Social Media and the Digital Gaze

Have you ever considered how far the gaze of others seeps into our daily lives? Simply put, the theory of gaze is how an individual or a group perceives other individuals, other groups or oneself. It stems from an intentional act of looking. Theorist Jacques Lacan explored the gaze, detailing how its effects can be triggered, not only by people, but also inanimate objects. Other theorists such as bell hooks, Laura Mulvey and Michel Foucault offer range into the subject by focusing on different aspects associated with the gaze. Aspects such as power dynamics, the male gaze and race.

The concept of the gaze is generally applied to the world of film and philosophy. However, we can also use it to analyse the effect of social media on humans. The ways we use social media vary, as well as our reasons. Whether for work, leisure, staying connected to friends and family or for news, we cannot deny the influence social media has on our day to day lives. Digital gaze is another type of gaze we see that presents itself in everyday life. The show and tell aspect of social media invites this concept of a digital gaze where one can look curiously and judge, all while remaining silent and hidden.

What is interesting is the silent transactional nature of this. With the way social media is programmed, as social media users, we experience both aspects. We gaze and we are gazed upon. We consume content and in return put out content to be consumed. We know what it means to judge others and ourselves by the content we provide. Whether it be via tweets posted by a mutual or a compilation of Instagram pictures. We look, consume and judge. This applies to simple things, like one’s taste in music. It also applies to more nuanced things such as political views. Social media is a clear platform for the gaze. But to what extent does this gaze matter?

Theorist Laura Mulvey critiqued the gender disparity and how the gaze of cinema systematically determines who in particular is seen, resulting in male dominance. The gaze is undoubtedly a medium for spreading dominance and it is interesting to contemplate how that translates itself to social media. We can see how power dynamics are manifested through social media. Those who hold direct and indirect power over people, for example celebrity to fanbase relationship, often exercise their power with this virtual gaze.

Recently, we’ve seen cases of people, particularly influencers, losing fan bases and job opportunities because of controversial or bigoted views shared on social media. For example, the impact of Jeffree Star’s 12-year-old tweets containing offensive remarks and racist slurs still stands. Despite an apology video, many former fans and others within the beauty community encouraged the boycott of his newly released palette with Shane Dawson, another controversial figure.

In other cases, there is a profound ownership and agency that comes from this gaze. Though a gaze persists, social media users get to assert our power and reclaim our agency. We are able to authorize and direct what people can gaze on by minimizing engagement with this gaze. We see examples of this in the rise of ‘finstas’ and private Twitter accounts, where people manage who can see what and can tailor what they post accordingly to suit their audience. People often use this as a means of self-expression free from any unwanted gaze.

We can also take advantage of this digital gaze. Social media users can both literally and figuratively save lives by utilizing this gaze for important issues. With the rise of people engaging with social media and political issues, the collaboration of both often breeds maximum engagement as we see how posts about human rights issues tend to go viral disproportionately. People become more aware of issues through social media. This privilege is not only reserved for those who have larger followings but with collective engagement, in terms of people sharing posts forward and the domino effect that has.

In relation to power dynamics it shows the power of looking and the power of humanity and how this digital gaze is based on that power. The power of looking and being looked at might be undermined but with social media, it is heightened.