You Only Live Online: When “Knowledge of Other” Supersedes “Knowing Other”

In Greek Mythology, Narcissus was a hunter known for his beauty. Proud, he held disdain for any who loved him. He is said to have rejected all his suitors. Nemesis, the incarnation of Aphrodite as “revenge,” noticed Narcissus’s strange obsession. She lured him to a pool where he glanced his reflection in the water and fell in love with it; not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his form cast on the water, Narcissus stared longingly at his reflection until he lost his will to live.

Marshall McLuhan, a famed scholar of media and technology, argues that the West misinterprets the myth of Narcissus by assuming that Narcissus fell so in love with his image that he drowned. Drawing connections to technology, McLuhan notes that the water performs as a technology — a mirror — that exteriorizes Narcissus’s body. Seemingly extended elsewhere yet not, Narcissus became narcotized by his image, not because he was so in love with himself that he could not turn away; but rather, because the extension of himself provided a release from his embodied corporeal form. Narcissus was narcotized by the illusion of existing elsewhere, even though this meant that he effectively negated the reality of his material form in his watery transfixion.

On social media, which elevate the visual akin to Narcissus staring into the water/mirror, users become suspended in the image of themselves reflected outward into the vast “waters” of the world in their profiles. Users perceive this image as a mirroring of themselves in digital media and the social web, as all that can be known or understood in the contemporary environment that continually hails everyone to participate through sharing information. Users also perceive others as their images, and they assume the presence of others in visuality, envisioning them as they visualize themselves projected on the screen and elsewhere.

Yet, like Narcissus transfixed by the watery extension of himself, users seem to ignore the fact that the projection on the screen and elsewhere is only an image. This Janus-faced representation of the self, of appearing both “materially here and seemingly there at the same time” in imagery, flattens physicality into a two-dimensional form by making it content to be consumed in digital spaces. The visual reproduction is taken as a totalizing encapsulation of the person without acknowledgment of the broader corporeality not captured in the frame. Imagery in digital spaces, therefore, constitutes the experience of self and other in a way that suggests that an image now stands in for full and immediate presence within a viewer’s interpretations. Imagery also crucially becomes a precise target that points to the object or person(s) depicted as the viewer objectifies the visual form in affiliation with or criticism of it. Imagery, therefore, is no longer the capture of ephemerality, it is increasingly seen as a containment of reality in digital spaces.

Preoccupied with imagery, users fail to see beyond the narrow frame, to see the damage they do to each other when they objectify one another as only that displayed on the screen. Users deny each other’s physical presence, and as they do, they grow more insular, preferring to keep to themselves and to give of themselves only in ways that they can control and in ways that confirm what they believe. Individuals online become victims of themselves through digital media and the social web, and they make victims of those who do not conform to what they think is “appropriate” or “right” without taking the time and energy to contextualize and understand one another. Through social media and an obsession with imagery, there is growing polarity between knowledge of other and knowing other.

When individuals confront content on social media, whether acceptable or objectionable, individuals participate by treating it as information to be engaged or discarded, consumed and shared. Across digital media and the social web, users treat each other in much the same way. Relationships online are constituted as a series of interactions displayed on the screen for others, documented, disclosed, and disposable to vast audiences who are encouraged to participate without an awareness of the context of the interaction or the coherence of the person(s) depicted. User’s visual representations stand in for their physical presence; they become the person, though they are not the person. Individuals appear to others across time and space in digital content, and as individuals do, they straddle the divide between how they seem (i.e., knowledge of other) and who they are (i.e., knowing other). Flattened in imagery, users attempt to imbue their digital personae with “who they are.” They adorn their profiles in similar ways that individuals historically adorned their bodies with clothing by station for the public, except that images, text, comments, and other content adorn the profile as body and breathe “life” into an otherwise two-dimensional (tele)presence.

Lindsey Stone, for example, tried to highlight her sarcastic humor and wit when she shared a picture of herself flipping off the “Silence and Respect” placard at the Arlington National Memorial back in 2012. Though only shared with her friends on Facebook, it was seen as objectionable after one of them shared it with another outside her friend group. At that moment the image was not only stripped of context, it also became the totalizing frame through which others would come to “know” Lindsey.

Regardless of whether Lindsey’s photo was taken in poor taste and posted without careful thought for the massively public nature of social media, its spread beyond its original context allowed others to objectify and demonize her as a vile, unpatriotic figure. Afforded physical, emotional, and personal distance from Lindsey, those who interacted with the image fetishized and objectified Stone’s visual representation as an object of ongoing public interpretation. In infusing the visual form with their personal beliefs, social values, and collective judgments of morality, the digital crowd converged to collectively render the image as a totalizing representation of Lindsey Stone.

In choosing the visual representation over embodied, in-person engagement, the digital crowd then engaged in “crowdsourcing morality” by leveraging their judgments upon the image as if it was all-encompassing of Lindsey. No one questioned the authenticity of the original image. Few even bothered to understand the context of the picture, let alone the person behind/beyond the visual frame. Instead, the digital crowd leveraged collective morality against a precise target it could label and shame. As a result, Lindsey lost her job, and the image continues to appear online to this day.

Lindsey Stone’s story is but one of many examples where individuals deny each other’s presence through social media as they suspend one another in imagery. Because social media make it easier to economize physical distance, individuals constrain and contain relationships with others through what they share. Individuals curate their profiles to appear as they wish others to see them. Individuals obscure less favorable aspects of their lives from others.

And individuals feel encouraged or even entitled to participate — to comment, critique, and shame — with abandon as they do not physically experience the other and rarely need to account for the effects of their actions fully.
Where social media promote knowledge of other, individuals come to disengage from knowing other and dispense with civility. Knowing other is messy and complicated. It requires more effort. Yet, this is what is needed to combat the suspension of other in content. To know other requires necessarily physical engagement that highlights nuance and emotion in voice and body. It pushes individuals to step outside of their ideological perspectives to consider that of others. It compels both parties to approach each other with greater openness — even if it is scary, isolating, and challenging. As knowing other humanizes self and other, it also encourages civility.

Individuals ultimately need to peer beyond the reflections they see and dive deeper into the water to better know other. Otherwise, as spectators watching ourselves watching each other, we will continue to stare longingly into the screen, and we will fall victim to our cultural Nemesis. Unlike Narcissus, though, our Nemesis is not some external ethereal other luring us to our demise; instead, our Nemesis is us who deny each other our presence in our transfixion with imagery.

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Photo credit:  Martin Sattler on Unsplash