On Visually-Mediated Professional Lives

If you currently live in the United States, or are one of The Daily Show‘s horde of global fans, you have surely heard about the latest sex scandal involving New York Congressional Representative Anthony Weiner. If, though, you do not fall into either of those categories, there’s an off-chance that you do not yet know that Weiner recently got caught sending webcam photos of his, err, ‘weiner’ on Twitter to a young female follower. (Cue an interminable parade of puns and penis jokes in the media.) Further revelations of the Congressman’s online dalliances, some of them after his marriage—along with more ill-advised photos—were subsequently revealed.

Much of the resultant debate has focused on what, if anything, Weiner did wrong—and whether or not he should resign as a consequence. Most commentators regard his actions online as private peccadilloes, something between him and his spouse, not between him and the American public. Glenn Greenwald, for example, castigates the media for giving attention to something that ought to have remained private. Others accept the premise that his tweets were his own business but think that he ought to be taken to task for failing to come clean about it immediately; indeed, according to Thompson (2000), sex scandals become political scandals when politicians lie in public about their private lives.

This framing, in my view, is precisely the wrong way to think about ‘Weinergate’. It is wrong to think that Weiner’s actions on Twitter as being an extension of his private life. The Twitter user name from which he sent those crotch shots was @RepWeiner. Not @WeinerDawg. Not @TonyIsLonely. It was a verified account and, crucially, an extension of his public presentation of the self as a national-level politician. Thus, this Twitter account was not to be Weiner at play. This was Weiner on the job…and last I checked, waving your wang at admirers you think are sexually attractive is not part of the job.

Those young women who followed him on Twitter? They were following Rep. Weiner, a politician whose platform and policies they admired. Even if they had a crush on him, it was the sort of crush one has on a celebrity, and it was neither incumbent upon Weiner, nor advisable, to respond. Social media makes it too easy for interpersonal interaction to become simultaneous broadcast. Indeed, cyberspace itself has become a quasi public square, and those who are watched most intently are those who are already famous. Anybody can ‘streak the (virtual) green’, in undergraduate-speak, but only those whom many are already watching will likely attract much attention. If Weiner had even a modicum of common sense, he would have known that.

Clearly, common sense does not seem to be his strong suit. But then neither does impulse control. @RepWeiner should have been Anthony Weiner, the professional politician. Yet there he was, doing very unprofessional things. It begs the question: Does he behave in a similar way in real life, too? An acquaintance in his district who has seen him on the campaign trail has suggested to me that he does, leering at attractive women and taking conversation down to the gutter. Last I checked, the ability to behave professionally and keep one’s proverbial pants up in public—in-person and online—is a minimum requirement for most jobs. Perhaps Weiner shouldn’t resign—but I would argue that they shouldn’t have elected him in the first place.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Sociological Imagination’s Mediated Matters columnist.

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