Comments on the Voyeurism-Exhibitionism of Social Media

What a joy “social media” is.  These days, it seems as though every facet of one’s life can be documented online, preserved for Internet eternity in some media form or another.  And so, with even just myself, I can track the developments of my life for the last few years on the Internet through my social media presence.  Honestly, it’s a bit horrifying.

Of course, I don’t deny that “social media” is something that I’ve embraced, somewhat nebulously.  I recall that I first started up a MySpace and Facebook account—in 2007, Timeline tells me—in order that I might further my then-student activist attempts at outreach for various events I was putting together.  It seemed like a good way to advertise.  And since then, it seems I’ve been pulled into the belly of the beast.  So don’t expect that it isn’t as if I am not also a participant in “social media.”

If anything, I’d rather not delve too deeply into the subject.  Considering how much of my life I’ve already wasted upon social media, I think have better things to do than theorize it.  But a few passing comments on the proliferation of these forms.

Facebook is probably best described as voyeurism-exhibitionism.  In effect, the point of Facebook is that provides for people creating semi-fictive representations of themselves which are meant to entice, so as to be gawked at by others.  And so Facebook is largely a mechanism for people gawk at others and, in turn, be gawked at.

Of course, the nebulousness of Facebook lay in its attempt to encompass all aspects of one’s life.  As a fairly recent development, Timeline occurs to me as the attempt to render the entirety of one’s life into social media as part of social media’s general trend towards absorbing all facets of life into that which can be documented, tagged, and classified.  This, likely, is a symptom of the greater processes of latter-day capitalism to make the incommensurable commensurable via forms of furthering reified abstraction—the incomprehensibility of one’s life is made comprehensible via Facebook by way of how Facebook forces the organization of the chaos of one’s life into a linear narrative of sequential statuses, photos, and “life events”.  To that end, Timeline forces meaning to be made out of the chaos of one’s life insofar as it creates a linear, teleological trajectory leading up to the present, perhaps an embodiment of those visions of teleologically progressive modernity that originate in capitalist theories of progressive development.  This abstracts from the actuality of one’s life as veiled by the seeming attempt to realistically document one’s life.

At a certain point, this can become the creation of a fictitious reality with no actual connection to the reality of one’s life.  This phenomenon is what is phrased as the disconnect between Signifier and Signified in postructuralism, as is the general trend in postmodernism.  For example, to borrow the words of a peer, one does not put one’s best picture as one’s Facebook picture, but one’s second-best picture.  This is demonstrative of the artifice of naturality or genuineness thereby present in Facebook.  Signs reflecting signs, without any actual reference to reality.

My joke about Timeline is that, given that Mark Zuckerberg has taken to only devouring what he kills himself, if Timeline is the attempt to encompass the entirety of human life from birth onwards within Facebook, Timeline is Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to consume humanity.  It reminds me of, I don’t know, “A Zed and Two Noughts” or “The Most Dangerous Game.”

Whereas Twitter.  Fundamentally, Twitter originates in Facebook’s “status updates,” so it is best seen as an offshoot of the fundamental phenomenon that originates in Facebook.  As concentrating the “status updates” of all sorts of actors from private individuals, to news agencies, companies, and heads of state, Twitter is a concatenation of certain tendencies of social media that originate in Facebook.

William Gibson is probably right when he says that Twitter is “chaotic” in a way that Facebook is not.  After all, Twitter differs from Facebook in that it allows one to access the world at large through differing accounts, rather than merely the small selection of one’s acquaintances, and there is no attempt to make order of this chaos.  The chaos is fundamentally the appeal, as the appeal of Twitter lay in that it provides a vast amount of unorganized data which one must process in realtime.  The individual Twitter accounts are representative of the entities that are world actors as embodied in discrete representative entities (as what are fundamentally memes).  The Twitter account of the American State Department, for example, is representative of the American State Department that is composed of a number of individuals, but boils down to a monolithic entity inasmuch as we speak representationally of the actions of the State Department as inclusive of all the individuals who compose it.

