Listen to this story
Herodotus wrote of the servant Gyges, who hid behind a door to observe the queen undressing on the invitation of the queen’s husband, King Candaules. Gyges’ gaze is both permitted and illicit, depending on whose perspective you take up.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of the voyeur with his eye pressed against a keyhole. The voyeur is unaware of his actions until he hears footsteps behind him, at which moment self-consciousness suddenly rushes in. The gaze is awakened by shame.
Laura Mulvey theorized about the “male gaze” within the history of cinema, where the conventions of narrative and cinematography are said to elevate male protagonists to “a more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego,” whereas women are rendered as passive objects of male desire: “Cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.”
The theory of the gaze is about one person looking at another or 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 look only occurs in one direction, the assumption is of one person’s dominance over the other.
The way we look today—how we see others and the means by which we relate to them—has been profoundly changed by social media. 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: an eye at a private keyhole.
Like the invention of perspective in painting, the personal feeds of social media are designed to converge upon us so that we become the ideal viewer.
Yet, in today’s world, public and private cease to have the same meaning, nor the same consequences, and new patterns of looking are much more complex. They are broadly transactional, and they involve odd patterns of exchange. We all have the power to add value to someone else’s exhibition through a click—or to deny that value by ignoring or openly criticizing it.
The “digital gaze” is a flattering invitation. It beckons us to create a feast of our own lives, as if everyone else is hungry for what we might serve, to lay out a recipe of our favorite ingredients, our highest pleasures, and our greatest achievements. It’s our best image served on a plate for open consumption.
The digital gaze places us at the center of our world. Like the invention of perspective in painting, the personal feeds of social media are designed to converge upon us so that we become the ideal viewer. Nobody is more apt to survey our feeds than we are; they are meant for us.
Virtual reality software adopts the same principle: No other perspective can take on this pretend world the way we can. Partiality becomes a normalized condition, and it is easy to forget that our curated timeline is unique to us.
For this reason, we are initiated to sympathize with ourselves as agents within a mysterious cycle of action. The action can even take place without us having to do anything. As social media algorithms generate a landscape of restless, wriggling updates, then with every click we make, every preference we imply, the landscape refines a little more, and our sense of agency is gratified a little more.
Of course, social media agitates as much as it pleases. One of the biggest draws of social media seems to be its competitive element. When we first begin on a new platform, we think others are more successful than we are. They have more followers, get more likes, have more content to share. Their mastery appears easily won, whereas ours is hanging by a thread.
To be successful on social media, one has to learn to exist with an audience in mind — and the greatest reward granted by this audience is the prize of attention.
To be successful on social media, one has to learn to exist with an audience in mind—and the greatest reward granted by this audience is the prize of attention. We are encouraged 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 pretends to dole out. And then we become more skilled and more willing, and the tables begin to turn in our favor.
In art history, 500 years of painting and sculpture tremble under the spotlight of gaze theorists. The late art critic John Berger memorably described the manner in which art has traditionally been created through the male gaze: “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 relations between men and women: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
The gaze becomes an 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 marginalized and oppressed people. 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.
People readily commodify themselves…sometimes for the benefit of winning an audience, but often merely to have a voice.
Today, autobiographers are everywhere, and the means of representation are easy to acquire. 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 experiences are the coinage of their own self-exaltation. People readily commodify themselves in this way, sometimes for the benefit of winning an audience, but often merely to have a voice.
Social media changes the dynamic of the gaze. Because images are now so easy to make, volunteering 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 mean we all have the capacity to influence the story being told about us. It is also possible for others to make use of our images, placing our own contributions into their timeline to supplement another 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?
Through social media, we look and judge, and in return volunteer ourselves to be looked at and judged. As such, we tend to accept the judgments made of us because we also can play judge. It’s a quid pro quo deal.
What is being normalized here is the disparity between our online and offline selves. 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, sometimes painfully, because the audience is never clearly identified.
“Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you.”
In social media, dialogue is not implied. Unlike other forms of communication—letters, emails, texts, or calls—that assume a two-way process, such agreement isn’t required with social media. 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. It is merely notional and indistinct.
In this sense, the content of social media is generally free-floating. The communication that may ensue has no privileged context allotted to it, no organized space or time. Like advertising billboards or radio stations, it is 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 indistinct.
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 can look like an exercise in personal branding.
Berger described how the world of advertising ultimately rests on the envy we feel toward the products we don’t own and how we can turn it into envy of us by others by possessing 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.”
One does not share an experience as one might share a cake or a car ride...To “share” on social media is to assert and maintain ownership.
Berger was writing in 1972. Notice how the word “share” has changed in meaning. Today, to “share your experience” is to let other people know about it, the fundamental act social media operates on. 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 among 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 favor to others. In this scheme, we position ourselves as the ultimate controllers of the exchange, yet we tend to overlook that we are constantly shaping our representations to elicit positive judgments from others. Social media relies on the perception of granting others access to our lives, but we purposefully disconnect from our realities, even distorting time, in order to accord with the gaze of others.
Advertising seeks to excite our envy and to show us how that envy can be satiated by a purchase. Social media operates through the mutual invitation to individualize—that is, to describe our tastes, principles, and experiences—among other acts of individualization. The commodity we make of ourselves fights a competition that is often disguised as equality. The social media gaze is ultimately about the threat of incoherence of our personal narrative. In these terms, performance threatens to slide into self-deception.
The experience of “speaking into a void” is common to many who get no feedback from social media. The desire for response is heightened to abate the paranoia of invisibility and the sense that others are finding a bigger audience than us. A dark side 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. Power constantly spirals around, 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. And our position in the community of our peers is always open to speculation.
We release extraordinary amounts of personal information into the digital ether and too easily forget who can 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: one’s aptness for health insurance, mortgages, pension schemes, job opportunities, supermarket goods, etc.
Most obviously, the collection of such data acts as a basis for more and more targeted advertising as our online actions are tracked, profiled, and segmented. This yields 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 can become. In this context, the gaze of the data-collecting voyeur is premised on a more obvious power imbalance, galvanized by the commercial value of our statistics and behavioral signals.
Digital providers are incentivized to collect more and more of our data—and to do so ever more surreptitiously. Attempts to protect personal data will struggle 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 continuously invented and refined. We tick a consent box and our understanding withers to an end.
Conventions of looking can and do normalize inequalities of power.
If the theory of the gaze has taught any lessons, it ought to remind us that conventions of looking can and do normalize inequalities of power. It is virtually impossible to imagine our world retreating backward from this point of digital connectivity. An irresistible momentum has built up. We are beholden to move with the technology, to adopt it and occupy its spaces more and more completely. For many, our livelihoods depend on digital literacy, especially with social media, not to mention the importance of digital communication for the maintenance of friendships and family relationships, as well as travel and domestic affairs. Social media is embedded in our lives as much as cars, supermarkets, telephones, and newspapers—each of which the internet is simultaneously revolutionizing and overthrowing.
The very speed of change is part of the concern. But as we look down the line at what is to come, we must consider how we might protect ourselves from the psychological instability brought about through this digital gaze.
It is easy to lose hours to social media. There is pleasure in peering into the lives of others, skimming over their posted photographs and conversational threads. Able to browse with apparent anonymity, we are tempted to place ourselves 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.
We claim power for ourselves by looking, but we also hand over power by allowing ourselves to be looked at. We watch ourselves being watched. There is value in this, but as the French proverb tells us: “He who can lick can bite.”
This essay was originally published on my blog.