Anthony Weiner's bizarre saga appears to be at an end. The seven-term congressman announced Thursday that he is resigning his congressional seat 10 days after admitting that he "sexted" at least a half-dozen women from his Twitter account and almost three weeks after the scandal broke. But what have we actually learned from this weird spectacle that has dominated the front pages of the country's leading newspapers and aired 'round-the-clock on cable news?
People were fascinated by the Weiner story because his behavior was so reckless. How could a member of Congress think he could get away with sending lewd pictures to total strangers and not be caught? It says something about the hubris of politicians. But it also says something more about our culture.
There is something uniquely narcissistic in sending naked pictures of one's self out into cyberspace. It's the modern-day equivalent of "flashing." And like exhibitionists who flash their nakedness at unsuspecting bystanders, sexters seem both creepy and pathetic. Yet the phenomenon appears to be widespread.
Several similar scandals involving teens have become national news in the last couple of years. At least one led to a suicide, but others have also ruined lives. And Weiner isn't even the first high-profile sexter. Former Minnesota Vikings' quarterback Brett Favre also sent naked pictures out that embarrassed him and his family.
It's hard to imagine that many of those involved in sexting would display naked body parts face to face with casual acquaintances or strangers. But the virtual world of the Internet loosens inhibitions and encourages behavior that in real life most people would know is out of bounds.
In a society in which many people don't even know their next-door neighbor's name, millions create "friendships" with total strangers online. And many of those friendships turn into something more -- virtual sexual relationships. Chat rooms and other online temptations lure many into cyber relationships that can become as obsessive and destructive as the real kind.
The benefits of the Internet are indisputable. We now have instant access to information and knowledge that would have been beyond reach just a few years ago. We can communicate quickly and to more people than ever before.
But the downsides are also great. Some of the information we get is wrong. It's easier to spread lies to a much wider audience than ever before. And, much of the "communication" that goes on communicates very little of worth. Do we really need to know what our virtual friends ate for dinner last night, much less what they're doing or wearing (or aren't) right now?
Internet communication feeds the narcissism that characterizes modern society. In the past, narcissism was recognized as a vice; today, we celebrate its virtues. Anyone with Internet access has the ability to create a world that centers on himself. Individuals with little to say create blogs on which they ramble at length about everything that happens in their own little world -- or the world at large -- unfiltered.
I realize that in part it's a generational difference. I registered for a Twitter account awhile back but quickly realized that I had no great desire to share my opinions on everything instantly. And the idea that anyone -- even my children -- would want to know where I was, what I was doing, and what happened to be on my mind a dozen or more times a day seems downright delusional.
In his resignation statement, Weiner said he wanted to continue to serve his constituents but that "the distraction (he) created has made that impossible." He's right, of course, but he's not the only one distracting attention from what's important.
Maybe the biggest lesson we can learn from the Weiner affair is to think before we tweet. Of course, there's a difference between sending dirty pictures across the Internet and tweeting inane comments every few minutes, but both are a form of exhibitionism we'd be a whole lot better off without.