Month: June 2014

Selfies and Hatred, Part 2

In an earlier post I discussed how a hatred of selfies acts as a legitimate means for expressing hatred of other people. This may sound a little extreme to anyone who hasn’t been closely following selfie-discourse for the past year. But here are two examples from widely popular blogs to show what I mean:

This first post from the site Sploid discusses a clip of film that shows a woman’s hair catching fire from a candle as she leans towards another friend, to join in with being filmed:

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The article frames the incident as a result of a wider epidemic of needing to document one’s life – a behaviour apparently so problematic, that being burned is somehow merited. This logic depends upon the devalued status of the selfie: selfie-takers are bad, we are constantly told, so they deserve regulation, they deserve to have bad things happen to them. As viewers, we are presented with instances in which selfie-takers come to harm, with the understanding that we will gain satisfaction from seeing these deplorable and abnormal subjects receive their just desserts. This example makes the contrived and divisive positioning of selfie-takers as abject particularly clear, as the woman is question is clearly not taking a selfie – she is being filmed by someone else – but she is labelled as a selfie-taker so that we can enjoy her misfortune.

The entertainment value of this clip, and of selfie-hatred itself, is acknowledged by the post being ‘Filed to HAHA’ – a label directing a certain type of viewing, and of viewer enjoyment. But beyond this expectation of viewer amusement, the post reinforces a disciplinary discourse regarding selfies: that “we should stop being idiots”, and we should self-police our behaviour so that we do not come to harm. This, I would argue, is the real purpose of the disdain for selfies, in that it normalises social regulation, and makes the low-status and misfortune of certain social groups (especially young women) appear merited and natural.

A second example of the legitimation of selfie-hatred appears on the site Jezebel:

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This article discusses a new term, ‘relfie’, and whether it is useful for describing a certain type of image, namely a photograph taken of oneself with one’s partner. But the question is not just ‘what is a relfie?’ but also ‘how much can we hate it?’ As with all things selfie-related, we are assumed to come to the conversation already primed and ready to hate selfies and those who take them. The article states that we need not hate the term, but that disdain for people who take such images is permitted. Happy couples who post “too many” images of themselves are identified as problematic, and worthy of hatred, with the piece quoting research from the journal Personal Relationships to support its views. The research involved looking at social media profiles, grading the level of relationship expression observed and then reporting how much the researcher disliked this person as a result. This kind of left me speechless, as it’s not only one of the most subjective pieces of research I’ve ever seen, it’s also so disciplinary as to defy words. The piece summarises the research findings as:

“If you are in a strong relationship, viewers can pick that up from your Facebook profile. However, there is some danger in getting too schmoopie about your relationship on Facebook; although your friends will think your relationship is going well, they will like you less.” And isn’t that the whole point of social media? To be liked?

So by expressing oneself in one way on social media, and being perceived to be (as the article asserts) “doing happy wrong”, we are violating the assumed prime motivator for being there in the first place: being liked. This assertion relies on several assumptions: that the esteem of one’s peers is to be nurtured with every visible action; that we are all motivated to use social media to achieve similar goals, and that we should accept regulation of our behaviour – especially our photographic behaviour – in order to maintain social harmony.

The selfie, or relfie, is therefore a mask for the assertion of normative social demands, expressed in relation to hatred and the withdrawal of peer approval.

 

X.Pose and the Regulation of Women in Public Space

X.pose is “a wearable data-driven sculpture that exposes a person’s skin as a real-time reflection of the data that the wearer is producing”.

I read that sentence the other day regarding a recent art project by Xuedi Chen working in collaboration with Pedro G. C. Oliveira, and a number of lights turn on in my head. (Also, Whitney Erin Boesel wrote an excellent piece on this artwork which I urge you read!) The x.pose ticked all the boxes of social media discipline – the proscription against ‘oversharing’, the governance of women’s entry into the public sphere, and the shaming of women in relation to their exposure, whether bodily or through information.

That this garment becomes transparent according to the information the wearer shares online is not as worthy of note as the fact that the artists chose to reveal a woman’s body to make their point. The equation between sharing on social media sharing and sexual impropriety persists as a means for controlling the online behaviours of women. A particularly vehement example of this discourse is Ben Agger’s Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age. Agger’s rules for technological usage relate primarily to limitation and the ability to rein in one’s “penchant for texting, tweeting, and Facebooking” (2012: 48). This prohibition against certain activities becomes especially problematic when it takes on a gendered dimension, in that Agger’s devalued and oversharing subject is exclusively discussed using female pronouns. For him ‘oversharing’ “has a distinctly sexual dimension” (Agger, 2012: 7), in which the lack of a boundary between private and public creates a “pornographic public sphere” (2012: 9). Texting too frequently is labelled as “an orgy of sharing” (2012: 14), and online participation is likened to shaved genitalia in that “there are no more private parts; everything is on view (2012: 34). We should at least be thankful that the x.pose creators did not use Agger’s genital analogy in their work.

Discourses of online privacy are a thinly-veiled means for regulating the behaviours of ‘others’, and are often used to victim-blame individuals who have entered the public sphere in ways that made them vulnerable to criticism and attack (but who hasn’t?). A major theme of the online privacy discourse is that privacy no longer exists, because sharing any information with anyone contravenes the “secrecy paradigm” (Solove, 2012: 20). Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, displays the lack of industry sympathy regarding Internet users privacy, by stating that “you have zero privacy anyway. Get over it” (quoted in Sprenger, 1999). Similarly Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, stated that “if you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” (in a clip which I never tire of watching):

What these opinions serve to do is promote a sense in which individuals should enter public space assuming that they can neither control it, nor complain once their (apparently non-existent) privacy has been compromised by others. Public space is therefore marked as being for those who ‘have nothing to hide’, and unsafe for those whose identity, lifestyle and so on might be subject to criticism. Turkle proposes that perhaps the best way to deal with being monitored “is to just be good” (2011: 263), demonstrating the panoptic characteristic of the online environment, where subjects internalise their supervisor.

