David Foster Wallace writes,
Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy, somehow. Almost predatory. This is because human situations are writers’ food.
I’ve been a fiction writer since the first short story I wrote in fourth grade, so I know the above to be true. And I also know the following to be equally true:
But fiction writers tend at the same time to be terribly self-conscious. Devoting lots of productive time to studying closely how people come across to them, fiction writers also spend lots of less productive time wondering nervously how they come across to other people…The result is that a majority of fiction writers, born watchers, tend to dislike being objects of people’s attention.(1)
He goes on, at Wallacian length, to make the argument that television’s benign malice is that it allows for watching without being watched, although of course what’s being watched isn’t an accurate reflection of reality.(2) My point isn’t to argue with or refute this claim. My point is that today we have a much better tool to watch without being watched: social media.
Facebook and Twitter allow me to do exactly what television allows. I get to peek into people’s lives. I get these little snippets that I can piece together. It has an advantage over real life in that if I met a friend for coffee I’d have to pay attention to things like body language and tone to divine how that person feels about anything, and I’d have to do it constantly. Using social media, people just tell me how they feel…and I don’t even have to ask.
Furthermore, social media allows me to choose whose lives I watch from a distance. When I find someone to be untrustworthy I can simply un-friend, un-follow, or un-subscribe from that person’s life. I only have to pay attention to what I want to pay attention to.
And, for the most part, people only watch me when I want them to. Were I the creepy guy on the subway, I’d have to constantly watch everyone else and run decision trees on how they might be perceiving me, all while I’m watching whatever it is that’s caught my interest. It’s a lot. But on Facebook, people only see what I want them to see, whether that be my profile or my status updates.(3)
And so of course I have to be aware that I’m only seeing what others want me to see. In other words, social media is mediated content, just like television. Except that, for the most part, the goal of mediation isn’t simply to make money for some faceless corporation. Some people are obviously out to get as many followers as possible, but having the type of ego – or pathological need – that makes that situation a factor is also part of the reality that I, as a fiction writer, so desperately want to take in.
Without being, myself, observed. Which isn’t sneaky nor creepy. It doesn’t come from a place of harm or, I hope, damage. Let me put it this way: we, as human beings, tend, I think, to think that most people’s desires aren’t different from our own in any fundamental way. How we go about achieving those desires is, of course, wildly different. But the fundamentals are the same. So if I have a desire to watch everyone around me while I hit the little RECORD button of my memory, I generally assume that others are doing the same thing. Which is what makes me terribly self-conscious even while being simultaneously aware that probably no one is really paying any attention to me anyway. And so it’s only natural that I would embrace anything that removes that problem.
This is why, even though I kind of hate the thing that is social media, I simply cannot let it go. It lets me do the only thing I’ve wanted to do since I wrote my second story: record people without myself being recorded.
Which is why Google is now my enemy.
Google’s new Social Search feature, which allows people who have you in their Google+ circles to see things that you’ve searched for with Google, is more than a violation of privacy. More than a violation of trust. It is a violation of the very lure of social media, which is to watch other people without them seeing more of me than I want.
Suddenly now, self-consciousness has entered into my online life. I have to be worried that people in my circles can see what I’ve searched. Because I’m a writer, because I have a curious mind, and because I have a tendency – for whatever reason – to see and learn about many of the more unsavory aspects of human life,(4) I am genuinely concerned about this.
Furthermore, because Google first touted their service as a network that let you control what other people see, I added people to my circles whom I never would have added on Facebook. And so now I have to worry that people at work know that sometimes I really do try pretty hard to find real pictures of people who have three breasts.(5)
And they did all of this without first telling me. The only reason I knew about it was when I searched something a week or so ago and Google showed me similar things that one of my friends had searched. Self-consciousness set in just as much as if I’d gone naked to the prom.
So I quit Google+ right away. And in the past week, I’ve been divesting myself of all the Google services I use. This isn’t easy, since I’ve had a Google account for five years or so. But I am not willing to risk them releasing whatever other information they have of mine or about me to anyone else, whether we’re friends or not. Forget privacy. Forget trust. I spend time on the internet because it helps me accomplish something I simply cannot do in real life. Google has violated my sense of personal security, not my information, not my emails, but aspects of my very self.
At the very least, this makes me horribly uncomfortable. This is the type of thing that in the real world would cause me to get off the subway at the next stop, even if I had no idea where I was. To leave the party. To never talk to a certain person again. To move to a new town. Not because of the violation, but because I have been made too terribly self-conscious to ever face that situation again. So goodbye Google. And congratulations on becoming the town gossip-queen I’ve always worked to avoid.
- Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1997.
- It’s well documented that pretty much no one would want to watch a show about real life anyway, because real life is allegedly boring. I submit that real life isn’t precisely boring. It’s just that we can’t skip over the long amounts of less interesting points.
- I’ll add that the new Facebook Timeline lets you go back and delete pretty much everything you want to delete. It’s a great tool for revisionist history of a very personal sort.
- Should be obvious what that means. But it means more than that too. Mine is the kind of mind that finds books about serial killers fascinating. The internet was practically made for people like me.
- That fact supports note 4, supra.