Social media as hyper-visibility
By Jolynna Sinanan, on 7 May 2015
After an intensive few months of hiding away finishing our books (and neglecting this blog), we have come back together to work on our comparative book. With nine people already having written a book each on social media, surely taking the lead on one chapter should be a more manageable task. But with nine countries and one book that deals with the big-picture impacts of social media, on education, on commerce and on humanity, among other themes, this book is also becoming an epic compendium.
If social media has provided (just) one form of unprecedented social change, it is that people can now self-craft, self-present and disseminate on a large scale, in real time. That observation is not new, these anxieties are revealed in conversations almost every day with “Did you see what so and so posted” and “I shared this really interesting thing” are all to do with the consequences of extended social visibility. A sociology of social media as hyper-visibility has come from doing more classical anthropological study through ethnography. From a small place, we can perhaps make wider generalisations.
We have been fortunate enough to give presentations and papers on our findings from our individual field sites now, and I usually start my presentations by talking about Trinidadian Carnival. Audiences tend to assume that Carnival is a fascinating and exotic event with little importance elsewhere outside Trinidad. But the point to emphasise is that, although Carnival is beads, feathers and bikinis, it is a festival that was born out of resistance to slavery- where people were physically oppressed from having the means to express their identities and values through bodily freedom. Although Carnival has transformed today, to varying degrees the logics of visibility from Carnival are resonant in Trinidadian society all year round.
Which brings me to social media, it is difficult to study any aspect of Trinidadian society without considering social visibility. It then seems inevitable, when looking at social media in Trinidad, to link its uses to the logics of Carnival and applying a term such as hyper-visibility. Carnival is about showing the truth of who you are on the body through masquerade and performance- it is a time and space to amplify how you see yourself. Trinidadians have a well understood vocabulary around appearance and its implications, so much so that the rest of the world is perhaps only catching up. The concern with what we show on social media and what it says about us is parallel to what Trinidadians have always understood about visibility: it is how we cultivate truth that makes us subject to the judgement of others. The multiple judgments of others then reinforces norms and acceptable values.
On Facebook in Trinidad, you are what you show, whether that is lifestyle through food posts, ideology through political postings or moral commentary through sharing memes. You can show yourself as very global through posts of holidays or opinions on Game of Thrones, or very local, with humour that only Trinidadians would understand. Throughout the 3-year study, there was a general decline in the usage of Facebook by individuals for showing themselves, although it is still the dominant social media platform in Trinidad. Because of the consequences of being hyper-visible, individuals are starting to curate themselves more to cultivate an exact and consistent image by which they want to be seen.