“Visibility is a Trap”

Social media theorist, Nathan Jurgenson, came to speak at Stevenson University last night as our Artist-in-Residence for the spring semester. Let me just say first and foremost that his talk was not quite what I had expected. Our previous Artist-in-Residence’s that I have attended have been by illustrators, photographers, graphic designers, and the like. They usually talk to us about their projects, inspiration, creative thinking, and their design processes.

Now we have this sociologist who researches for Snapchat come into the mix, and he talks to us about social media. But he didn’t necessarily talk about the design of it in terms of layout and typography and what have you. He spoke in more indirect terms, by means of the theory behind it all. I ended up leaving the banquet room slightly mind blown.

The main point of his talk was “on the trappings of social media visibility.” We put our lives out on social media, and this makes us more visible to the world today in different ways than we have ever been before.

He informed us about a circular style prison, called the panopticon. The structure of this consists of a circle of cells all facing inward, and then a guard’s tower in the middle. This puts all of the inmates on display all the time, and they will behave differently whether a guard is there or not because of the notion that someone might be watching. It operates on the idea that people act differently when they know they’re being watched. The point of all this was that Nathan Jurgenson sees social media as panoptic—the few are watching the many, and because of this people are going to behave differently.

He went on to say that the panopticon is not the only way to understand the trappings of your online visibility. Social media can trap our identity. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter were created around listing our identity in a stable profile. We post something, share something, list our interests and it all remains there. Posts build up and soon our past is trapped there on our social media profile. He sees storing the information of our past as limiting to who we can become in the future.

I found the points about the panopticon and our identity along with the couple others that he mentioned really interesting because I had never really considered social media as trapping before. But it’s true. All of our information is out there for people to see. We define ourselves by our followers, our likes, our favorites, etc., and this limits us in the long run. We live our lives looking for what will make a good post or a popular tweet. We “see the present as a potential future past” and want to freeze moments on our profile for everyone else to see. But it doesn’t have to be like that, and it shouldn’t. Visibility is not necessarily the trap, it’s what we do with it that defines it.

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