Almost a decade ago, at the SXSW film fest, I saw a documentary about a man ahead of his time called We Live in Public. He rigged cameras all over his house and live-streamed his life with his girlfriend, a prophecy of the privacy-rejecting times to come. The film unsettled me back then, and raised a lot of serious questions about the implications of living under a construct like this. Now his avant garde art experiment is reality, especially in China, where people are making $100,000 a month live streaming their most mundane moments.
One of the primary concerns I have about all of us living in a mediated reality (one in which you are aware of an audience gaze) is how it affects identity formation. That is, during adolescence, when developmental science indicates people are quite literally forming their own identities, establishing who they are as adults who are separate from their parents, today’s adolescents are also forming their public identities (on Instagram or what not) at the same time. These two selves may be completely dissonant, and neither is even fully “formed” yet. What a mindfuck!
The summer between 9th and 10th grade, a group of cheerleaders from my high school decided to pose for a group picture topless except for belts they fastened around their chests. They took the film for developing at Eckerd (you see, children, back in those days we would get our film rolls developed at a 24-hour pharmacy). Another high school student worked at the Eckerd photo corner, saw the shot when reviewing the final photos and scanned it. This was 1998, so the photo was passed around as email attachments, and everyone who was anyone saw this photo, but it eventually stopped being a thing. Can you imagine if this had happened in the age of social media?
Had I paid more attention in philosophy classes, I would probably know this problem is as old as time, and it’s just expressing itself in a different way now. But I do think about it a lot because my daughters are post-millennials, and damn, what a world. Even given the minor professional obligations I have to be “in public,” I’m constantly unsure how much/what to share in public spaces. Suffice to say it will not be anything involving topless belt photos.