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... we as viewers become ever more attentively viewed, the more we view others. These uncanny, anonymous encounters
enabled by social media should attract, we can hope, exposure as acute as Hitchcock’s.
May 7, 2012
Slice of Life
Facebook & Hitchcock: Seeing through the windows of social media

by Michael Sacasas

Facebook Stalking

Facebook Stalking by m.e.g.

It is cinema, according to Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media, that furnishes the most useful conceptual toolbox with which to analyze digital media. In his view, not only does the early history of film provide a suggestive analogy to the early history of digital media, but techniques developed and perfected in film also reassert themselves in the field of digital media. Yet despite these affinities between cinema and digital media, Manovich recognized one critical dissimilarity: narrative provided film with its organizing structure while digital media operated by the logic of the database. Each structuring principle, database and narrative, provided a competing way “to make meaning out of the world.” Manovich goes so far as to claim that they are “natural enemies.”

The Language of New Media appeared in 2001, well before the rise of social media and social networking sites. Nonetheless, the analogy to cinema and the opposition of database to narrative remain intriguing avenues by which to explore the social consequences of social media, and Manovich offers one (retrospectively available) point of entry.

Discussing the various kinds of montage techniques deployed by filmmakers, Manovich alludes to the strategy of juxtaposing near and faraway scenes by filming a character looking through a window. As one example, he offers Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

In Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, Jimmy Stewart plays a photojournalist named Jeff who is laid up with a broken leg and passes his time observing his neighbors through his apartment’s Rear Window. The window looks out on a courtyard onto which the Rear Windows of all the other apartments in the building also open up. It’s a multiscreen gallery, a spatial montage, for Stewart’s character who reclines in the shadows and becomes engrossed in the lives of his neighbors – the attractive dancer, the lonely woman, the young pianist, the newlyweds, and, most significantly, the contentious married couple. Descending further and further into the role of the obsessive voyeur, Jeff becomes convinced the disgruntled husband murdered his wife. The film’s plot is subsequently driven by Jeff’s determination to prove the man’s guilt.

Rear Window presents an irresistible analogy for the structure of social networking sites, Facebook most obviously, and for the uses to which they are put. Like the windows in Hitchcock’s film, Facebook profiles offer an opening into a life and one through which others can observe without the observed knowing it. This is classic Facebook behavior. The platform has always abetted and elicited stalker-ish activity from users. This is why one of the most popular of the many spam links that circulate on the social network purports to reveal who has been looking at your profile. If ever such a capability were enabled it would likely lead to a massive reduction in page views for Facebook. Like Jeff’s character, Facebook users look through the profiles-as-windows at the lives of their virtual neighbors. And as with Jeff, it may begin in a relatively innocent curiosity born of boredom, but it may veer into the obsessive.

There is, of course, one glaring difference between rear windows and Facebook profiles: Stewart’s neighbors were presumably unaware that they were being watched. Facebook users are not only aware they are being watched – they are counting on it. On Facebook we’re all flâneurs, simultaneously watching and being watched. But Facebook users don’t exactly know who is doing the watching and how much watching they’re doing or to what end. The uncanny moment in Rear Window comes when the watcher becomes the watched. Needless to say, such a moment would be equally uncanny were it to unfold online. Yet it is enough that users know they are being watched in general. This alone renders the profile something other than a re-presentation of our life. It becomes itself a presentation.

At this juncture Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics offers a perspective on the status of the Facebook profile. Gadamer challenges the representational view of art that understands the work of art as a mere re-presentation, or copy, of some real thing. On this view, whatever meaning the work of art holds is derivative of the thing it re-presents. Against this view, Gadamer contends that the appearing of the work of art before the participant (for the one who takes in a work of art is never merely a passive observer) constitutes an “event of being.” Meaning inheres in the work of art in itself. It achieves a status independent of the “real” thing of which it is a copy, it is in effect no less “real.” It is itself a presentation (or presence), not a mere re-presentation.

Thinking again about a Facebook profile, it may be tempting to understand a profile as a representation of a life or of a personality whose meaning derives from the lived experience of the user who creates the profile. But is this entirely accurate? It is certainly the case that the online profile is, in a certain sense, grounded in the offline experience of the user. Also, it is best to resist adigital dualism that abstracts the “real,” offline experience from “virtual,” online experience. Offline and online experience impinge upon one another; it would be misleading to compartmentalize the two.

Yet, there are multiple ways of construing the nature of their enmeshment. One way of resisting digital dualism is to note how the possibility of self-documentation asserts itself in lived experience. Nathan Jurgenson’s notion of “Facebook Eye” captures this dynamic neatly. On this view, online profiles impinge upon offline experience by reordering our conscious intentionality – to the person with a social media profile, experience becomes a field of potential self-documentation to be publicized through social media. To the person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the person with a Facebook profile, everything looks like a potential status update. Or alternatively, to the person with a Facebook profile, the question is always “How many ‘likes’ will this get?” But Gadamer offers another complementary construal, one that Rear Window helps us understand and that recalls Manovich’s opposition of narratives and databases.

It begins by noting the presentational character of the online profile. It is not a mere copy of the original life; in its appearing before a profile viewer, it appears on its own terms and signifies its own meaning. The meaning(s) of the profile are not merely derived from the manner in which it copies life; rather they emerge out of the dynamics and structure of the profile itself. And here is why this does not constitute a digital dualism. Gadamer’s discussion of the work of art as an “event of being” includes what Peter Leithart has called “retroactive ontological consequences” for the thing that the post refers to in the “real” world.

