New communication technologies provide people with the tools to be heard and to participate openly in society. They also influence the way we live our everyday lives and interact with each other. Could it be that our awareness of the communication technologies around us leads to a more self-conscious behaviour?
In mid October, the Danish national TV channel TV2 launched the website “1234 –Your News” where viewers can send in their own photos, videos and texts. “We focus on your stories, the channel for you, when nursing-care fails, the main road is life threatening or the books in your child’s school are from before the fall of the Berlin Wall…”, TV2 stated in the press release launching the new site.
After only a few hours, a number of videos and pictures from Danish citizens were already being posted on the website, among these a picture of a thief caught in the act and a mayor singing in a revue. Most of these were the grainy photos and videos we know so well from other websites with user generated content such as Youtube or MySpace – images caught with the device we cannot live with out: the camera mobile phone.
Moblogger or Littlebrother?
According to TV2, the website was created as a response to the increasing interest from Danish citizens to send in images and videos with their angles on news events. Here’s a symptom of a new form of “open society”, intensified by the pervasiveness of technologies, such as the camera phone, where everyone wants to participate and be active. But how does this ‘intensified openess’ influence our behaviour?
One can argue that with the introduction of the internet, and not to mention the 3G mobile phone, surveillance has become decentralised and is now in the hands of the average citizen who will see it as his or her duty to guard the norms of a given society or culture. For example, on the Danish website Kriminelle.dk (criminals.dk), anonymous individuals upload images of other Copenhageners’ traffic offences on the streets of Copenhagen such as crossing the street while the light is still red or biking on the footpath.
The ‘surveillance camera’ has got millions of little ‘surveillance buddies’ in the form of citizens with camera phones ready to shoot. And all the little ‘public glimpses’ of our everyday lives are stored and made traceable via the internet. Who hasn’t tried to search for information about new colleagues or friends for example? Or, with just a few butterflies in the stomach, typed in one’s own name in Google Search to see what comes up.
However, many young people do not feel the same pressure when they perform a ‘Google Search’ as their parents do. They have been growing up with “Google” as their childhood playmate and thus seem to be much more comfortable with the openness of public life. They even participate eagerly and actively in sharing private thoughts and images in the online social networking sphere, for example, well aware that the whole world might be watching.
The Danish researcher Anders Albrecthslund from Aalborg University puts it thus in an interview for the university website:
“Young people use online social networking, for example MySpace, to communicate with each other. This is an important part of young people’s lives and although they do know that there are a number of anonymous people following their activities, it is not something they look upon as surveillance in the Orwellian sense. However, it is different if they experience that something they wrote is pulled out of its original context and used in a different context. Also they, like all other generations, are strongly opposed to a Big Brother Society – a kind we know from the former DDR.”
Identity in a Public Puzzle
It’s all a struggle about being the one “seeing” and “showing” or being the one “looked upon”. As the French philosopher Michel Foucault once argued and illustrated through his metaphor of the Surveillance Society, the “Panopticon Tower”, it is not always as pleasant to be “looked at” as it is to be the one looking at. To be the actor and performer in a system is always more pleasant than being the object; the one that action is being performed upon.
On social networking sites, children and young people, and gradually also many adults, spend hours on designing their online persona to actively “show” who they are to others, or they spend hours on checking out other peoples’ profiles to “look” at the others. Slowly what we used to think of as private – everyday thoughts (the so called “blurps”), dreams, interests as well as our sexual orientation, that is to say; our very identity – is being integrated in the public sphere of the internet. Perhaps we even come to think of it as one of the pieces of the public puzzle. At least many teenagers appear to do so.
New communication technologies provide us with the means to communicate and act. But more importantly, they influence the way we construct the world around us. Gradually situations and actions we used to think of as private are now merging with the public sphere. And the fact that the world is online and that our everyday actions may be recorded and made available to a larger audience might even make us think more carefully about our behaviour. Because who wants to show up doing silly stunts on YouTube? ….if not your neighbour’s 16 year old son…