Social Media Masks – Part 2: Our Curated Lives

My previous post was about the unruliness that is released in the freedom of the internet without risk or hidden transcripts. When the candour and necessity for social politeness is supposedly dropped, the hidden transcripts come out behind the mask of the internet.

However, I believe in our personal lives beyond the political sphere it is often the opposite. When I was reading Calvino’s “Adventures of a Photographer”, I couldn’t help but also relate it to today’s obsession with social media. The main character, Antonio, begins with a passion for philosophy and events removed from his own experience until everyone’s lives were moving but his was staying the same. His view of photographs and images were that they were the only place all the fleeting perfections were saved. It made the point that it is impossible to represent a faithful diary of life because we chose what to photograph, and what to share, and we are never recording every minute, every aspect of our lives, so there is no way to show an accurate portrayal of our lives, especially on social media. Our lives on social media are alternate realities of ourselves (our public transcripts), and show only what we want other people to see. We use social media to put up the fronts of our lives that expose only what we take a picture of or post on Facebook. Technology has put cameras in our hands and pockets and we often feel the need to record our lives, but usually only the good things, or the best things. This takes us out of the moment and we actually lose what we crave by trying to attain it (spontaneity, reality, accurate representation).  An example in the story is when he was trying to take a photo of Bice playing tennis. Taking a picture of her playing tennis was never a good enough photo, and the only way to get a good photo was over exaggerating movements, making it inauthentic for the illusion of authenticity.  The snapshot will never be as real as the true thing, and the “transcripts” we portray on the internet through social media are our public transcripts, our perfectly curated lives giving the illusion of a certain life that may or may not be true.

In some ways, social media and the internet reveals our hidden transcripts when people feel safe saying anything with a screen separating us from that online space (which can also be a useful tool for unruly politics), and other times, it is used to perpetuate the public transcript and control it in a way that suits us. This version of public and hidden transcripts differs from Scott’s (and from my last post), because power and authority is not involved in this version, but in a way it still relates to Calvino’s photographer, where “to believe that the snapshot is more true than the proposed portrait is a prejudice”.

Social Media Masks – Part 1: “Internet Transcripts”

Today’s society is obsessed with social media. This has probably been the case for the past 10 years and has only escalated since then. Created as a medium for people to be connected over a non-physical space, share and spread ideas, and a method of communication, it has become much more, and now even a tool for unruly politics.

I have two opposing views of how social media is used today, the first is the unruliness of it and its use in politics and revealing our hidden transcripts. James Scott talks about our public and hidden transcripts in relation to society and power. He says that “the power of social forms embodying etiquette and politeness requires us often to sacrifice candour for smooth relations with our acquaintances. Our circumspect behaviour may also have a strategic dimension: This person to whom we misrepresent ourselves may be able to harm or help us in some way” (Scott, 1990). These are our public performances that we all have when we associate with others. We wear these masks that cover our hidden transcripts of the truth. This concept of a public performance is applicable to so many situations and are driven by power relations in our lives. Social media, however, is a different story. Without the same power structures on the internet, people are feel free to reveal their hidden transcripts behind the mask of anonymity (or a “username”,) on this non-physical space. There is less risk when these transcripts are revealed online than there is in reality. Because of the lack of power relations on the internet, Twitter often seems like a free-for-all of people saying what they think without the need for public obedience. This allows for positive results such as the freedom to state opinions and speak one’s mind and perpetuate powerful ideas, however it also has the potential to be harmful for those same reasons. We have all seen the horrible things that have come from Twitter that perpetuate racist, sexist, grotesque ideas and affirmations of things that then become normalised on the internet that one would not have the authority or power to say in their daily lives. Arguments in comments and posts on social media outlets become a space where people feel free to speak their mind without risk. The mask of the internet is a different mask than what Scott describes, while one hides the hidden transcripts, the other reveals them.

Although this has revealed and normalised more and more unsettling mentalities, it can also be used for good. In politics and movements that do not have a space anywhere else, it allows for the freedom to spread a message and fight an oppressor that can’t be done in reality. Twitter and social media were instrumental in the Tunisian Revolution at the beginning of the Arab Spring. It gave citizens the ability to spread uncensored stories, ideas, and information that accelerated the revolution that may not have been able to be done outside the space of the internet. Social media was not the CAUSE of the revolution, but it brought a different element to this form of unruly politics that was unable to be done before.

The New York Times released an article recently about the status of women in Saudi Arabia with some examples of stories of women trying to leave the country due to forced marriage or violence, as well as a response to Ivanka Trump’s address to Saudi women. The article mentions how social media has been a part of this – “Last week, Saudi activists circulated on social media a video of two young women, identified only as Ashwaq and Areej, apparently sisters, who said they were in Turkey and were in danger of being repatriated to Saudi Arabia, where they claimed they would face violence. Thanks to cases like theirs, a social media campaign by Saudi women with the hashtag #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen has gone viral”. This shows social media as an outlet that allows women and others to make an idea/movement widespread with less risk than doing the same in a physical public sphere.

