The Practice of Watching

While reading David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” I came across a section that struck me as both candid and affective:

Six hours a day is more time than most people (consciously) do any one thing. How people who absorb such doses [of television] understand themselves changes, becomes spectatorial, self conscious. Because the practice of watching is expansive. Exponential. We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. We start to “feel” ourselves feeling, yearn to experience “experiences.” (160)

The spectatorial self consciousness that Wallace describes is certainly something I recognize in myself and my peers, however, I would attribute this as much to television and its “almost … voyeurism” (Wallace 152), perhaps more so, to the prevalence of social networking where on a regular basis we exhibit pseudo-voyeurism. Indeed, one of the only thing that separates social networking from what Wallace describes as “classic voyeurism” is that rather than “watching people who don’t know you’re there” (Wallace 152), participants in social networking programs are aware that others can look in on them, they simply can’t know when, or how often.

Some might argue that by virtue of the fact that users control the content of their “profiles” and “pages” viewers of such digital avatars are only granted access to information that social networking participants would share openly, and voyeurism is therefore impossible, this is only partially true. For instance, one might post a picture of themselves on Facebook from a vacation for friends and family members to see. While this is a fairly innocuous activity, especially granted that people are usually quite happy to share the highlights of their outings and vacations, there is one marked difference between sharing a photo in the photo albums of old and the digital albums of today— in the past when you shared that vacation photo with a friend, it was shut up in the scrapbook when you were done with it; now that photo can be shared infinitely. Even with the available privacy settings, Suzy from your math class can still save that vacation photo and send it to her friend from another school entirely, to show her how “totally adorable” you are. Now imagine that this is not a friendly vacation photo being shared, but something more personal or serious instead.

Photo sharing is only one of the many features of social networking, which says nothing of status and location updates, education information, or likes and dislikes. It then seems that this innocuous sharing has the capability to resemble voyeurism, where people are privy to the “mundane but erotic businesses of private life” (Wallace 152). Rather than driving people away from the exposure of social networking, this phenomenon creates in many a kind of exhibitionism— full of over sharing and carefully constructed personas to garner attention, whether in mass quantities or from particular audiences. This relationship between voyeur and exhibitionist (roles which are played simultaneously) connects back to Wallace’s thoughts on “the practice of watching.” In order to “‘feel’ ourselves feeling” it must be documented so that others can share in not just the feeling, but our feeling of it (Wallace 160).

We are reaching an age where if you didn’t tweet it, it didn’t happen. While this certainly results in well cataloged lives, each moment available for reflection, there is never time to review these virally stored moments because we are constantly producing more, simultaneously viewing the lives and memories of others via proxy. Furthermore, no matter how many funny moments we share via status update or seminal photos we post on Flickr in an effort to connect with the people around us, ultimately these things only give people a window into our lives, without ever making them a true participant. It is interesting how close we can feel, no matter how far apart we may truly be.

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