On Not Being Seen

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Suvodeb Banerjee

Lonely Bush, Dover by Suvodeb Banerjee

What is the opposite of celebrity? Will it be possible to remain unknown in the future web? Think back to the dawn of the blogging era, to LiveJournal and even Geocities: spaces that were public but untrafficked, like a quiet residential cul-de-sac. The kind of place you would safely let your 12-year-old wander around, relying on the (perhaps illusory, but still palpable) sense of security through obscurity.

Today, those structures no longer exist. The infrastructure of the web itself is changing, with platforms replacing sites and automated linking systems tracking our profiles and activities across hundreds of different URLs. Site addresses have evolved from human-readable strings that reflected their own hierarchies (e.g. a New York Times article organized by domain, date, section of the newspaper, and article title) to unique machine-friendly codes (e.g. the addresses of articles on Medium). As Anne Helmond argues in a Computational Culture article, the proliferation of URL shorteners and link APIs have transformed the hyperlink into a meta-structure for the web, turning the “blind” pointer of the web address into an interactive monitoring device for tracking attention.

These systems transform the architecture of reading online, networking the simple act of sharing or even following a link. But what about writing? The expansion of universal logins (again predominantly through Facebook and Twitter) connects our public personae together, hooking one-distinct online spaces into a persistent tapestry of public presence (often hijacking our credentials to promote a product or inform our friends about our most recent “achievement”). It is now not only possible but surprisingly easy to have almost every online activity sourced to a single identity, from reading on Goodreads to exercise on RunKeeper to civic engagement through WhiteHouse.gov.

It is still possible to write anonymously online through pseudonyms and privacy-oriented platforms like PiratePad. But this is not the same thing as riding your bike around a quiet cul-de-sac. This is donning your mask and actively obscuring your real identity. This kind of conscious obfuscation takes on its own stakes and political positions, like the Guy Fawkes masks that bled out from V for Vendetta (2005) into Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous. This is the contemporary equivalent of Thomas Pynchon fleeing a news photographer in the 1950s and pleading with CNN not to out his image on air.

But that is quite different from being unknown. The efficiency of search engines and the social web make that kind of informal, quiet anonymity much more difficult to maintain. When it does occur, it happens in the walled gardens of platforms like Facebook, where data is relatively protected from the search spiders. But that same data is eagerly offered up to advertisers, and that is probably the worst kind of celebrity, the kind of indelible tracking that is both invisible to us as individuals and highly visible to data aggregators.

So outside of those gardens (which are maybe more like pastures, where we are the cows), the romance of the unknown is almost entirely illusory. Everything we write is tracked by someone, or multiple entities, and linked indelibly and rapidly back to us through the simple trace of a Google search or a targeted email. We are all the stars of our own little social media galaxies, and our works are burnished brightly as our automated updates can make them. Simply using the Internet over a period of years is enough to accrue hundreds of followers and detailed digital histories.

This presents a quandary about authenticity. Is it possible to “discover” a new voice, a new artist anymore? Is there an MFA student or young creative artist left who does not already have multiple broadcast channels installed on social media? The answer seems inevitable because the pressure of discovery continues to grow with every micro-celebrity who joins the blogosphere: presumably artists now need to have a following before they even begin their real careers, simply to stand out from the background noise. The creative universe suffers from a kind of light pollution, the background glow of a billion algorithmic publicists pumping out every networked dog, cat and human’s personal narrative. I suppose this makes all of those neighborhoods a little more brightly lit for the kids to play in, but it also makes them all look the same.

2 thoughts on “On Not Being Seen

  1. I like the comparison of celebrity culture to light pollution. Our social universes are, indeed, now saturated with the light cast by millions of individual publicity engines, increasingly linked together, quantified, tracked. I wonder what this means for reading and writing. We’re not really sure why Pynchon tried to escape the publicity-media machine. Perhaps he was shy. Perhaps he hated the mainstream media . . . But one interpretation that people seem to like is that Pynchon thought that his work should speak for itself. The idea is that knowing about the author’s biography and consuming the author’s image might corrupt our reading of the text itself. So I wonder what you think of this (almost New Critical) view, Ed. Does the fact of celebrity — of being seen and not seen — have an impact in the writer’s capacity to write? Does it change the reader’s capacity to read? Does the light pollution of celebrity culture — and mass publicity — make reading harder, easier, or just different?

  2. I think the fact of celebrity does make it harder to write, or at least offers a new kind of constraint. Why else would so many writers adopt pseudonyms after already establishing successful careers? I think this kind of “light pollution” also changes the ground rules of reading. Consider the James Frey debacle–it turns out we were all reading his book in the wrong sort of light! I tend to agree with the hypothesis that Pynchon simply wanted his books to stand on their own…but that kind of celebrity/reputation/notoriety is still a public position. Pynchon’s absence becomes his persona, and we still read the books imagining this reclusive author behind them.

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