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.