Photo via Thomas Good/Wikipedia (GFDL 1.3)
It seems hardly a coincidence that the same year Carlos Danger became a household name, two Stanford students designed an app that would try to make sexting scandals a thing of the past.
In 2011, outspoken New York Rep. Anthony Weiner was caught messaging a photo of his crotch to Gennette Cordova, a college student enamored with his passionate speeches and his punchy Twitter presence. An early adopter of the platform, the New York Times described the congressman as having a “feisty, in-your-face and occasionally off-color personality” on Twitter.
That led to him being far more personal than other politicians on the service, the kind of legislator you felt like you knew (or as many Americans like to say, have a beer with). It also led him to being reckless and unguarded. Weiner meant to send the almost-but-not-quite NSFW photo via direct message. He accidentally tweeted to all of his followers, the platform’s equivalent of hitting “reply all” on a work email.
Weiner would eventually resign from Congress. Two years later, he re-emerged, launching a campaign for the position that had been his end goal all along: Mayor of New York City. That failed bid is the subject of Weiner, a startlingly good fly-on-the-wall documentary from Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg that won the top prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and is currently showing at theaters across the country.
Could a scandal like Weiner’s ever happen again? Not if today’s younger generation has anything to say about it.
Kriegman and Steinberg’s film asks important questions of our relationship to social media in an era where everything is public, but there is one that remains open: Could a scandal like Weiner’s ever happen again?
Not if today’s younger generation has anything to say about it.
As I wrote recently for the Daily Dot, 2011 was a tipping point for social media, in which platforms like Twitter came of age in the public eye. Although the service launched five years earlier, the company founded by Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams, had a blockbuster 2011—nearly doubling the size of its audience. By the end of the calendar year, Twitter reached the 100 million mark.
With an audience of such enormity, surely Weiner had to know what he was getting into?
But if Twitter had grown in size the year Weiner’s scandal went viral, the public had yet to see the real power of its permanence. This was still a time in which the politician himself could plausibly dismiss the idea that one’s social media footprint changes the shape of the ground beneath you; the imprint sticks. In 2013, Weiner, now running for mayor, told his aides that they shouldn’t be worried about further scrutiny of his social media relationships with women. If the attention span of the media is three days, the internet’s must be even shorter.
His own misdeeds, however, would prove that was not the case.
Two years after his initial Twitter scandal, it was revealed that Weiner, using the alias Carlos Danger, had engaged in similar affairs with six to 10 more women, including a porn star, Ginger Lee, who frequently tweeted that she had the hots for the former congressman. On March 13, Lee tweeted that her wish had come true: She had received a direct message from Weiner.
The nature of those correspondences is unknown, but given the raunchy sexts he swapped with Sydney Leathers, a 22-year-old follower who has since launched her own adult career, it’s easy to draw your own conclusions.
When Weiner apologized, for the second time, it was a familiar image: A politician brought down to earth, begging to be redeemed for his personal failings while his wife stood beside him as a show of support. Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton, was just the latest in a long line of “good wives,” that once included Mrs. Clinton herself.
Abedin, a woman who had previously kept herself out of the public eye, was clearly ravaged by the constant speculation about her marriage. However, she did not have Weiner’s ability to put on a steely facade for the public, one that allowed him to lie repeatedly to reporters about his misconduct. If you needed any indication the devastation that social media could wreak on someone’s personal life, her face was proof positive.
The following year would witness Celebgate, when the nude photos of dozens of A-list female celebrities—including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and Ariana Grande—were leaked onto the internet. If Weiner didn’t realize that anything he said to women in private could potentially be made public, Celebgate showed just how far that dial had moved. What happened to Lawrence, who penned a Vanity Fair essay in response to the hack, could happen to anyone, and it did. Sites like “Is Anyone Up?” made revenge porn, in which racy photos were anonymously submitted to the platform without the consent of the person pictured, into a major industry.
In a post-Weinergate media environment, many of them—especially teenagers—are opting out.
There’s obviously a huge difference between someone who accidentally posts a photo of his package to a public platform and victims of a sex crime, but it illustrates just how much social media users’ relationship with privacy has shifted. It also shows why, in a post-Weinergate media environment, many of them—especially teenagers—are opting out.
Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy founded Snapchat on a central idea: Rather than permanence being the norm of platforms like Facebook and Instagram—where everything is recorded—the default should be deletion. “Snapchat changed that perception of deleting something as bad,” Spiegel told U.K.’s the Telegraph. “Online typically you delete something if it’s bad or if it’s really embarrassing. What Snapchat said was if we try to model conversations as they occur they’re largely ephemeral. We may try to write down and save the really special moments, but by and large we just try to let everything go.”
As college students, they were quite familiar with that principle—going to a frat party and needing to be on guard the next day should an employer see you tagged in a photo of yourself passed out with a phallus symbol drawn on your face in permanent marker.
But even more than the ability to disavow drunken shenanigans, the pair learned the importance of expunging your public record from Weiner himself. “As they worked on a prototype over the summer, then-Congressman Anthony Weiner was in the news because of some indiscreet photo-sharing with women he met on Twitter,” Bloomberg’s Felix Gillette reports, “and career-immolation-by-selfie was on everyone’s mind.” When Snapchat launched in the app store, that connection meant that the messaging service (which dissolves photos after 10 seconds)‚ was initially branded as a sexting platform.
Despite that branding, Snapchat boasted a meteoric rise to prominence. The Telegraph reported that by the end of 2013, a quarter of cellphone users in the United Kingdom had already downloaded the app. By 2015, teens would rank the service as their third-favorite social sharing app (behind Instagram and Twitter) at a time when multiple outlets reported that young people were abandoning Facebook—long the center of the social media universe—in droves. In a recent Bloomberg report, Snapchat bested Twitter in daily usage for the first time.
“Increasingly, young people are being warned that future employers, college admissions departments, and even banks will use their social media profiles to form assessments,” Quartz’s Felicity Duncan warns.
Even Facebook has taken notice of the shift away from permanence. Whereas status updates used to be etched in stone, the platform has allowed users in recent years to amend what they post—with a disclaimer that the content has been “edited.” The company has also been pushing its recently unveiled “Live” feature, in which users can broadcast what they’re doing in real time. In addition to competing with Snapchat, the function is similar to services like Periscope—which serve to put users in the moment as something is happening. After that moment is over, it’s gone.
Social media might be too late to redeem Anthony Weiner, who—it must be noted—still maintains an active presence on Twitter. In fact, this is the tweet he has pinned to the top of his Twitter page:
Despite Weiner’s newfound humor about the scandal, this new age of ephemerality could keep a new generation from repeating his mistakes.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of "The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions" and the co-editor of the bestsellingBOYSanthology series. Follow him on Twitter @Nico_Lang.