So while the internet breaks through Scott’s concept of public and hidden transcripts, it is applicable in a new way. With this freedom of the internet (and I do recognise that the internet is not always “free” in all contexts and countries), comes social movements that have completely moved to the online sphere, including advocacy and hashtag campaigns. Without the same power dynamics of reality, these movements become almost completely horizontal, and there is no longer a need for a separate “subordinate performance of deference and consent”.

New York Times Article – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/opinion/why-saudi-women-are-literally-living-the-handmaids-tale.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region

The Unruly Self

This is a continuation from my last blog post – “How to Start a Movement”, which questioned what unruliness was, and how unruliness comes to be. After proposing those questions from the previous post- what does it mean to be unruly? When does unruliness become “ruly”?, and what is the objective of an unruly action? I am going to attempt to answer these in the context of myself, and reflecting on the times I have been “unruly” and what that means on a personal level.

I can’t say that I am a very “unruly” person in general, but I can also say I don’t just go with the flow if I am unhappy or disagree with something. Most of the unruly acts I have participated in in my comfortable life growing up in the US have been acts against the norm, a protest of the system, and an act to defy the rules. However, any involvement in unruly politics in my life have all been under certain conditions that still appeal to the force I am fighting against. Every street protest I have participated in has been allowed by the local governments, with all the correct permits involved etc., and is more of a representation of a message against a current injustice or system. I would consider this on the low spectrum of “unruliness”, but I also don’t want to categorise acts and movements into a hierarchy or spectrum of more or less “unruly”.

The unruly act at IDS that we participated in was a true debate of unruliness. Was it unruly? Or did it fit nicely into the parameters allowed by IDS to make sure it didn’t make too much of a stir? All the rules were followed, permission was gained by the school, no one fought against the unruliness during the action, but it was still curtailed by structure in some ways. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t unruly, because it made a difference in the way people thought about themselves and IDS. It caused that subtle stir in comfort, and was not the norm at IDS. I did not feel unruly in this action, considering they allowed us to wear the costumes for the group photo, generally approached us with interest instead of apprehension, and ultimately did not have any negative consequences for the students or the institute. However, it may have sparked ideas, realisations, or inspiration among the fellows and students, which can be the start of something unruly.

How to Start a Movement

My fascination with TED Talks has led me to hours of watching, learning, criticising, and using them as an educational tool when I was a teacher. These short videos are often snapshots of life that often tell a story changing how we think about things. One of my favourite TED talks is by Derek Sivers, called “How to Start a Movement”.

WATCH VIDEO HERE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXMnDG3QzxE “How to Start a Movement” – 3:09

It is a short visual metaphor for how people engage with each other to create change. The speaker walks us through a video of a large group of unrelated people sitting in a spacious grassy area. One man is furiously dancing by himself in the middle, while others look on. At first everyone perceives this as unusual behaviour, until another man comes up to him and joins him in dancing. Soon more and more people join in the dancing until by the end of the video almost everyone that was sitting was dancing. The speaker claims that the more people that joined the original “lone nut”, it became a less risky act. He also claims that the importance for the movement lies in the first follower, as leading the way for others to follow.

This first person who stood up and started dancing, embraces what I believe to be a form of “unruliness”, he does something beyond the norm, with the risk of being judged and ridiculed. In unruly politics, it does take that person, thought, idea, group etc. to come out with something alternative to the norm. The movement of moving against something can lead to change, according to the video. The second person to join, also a leader of a movement, plays a different role in creating the idea to follow the first, encouraging others to then join. By the end of the video, everyone is dancing, normalizing the act (or “unruliness”). However, by the end of the video, the dancing is no longer an “unruly” act as it was in the beginning, because it has become the norm to stand up and join as everyone does. It then flipped to going against the norm if you were not dancing with the majority.

Although we talk about “alternative politics” and “unruly politics” as being something that challenges a current state, when does it then become “ruly”? or normalized? If everyone or a majority joins in the unruly action, then is it still considered unruly? When the movement becomes a leaderless movement involving the majority, is it still unruly? The TED Talk example is a very simplified example of a movement or change in mentality, but can represent larger slow changes in mentalities or unruliness over time, where what starts as unruly becomes the norm, and how change happens. The other question is whether this is the objective of unruliness? In most cases of unruly politics isn’t it to change the current standard to something more desired?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but everything is contextual. There is no one uniform definition or example of “unruly”. Not all unruly politics or movements have a leader, or even a group of leaders, it can be more of a collective action that has very different mechanisms than what the video represents. The goal of unruliness can also have various objectives. The unruly act can be a message against the system, or an act that tries to change the system to that new standard (as seen in the example). But I think this video embraces some of the concepts we talked about in class on a visual level, and can be a metaphor for real life unruly politics.