“Democratization of the Gaze”

“Internet pushing more girls towards cyber bullying”; Submitted by Sahil Nagpal to TopNews.in on Mon, 05/11/2009

In the Surveillance & Society Film Review of Ondi Timoner’s 2009 documentary film titled, We Live in Public, Nathan Jurgenson upholds those beliefs proposed by Kahn & Kellner and so many other [cyber] social theorists that social media has inherently democratizing potential in it (hons201.pbworks).  Jurgenson details the various shifts taking place in the cybersocial world of social networking sites like Facebook: from panoptic surveillance of the many by the few, to the “omniopticon” in which, “individuals are not just passive consumers, but also producers of both content and the gaze” (Jurgenson, 377), which differs from the synoptic consumer experience in which the many watch the few (i.e. “people blankly starring at and consuming television images”) (377).  Social networking sites allow for one such omniopticon to manifest due to their interactive nature: users simultaneously consume and [re]produce images and ideas online via cyberspaces like twitter, MySpace, and WordPress.  This indeed has democratizing potentials as a grounds upon which grassroots activism can take root and grow through imbricated solidarity, that is the digital-material overlap of an online-era.

Interactive Social Media Users are Prosumers! From Google Images.

What is feminist about this?  Well, as we have learned about through course readings, cyberfeminism is a widely contested term for discussion, debate and dialogue.  It can be reduced down to a simple web definition of: “Cyberfeminism is a feminist community, philosophy and set of practices concerned with feminist interactions with and acts in cyberspace” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberfeminism).  Faith Wilding has defined this discourse in terms of an ongoing and expanding practice of feminist theory that recognizes how, “the digital environment has opened the territory of the Internet as a strategic field of artistic production and political intervention,” (feministwebproject.org/).  Cyberspace provides a digital space that can and has operated as a room of one’s own, to steal from Professor Daniels’ referencing Virginia Woolf’s extended essay on women’s access to education; that opportunity being granted by ‘money and a room of her own.’  This speaks to that complicated relationship to embodiment (i.e. are girls and self-identified women utilizing the internet as a means by which to escape or engage the body?)  That answer, we have discovered, is deeply nuanced.

In order to theorize the importance of embodiment online, it is first necessary to gauge an individual’s physical, social and historical location.  That is to say that earlier suggestions that the Internet might serve as an “escape” or a refuge from (female) embodiment implies a physical location, a social condition and a political context which may differ from, say, the white, heterosexual, gender-conforming or cisgender experience (hons201.pbworks).  In other words, the quest to formulate universal answers to transnational questions of difference defeat the purpose of constructive feminist theory.  Turning our focus to the affluent, white, heterosexual, gender-conforming experience reveals a number of contradictions to that democratizing ideology that professed the internet as liberating disembodiment.  In fact, many feminists argue that the social media’s particular reliance on the visual aspects of digital culture tends to reify surveillance culture and reproduces representations of gender that are hegemonic and therefore dangerous for those who transgress the codes of sex, gender and sexuality so deeply embedded in our society.

Jurgenson wrote about the refinement of representing one’s self on the internet.  He contested Josh Harris’ (of Timoner’s documentary, We Live in Public) claim that people will surrender their individual rights to privacy in pursuit of “15 minutes of fame everyday” (WeLiveInPublic).  But Jurgenson sees a world in which those who use the internet most utilize the most privacy settings on their social networking homepages.  And there are indeed statistics that will back up his claim.  Harris saw a changing world in which the so-called-rats in his social experiments paid the [ultimate] price of privacy in order to see and be seen (i.e. the omniopticon).  Embodiment continues to be an issue with which feminists grapple in the online world of advertisements, youtube videos, etc.  To occupy space, a presence, an identity on the web is to be recognized and thereby policed by the public.  Foucault would say something like we are the mechanism by which hegemony operates; in addition to and perhaps more prevalent than some top-down strategy of control, we whom interact with one another influence each others’ [re]presentation to the world.

Images of idealized perfection are represented & reproduced via interactive social media, thereby regulating bodies/policing embodiment. From Google Images.

This, we can see simply by signing onto Facebook or MySpace.  This is something to remain critical about when engaging online with interactive social media.  There are entire sites dedicated to showcasing Hot Facebook Girls whose photos have been extracted from Facebook and re-uploaded onto alternative websites.  Is this legal?  Probably not, since Facebook owns the web content of Facebook.  But these photos represent images of girls and self-identified women, bodies represented by the camera for the viewer, for the gaze.  Similar to ‘sexting,’ in which an intended audience might not be the only recipient of such explicit content, these photographs are not intended for the viewing eyes of ‘Hot Facebook Girls’ viewers, but they are anyway.  And so, here, privacy is of concern to say the least.

Facebook also offers a forum in which to interactively police bodies on pages such as: I Hate How Ugly Girls Don’t Think They Ugly, i love LOLING at ugly girls pictures, i hate it when ugly girls act like they so hot, and the hegemonic policing goes on…

**My posting links to these websites is simply to expose the examples of policing embodiment online and not to reinforce their problematic intent to hurt.

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