The Way We Watch Each Other Now
Lately, whenever I have to wait out one of life’s everyday interstitial moments, say, on the subway, I try to keep myself from looking at my phone by looking at what other people are looking at on their phones instead. Mostly, it’s pleasingly banal—text messages, memes, Zillow listings, the not-occasional selfie getting pinched and zoomed as part of some inner moment of self-interrogation. I’m aware that I’m intruding. These days, the phone is equal parts tether and mirror, and observing another person prodding at their little screen is like catching them in a private act. So cringe, one thinks before her own pocket machine summons her with a ping, and so downward she swan-dives too.
Throughout my snooping, I end up watching a lot of people watching videos, particularly of the user-generated variety that I’d describe as situational smartphone footage—you know, the videos that individual people are always shooting of themselves and their surroundings, depicting often unwitting third-party subjects who are doing something impressive or silly or weird enough to incite a witness into whipping the ol’ iPhone out. Some recent videos of this voyeuristic genre I’ve personally enjoyed include: a TikTok of three young men at Coachella, a resurfaced clip of 2017 icon Knife Kid, the @subwaycreatures account in general. The fact that the subjects of these videos have no real concept of who might be viewing their likeness flit across these screens over and over (even years later) is funny, but also objectively creepy. These videos scratch at the edges of the low-lying dread I’ve started confronting about the reality of our increasingly self-surveilled society in that they’re a reminder that someone somewhere is always paying attention.
More than 30 years after the premiere of America’s Funniest Home Videos and nearly 20 after the launch of YouTube, the user-generated video reigns as the primary genre of the medium by virtue of its sheer quantity. The video format, which is our species’ most high-fidelity avenue for recreating reality so far, has gone from prohibitively labor-intensive medium to entirely commonplace digital artifact, thanks to smartphones and the modern internet; the average person now holds the production and distribution power of a basic film studio. Our principal subjects: each other.
Now, not only do these observational videos make up a huge part of how we experience and understand the majority of the population whom we’ll never actually meet, but it has also carved out a mode of consumption of one another. The nature of the phone-as-tether to the social web means that mere physical proximity to any fellow human might offer a content opportunity; the potential energy of any public moment seems ripe for converting into a kinetic currency of virality and material consequence, or at least a little bit of social capital. There is something truly fantastical about this reality where we’re all just walking around in search of the next subject-spectacle to capture and tame within our glassy little contraptions, like this is all just IRL Pokémon or a never-ending documentarian competition.
The observational videos I mentioned earlier are relatively fun and innocuous examples (even though by now we know that even the most wholesome kind of viral fame can have unintended consequences). It’s one thing to ponder the erosion of any reasonable expectation of privacy to be ourselves in this now general state of digitized public-ness; it’s another to examine how the ability to film one another has constructed a near-total social surveillance apparatus where we’re all potential witnesses, harboring incriminating evidence by the megapixel.
Consider the recent viral video where a TikTok influencer filmed herself while apparently attending a baseball game in Houston. A few rows behind her, two young women notice and mock the influencer’s efforts. The resulting video, posted to TikTok (where it garnered nearly 60 million views), then shared across the web, rallied the court of public opinion—that is, strangers on the internet—who swiftly condemned the two women for being “mean girls,” a crime apparently punishable by shaming and even doxxing. It’s unclear whether the women assumed they simply wouldn’t appear in the frame, or that the TikTokker wouldn’t upload the results for identifiable retribution; either way, they made a grave miscalculation.
This reality is both horrifying and thrilling: Calling it a panopticon isn’t quite right, because there is no true central authority in this context monitoring us from the middle point. You might call it a kind of self-police-state, which can make its coexistence in an actually policed society a genuine point of tension. I’m referring, of course, to the footage of the Jordan Neely killing allegedly at the hands of Daniel Penny on an uptown F train in Manhattan earlier this month, as it exists within the entire horrific and familiar genre of user-generated documentation of the lynching of Black lives (which often entails long-lasting consequences for such witnesses). Without these videos and their ability to circulate publicly, there’s no question that any form of justice, especially in matters of police brutality, would be even harder-won.
Still, the existence of the video itself (in Neely’s case, shot by a freelance journalist on his phone) forces each of us to confront our working model of documentary bystandership—one that has remained historically fraught within the journalistic profession that your average phone-wielder now must confront. In the face of danger and injustice—both perceived and actual—the role of the observer is typically reduced to a binary: do nothing, or do something. (It’s notable that at least one passenger chose to intervene by addressing the perceived threat to Penny: “You don’t have to catch a murder charge,” the man said. “You got a hell of a chokehold, man.”)
Between the two responses, where do we believe the act of filming should count? When ordinary people have the power to turn total strangers into overnight heroes or villains, what do we really think we owe one another in these moments we catch each other unaware? The unceasing camera has loaded the social contract with a burden of new considerations to be plotted out along a spectrum of helpful vs. harmful, as well private vs. public, the IRL kind vs. public, the forever online kind.
Rarely does a day go by when I don’t think about what a saving grace it is that Google Glass and its ilk haven’t quite worked out—yet. Though it seems like some technology along its early plotted line will eventually become the norm. Then we’ll all be able to record-upload-disseminate anything we see as covertly as a blink; the little metal rectangles we once had to pull out and position will be remembered quaintly. But for now, the possibility of surveillance remains mostly obvious. At least we can still see who’s watching.