To speak of Instagram, like Twitter, Instagram also originates in Facebook.  Namely, the Photos feature.  And so Instagram contributes to voyeurism-exhibitionism on the front of visual imagery.  I don’t need to speak more of it in this regard.

However, what might be spoken of is the differing lenses which Instagram offers, so as to offer an vintage-style photography.  I believe this to be further demonstrative of the general artifice of social reality.  The recourse towards the “vintage”—the past as more “real,” in spite of that this recourse is often to a past that may have never existed.  The consequent aestheticization of the images captured by film through vintage filters speaks to the accentuated disconnect between reality and fictive image in postmodernity by way of how the pre-made image (the photograph, itself already a representation of reality that is “abstracted,” or “alienated” from reality) is then further abstracted (through the filter, which abstracts from the preexisting abstracted image of the photograph).  This abstracted abstraction is what is then shared as part of the general voyeuristic-exhibitionistic tendencies of social media.  I think that telling.

Tumblr stands somewhere between longform blog post and the status update.  Therefore, at the risk of repeating this comment for the third time, there’s a way in which I can lump Tumblr in the same category as Facebook and Twitter insofar as it provides for these quick and easy textual or visual segments which can be subsumed into the process of social media exchange via re-blogs and the like.  For there is the fundamentally is the usefulness of social media, that it allows for the distillation of information into bite-sized pieces which are all too easy to be consumed in an era in which extended longform information is disregarded in favor of that which allows for what does not require much in the way of an attention span.

What does necessitate comment is that because of this feature of social media, Tumblr provides an easy way to gather vast amounts of media.  Hence, as bound up with the overall voyeurism-exhibitionism attendant with social media, many of those who cling to Tumblr use it as a way to garner representations of themselves as cultivators of cool.  It’s a method to come off as knowledgeable of vast amounts of phenomena and show off one’s knowledge accordingly.  Usually what I observe with Tumblr blogs run by individuals I know, Tumblr blogs tend towards a sort of “aesthetic” that an individual has set for him or herself as a desirable representation of themselves, and then that individual reblogs anything relevant to that representation in order to show themselves off as an expert in some niche field.  In this way, one can come off as knowledgeable by way of specialism.  One can thereby demonstrate a put-on “genuineness” as having specified interests that one is “passionate” about, being highly knowledgeable in that field or interest, while also appealing to a broader knowledge base.

Oh, and blogs?  Blogs predate the rise of social media, but as of late have been increasingly subsumed into social media.  One might take the recent introduction of re-blogging into WordPress, in obvious imitation of Tumblr.  I think I’ll let this blog speak for itself.  Let’s just say that I struggle with every post to make sure that this, too, is not a form of voyeurism-exhibitionism.  And I advise you never take the claim that one is attempting to avoid voyeurism-exhibitionism as an actual guarantee of that something is not voyeurism-exhibitionism—nowadays the worst forms of voyeurism-exhibitionism take place precisely through the claim that something is not voyeurism-exhibitionism, as in the fetishization of the purportedly genuine evident (as in the aforementioned Instagram).

Yet if anything, I perhaps enjoy the voyeurism aspect of social media a bit too much.  In regards to Facebook it’s all too much fun gazing perversely into the lives of certain individuals—for example, former friends and enemies.  If anything, I rather enjoy that I continue to in this way have a link with those whom I no longer speak.  It reminds me of The Sims—in that game of raising a simulated family, when a family member died, you could place that family member’s grave or ashes into your inventory and carry it around with you wherever you went.  It has the grim delight of carrying around severed relations.

Likewise, part of the joy of social media may also lay in its exhibitionist aspects, if one is willing to put one’s image on the line.  Might not one use the representations entailed so as to generate a completely fictitious representation of one’s self towards some end, as to counter abstracted reality with abstracted abstraction?  I recall during the early era of MySpace, I posted dozens pictures of birds (shrikes—a type of bird whose hunting strategy is to impale its prey on thorns), categorized by family, and plastered my profile with videos of shrikes devouring their prey.  In an act of further sarcasm, I then took the same images, inverted them in color, then posted them again.  Yet this wasn’t taken as a joke, but it became widely thought that I was a bird enthusiast.  In time, the shrike has even become viewed as something emblematic of myself.  Could one not do the same but convince others that one is, say, a would-be-psychopath by consistently posting articles about gruesome deaths?

