Insider #103 on escaping the panopticon of social media.
This week marks two years since I launched paid subscriptions. In this time, the SneakyArt Insider Club has grown to over 200 people. I am so grateful to each one of you.
Tomorrow, I complete another round of the Sun. This is no big deal, I do it all the time. In fact, I could do it in my sleep. But since it is an occasion, here I am, happy to be older, squinting under a warm sun.
Last week, I wrote about the panopticon, a concept of social control originally conceived as a way to keep prison inmates in line. The basic idea is this: a structure designed for a guard to potentially watch all the prisoners all the time. Under the spectre of constant surveillance then, whether or not they were actually being watched, prisoners would self-regulate their behaviour to avoid certain punishment.
In today’s post, I think about escaping the panopticon of social media, and the influence of ‘other people’ in our lives. Are we all just prisoners here of our own device(s)? Are we human or are we dancer?
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We are all just prisoners here, of our own device(s)
The best kind of prison, argues philosopher Byung Chul Han, is one to which people voluntarily sign up. When we surrender privacy and freedom for endless content and same-day deliveries, we help build the walls of our panopticon.
These new prisons are not structures of concrete and barbed wire, but the substance of our entire world - online and offline. There is no need for guards because we are constantly watching one another. Your guards are your friends, your family, your colleagues, potential partners, and everyone you ever meet.
They are to you what you are to them.
Your mind is colonized
We regulate our behaviour to fit the trends. We fit the trends to grow our accounts. We grow our accounts because that is the only measure of success.
In an achievement-obsessed culture, success becomes the only virtue. And because great success only comes from ‘the most likes’, achievement turns into a question of how completely you can sell out to the most number of people.
Social media offers simple numbers to measure achievement - likes, retweets, and follower counts. Your job is to take the number up. How far up? Always higher. Higher than today. Much higher than yesterday. Faster. Higher and higher, faster and faster. Endlessly. None of this makes sense.
Consider this, does the word ‘sellout’ mean anything anymore? When freedom, empowerment, equality, and self-care are products peddled by billion-dollar corporations, nothing good can exist that is not on sale.
None of this makes sense
We fail to succeed at social media because none of this makes sense.
The key to growing your following is learning to dehumanize your followers. How can I grab their attention? How can I trick them into watching this? The key to becoming a large account is to never be yourself. What is the most market-friendly, pop-timistic drivel to say? Per the rules of social media success, I am not accountable to myself or the people who follow my account because the only objective is to attract new followers.
So the promise of creative independence and individual freedom becomes a kind of enslavement itself - rather than satisfy my creativity, or connect in the best way with the people who love my work, my only incentive is to please the algorithm. That unpredictable, ever-changing, inhuman block of code that demands you dance to its tunes, that pumps you up or pulls you down on a whim.
We live in a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with the algorithm - hating it, being hated in turn, but still yearning for the day when it will love us.
And as we dance this vicious cabaret, a billionaire sits in front of a screen, staring with unblinking, soulless eyes at a dollar number climbing higher and higher.
“Hell is other people.”
Other people externalize us to ourselves. Under their gaze, we become conscious of ourselves and the labels that may be applied to our physical, mental, and emotional appearance.
Imagine yourself walking alone in a park. Everywhere you look, everything presents itself to you. You are the subject around whom the universe shapes itself. Then, another person appears. And immediately the equation changes.
Whether you like it or not, you are suddenly conscious that the other person also exists in their own universe. Inside that universe, you are just another object. You are no longer able to see yourself as the subject.
Suddenly all sorts of “object words” run through your mind. Are you thin, or do you look fat? Are you standing straight, or are you slouching? Are you dressed well? Is your hair in place?
Being subject to such judgments in your mind, simply because of the appearance of another person in your world, is what Sartre describes as Hell.
Social media exacerbates this problem. We are not only under the gaze of another person, we are under the constant observation of millions of others whom we cannot see or know. Success in this landscape is defined by projecting yourself upon countless, distracted others.
You are how others consume you.
This only gets worse as your audience grows. Yay.
Writing to you changes this
This newsletter is helping me escape the panopticon of social media:
👣 Cadence. I hit publish only twice a week - for free readers, and for you. This gives me the chance to think about my words, craft my message, and afterwards bask in the glory of having done my job. There is work and there is rest.
🐎 Pace. In a time of hyper-productivity, writing a newsletter has given me the chance to slow down. I am able to ignore the micro-trends of the moment because I am not in the game of virality anymore.
🙌🏽 Authenticity. On social media, I am a brand, but with this newsletter, I enjoy the tremendous freedom of being a person again.
I do not have to jump out and steal your attention. I do not compete with your favourite celebrities, influencers, or brands. My job is simple: to drop my best work in your inbox and wait for my turn. No games. No tricks.
The readers of this publication have made this possible. You have made this possible. Thank you, dear Insider, for your support. I am glad to have a space in your inbox, and a share of your time and attention every week.