The act of gazing brings people into new relationships. The angles and meeting points of looking and seeing imply distinctions of agency, a question of who has the privilege to look and who is on the receiving end of that privilege.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of the voyeur who has his eye pressed against a keyhole. He is unaware of his actions until he hears footsteps behind him, at which self-consciousness suddenly rushes in. The gaze is awakened by shame.
Herodotus wrote of the servant Gyges, who hid behind a door to observe the Queen on the invitation of the Queen’s husband King Candaules. Gyges’ gaze is both permitted and illicit, depending on who’s point of view you take up.
The theory of the gaze is about one person looking at another, or else one group of people looking at another group. Whether it be in real life, through a photograph, a work of art or a film, to look is to affirm an entitlement to do so. If the direction of the look is only in one direction, the assumption is of one person’s dominance over the other.
In such a way, a line-of-sight prepares the trigonometry of relations between people. People-watching used to be a pastime for the open air, a more or less discreet glance in a public setting. Artworks and, later, photographs, allowed the gaze to dwell more emphatically.
The way we look today – how we see others and the means by which we relate to them – is largely through digital reproductions. Moreover, a significant characteristic of our devices (smartphones, laptops, tablets) is their apparently secret vantage point. Concealed in the palm of your hand or angled away from others, your screen is your own: others don’t know you’re looking at them.
In today’s world public and private cease to have the same meaning, nor the same consequences, with the result that our new patterns of looking are much more complex: they are broadly transactional and but they involve odd patterns of exchange too, for we all have the power (through a click) to add value to someone else’s exhibition, or to deny that value by ignoring it or openly criticising it. What kind of power is this?
Social media invites us to create a feast of our own lives: to lay out a recipe of our favourite ingredients, our highest pleasures and our greatest achievements, our best mirror image. Like the invention of perspective in painting, the personal-feeds of social media is designed to converge upon us in such a way that we become the ideal viewer. Nobody is more apt to survey our feeds than ourselves.
Virtual-reality software adopts the same principle: there is no other perspective to take on this pretend-world than our own; partiality becomes a normalised condition, and it is easy to forget that our ‘curated’ timeline is unique to us.
For this reason, we are initiated to sympathise with ourselves as agents within a mysterious circle of action. The action can even take place without us having to do anything. As the social media algorithms generates a landscape of restless, wriggling updates, then with every click we make, every preference we imply, the landscape refines a little more magically, and our sense of agency is gratified a little more sweetly.
Of course, social media agitates as much as it pleases. I suspect that one of the biggest draws of social media is the competitive element – since we think other’s are more successful at it than we are. That is, everybody else has more followers, get more likes, has more content to share. Their mastery appears more easily-won; ours is hanging by a looser thread. And then we become more skilled, and the tables begin to turn in our favour…
To be successful at social media, one has to learnt to exist with an audience in mind, and of course the greatest gift granted by this audience is the prize of attention. We are encouraged by the presence of this audience to put on a show, to create something celebratory (or sympathetic) from our opinions, tastes and experiences. To elicit a response is to accrue a tiny portion of the capital that social media offers.
In art history, five hundred years of painting and sculpture tremble under the spotlight of gaze-theorist. The late art critic John Berger memorably described the manner in which art has traditionally been created: “The ideal spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman designed to flatter him.” For Berger, the form of this exchange shapes the relations between men and women. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
More broadly, what Berger was investigating was the ability of one group of people to look upon another without restriction or restraint. The gaze is a examination of how the privileged and the prevailing choose to see the world. As such, it is connected with the construction of gender and sexual difference, and more generally with the representation of marginalised and oppressed peoples. To explore the gaze is to expose the objectification – and sometimes commodification – of those for whom autobiography is not possible. In short, the gaze is about who controls representation.
Today, autobiographers are everywhere. Social media is at once the broad expression of existential experience and also a complex field of self-promotion. These two threads are so closely interwoven that for many users, personal experience are the coinage of their own self-exaltation. It might be said that we readily commodify ourselves, sometimes for the benefit of winning an audience, often merely to have a voice. According to the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, a commodity at its most basic is “any thing intended for exchange”.
Social media changes the dynamic of the gaze. Since images are so easy to make, the volunteering of these images for exchange with others has become a major part of our recreational and professional lives. The ubiquity of the smartphone, and the fact that nearly all social media platforms can be joined without an upfront fee, means that we all have the capacity to influence the story being told about ourselves. It is also possible for others to make use of our images, placing our own contributions into their timeline to supplement their own narrative. Able to record our own history, we are subject to being involuntarily recruited into other people’s histories too. So when it comes to the question of who has the entitlement to look, the demarcation between subject and object – where the power lies – is far from clear. Between two people making and displaying images, of themselves and each other, where does the balance of power sit?
We look and judge, and in return volunteer ourselves to be looked at and judged. As such, we tend to accept the judgements made of us because we also can play judge, a quid pro quo deal.
What I think is being normalised here is the inequality between our online and offline selves. Where there is such an uncertain balance – as we flaunt and exploit our online personas for the gratification of the actual voyeur within us – the divide widens. We watch ourselves being watched, to borrow Berger’s idiom, and thereby hand over power to those who survey us: not to an individual or demarcated group, but simply to the abstract notion of the audience. The power differential is eventually felt personally, often painfully, because the audience is never clear identified.
In theory, when a picture is taken or a representation made, by painting, film camera or written description, it is constructed with certain conventions of looking. It speaks the conventional language of viewership: a perfect audience. This audience, it is supposed, will consume the representation and find some sort of satisfaction in it.