The gendered quality of this privacy discourse becomes apparent in discussions that share the bourgeois public sphere’s stance in assuming all subjects are equal. Rodrigues describes a situation of mutual disincentives to share private information, in which “any given user is generally just as vulnerable to abuse as any other (2010: 238). He neglects to consider how subjects might be placed within unequal power relations, with consequences of privacy violations resulting in very different outcomes, depending on their gender, sexuality and so on. This false sense of equality, and the accusation that users themselves let the “genie out of a bottle” when they share information, both act to support the victim-blaming logic which I am currently researching in relation to involuntary pornography (Stone, 2010). Furthermore, these warnings are similar to those given to young women prior to the availability of contraception and legal abortion, in that “your sins will never be forgiven” and that every action can have grave consequences (Penny, 2013).

Particularly salient here is the association of women with the private sphere, in that the demarcations of public and private are used to “delegitimize some interests, views, and topics and to valorize others” (Fraser, 1990: 73). The naturalisation of women as private (Dillon, 2004: 5) also serves to legitimise the punishment of women who seek to make their voices public, as a “woman who wants attention, never mind respect, cannot be tolerated” (Penny, 2013). Fillipovic identifies the blame attributed to victims of harassment or violence as correcting women who have made themselves public, as “public space has traditionally been reserved for men, and women are supposed to be quiet” (quoted in Valenti, 2010: 159).

A central component to the discourses which identify women as private relate to the avoidance of shame. As a mark of being not respectable, and without “little social value or legitimacy” (Skeggs, 1997: 3), shame is “symbolically encoded with established meanings of femininity” (Cornell, 1990: 12). Women are particularly vulnerable to the destructive effects of shame, in relation to the perceived transgressions of their bodies, their sexualities and their identities as a whole (Spence, 1995). As a tool for perpetuating unequal power relations, shame is “profoundly disempowering” (Bartky 1990: 85) and isolating, in that it prompts the subject to retreat and conceal the source of their stigma (Goffman, 1959; Beloff, 2001). Penny identifies how the use and avoidance of shame persists in relation to women’s use of the Internet, as an example of a long-standing device for social control being transferred to a new technology (2013). Theories of shame explain how a threat, in relation to social media practice,  and that is especially pertinent to women, is used to discipline the subject’s behaviour.

So, in a way, the x.pose tells us nothing new about how public discourse conceives of women’s use of social media, as it is merely a rehash of pre-existing assumptions regarding women’s public visibility more generally. But it is interesting how is makes these discourses so very visible (pun intended).

Show Us Your SELL-fies

As part of my study of selfie discourse (i.e. the discourse about selfies, rather than whatever people choose to express through selfies), I’ve seen an awful lot of commentary on how selfies should be stopped / regulated and so on. As a counter to this, it’s interesting to note occasions when selfies are discussed without this pressure to impose some sort of limit.

Whereas there are many commentators who are presenting a positive view of the selfie – promoting its use in building self-esteem and in addressing questions of visibility – in some ways the most open support of the practice comes from companies wishing to engage with their customers on social media.

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The ability of the selfie to suggest affinity, usually between two or more people, is here used by customers to demonstrate approval of a certain product, be it make-up or a burger. The Body Shop’s #NoReTouch campaign on Twitter is particularly interesting, as it makes specific reference to the products’ use in preparing the face for selfie-taking:

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On a less positive note, French Connection is both urging customers to take selfies, and yet implying that doing so is problematic, by using the hashtag #canthelpmyselfie

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This conflicting message – do something, yet understand that you will be devalued for doing so – is typical of the discourses directed at young women’s behaviour. This ad reiterates the prevailing assumptions regarding the selfie as a product of compulsive and narcissistic behaviour, compounded by the model’s duckfacing expression.

Similarly, the advert below for travel assistance company Medicus also displays a degree of contempt for its own customers, by referencing the narcissistic selfie-taker that obscures the landmark in the background. Again, taking photographs in a way that is seen as aesthetically bad is used to denote an almost comic sense of self-centredness – confirmed by the caption “when you travel there’s nothing more important than yourself”. This text, although implying that their medical cover puts the customer first, also suggests a kind of pointlessness to travel for certain people – people who take bad selfies, who seem to be unaware of anything besides themselves, and who are therefore not doing travel ‘right’.

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The band The Chainsmokers have similar objective, using the idea of the selfie to market products. But whereas The Body Shop, and even MacDonalds, were asking customers to share their approval of something via the selfie, here, the product being sold is selfie hatred itself. The T-shirt worn below features in the band’s music video (a confused and hypocritical mess which I’ve written about previously) and their online store also features a range of other designs.

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National Geographic similarly uses the selfie, and the understanding of the selfie as bad, to advertise its magazine. The caption “there are lots of terrible animal pictures out there” disdains the image we are seeing – an animal selfie – and asserts that purchasing National Geographic is part of rejecting the “terrible” selfie.

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These ads reflect the selfie’s status as a ‘cultural moment’, capable of either denoting allegiance, or of evoking a strongly conditioned response in the viewer. And it’s this response which is particularly important, as it naturalises the connection between selfie-takers and a certain sets of qualities and values.