Leithart interprets Gadamer by reference to landscape painting. When a landscape is painted by Constable, its character is altered; it is now a “landscape-that-inspires-painting.” Similarly, when a person maintains an online profile, they are now a person-with-a-profile. The landscape painting, Leithart continues, is an “event of being” because it is “an enhancement of the thing itself.” Likewise the online profile, although perhaps enhancement is not necessarily the best word to use here. Moreover Leithart concludes, “every encounter with the real landscape involves a moment of interpretation that is a ‘performance’ of the thing, and after Constable (even for many who are not directly aware of Constable) the interpretive performance is inflected by Constable’s work …” Translated: every encounter with a person-with-a-profile invites acts of interpretation that are inflected by Facebook. Now back to Rear Window to illustrate.

In the film, the windows present a slice of a life. What Jeff sees is not something other than the lived experience of the people he watches, but the windows also do the work of constituting those slices of their lives as something in themselves for Jeff inviting his interpretation. Likewise, a profile presents itself as something in itself for the viewer, also inviting the viewer into a work of interpretation. And, remembering Gadamer, as a thing in itself the window-as-presentation gives off meaning that has retroactive ontological consequences.

For example, if Jeff were to later meet any of the people he had watched, his interactions with them would be contoured by his interpretations of their fenestrated (‘window-mediated’ - when would I ever have another chance of using that word?) presentations. It would have made a very different movie, but one can imagine an alternative version of the film in which all of Jeff’s interpretations are overturned by subsequent experiences with the characters.

Likewise, on Facebook users take in a presentation and are compelled to interpret what they see. For users that rarely if ever see one another offline, the interpretation of the profile may stand on its own. When Facebook users do encounter each other offline, their mutual interpretations of one another are augmented with whatever interpretations their profiles have already invited. The offline and the online coalesce.

Discussions of social media tend to emphasize their performative quality. Facebook appears from this perspective as a stage from which users construct and perform their identities. Certainly, this is part of the story. In this sense, to return once more to Rear Window, Facebook users all know someone’s watching them through their window and behave accordingly. In this respect, the user may feel a significant degree of control over the meaning of their profiles.

But presentations always produce more meaning than what users intend. This is another way of saying that Facebook users are not entirely in control, despite their best efforts, of the manner in which their profile presentations are interpreted. Because they are always only partial re-presentations (insofar as they are alluding back to lived experience), profiles hide while they reveal and thus invite or even demand acts of creative interpretation. These interpretative surpluses, for better or worse, are those that are then brought to bear on face-to-face encounters.

Here’s where Manovich becomes helpful again. The interpretative surpluses generated by online profiles can be understood in light of the narrative/database tension identified by Manovich. Manovich’s understanding of databases can be summed up in three points:

1. The database is “a structured collection of data.”
2. Databases “appear as collections of items on which the user can perform various operations – view, navigate, search.”
3. And, “the user’s experience of such computerized collections is quite distinct from reading a narrative or watching a film or navigating an architectural site.”

“As a cultural form,” Manovich adds, “the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuse to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events).” Whereas a traditional narrative (text or film) materializes one path through an infinite multitude of imaginable possibilities, a database materializes the possibilities and renders any one particular path an imagined possibility.

Manovich concludes that “a database can support a narrative, but there is nothing in the logic of the medium itself that would foster its generation.” In fact, he expresses surprise that in the realm of digital media, narratives exist at all.

A Facebook profile is just such a database. It is a structured collection of multi-media data. Images, links, text, and videos are brought together and users can navigate their way through a person’s profile in any of the countless paths enabled by the interface. The Facebook profile, then, does not generate any one narrative to convey its meaning, but it presents a myriad of possible narratives a viewer could construct out of what they see, which is arguably the case even with the new ‘Timeline’ option, which still clusters things without the causal trajectory that Manovich considers essential for narrative. It is the viewers who will themsleves inevitably construct narratives to generate meaning out of what they see, just like Jeff from his window.

In response to Manovich, Katherine Hayles articulates a more symbiotic relationship between narratives and databases: “No longer singular, narratives remain the necessary others to database's ontology, the perspectives that invest the formal logic of database operations with human meanings and that gesture toward the unknown hovering beyond the brink of what can be classified and enumerated.” Manovich should not have been surprised at all that narratives persist since, as Hayles puts it, “the primary purpose of narrative is to search for meaning, making narrative an essential technology for human beings, who can arguably be defined as meaning-­seeking animals.”

Jeff constructs a narrative out of the slices of a life he witnesses through his rear window. For the most part, his narratives are more or less faithful interpretations of the scenes he views. But it could have been otherwise. He could have been wildly mistaken in his interpretations. His friends, for instance, offered entirely plausible counter-interpretations.

Facebook users construct narratives out of the slices of life they find presented to them in the profiles they view. Users may work very hard at conveying a particular meaning for those who would view their profiles, but the database structure of Facebook will render those efforts only partially successful at best. Users will generate their own narratives that will arise out of their own particular interaction with the profile interface. And these narratives will fold back into the lived experience of encounters between the individuals watching and being watched on Facebook.

One wonders in closing whether the ‘Rear Window’ of Facebook, with its elaborate hermeneutics of self-display, actually draws the curtains on users’ awareness of the manifold ways in which data-mining effectively watches us back, so that we as viewers become ever more attentively viewed, the more we view others. These uncanny, anonymous encounters enabled by social media should attract, we can hope, exposure as acute as Hitchcock’s.