We currently live in an age of constant surveillance. As users of the Internet, whether or not we consent our information is being shared to companies and businesses for their own benefit. Social media thus has become a form of surveillance in which we share details about our lives and connect with others at the expense of our privacy. As a society, privacy is almost non-existent. This concept is easily portrayed in another form of public self-surveillance, in the ‘reality’ television shows that have been around since the turn of the twenty-first century, rapidly expanding its influence alongside social media.
When we are under surveillance, does our behavior change? Ondi Timoner’s documentary We Live in Public highlighted the craze of Pseudo.com and how the people it constantly live-streamed on the Internet were not able to hide any aspects of their lives, a form of self-display that calls for a highly intentional, curated self-presentation. On social media, too, users are constantly reassuring their followers that they are living their best life through various images that are carefully chosen to display a certain lifestyle. On the other hand, surveillance can also amplify negative behaviors that would not usually be seen when the cameras are off and people are logged off. Whether negative or positive, there is a sense of responsibility in entertaining audiences and keeping them happy by doing whatever it takes to receive that support. From receiving said support and acceptance, users are gratified by pleasing others with a false image of themselves.
In a way, the state of constant surveillance – through social media usage and reality television shows – is making a political statement about the human right to privacy. Todd Wolfson’s work in The Birth of the Cyber Left discusses how many aspects, including “the physical and virtual occupation of space”; have “[helped] to form the silhouette of a new figure of resistance.” By this, Wolfson means that the act alone of taking space and voicing one’s opinions is a political act. Thus while some are presenting false selves through the influence of surveillance, on the other hand surveillance has been able to give people a way to make political statements despite the fact that their privacy is compromised. With the birth of the cyber left came the power of networking. Networking in itself has become a form of resistance.
Yet, social media and reality television alike give people the false sense of intimacy. Both are curated to engage with audiences on a ‘personal’ level, when in fact audiences are typically engaging with heavily curated content that is given the patina of being real. Does this make heavily curated content successful in what it does? We must admit that it succeeds in evoking emotion within its users and keeps their attention even when users find out that social media and reality television are not what they seem to be. However, it does seem that content that is not heavily curated and has a sense of authenticity to it creates an even stronger sense of connection between the user and their audience.
How are these two outlets of heavily curated digital media successful? One reason as to how they can be deemed successful is because they exist as recognizable categories. One point made by Critical Art Ensemble in Digital Resistance- Explorations in Tactical Media is that once a phenomenon or concept is solidified and given a definition, it creates boundaries and is unable to expand. “Once named and defined, any movement is open to co-optation” – while this sounds at first blush as if it is limiting, in fact co-optation allows for outsiders to ‘borrow’ and benefit from a concept’s recognizability. A definition alone gives concepts a great deal of power. Once something is labeled as being a ‘reality television show’ or a ‘social media platform’ it instantly gains popularity since both of these ideas have a large following.
Both social media and reality television are multifaceted, comprising the potential for important communication and political speech and mobilization, alongside the more pernicious presentation of false selves that promote the unattainable aspiration of the perfect life. This richness of potential makes both social media and reality television concepts fitting the definition of tactical media offered by the Critical Art Ensemble, a “media [practice] that [draws] on all forms old and new…for achieving a variety of specific noncommercial goals and…subversive political issues.” Both of these forms of media, although heavily commercialized, thrive on the noncommercial idea that people should follow the herd and behave in a certain way in order to gain popularity in order to become like those who they follow.
Surveillance makes people conform to certain behaviors for the sake of the audience – reality television and social media enforce that idea. Both bring up the political idea of privacy: do we have too little now due to the constant state of surveillance that we are subjected to by participating in practices such as social media and observing people’s loss of privacy on reality television? Or have we gained a new standard for privacy in the digital age?
Deandra Irizarry is a Culture and Media student trying to navigate the city.