The Orris: A Cultural Journal

Private Lives, Public Personas

      Earlier this summer, my favorite Austin movie theater received a veritable media downpour over a very contemporary problem. The Alamo Drafthouse is a Central Texas chain of theaters that prides itself upon three unique features: food and alcohol service during shows, a unique offering of interactive events, and an extremely strict “no talking / no texting” policy. When a woman was ejected from a Drafthouse theater earlier in the year for texting during a film, she drunkenly called the company and left a slurring voicemail expressing her indignation. So, of course the Drafthouse turned it into a YouTube video that went viral immediately.

(Warning: Obscene language, NSFW).

        There’s been a general applause for the Drafthouse by all who hear this story, as the public lauds an instance of vigilante justice—the film nerds take back the viewing experience from a rude modern customer. It has the ring of a Wild West story, where the cowboy gallops into town on a white horse, scares away the ruffians, and restores the community back to the simple-but-moral townsfolk. Yet at some point it becomes necessary to stop and wonder, why exactly has this story been interpreted as an act of heroism instead of the case of a business with arbitrary rules that control customers? I believe the Drafthouse story carries a positive tone because, as a society, America has realized we have a problem on our hands: we can’t stop using social media. The woman in the Drafthouse video was asked repeatedly to stop using her phone, and warned that further violation of their policy would result in her removal from the theater without a refund. She knew the consequences, yet she continued to text. She couldn’t stop texting, not even to stay in a theater that brings cocktails, pizza, and warm cookies directly to your seat. The Drunk Texter is symptomatic of our growing inability as technology-users to put away the smart phones and the computers and just keep some things private, even for a few hours. It seems that it’s no longer enough to simply live our lives, now we have to publicly document it—or else, what’s the point?

        So how did we get here, where we can’t stop staring at one screen long enough to engage with another? One possible explanation for this obsessive behavior is that we’re socially conditioned for it as a form of digital conspicuous consumption. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, conspicuous consumption originates out of Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 work, The Theory of the Leisure Class. In his sociological study, Veblen noticed that it wasn’t enough for wealthy elites to simply be wealthy elites; they had to continuously demonstrate their extreme wealth in obvious ways directed both towards the rest of the leisure class and to the lower classes. In this way, the individual is able to constantly reinforce his or her position in the social hierarchy or, possibly, climb higher. (We still engage in this behavior today when we buy items with prominently-displayed brand labels that demonstrate our capacity to purchase expensive or fashionable goods.) Veblen realized that conspicuous consumption depended not only upon generating an audience, but feeding that audience a constant stream of information about our ongoing activities and status—even information that used to be private:

For some part of the time his life is perforce withdrawn from the public eye, and of this portion which is spent in private the gentleman of leisure should, for the sake of his good name, be able to give a convincing account. He should find some means of putting in evidence the leisure that is not spent in the sight of the spectators. [1]

        Thus, the lines between privacy and publicity became destabilized, and the more we can offer a “convincing account” or our private lives, the greater prestige we can gain from our audiences. Veblen linked this awareness to purchasing power, but it seems that a more efficient and effective modern solution to this problem is the use of social media. We create a digital version of ourselves that can continuously display how cool we are, even when we’re preoccupied with more mundane activities. In this way, we generate social buzz for ourselves in a controlled way for a large audience, thus increasing the amount of social reward versus time spent in society. More importantly, because we design every element of these digital identities, we can custom-tailor them to display elements of ourselves we most want to publicize or with which we desire to cultivate an association. Thus, the newest form of conspicuous consumption is not the purchasing of expensive goods or services, but rather the creation of the ideal alter-ego to display within the digital public sphere.

        Additionally, once social media usage is understood within this context, it allows us to understand the peculiarities of the practice in an entirely new light. In his initial commentary over leisure class behavior, Veblen made this interesting observation:

At a later phase of the development it is customary to assume some badge or insignia of honor that will serve as a conventionally accepted mark of exploit, and which at the same time indicates the quantity or degree of exploit of which it is the symbol. As the population increases in density, and as human relations grow more complex and numerous, all the details of life undergo a process of elaboration and selection; and in this process of elaboration the use of trophies develops into a system of rank, titles, degrees and insignia, typical examples of which are heraldic devices, medals, and honorary decorations. [1]

        While Veblen was highlighting the usage of high society titles and pedigrees among the wealthy, there are some eerie similarities apparent in the design of social media applications and websites. For example, the user-generated ratings website Yelp has a subtle hierarchy among users, some of whom are given the title of “Elite” to designate a higher degree of trustworthiness and involvement. Meanwhile, the smartphone application Foursquare offers “badges” for certain checking-in behavioral patterns, both to reward users for their diligence and also to demonstrate the extensiveness of their travels to other users. Whether the designers intended to do so or not, social media plays upon our existing sociological tendencies embedded in our psyches to appeal to generate substantial numbers of users. I suppose if you wanted to make the next big hit in the social media universe, the first thing you should do is read The Theory of the Leisure Class cover to cover in search of elements that can be integrated into a smartphone application.

