The Magazine

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?’ ”

Hers might very well be the question of the century. And it expresses what many of us have become all too painfully aware of: that being talked at by somebody intent on “sharing” is actually a way of making us feel vulnerable. “Sharing” does this by aggressively collapsing the civilized “space”​—​that is, the once-recognized as reasonable and once-experienced as comfortable boundaries​—​between the personal consciousness of the sharer and that of the sharee. Such boundaries were once routinely respected as a result of the use of good manners. Respect for the sensibilities of others constituted an important part of what it meant to behave “in good taste.”

Since the revolution in consciousness of the 1960s and 1970s, the obligation of behaving in good taste has gone the way of everything else deemed to be part of an “unnatural” and “culturally imposed” social role. Rather than thinking of how others might feel or react, as people were once taught and expected to do, being “spontaneous” and “authentic” has been the order of the day. Among other things, this has meant abandoning something previously valued and observed: reticence.

Our age is not the first in which this virtue has gone by the wayside. As Stendhal wrote of his native country, in his 19th-century treatise On Love, “In France, towards 1770, there was no such thing as reticence; on the contrary, the proper thing to do was to live and to die in public, and, inasmuch as the Duchesse de Luxembourg was intimate with a hundred friends, there was, in the strict sense of the words, no such thing as either intimacy or friendship.” 

The same could be said​—​to put it mildly​—​of the times in which we have been living, in which the once common practice of keeping things to oneself is now so unusual as to be a cause for social suspicion. At the same time, it is not uncommon for people who “share” too much to come to regret it. The reason they continue to do it anyway is that the imperative to “share” has been internalized.

The writer Walter Kirn makes this point in contrasting the compulsory “Big Brother” mentality of George Orwell’s novel 1984 with what he calls the voluntary “Little Brother” mentality promoted by the Internet. Kirn argues that today “the private and public realms are so confused that it’s best to treat them as identical. With nowhere to hide, you might as well perform, dispensing with old-fashioned notions of discretion and personal dignity.” But what Kirn calls our “quest for attention by any means” is, again, not the result of technological advance but of our having chosen to embrace the ideas advanced four decades or so ago by such revolutionary social theorists as Reich, Roszak, and Greer.

At the same time, this quest is being expanded and intensified by technology, with consequences well-limned by the novelist Zadie Smith: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. .  .  . It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”

It was the “liberal-bourgeois sense of self”​—​along with respect for personal boundaries and the values of modesty, discretion, self-restraint, and reticence​—​that advocates of the revolution in consciousness of the 1960s and 1970s were intent on replacing. Their stated goal in seeking to delegitimize and overthrow this model of a modern individual was the creation of a new, “authentic,” “natural,” and “freer personality” capable of “an exchange of brotherhood and love.” The extent to which this goal has been realized, even if what is being exchanged these days is not “brotherhood and love,” can be seen in what Zadie Smith calls the passing of “a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and​—​which is more important​—​to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed.”

Instead of respect for a “private person, a person who is a mystery,” today we are faced with a kind of culturally authorized, socially approved, and technologically institutionalized impertinence: the impertinence of those who impose on us and on themselves by “sharing,” an impertinence motivated by the desperation that comes with imagining, as Charles Reich and others so long ago encouraged us to do, that “the individual self is the only true reality.”

Steven C. Munson lives and writes in Rome.

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