Social media is different. In social media, dialogue is not implied. Unlike other forms of communication, such as by letter, email or telephone, which seem to assume a two-way process, with social media any such agreement is not required: after the initial connection, networks can endure for years without a plan for the frequency or direction of the exchange. The transactional nature of social media is not reported on, has no expectations on it; it is merely notional and indistinct.
In this sense, the content of social media is in general offered free-floating. The communication that may ensue has no privileged context allotted to it, no organised space or time, but rather like advertising billboards or radio stations, are offered gratuitously in the hope of interrupting the attention of its potential audience, which itself is in constant flux, tuning in and out at different points of the day. In this way, the audience is always poorly defined.
Content often begins with a proclamation: an opinion proffered, a restaurant meal photographed, a tourist attraction visited. “I have experienced this” is the tenuous underlying message. At first it looks like an exercise in personal branding. But where social media differs from mere advertisement is in the invitation of reciprocity. Whereas advertising addresses us in such a way as to excite our envy, and to show us how that envy can be satiated by the purchase of the product, social media operates through the mutual invitation to individualise – that is, to describe our tastes, principles and experiences – amongst other acts of individualisation. It is not about commerce or selling ourselves. It’s about competition disguised as equality.
The experience of “speaking into a void” is common to many who get no feedback from social media; the desire for response is therefore heightened to abate the paranoia of invisibility, and the sense that others are finding a bigger audience than ourselves. A discrediting of gratification ensues as our expectation is pulled between two points: the expectation of being looked at and the expectation of watching ourselves being looked at. At all times power is spiralling around, thereby prompting a certain type of psychological consternation. At one moment the power lies with us; it is pleasurable and affirmative. The next the power lies with the nebulous audience. Hence, the whereabouts of our position in the community of our peers is always open to speculation.
Into the digital ether we release extraordinary amounts of personal information and too easily forget who has the means to view it. The ease with which fragments of a person can be spliced together, either by automation or by manual detective work is spreading. Digital footprints generate new conundrums of personal identity, inviting a contemporary notion of personhood based on data profiling: their aptness for health insurance, mortgages, pension schemes, job opportunities, supermarket goods, and so on. Most obviously, the collection of such data acts as a basis for more and more targeted advertising as what we do online is tracked, profiled and segmented, yielding a method for advertisers to deliver more specific, tailored messages to our screens. It doesn’t always work, but the more information we release about ourselves, the more accurate it will become. In this context, the gaze of the data-collecting voyeur is premised on a more obvious power imbalance, galvanised by the commercial value of our statistics and behavioural signals. Digital providers are incentivised to collect more and more of our data, and to do so ever more surreptitiously. As our homes become more “smart”, so the amount and exactness of the data will increase. I doubt the effectiveness of any new legislation that attempts to protect personal data, simply because the manner in which this data is actually used for an ulterior purpose is technically beyond most of us. It is extremely difficult to know what the full implications are or might yet become as new processing techniques are invented. We tick a consent box and there our understanding ends…
Does any of this really matter? If the theory of the gaze has taught any lessons, it ought to remind us that conventions of looking can and do normalise inequalities of power. It is virtually impossible to imagine our world – our global village, to use Mcluhan’s prophetic phrase – retreating backwards from this point of digital connectivity. An irresistible momentum has built up, so that we are without doubt beholden to move with the technology, to adopt it and occupy it’s spaces more and more completely. Indeed for many, our livelihoods now depend on our digital literacy, especially with social media, not to mention the importance conferred on digital communication for the maintenance of our friendships and family relations, as well as our travel and domestic affairs. The world of business and commerce would not consider turning back to clock. Social media is embedded in our lives as surely as cars, supermarkets, telephones and newspapers – each of which the internet is simultaneously revolutionising and overthrowing.
The very speed of change is part of the concern. But as we look down the line at what is to come, it should be our duty to consider how me might protect ourselves from the psychological instability brought about through online relations.
It is easy to lose hours of your life to social media. There is pleasure in looking onto the lives of other people, skimming your attention over their posted photographs and conversational threads. Part of the pleasure and the leisure lies in passing judgement on what we see. We might warm to it, find it agreeable or funny, or else we might bulk at it, turning away in derision or contempt. But this is really the trivial end of the wedge. Able to browse with apparent anonymity, it is tempting to place oneself in a position of superiority – as the arbiter of taste – over the interminable feed of images and words. We approve and we also pour scorn. For as the French proverb tells us, “He who can lick, can bite”.
The social media gaze is ultimately about the threat of incoherence of our personal narrative, which ends in self-deception. John Berger described how the world of advertising ultimately rests on the envy we feel towards the products we don’t own, and how that envy can be transfigured into envy of us by others if only we can possess the product. Yet, as Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, “being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest – if you do you will become less enviable.”
Berger was writing in 1972. Notice how the word “share” has changed. Today, to “share your experience” is to let other know about it; it is indeed the fundamental act upon which social media functions. It is not to share in the old fashioned way. One does not share an experience as one might share a cake or a car ride, that is, by relinquishing ownership by degrees, by dividing ownership amongst others. To “share” on social media is to assert and maintain ownership. The euphemism reveals a great deal. Principally it tells us that to be observed is about granting a favour to others. In this scheme, we posit ourselves as the ultimate controllers of the exchange, yet we tend to overlook the fact that we are constantly shaping our representations to elicit positive judgements from others. The impersonation here should give us pause for thought, since social media relies on the perception of granting others access to our lives, whereas we purposefully disconnect from our realities, even distorting time, in order to accord with the gaze of others. In these terms, performance threatens to slide into self-deception.