A Brief Analysis of Performing and Being Watched on Social Media Platforms
In 2008, Vincent Miller hypothesized that much of the communication that is done via social media is “phatic”; the messages sent were not to convey legitimate information but more so to indicate that we are present, that we exist, and that we are here. We do this by sharing content, posting comments, and liking, and as social media has evolved over time, from the creation of “Six Degrees,” launched in 1997, to Zuckerberg’s Facebook and his later acquisition of Instagram, along with other platforms like Twitter and Snapchat to name a few, online platforms have no doubt metamorphosed into a world in and of itself. Today, more and more people are becoming “present” on social media, diverging from traditional communities and forming the digital equivalents of communities that Miller refers to as “networks,” which, unlike physical communities, are based on choice.1
These networks are not restricted to geographical boundaries and imply more freedom for the individual who may choose those with whom he does or does not keep in contact and where he belongs, and as platforms have expanded it’s become more evident that every platform carries with it an expectation where its users are concerned. Popular opinion will assert that Facebook, for example, is for your grandparents, your mother, your father, that aunt you never talk to, and Twitter users even dub non-twitter users “locals.” The recent “LinkedIn vs Instagram vs Twitter vs Facebook vs Tinder” meme-collages have also made the rounds, all further supporting the fact that each and every platform, every network, constitutes different rules of being, different ways of presenting oneself, and different expectations and standards for their respective users. It’s kind of like who you are at church vs at home vs in class, and people are not only aware of those rules, but they interact with each respective platform accordingly. Relationships in networks are referred to by Miller as ‘products of instrumentalism’ in the sense that “all kinds of network exist because of some purpose, object or goal.”2 And the beauty of the network lies in the fact that as more and more people join a network or belong to a network, the more people join; this Miller calls “The Network Effect.” Approximately 2.6 billion people are currently present on social media, which is about 38 percent of a 7.3 billion person population. By 2021, that number is expected to go up to 3.02 billion, which will translate to roughly about 43 percent of the world’s population.3 Keeping in mind that these numbers represent a cumulative overview of all of the world’s inhabitants—newborns, infants, toddlers, the elderly etc.—to think that nearly half will be present online in one way or another a year from now is extraordinary to say the least.
Sticking to the idea of a network as a digital place of gathering with a specific purpose, object, or goal, a social media platform can be seen as a network of its own, with each individual platform boasting its own unique set of users. As with any community or place of social interaction there are rules for how to act and react on the digital networks we now belong to. These rules come in the form of explicitly stated expectations and regulations set forth as terms and conditions for using specific social platforms (e.g. Twitter, Instagram, Wattpad etc.) as well as the implied standards that develop as these networks grow. Take for examples of community New York City and a small town in Michigan. Explicit rules are the very clearly stated rules like Do not pee on the street or Do not hit anyone with your car; implied rules are a bit trickier, though, and rely on social interaction. Where small talk in a small town would be considered normal, standard, and maybe even expected, small talk in New York City is seen as strange or not expected. In other words, there are rules for how to be social, even in the digital world. Togetherness, or how we are together is heavily regulated, and social media platforms are providing us with radically different ways of being “together,” through hashtags, comments, likes, pages, and so on.
The main objective of this essay is to respond to Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that we live mythically in an electronic/digital environment, but also to then answer the question of how we are controlled and regulated within these new “communities” and what the “societal super-egos” (an idea proposed by Sigmund Freud) in modern-day societies consist of. This essay will aim to explore how we devise rules for how we are together, the control mechanisms that subtly exist in our day to day interactions within the digital world, how we make ourselves present based on the structure of social media, and what happens when an individual being steps out of bounds or violates the implied rules. In brief, I believe that social media functions as an omniscient digital panopticon where the fear of being watched induces as well as regulates certain behaviors, implementing rules for what to post or what not post.
