A mass murderer uses a body camera to record the panic and death of his victims as seen through his own eyes, then posts the result online, where it goes viral as a thrilling upgrade on the first-person-shooter type of videogame.11xNiharika Mandhana and Patience Haggen, “New Zealand Massacre Video Clings to the Internet’s Dark Corners,” Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/new-zealand-massacre-video-clings-to-the-internets-dark-corners-11552766810.
A burly self-described diaosi (“loser”) in China turns himself into a live-streaming superstar called Big Li, and wins the “love” of several million followers and riches in the form of “tips” from wealthy fans—until he loses it all in the final round of a “tournament” and becomes chronically depressed.22xHao Wu (director), People’s Republic of Desire [documentary film] (Los Angeles, CA: Tripod Media, 2018).
A dysfunctional mother and her thirteen-year-old daughter appear on a reality talk show, and when the daughter behaves outrageously toward the host and audience, she gains overnight celebrity and is rewarded with a stay at a therapeutic “ranch” for troubled teens (paid for by the host), a lucrative contract with a rap record label, a chance to start her own cosmetics business, and, eventually, her own reality show.33xSee the original 2017 appearance on Dr. Phil: “Dr. Phil Catch Me Outside (Cash Me Outside),” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jkmOnEFCyI0. See the huge reward reaped by the girl for her lousy behavior: “The Evolution of Danielle Bregoli: From ‘Cash Me Outside’ to ‘Bhad Bhabie,’” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7SBtrczomU.
The current president of the United States dispenses with most of the two-way channels of communication used by his predecessors, including press conferences, adversarial interviews, and meetings with the leaders of Congress and various federal agencies, and opts for the one-way bullhorn of a nonstop Twitter feed.
These are just a few dramatic instances of what has become the dominant mode of expression in the digital age: the attention-seeking self-portrait displayed on social media. These self-portraits come in two modes: the upbeat, polished self-advertisement and the downbeat, abrasive self-exposure. The former has its uses, just as advertising does. But it also brings unbearable pressure, especially on children and adolescents, to force one’s unformed, immature, imperfect self into a painfully artificial mold of perfect happiness and success.
The latter is an understandable response to that pressure—to push back with a complete, often darkly comic, revelation of one’s every misery, failure, and flaw, because these are at least real. This dynamic has led Instagram and other social media platforms to offer two different accounts: one for the image of perfection users feel compelled to project publicly, and another for all the imperfections users want to share with close friends and others whom they trust. In an ironic twist, the first type of account is called “real” and the second “fake.” According to one digital native I know, the terms are reversed as a form of protective coloration, because “the real account is obviously the ‘fake’ account, and the fake account is obviously the ‘real’ account.”
This curious dynamic did not start with social media, because social media grew out of a cultural milieu already marked by a decline in decency, propriety, and civility. The causes of that decline can be traced back as far as one likes, but suffice it to say they include the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s and a half century of dramatic technological, economic, and regulatory change in American broadcast media, especially television.
Around the turn of the millennium, these causes converged in a particular genre of TV entertainment, the reality show, which quickly became a leading incubator of negative self-exposure. It is impossible to prove a counterfactual, but without reality TV, it seems unlikely that so many people would equate “being real” and “telling it like it is” with spilling ugly secrets, flaunting rank egotism, attacking personal morality and social norms, and exuding contempt for the opinions and sensibilities of others. This cultural turn is dismaying enough, but as this kind of behavior comes to define what is honest, authentic, and true, it becomes more difficult for free and democratic societies to push back against the looming threat of a full-fledged surveillance state, a digital Panopticon.