But this is just me being perverse.  Nonetheless, perversity may ultimately be the point of social media.

3 thoughts on “Comments on the Voyeurism-Exhibitionism of Social Media

  1. I always considered Mark Zuckerberg to be a jerk given that he originally developed Facebook to humiliate a former girlfriend.

    And given that employers (read: the capitalist class) demand to view job applicants’ Facebook profiles and thus demand usernames and passwords, I’m just glad (speaking for myself) that I quit Facebook although I think such a demand is outrageous and indefensible.

  2. Yeah, I don’t doubt that about the Zuck either. The thing about Facebook is that it’s self-automating–the company has no need to generate content to enthrall readers, you do that for them. It’s a brilliant system. But that’s a ridiculous thing, employers demanding to see Facebook profiles and even account access, I’ve been hearing about that more and more. Some people are understanding that as the breakdown between the public and the private sphere which is a general trend towards the Internet, though I think of it as more as a new configuration of the public and the private spheres (as in voyeurism-exhibitionism). Have you actually encountered that though, as far as demanding access? I’m curious if you have.

    • “The thing about Facebook is that it’s self-automating–the company has no need to generate content to enthrall readers, you do that for them. It’s a brilliant system.”

      Brilliant indeed. I agree. The post-Stalinist/Maoist (which seems to be turning social democratic/ecosocialist while retaining its trademark anti-imperialist ideology) Monthly Review published an article on how users end up doing the work (acts of concrete labor) that allows large-scale capitals like corporations to realize and accumulate monetary wealth (abstract labor, which finds its material representative in the universal commodity that is money. In other words, completing the M-C-M’ circuit.):
      Likewise, Loren Goldner mentions a similar phenomenon in passing in one of his articles.

      And I should add that while users are contributing to Facebook’s revenues free of charge, Facebook stands to become one of the wealthiest Internet companies; even wealthier after it goes public and can thus make users’ information available to other companies for advertising purposes (see here: . The New York Times has also published on this, which was where I first read about Mark Zuckerberg and his associates’ potential riches from Facebook stock alone). The company’s recent purchase of Instagram only points to Zuckerberg and his colleagues’ expectations of continued and increased growth and profitability. Of course, Facebook is not the only economically and financially successful Internet/digital application. There are also LinkedIn, Google and even memes like the beloved Annoying Orange.

      Of course, all this is common knowledge. You can read about all the above in the press, after all. And I’m sure you know about this too.

      All the same, and I’m sounding redundant here, but once again the above demonstrates the ongoing relevance and importance of commodity fetishism (in this case, its manifestation through advertising) and finance (without the stock market, Facebook cannot become so profitable and wealthy upon going public) to capitalism.

      Left-wing academics who specialize in political economy and/or Marx’s critique of political economy should start researching Facebook.

      “But that’s a ridiculous thing, employers demanding to see Facebook profiles and even account access, I’ve been hearing about that more and more. Some people are understanding that as the breakdown between the public and the private sphere which is a general trend towards the Internet, though I think of it as more as a new configuration of the public and the private spheres (as in voyeurism-exhibitionism). Have you actually encountered that though, as far as demanding access? I’m curious if you have.”

      I’ve never encountered such a demand. It would be pointless for the interviewer to ask in my case too since I don’t have Facebook, although s/he won’t know until after asking. I first read about employers’ demands to access Facebook profiles after Corey Robin blogged on this a few times. In class, I’ve also heard my professor recount the experience of a student who had his tuition paid for by a Fortune 500 company, with the understanding that once he finished his education he’d begin work with that company. However, once company supervisors noticed that he had partying pictures (some of which apparently showed nudity, etc.) on Facebook, he no longer had a job with the company. Now, the latter is at this point old news (I’ve read about this a long time ago and I’m sure you have too), but all the same the employers’ rationale in both cases are essentially the same. However, the demand for access information does point to how brazen and entitled employers have become in terms of getting access to information on employees’ and potential employees’ lives.

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