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Oversharing, Exhibitionism, Loneliness

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

It pains me to take Elizabeth Edwards to task for anything. She is suffering from terminal cancer and from assertions that her cheating husband fathered a child with a party girl. So my first instinct is to totally lay off. The only rap against her, it seems, is that she knew of an affair after John Edwards announced his presidential run and that she kept it secret.

May I disagree? The "cover-up" was the good part. Some things are best left private. Elizabeth's book and "Oprah" outpouring drag the public under the couple's covers -- offering disclosure with no socially redeeming value. Anyhow, John's most troubling betrayal wasn't to her, but to his many followers, who took him seriously.

Privacy rights activists hit their heads against a frustrating reality: Many Americans don't care a fig what others know about them. On the contrary, their juiciest details have become something to trade.

Webster's New World Dictionary's 2008 Word of the Year was "overshare." To overshare is "to divulge excessive personal information, as in a blog or broadcast interview, prompting reactions ranging from alarmed discomfort to approval."

Oversharing can easily morph into exhibitionism. A case in point: French President Nicolas Sarkozy's very public romp with an ex-model/heiress, who chattered about her sexual exploits. The international focus on their self-display provided the ideal conditions for Carla Bruni to release a CD of her latest hard-breathing songs. (Sarkozy and Bruni are now married.)

By contrast, the Obamas' starched formality represents a welcome return to reticence. The girls are sheltered from the media. Thank you, Obamas.

The already rich and already famous may air their personal dope for more fun and more profit. But why do ordinary people tell all, even when it's against their long-term interests?

The University of Florida discovered its medical students posting pictures and prose on Facebook that could hurt their careers later on. Photos showed students cross-dressing, and the doctors-to-be joshed about wearing "Kevorkian Medical Clinic" lab coats. Such hijinks would amount to harmless fooling around at a party. On the Internet, they can be accessed by anyone and forwarded out-of-context, probably forever.

Why would smart graduate students engage in such indiscretion?

For the same reason that lonely high-school students do: to get attention.

People in old-fashioned communities have close friends with whom they can share their inner thoughts and do crazy things. A study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona found that most American adults have only two acquaintances with whom they can discuss intimate matters. About one quarter have no close confidants at all.

While people could relax in the comforting presence of personal friends, they now market themselves through "online identities." They thus compete in cyberspace against rock stars, French presidents and assorted showoffs on YouTube. There's no sitting around with old pals over coffee and saying nothing for five minutes.

Social networking requires being perpetually onstage. That sort of thing can get you into trouble without providing real company.

And the closest Internet pals can't replace the companionship of a flesh-and-blood relationship, said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke sociologist involved in the study. They generally don't visit you in the hospital, provide a Kleenex when you sneeze or help move a table upstairs.

Folks who don't value privacy might not mind selling theirs for money. Some years ago, Harvard Business School professor John Deighton wrote a paper suggesting that businesses pay consumers for their personal information. Identities as marketable assets.

One can imagine some futuristic economy where desperate people can sell their most private details for quick cash. Those who haven't blabbed can command a higher price. In some ways, that future is already here, isn't it?



Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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