In this day and age, our relationships are remarkably hinged on the internet. Particularly for me, living abroad, my ability to stay connected to my friends and family depends on it. This is how I know where my friends and acquaintances are living, what they’re doing or if any major events have occurred in their lives. Also, the connection that the majority of my non-Colombian Facebook friends have to me depends on it. By moving to Bogotá and wanting to continue having relationships with people back in the states, I have inadvertently divided myself into two: the me, in the flesh, in Colombia and the me that remains visible only in the realm of technology; in that which I share and allow on the internet, in that which I consider acceptable representation of myself. If the latter is all that is seen of me by those abroad, am I, in essence, my profile? Without it, would I even exist to the people with whom I once shared a continent?
A concept by Jeremy Bentham was put into effect in the influential design of the Pentonville Prison, built in London in 1842: the design was called the “Panopticon.” It involved a circular building with jail cells lining the interior, making their behavior visible to a guard who could monitor anyone and everyone within it. “Assuming that the omnipotent governor was always watching them, Bentham expected that this ‘new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example’ would ensure that the prisoners would modify their behaviour and work hard, in order to avoid chastisement and avoid punishment”1.Obviously, one person can’t possibly perform total surveillance upon all of the inmates at all times, but the fact that one never knew for sure when he or she would be watched would be, in theory, enough to keep them in line.
According to this model, we can deduce the positive effects of being observed. However, when the eyes of those we care about do not see us—be the circumstances influenced by location or ambivalence—we have two choices: create our own auto-surveillance or, by all intents and purposes, disappear.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
If a person moves to a foreign country and he or she doesn’t have a Facebook, does this person still exist?
Everyone I know who has lived abroad has, at least for some period of time, struggled with the loneliness and isolation that comes with it. On various days without morning work, I have thought, “Why get out of bed? Why do anything at all? No one is watching. No one would know the difference.” And so, for lack of a Panopticon, we make our own. We make Facebook profiles and Instagram accounts and hope that someone is watching because the idea gives us purpose. But now I’m not talking about just ex-patriots, anymore: the same goes for a large percent of internet users wherever they are. Up until recently, photographs depicting our activities were enough to feel seen, but in recent years this has changed. In 2003, “Selfie” became Oxford Dictionary’s new word of the year2.
Whereas in the era of Myspace the Selfie was considered a cry for attention from self-absorbed pre-teens and teenagers, now it has become an acceptable form of internet presence. So what changed? Here’s my theory:
(1.) Just as we would like to ignore that using pesticides, cutting down trees and burning fossil fuels are linked to global warming; we ignore the connection between the proliferation of technology and that of the Selfie. I’m not talking about the obvious connection—being that cell phones and social media enable the trend—but that more technology puts greater distance between human interaction, making us feel the need to fight for attention like never before. According to the Forbes article, The ‘Selfie’: Mental Disorder Or Insight To Getting Better Results?, “The cultural phenomenon of the ‘Selfie’ exposes a very basic human desire—to feel noticed, appreciated and recognized.”3 Of course we’re not feeling noticed: everyone is too busy staring at their phones or computers! As such, doesn’t it make sense that the increase of Selfies is reflective of a decrease in feeling valued? Consequently, it doesn’t matter if our feelings of isolation stem from actual distance or emotional distance. Either way, the trend made it acceptable to fill that gap with more 2D—rather than 3D—versions of ourselves.
(2.) Social media has been around long enough that people are finding new ways to be in control, and that means not waiting for pictures to be taken of us just to conclude that we don’t like the way we look in them, anyway. Today at a coffee shop, I saw two guys sitting at a table, one taking pictures of the other. The subject of the photo insisted over and over again that his friend take another shot, changing positions and even tables to get the light just how he wanted. He wasn’t taking the photo himself, which is what actually constitutes a Selfie, but in the same way, he had his friend take shot after shot until he got exactly the outcome of himself that he desired. Control means filtering out vulnerability. This, dangerously, further feeds into the construction of a fake reality.
(3.) The Selfie is not only used to sculpt our internet personas, but to be presented to the world as a memo; as a reminder that we’re still here.
But who are we really trying to convince?
This yearning for validation can become as much of a prison as the Panopticon. Being concerned with how we are seen or whether or not we are seen can become so all-encompassing at times—especially when mediated by technology—that we have a hard time focusing on anything else. Have you ever Skyped with someone and gotten distracted from the image of the other person by the image of yourself? As a result of this multi-tasking, of dividing our attention between outward examination and introspection, we fail to delve beneath the surface of anything; not the people we are interacting with and certainly not ourselves.
The problem with technology and social media is that it tries to convince us that images provide truth; that if we want to express “truths” about ourselves to the world, this is the best way to convey them. In reality, an image can only possibly express a part of a whole. Therefore, we must ask: is it even possible to keep in touch with those who we cannot touch? Can we experience real connections when the interaction is mediated by an internet connection? If genuine exchange can only truly be achieved face-to-face, in an environment without mirrors and with vulnerability, then distance does not make the heart grow fonder: it makes it grow fuzzier. I realize now I was disillusioned to think that the internet would be enough to maintain the relationships I had back home. Yet, at the end of the day, there is a sense of satisfaction from comments on our Facebook wall, from “likes,” from being “followed.” As far as substitutes go, it’s not great, but when those we love are out of reach, a little blue thumb feels better than nothing at all.