You’ve seen them before. Those pictures online. The girl holds a camera out in front of her. She pouts her lips, makes sure her cleavage is exposed, and snaps a picture of herself. Next thing you know your newsfeed is full of comments with words like “hawt” and “sexci”.
You think to yourself: Why would a self-respecting individual partake in this degrading exhibitionism? Your thoughts probably weren’t that articulate, but you definitely knew, on some level, that the answer had everything to do with identity.
Identity is tricky; we judge ourselves by our self-image and how others perceive us. We try to recreate ourselves for work, school, and family by how we dress, how we act, and how we react to others.
Identity is especially thorny for teenagers. Just when you think you have childhood down, you have to reevaluate everything about yourself. You start examining your role in society. You start wondering about your sexuality. You get really pissed off at everything and listen to a lot more Metallica.
But what happens when we input the effect of the Internet in this already messy equation of self-evaluation? And what’s even more curious, how can a young adult who is still having trouble defining their real identity create an online identity?
You could probably already guess what studies have shown about online behaviour and how it matches up with real-life identity. It doesn’t. We say things we never would otherwise when we’re online. We’re more open, more intimate, and a lot less shy.
But why and how does this behavioural rift come to be?
Let’s start with the last website you were probably on—Facebook—and what it means for your behaviour.
Research by Michael A. Stefanone found a link between watching reality television shows and friending more people online.
In the physical world, it takes a lot more than a brief chat at the last Pub Night to call someone your “friend”. But as we all know and have undoubtedly experienced, anyone you’ve met once, or sometimes not at all, could potentially become your “friend” online, where the barrier of intimacy is broken faster and easier.
Stefanone looks at this behaviour in terms of reality television. His study shows that those who spend much of their time watching RTV are also more likely to spend large amounts of time on Facebook and, most importantly, are much more likely to exhibit “promiscuous friending” on Facebook.
He believes that viewers may perceive themselves as celebrities who are always being watched, and so emulate the celebrities they love to watch in their own social networks. (So, yes, Jersey Shore really is evil.)
Let’s tie Jersey Shore in with some visual theory on the Pantopicon.
The Panopticon is an idea thought up by Jeremy Bentham in 1787. The idea of it is that the Panopticon is a prison designed so that every prisoner is under constant surveillance by a single guard. In this prison, under the constant threat of being watched, every prisoner would behave exactly how the guard wanted them to.
In the Panopticon, visibility is a threat. Being visible forces the prisoners to act in a certain way, because they can always be seen.
In his essay The New Panopticon, Tom Brignall compares the Panopticon to the Internet. Brignall focusses mostly on governments, but he brings to light something else pertinent to our topic.
The link he creates between the inspection in the Panopticon and that on the Internet brings to light a different kind of hierarchy of the Internet. The self-regulating Internet creates the same surveillance as the guard’s in the Panopticon. That includes that girl you’re friends with on Facebook—you know, the half-naked one making a kissy face. That girl is part of the social capital machine, and as social animals with an instinctive need to be liked, she’s your judge, your jury, and your God. But the Internet, unlike Bentham’s Panopticon, is a two-way looking device. That means you’re her God, too.
Our parents and grandparents have been blaming our generations’ behaviour on television for years. Is it simplistic to say that half-naked girls are half-naked on Facebook because Facebook is making them do it?
We have to wonder whether this tendency towards exhibitionism is a product of social networking interactions or simply the manifestation of an already existing problem.
Part of the answer shows up in a study on self-worth, particularly female self-worth. The study showed that women who share large numbers of photos of themselves on Facebook are searching and competing for attention. That’s probably no surprise, but it does put things into perspective.
Think about it. Once a photo is uploaded, the number of likes and comments almost become a voting system. The results indicate who is the most attractive. Who wouldn’t want to win that race?
This leaves the question of whether the sites themselves are to blame.
Such women, the study shows, seem to base their self-worth on their physical appearance rather than on things like academic competence or family love and support, and so seek the attention they crave online.
This is not good news, but at least we already knew it. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf reports that “thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal”. Wolf’s book was published in 1991—long before Facebook, and long before Jersey Shore.
So the problem definitely begins with us, not Facebook. But that doesn’t mean social networking sites are entirely off the hook. By creating a means for us to allow ourselves to be observed, inspected, and commented on, Facebook and other social networks reinforce the idea that our looks determine our self-worth. By facilitating a rating system (i.e., the number of likes and comments) by which we rank ourselves, Facebook and similar sites only exacerbate the problem.
Then again, most other media, like television, pulp fiction, and popular magazines, have long bombarded and continue to bombard intentional and unintentional viewers with images of the ideal and the flawless, leading viewers to search for any sort of vehicle to exhibit themselves as perfect and flawless. For us and our time, that vehicle is social networking.