what, since the 1960s, has been viewed by many people as an exemplary form of “sharing,” namely, being “open” and “honest” about sex. Commenting in 1999 on the inundation of our society with sexual material, including the details of other people’s sex lives, then-New York Observer columnist Alexandra Jacobs wrote, “It’s as if the peep shows were ripped out of Times Square, only to take residence in our collective psyche. One does not have to be a prude to proclaim, ‘Enough!’ We have entered an era when sex has become so mainstream, so ubiquitous, so .  .  . chintzy.” Jacobs quoted others who felt the same way about a phenomenon they had all grown sick of but felt powerless to do anything about, including one woman who asked, “ ‘Why do you need to be so accessible to everyone?’ ”

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