Tag Archives: mass exhibitionism

Social Media: Have We Built a Society without Closets?

Today, we are all familiar with with what it means to be closeted. In fact, coming out has become among our most widely recognized cultural narratives. No doubt, large swaths of the American landscape still present environments hostile to sexual preferences that deviate from prevailing hetero-patriarchical norms, but progressive circles, and increasingly, society writ large, have embraced the belief that coming out (i.e., rending oneself visible) is the road to empowerment. If this is true, the queer community should be more empowered than ever. Social media allows for unprecedented levels of visibility. Broadcasting your sexual preferences to the world is never more than click away.

I, for one, am dubious as to the promise of ever-greater visibility for the queer community and its political struggles. And, I am not alone. In 1999, Steven Seidman, Chet Meeks, and Francie Transchen wrote and essay entitled, “Beyond the Closet,” in which they argued that the closet is not merely a symbol of oppression, but also serves to create an important space for safe experimentation. Their call for ambivalence toward the closet was simultaneously a critique of the culture of visibility – of “mass exhibitionism.”

Queer youth in the latter several decades of the 20th Century famously fled the pastoral trappings of their hometowns to form accepting urban communities. In doing so, they were able to escape the normalizing gaze of their families, teachers, and other locals. Newfound anonymity (invisibility?), in essence, gave these youth the freedom to establish their own identities and, ultimately, the confidence to assert these identities in the face of others’ opposition.

Social media, however, is a technology that allows for all those people who we know or, even, don’t know, to project their gaze on us, reaching across continents. Because the closet only exists out of sight, social media, as a gaze-enhancing technology, threatens the very existence of the closet itself. For this reason, the queer community may have more at stake in the politics surrounding these newly emerging technologies than other groups, particularly with respect to privacy debates. We must ask ourselves: What can be done to create a queer-friendly Internet?

While these issues might be most salient for the queer community, the metaphor of the closet speaks to us all. We all have our own closets. These closets help us to discover who it is we want to be and give us the freedom undergo the process of change. I do not want to sound overly pessimistic. Social media does also serve as a tool to build and maintain sub-communities, connecting people with similar experiences in ways that might not otherwise be possible. What I take issue with is the notion that greater visibility is always better for individuals or communities. In an age of hyper-visibility, closets might actually be worth fighting for.

Social Media Fear-Baiting: The Immortality of Digital Content

The New York Times recently ran a story about how “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” It describes a digital age in which our careless mass exhibitionism creates digital documents that will live on forever. The article is chock full of scary stories about how ill-advised status updates can ruin your future life.

These sorts of scare-tactic stories serve a purpose: they provide caution and give pause regarding how we craft our digital personas. Those most vulnerable should be especially careful (e.g., a closeted teen with bigoted parents; a woman with an abusive ex-husband). But after that pause, let’s get more realistic by critiquing the sensationalism on the part of the Times article by acknowledging that, with some common sense, the risks for most of us are actually quite small.

1-Digital Content Lives Forever in Obscurity

(more…)

publicity implies privacy: why teens are more private on facebook

Some were surprised to learn that young Facebook users -the folks who are most implicated in the game of “mass exhibitionism” and living in public- are also the ones who are most involved with privacy online. Some have described this as contradictory and counter-intuitive – are kids exhibitionists or not?

The findings are not contradictory and the larger point goes well beyond kids, but indicates a general rule of privacy and publicity: the degree to which one is involved in the game of living in public is the degree to which one is concerned with both revealing and concealing.

facebook as fandance: a game of reveal and conceal

Living in public was once reserved for celebrities of one sort or another. Their publicity also implied close attention paid to privacy (images of Michael Jackson hiding himself in various ways spring to mind). Today, living in public has been democratized. Many of us use Facebook and other technologies to document our selves, ideas, travels, friendships and so on. Many of our friends and peers are doing the same. As all of this is woven into everyday life, a new set of cultural norms emerge.

