Picture this. You’re sitting around your living room with some friends and someone comes in, an acquaintance perhaps, and starts filming you. You’re not sure why. Do you do exactly as you were doing before the camera entered the room? Or has your behavior changed — what you say, do, how you interact with others in the room?
Cameras necessarily shift social dynamics. How can they not? They are eyes, after all. Only they’re the weirdest eyes ever in that they are the potential eyes of everyone, everywhere, from now until eternity. That’s gotta have an effect, don’t you think?
Now take the digital camera which is at once camera, processing, screen, and distribution: the time from click to world wide viewing is nearly instantaneous. Well, that’s gotta have some strange effects.
The social web is a kind of always on camera, ceaselessly capturing text and image — capturing imprints of ourselves — our likes and dislikes, the pages we view and how long we linger, the Yelps, the tweets, the reposts and shares and retweets and so on and so on.
Suddenly, we are all actors, all writers, curators, critics, and photographers who relentlessly publish and distribute. We are all actors on the screen that is the web.
Think about it: We update our FB status with an insight, link, image, or report on the song we listened to or game we played. We comment on others’ insights, links, and images. We Yelp and comment on others’ Yelps; we tweet and retweet. We write emails and texts, mini-essays and haikus. We imprint ourselves on the collective social film which is a distributed, networked cinematic event.
And then we await judgement from an unclear, and at times unknown, audience: applause, boos, or indifference that take the form of page views, likes and dislikes, comments, shares, reposts, retweets, deletes. Google Analytics is an applause meter. I got 193 uniques today! 17 people liked the photo of my Halloween nurse slut costume!
This happens all day, everyday: we publish, we perform, we are seen and we are judged by an audience with unknown extension — and anything we do could suddenly “go viral” and be seen by millions. This is not just life in a panopticon as we are not only always being watched. We are always being commanded to perform — and then are judged for that performance.
No wonder the kids today are so anxiously and constantly checking their phones: Did they like that post? Did I do good? No wonder that the 25 year old girls who swarm our cities on Saturday nights are dressed like prostitutes: Gotta impress — and fast!
Indeed, there seems to be a very strange desire amongst the 20-somethings of today. They fancy themselves individuals — Look at me! This is my taste! — while at the same time they fear individuality: Do they like me? It’s a crippling anxiety that leaves these 20-somethings stuck between safe sweetness (don’t want to offend anyone) and merciless judgment (everything’s a threat and a thin veil of anonymity affords casual nastiness).
While my generation, so-called Gen-X, has its own anxieties, this is not one of them. I may be happy or sad because some post of mine gets good or bad comments but, fundamentally, I don’t give a shit. Like most of my actual friends, I have a life that precedes and exceeds my online identity such as a kid who doesn’t yet check my status updates. I live in the old world where I don’t interact with my real world friends online. And, like the anachronism that I am, I continue to publish to the web as if it were a printing press. Which means I don’t publish pictures of myself at parties or eating breakfast.
This is not to say that I have a life and you don’t. This is just to say that the web plays a different role in my life than it seems to play in the lives of the kids today. I can turn off the web. But the kids today can’t, not really. They’re like Neo, born inside the matrix: they were always already turned inside out, always already enmeshed in the ever-emergent text that is the social web.
It’s the anxiety of being filmed or being an artist but now played out through all facets of life and identity. Artists have the relative luxury of only being present for their art work; the rest of the time, they can live more or less free of scrutiny (the paparazzi, of course, is the first Facebook wall). But the kids today don’t have that luxury; they must produce just to participate in society.
The very conditions of identity, then, are the acts of being seen and judged by an audience of unknown scope and power.