When creating a profile for yourself on social media, it all starts with a blank slate; we are afforded the option to pick and choose who we would like to be. We carefully select and deselect what to post and who to follow,. all to convey very specific messages about who we are. Likewise we pick usernames, screen names, and profile pictures. Essentially, we get to decide who we are. It’s interesting because online existence completely eradicates most of the non-verbal communication that real world interactions are so dependent on. Where most “real world” interactions are non-verbal, online one gets to really curate and mediate every aspect of herself creating spaces where interactions are arguably much more controlled and deliberate than they otherwise be. In her essay on race and identity in digital media Lisa Nakamura construes social networking sites, and virtual worlds as places where identities are constructed and sometimes even policed. Digital profiles and avatars have become the ideal spaces for identity formation, and are celebrated by scholars and proponents of a certain neoliberal ideology which encourages citizens to be entrepreneurs of themselves, i.e to build their identities.4 Thus social media grants us a chance to “become” who we wish to be, enabling us to pick and choose what others see. Certain media occurrences, such as the recent trend of “catfishing” or the idea of “identity tourism” as explored in Nakamura’s piece, delineate the extent to which digital networks enable us to reconstruct and deconstruct ourselves. The nature of social media platforms in particular make it so that we can create worlds and personas for ourselves that are not constrained by the physical, non-digital world.
Going further, social media grants us the chance to not just create identities, but to also live out those identities and fantasies. And, if social media provides us with a platform to create our own identities, it also provides us with the means to reinforce and perform them. On Instagram, I want people to know that I like bagels and love Stranger Things. Most importantly though, I also want people to know I have friends. And so when anybody haphazardly stumbles on my Instagram and browses through my carefully selected array of selfies, pictures with friends (that I have), memes, and long rants, I am attempting to convey a very specific message about who I am and what I like. In 1959, sociologist Erving Goffman published The Presentation of the Self, a book on the performance of identity everyday life Goffman relates everyday life to a play with actors in order to delineate the importance of face-to-face interaction. Even within an increasingly digital society that does not necessarily function on face-to-face interaction, Goffman’s theories remain relevant to the practice and presentation of self on social media. According to Goffman social interactions function on the idea of “frontstage” and “backstage” areas, frontstage where we are performing and backstage where we can relax and be ourselves.5
People, according to Goffman, perform their identities, and it is through this performance that the individual gives meaning to herself, to others, and to her situation. Furthermore, individuals are constantly engaged in the process of “impression management” where people try to prevent themselves and others embarrassment.6 Social media provides a perfect context for studying Goffman’s theories. The creation of identities on social networks is aided by the process of posting and sharing, which affirms or negates the identities we pick for ourselves, the ones we choose to portray and the ones we want the outside world to see. Through a loop of validation powered by the like button, the follow button, etc., individuals manage impressions, decide what is good and what is not good, and affirm and negate certain actions or posts. I cannot be the only one who deletes posts that do not get enough likes. What better way to manage impressions than to have a palpable physical sign of what is good and what is not?
The like button—this palpable sign of what is good and what is not—is revolutionary in more ways than one. Mort Rene de Girard, dubbed the godfather of the like button, theorized that humans find their place in the world and subsequently learn what they want, what they like, based on mimesis.7 In other words, we learn what to desire by observing the desires of others. His theories stemmed from a belief that humans were able to survive and become the dominant species in a world where they were relatively defenseless, not because we are super cool or anything but because we are just good at pretending to be who we are not. The Majority Illusion and The Herd Mentality are both examples of social phenomenon that echo Girard’s theories. All in all, even our self-worth and self-esteem are gleaned from the outsider’s eye. We know we are good because others tell us we are good, and we know what is good because others say it is good.
