Law in the Internet Society

The day our internet best friend betrayed us

-- By JulieLi - 20 Oct 2020


Fear, suspicion and aversion to pain are the evolutionary senses that have driven our survival as a species. In today’s world, where technological advances including the internet have fundamentally changed the way we live, these senses are no longer adequate to ensure the survival of the human race as we know it. Changes in our minds are occurring without our knowledge or detection because things that should inspire fear are now pleasurable, and things that do violence to our bodies are now painless. This essay seeks to reveal but one such instance of this painless violence in the form of the internet best friend and hopefully, offer a moment of clarity.

The rise of the internet best friend

The internet best friend, like the internet, began innocently. With the launch of YouTube? in late 2005 under the banner ‘Broadcast Yourself’, a ground-up, egalitarian community was formed where tech-savvy youngsters could make videos about almost anything. This inclusive, fertile, womblike interface lent itself to much experimentation by users and became birthplace of the video blog or ‘vlog’ as we now know it, which effectively transformed the wildly popular early 2000’s blog into video form. These videos, usually of a longer nature, documented the everyday life of the vlogger and could contain anything from exciting adventures to what they were eating for breakfast.

The vlog was thus born a splice of public and private. On one hand it was a raw, confessional, intimate and incredibly detailed record of everyday life through the sheer detail that could be captured with a single swoop of the camera. And yet it was also performative and entertaining, designed to capture attention. In the abstract, the prospect of watching someone go about their everyday business could not seem more boring - and yet, the vlog form flourished. From a human need perspective, the vlog satisfied viewers’ voyeuristic desires as well as viewers’ innate yearning for human connection. For perhaps the first time, ordinary users of the internet could peer into a stranger’s life and observe not only their trials and tribulations, but also the intimate details of their homes. Indeed, to follow a vlogger was to go through a process of metamorphosis whereby the viewer transforms from momentary voyeur to consistent voyeur to developing a one way, but very real, human connection with the vlogger as they experience the minutia of everyday life, growing up, falling in love, breaking up, getting married and so on ‘together’. In teenage girl parlance, this relationship could only be described as that of a best friend and thus the internet best friend (IBF) was born.

The apple, or the loss of innocence

The loss of innocence occurs when the vlogger becomes a tool for the amplification and normalisation of the panopticon through which the State subjugates its citizens. The act of surveillance on the vlogger is obvious. The vlogger’s work is the work of being watched. Although the vlogger believes that they are not subject to constant, comprehensive surveillance because they choose what content they publish, surveillance becomes total through the vlogger’s continuous need to produce new content that reveals more and more about their existence.

The act of surveillance on the viewer manifests in two different ways. The first is through advertising, a product of the viewer watching while being watched. Indeed, the IBF is now considered to be one of the most versatile and effective advertisements ever made. Having taken on the role of the trusted ‘best friend’, the IBF is able to leverage this relationship of loyalty and trust to be an ultimate source of word-of-mouth advice. Each second of the IBF’s video is either an advertisement for a product that can be found and bought or of the IBF’s general lifestyle which seems within reach if you just purchase X items. Data on an IBF’s viewer engagement is powerful in that it tracks viewers’ purchases through discount codes and has the potential to predict what is happening or will happen in viewers’ lives through analysing the IBFs that the viewer engages with. This phenomenon feeds into the damaging effects of surveillance capitalism and instrumentarian power (Shoshanna Zuboff). The second act of surveillance occurs when viewers normalise the existence of surveillance itself. The process begins with the viewer observing the IBF sharing intimate details of their life, which bears a key behavioural message: that it is now permissible and normal for people at large to know the everyday details of our lives. This act of normalisation then amplifies surveillance, as the viewers emulate this behaviour and become the producers, so too engaging in the production of overly revealing, everyday content. As Foucault wrote, “the panopticon… has a role of amplification… its aim is to strengthen the social forces – to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multiply.” All at once there is more production of content, more surveillance of that content, amplification of surveillance on existing content, and thus multiplying surveillance throughout society. The final stage is when the sheer prevalence of surveillance leads to the viewer’s adoption of the notion that surveillance is merely a side effect of modern life and needs not be challenged or removed.

The tumor

The IBF is thus a collection of paradoxes. It is an advertisement, but not; a reality, but also a fantasy; a voyeuristic experience, but also an exercise in surveillance. Viewers are so distracted by what the IBF purports to be and the sheer pleasure of consumption that the silent changes within us go undetected. By the time we realise, the tumor has already formed. Our apathy towards surveillance will be so deeply engrained in our tissues that it will be impossible to remove. All that remains is for mankind to be subjugated by the state, divided into little cells flooded with light.

But "the viewer" and "the vlogger" are not the whole of humanity, or even the only personality states of the persons who are sometimes the "viewer" and the "vlogger." This means first that the question of friendship should be more thoroughly considered: friendship is a relationship in which multiple personality states take part, without the state-filtration function of the intemediate technology. The fact that most people are never either vlogger or viewer, just as most people could not, as US teenagers did for a whole generation, spend hours a day on the phone with their "best friends." The need to immerse in the fact of relating in this way—accompanied by the partially-permeable barrier of the written letter, the phone, or needles and straps accompanying YouTube—is a "developmental stage," as well as being a form of social interaction mediated by available technology. Whether it is a developmental stage in the life of humankind as well as of individual human beings is certainly an open question, but the draft will be stronger if it isolates that question more completely from the background, if it is really being pursued here at all.

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r2 - 15 Nov 2020 - 19:29:52 - EbenMoglen
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