The unanswered question that is Anthony Weiner: "How could he?" - with the implication "How could he be so stupid and reckless?" - has resonated these past two weeks. Commentators have blamed the narcissism of power, especially male power, with its increasing appetite for risk and threat of discovery. In this kind of narrative, Weiner's crimes make him different from "regular" people.
But another way to look at what Weiner did suggests that he's actually a lot like us, and we're a lot like him.
Those of us who have carefully studied the way the human and American psyche have changed in the age of Facebook and Twitter have discovered this difficult truth: In this new digital culture, we are all increasingly vulnerable to certain everyday temptations. We are all increasingly narcissistic in certain ways, increasingly likely to allow the public and the private to bleed into each other. In some unexpected ways, we all engage in risky business.
This observation is not to condone Weiner's actions or to excuse his sleazy behavior, but simply to say: Weiner's vulnerabilities - insofar as they relate to his behavior with his digital device - are widely shared. Online and with our devices, it is easy to fumble, easy to hide, easy to think one is alone when one is not, and easy to disconnect from one's own actions.
On the most banal level, there is the everyman nature of Weiner's technical mistake: Weiner mistook an @ for a D when he sent that unfortunate photo to the college student via Twitter. What might have been a private direct message became a public embarrassment for all to see. It is that easy on the social network to turn a secret life into a public shame. Almost everyone has an example of an email they meant to send to one person that that ended up in the hands of many because they hit "reply all" instead of "reply." I was in Brazil when the Weiner story broke and was told of a woman who thought she was sharing with a close friend the date and time of when she and her family would be meeting on the beach to scatter her father's ashes to the sea - only to discover that she had invited hundreds of people to the event. These days, the keys are tiny. We are often, quite literally, all thumbs.
But Weiner's fumbling "mistake" begs the question of why he felt the e-connection to be a place for doing risky business. Here, the story teaches us something else about how we relate to our digital devices. We see them as extensions of ourselves. They seem almost a phantom limb, so much are they a part of us. When we are with them, no matter what we know, we feel in our own world.
When we send a message on Facebook, despite everything that we have been told about the lack of privacy there, we feel alone. When we message on our computers, we have a sense of connection with the glow of the screen, so much, say some of the people I interview, "that I sometimes forget where I end and it begins." Through that glow, the technology promises us an instant connection with someone we want to touch, to reach. It delivers an electronic embrace. And so, technology's affordances are a perfect match for our human vulnerability. We want to reach out. Our cell phone promises us that we can. Instantly.
When Tiger Woods sent a text to his mistress to say "please don't call ... my wife suspects," he felt that he was writing in private. When Weiner sent picture of his body to a woman he had never met, he felt it was a private act. This does not have to do with the reality of the technology, but with the experience of intimacy of a screen or a device that one holds in one's hands. We feel in an intimate bubble when, in fact, we are in a broadcast medium. The results of this perfect storm - this disconnect of experience and reality - are volatile and indeed, as these stories play out in the lives of families and children, they can easily become tragic. What once might have been a private interchange, no matter how perverse, between consenting adults, becomes something on the public record. I have interviewed so many men and women who enjoy private lives on the Internet in which they gender-swap: men play women and women play men. They do so feeling that this activity is private and hurts no one. They never imagine that their children or wives or husbands might learn of their games.
This is another aspect to Weiner's story - something that goes beyond this disconnect between the experience of privacy the reality of public broadcast. When Weiner was on his Twitter account, he, like so many others, seems to have experienced himself on his phone as a "second self," a kind of avatar.
We have the avatar experience when we play online role-playing games, but we also have a version of the avatar experience when we create a Twitter handle or a Facebook profile. It is us but may turn out to be not quite us, but an ideal us or a more adventuresome us. It can be an us that goes to places we would not go or seems always enthusiastic when, in fact, we are actually much more moody and complicated. No longer quite themselves, people are able to both feel connected and disconnected from the activities of their online selves.
People can watch that self be bold, be adventuresome, do things that they wished, "they themselves" could do. The experience of having this second self can teach a kind of distance from our behavior, can make it not seem to "count."
That is until one day, self and avatar, self and nickname are brought together. The mirror cracks. There is a moment of revelation. What seemed to Anthony Weiner like an intimate private world on a screen was brought painfully, awfully, out into the sun.
Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, is author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other."