Using Girard’s theories about the fundamental need and skill humans have to imitate, the like button comes to play a pivotal role in the modern-day media-saturated society. In mediated forms of interaction, we rely on reviews, likes, and followers to determine the worth of thing with which we are interacting with, be it products or other individuals. If one takes a step back and examines the way modern media systems function to foster relationships and interactions, one sees how contingent upon the opinions of others (expressed through likes, comments, retweets, reviews, etc.) everyday decisions are, from buying clothes, to seeing a movie, who to like or not like or even just choosing what food to eat. The worlds of various social media networks are built by the individuals who interact with them, by their users, we like what we like and by liking we determine the content that gets to stay which in turn creates and sets the tone for the site and who uses it; who finds themselves at home on it. Furthermore, as it becomes up to the majority to pick what is good and what is not so good, this power may very well “prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.”8 Taking this and Girard’s theories into consideration, it is impossible to see social media working without the “evils” of the “tyranny of the majority” however.9
The way social media is structured makes it so that we are both under the constant threat of surveillance by unwanted outsiders and being surveilled at the same time by other users; individuals we select or who select us (follow, follower culture). Our participation in these platforms function like a very real, very insidious version of The Truman Show. We perform the identities we select for ourselves in accordance with the fact that others are watching, and some may even argue that we perform to be watched (i.e. we want likes and followers). The knowledge that we are being surveilled comes to serve as an omniscient, harrowing sort of super-ego. Because we are afraid of the shame, alienation, or ridicule that may be associated with one faux pas in the eyes of the many, a status quo is maintained on networks. Whole worlds are created in accordance with this idea.
Take for example the finsta and the rinsta, portmanteaus for “fake Instagram” and “real Instagram.” You transmit the rinsta you via wholesome pictures of pretty sceneries and the occasional selfie (with friends) attempt to convince the world that your parents raised a normal child. This is the account everybody can see. The finsta is the private platform only the chosen few have access to and where you can truly be yourself: broke, hungry, alone, and far from the normal child your parents believe they raised. Even more broadly, Facebook has recently become the more wholesome platform. Everybody has Facebook; it is the one social media account your grandma has, your grandpa has, your favorite high school teacher has, and your one really annoying uncle has, and so posts are made in accordance with that audience. Because Facebook is so widely used across generations, content shared to personal Facebook profiles have become more censored and riskier content has moved to more age-group specific platforms like Instagram or Snapchat because the odds of Tatie Mijoe—my favorite gossip-prone aunt—watching on Instagram are infinitely lower than the odds on Facebook.
The idea of being watched, and by whom, completely transforms the standards and regulations for how we connect using a particular social media platform. Our behavior echoes Foucault an Bentham’s theories of the panopticon, the “all-seeing building in which the possibility of being seen from a central point leads prisoners to police their own behavior.”10 The threat of surveillance alters the personality and reinforces specific types of behavior, and that super-ego like force is constantly at work in the digital world creating implicit rules and codes for how we should be. One could say that, from a psychoanalytical perspective, the father-like figure of an omnipresent watcher or majority keeps us in check.
All in all, McLuhan is right that we have created worlds within which to exist on digital platforms, but beyond the mere creation of those worlds, we have also invented and embedded within them ways in which to regulate and censor the self, ways that originated from the physical worlds within which we used to be constrained. In that sense, it’s not that we’ve created different worlds with necessarily different rules of being, we have just moved away from one space of being to another. I would assert that all of the socio-political issues for which we critique social media platforms are symptomatic of empire and hidden imperial strategies and ideology, not reflections of the sites themselves. But if we live in a world dominated by ideology, and these social worlds are nothing but extensions of that world, then it becomes harder and harder to distinguish where it all begins and ends. The world is a political one, with its own regulating strategies, so it is only fair to conclude that any world that is an extension of it would be too. We can’t solve the issues we critique where social media is concerned without first turning to our physical societies. To view the two as different worlds fails to recognize the symbiotic relationship between the two.
- Vincent Miller, “Social Media and the Problem of Community: Space, Relationships, Networks,” Understanding Digital Culture (SAGE Publications, 2011), 200.
- Miller, “Understanding Digital Culture,” 200.
- J. Clement, “Number of Social Media Users Worldwide 2010-2021,” Statista, August 14, 2019.
- Lisa Nakamura, “Race in/for Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet,” Race and Identity in Digital Media (Pearson Longman, 2000), 338.
- Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (Academic Internet Publishers Incorporated, 2007)
- Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
- Wolfgang Palaver, René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, translated by Gabriel Borrud (Michigan State University Press, 2013).
- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Kindle Edition, 2011), 320.
- Mill, On Liberty.
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (Vintage Book, 1995), 207.