        Despite the general enthusiasm for social networking (particularly among younger users), it’s becoming clear that once we’re able to share so much information with such large audiences we begin to run into some new problems. Certain information may be appropriate for one group of people but not another, and what seemed worth sharing to the world at one time could, with a little retrospection, become a serious mistake. The constant negotiation of appropriate and inappropriate information publication is an extremely taxing state of existence, and accidents are bound to happen. In looking toward the long-term ramifications of this behavior, it seems that the more we utilize social media, the more the unspoken boundaries between our public and private lives is becoming increasingly blurry, and sometimes out of control.

        Take the case of 26 year-old Caroline Wimmer. In 2009, Wimmer was found murdered in her Staten Island apartment by her parents, who called authorities to the scene. The first to arrive was paramedic Mark Musarella who, for unexplained reasons, took a photo of Wimmer’s corpse with his cell phone. Musarella later (accidentally, he claims) uploaded the photo to his Facebook account, where it was visible to all of his Facebook connections. Although he quickly deleted both the photo and the account, Wimmer’s parents sued both Musarella and Facebook over the publication of the photo. The family requested no financial compensation from Facebook, only the return of the photo from all servers as well as information regarding who was able to access the photo while it was “online.” In March of this year, Facebook informed the Wimmer family that while the company could not provide information about who accessed the photo or when, the photo had assuredly been deleted from all of their servers as soon as Musarella himself deleted the photo from his account back in 2009. While this provides a happy resolution, the story remains shrouded in suspicion regarding where exactly the photo was located for the past two years and whether or not a copy of the photo still exists somewhere in Facebook’s network of digital files.

        The Wimmers’s story highlights the ease with which social media allows us to publicize the most sacred or the most profane elements of human existence, despite controls both social and digital that we believe to be firmly set into place. It doesn’t even matter whether or not anyone believes that publishing a photo of a young woman’s corpse is acceptable behavior—it still possible to do so, intentionally or not. That possibility, combined with the confused state of simultaneous publicity and intimacy created by mixed audiences on social media networks, means that our sense of appropriate public information is evolving to encompass a much wider range of actions and opinions. The Wimmer case also points out the immense, long-term ramifications of these changes—after the cat’s out of the bag, it can’t be put back in. Once information has been translated into a digital form, it has a kind of permanent existence, whether in a screenshot, an archive, or a back-up server. The Wimmer family may never feel a sense of closure regarding control of their daughter’s image because it’s almost impossible to determine what happened to it once it became public. Did someone save a copy of the file? Show it to their friends, both real and digital? Or worse, upload the photo to another website? Caroline Wimmer’s name may not be attached to the file, but her image could circulate indefinitely along the seedier corners of the internet, impossible to recapture and impossible to censor. Social media users rarely consider the longevity of every piece of digital information we set adrift into the internet, but stories like Caroline Wimmer’s are a stark reminder of the serious implications of our activities.

        In the grander scheme of things, social networking is extremely new and hardly registers a blip in the continuum of human history, but its ability to tap into some deeply-rooted aspects of human nature suggests that it will continue to infiltrate our lives for many years to come. It’s easy to be taken in by the glamour of growing your followers, but we have to maintain an awareness of the severity of our actions and the permanence of this form of publication. More importantly, as these networks become vital to the growing population of “digital natives,” it will become increasingly difficult to maintain traditional conceptions of “public” and “private” behaviors and spaces. Veblen’s conspicuous consumption demonstrates how the wall between public and private began to crumble over a hundred years ago in service of our desire for public reverence, and as technology continues this destruction we should take stock of what little remains private in our lives and how we can keep it that way. There’s a momentum behind social media that encourages the conquest of the private world for the domain of the public, and as we lose more and more ground to social media we might find our private spaces, well, a little cramped. Maybe we should start focusing on the cost of each tweet and post, rather than the social gain garnered with each “like” or comment received, and slow down the tide of publication sweeping through our culture. Maybe we should take some advice from places like the Alamo Drafthouse  and put the smartphones back into our pockets so we can sit back and enjoy the moment. After all, the internet will always be waiting patiently for us whenever we’re ready to check in again. –-Kat Lang


[1] Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998. 20-22. Print.



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