And those most involved with social media are trying to navigate these norms as best as they can. In short, they want their digital documentation to be successful. Their peers are watching. As they have to learn how to reveal successfully, it follows that they are also very interested in when not reveal, or when to conceal altogether. Of course the exhibitionists are the most concerned with privacy.

Privacy and publicity imply each other, and are increasingly interwoven and blurred together in everyday life. My favorite metaphore for this is borrowed from social media researcher Marc Smith who describes this as a fandance; a game of reveal and conceal.

All of this comes on the heels of the major privacy fiasco Facebook is currently weathering. While I am typically hard on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, he seems to get it. As quoted in the recent Time magazine cover story:

What people want isn’t complete privacy. It isn’t that they want secrecy. It’s that they want control over what they share and what they don’t.

Here, he’s dead-on. The people that want to live in public also want to control their publicity. Unfortunately, Facebook’s record has fallen pathetically short in living up to Zuckerberg’s rhetoric. ~nathanjurgenson.com

trade your facebook in for a fakebook

Today, while speaking to WYPR (Baltimore’s NPR affiliate) about the latest iteration of Facebook privacy concerns, I brought up the idea of not using your real name on Facebook -that is, having a “Fakebook.”

We live within a cultural dynamic that both encourages us to live in public and punishes us for doing the same. Teens, who are more involved with their Facebook privacy than adults, have reacted by using fake names on Facebook so they have less to worry about when applying for colleges. Creating a “Fakebook” allows individuals to use their real Facebook in one way, their Fakebook in another, all while avoiding many of the consequences of living in public.

To be clear, not using one’s real name is against Facebook’s policies (see section 4.1), and the term “Fakebook” is usually reserved for creepy stalkers or malcontents. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg states that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” He is frighteningly out of touch with the many valid reasons why users might want to keep certain things private (hint: it often has to do with social inequalities, power and vulnerability).

So forget all of that. You can create a Fakebook and use it for good.

  • Step one: Create or modify your real Facebook page. Make sure it does not contain any information you wouldn’t want the whole world to see. You do not even have to accept friend requests, instead directing those you want to friend over to your Fakebook name using the site’s email system.
  • Step two: Use your Fakebook (almost) any way you want. If you want to be extra careful, do not create any obvious connections between your Fakebook and your real name.

Aside from the privacy gains, there is a political motive, too. In response to Facebook profiting off our increasingly private data, one may want to engage in some “database vandalism.” The idea is that Facebook makes money because their database is filled with so much ‘true’ information. Maybe you have a problem with this (granted, many do not). Maybe you are just upset that Facebook has a history of making things you set private as public behind a maze of privacy settings. If so, you can gum up the Facebook database by inputting lots of false information.

Your Fakebook will save you a headache the next time Facebook pulls the privacy rug out from under its users (as it has done over and over again) while simultaneously making a statement against the corporate ownership of our personal data. ~nathanjurgenson.com

publicly

Formspring.me: Display at All Costs

Facebook continuously rolls back user privacy, the policy itself is increasingly convoluted, and technical hiccups have revealed users’ information – so, shouldn’t we be experiencing Facebook fatigue by now? (as PJ Rey predicted)

Sure, techno-pundits are crying foul, but Facebook users are not leaving the service in large numbers, and other technologies of narcissism -such as Formspring- continue to march along. Why?

While we know well how to become scared about decreasing privacy -and rightly so- we have only begun to articulate what increasing publicity means. I have described the will to document ourselves across the web as a new sort of “mass exhibitionism.” And while we all care deeply about privacy, this cultural impulse to live in public often wins out (often to the detriment of those most vulnerable).

Take, for example, the most recent social networking phenom, Formspring, where users answer questions about themselves that are often asked anonymously. The site has taken a dark turn. Rampant with verbal attacks, the site has already been connected to a suicide. Danah boyd often uses her expertise to dispel social media fear-mongering, so it says something when she describes the site this way:

“While teens have always asked each other crass and mean-spirited questions, this has become so pervasive on Formspring so as to define what participation there means.”

She goes on to ask,

“[w]hat is it about today’s cultural dynamics that encourages teens to not only act tough when they’re attacked but to actively share the attacks of others as a marker of toughness pride?”

I believe the answer to this question is that mass exhibitionism is simply a more powerful cultural force than even preserving oneself from cyber-attacks. Why?

The logic is just the same as what advertisers have long since come to terms with: bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.

To document oneself online is to exist. We create ourselves as product becuase what is worse than being made fun of is to not exist to begin with. Bad mass exhibitionism has come to seem better than no exhibitionism at all. ~nathanjurgenson.com

Social Media: Documentation as Stratification

The new norms of exhibitionism and copious self-documentation have been regular talking points on Sociology Lens over the past year.  Consider Nathan Jurgenson’s posts, our digital culture of narcissism and facebook, youtube, twitter: mass exhibitionism online, as well as my own recent post, The Queer Politics of Chatroulette.

It now seems truer than ever for many social media users (particularly, teenagers and young adults) that “If you’re not on MySpace [and/or other social media sites], you don’t exist.” Moreover, the pervasiveness of documentation throughout virtually every aspect of our daily lives has led us to start living for the documents, rather than the documents simply reflecting some aspect of our lives.  Today, we must always behave as if our actions will be preserved forever and for all to see (because, most likely, they will).  In the world of social media, there is no longer a “back stage” as Goffman once observed.  As far as we know, there is always an audience watching our every move with rapt attention, ready to applaud or jeer at any second.

I argue that we should view this “will to document” (as Jurgenson has described it) as a new kind of habitus.  Habitus (according to Bourdieu) means simply “dispositions [that are] acquired through experience.”  It explains behavior that is neither hard-wired into our biology, nor simply a manifestation of conscious and rational decision-making.  Success in this hyper-surveilled, hyper-documented world is wholly dependent on acquiring a set of practices that produce both a highly-visible and favorable image of oneself. (more…)

facebook's message of empowerment

Users logged into Facebook this week to find various messages from the company telling them of changes in the way they will share their information. While the company frames all of this as putting users in “control” of their own data, it strikes me that this is more about empowering the company than the users. Users are given more opportunity to share more information with more people, creating more of the data that Facebook profits from.

Whether you care if Facebook profits from all of this or not, it is important to identify the rhetorical strategy: to accumulate more data that Facebook ultimately controls and owns by telling its users that they are increasingly in control.

As CEO Mark Zuckerberg states that you have more control of your data, he is simultaneously allowing you to share more by changing the defaults that users rarely deviate from. Now more information such as as your name, profile picture, gender, networks, friend list, and any pages you are a fan of are publicly available to anyone on the Internet rather than just with your friends. See: Facebook’s Privacy Upgrade Recommends I Be Less Private. Further, Zuckerberg is not mentioning that he still owns this data and is poised to profit from it.

Unlike other posts on this topic, this is not an argument that Facebook dupes us into sharing too much. The mass exhibitionism and voyeurism in our current moment runs much too deep -often contrary to capitalist goals. Instead, one should simply read Facebook’s insidious message of “empowerment” with a skeptical eye.

Finally, we can describe this strategy as an outcome of the new more weightless prosumer capitalism. Prosumer because we simultaneously consume and produce nearly all of the content on Facebook. Weightless (as I’ve previously argued for, using Bauman’s terms) because we-the-laborers are unpaid and are given the product for free. Thus, capitalism is hardly distinguishable as such, increasingly hidden by the rhetoric of user-empowerment. Facebook is letting our mass exhibitionism spread, lubricating social interactions as well as they can, and cashing in on the data we supposedly “control”. ~nathan

The New Facebook Privacy Settings: A How-To

Secrecy and New Religious Movements: Concealment, Surveillance, and Privacy in a New Age of Information