The COVID Panopticon

Ian Francis, Contributing Writer

Amidst recent subjugation to self-imposed quarantine, I’ve found myself inadvertently rotating through various social media platforms in order to occupy those pockets of the day where attention for schoolwork has been lost. This vacation of conventional social interaction has extrapolated my relation with such apps, to the extent that through habitual usage I’ve come to recognize patterns in the content that awaits me there. For example, launching Facebook will unfailingly return the latest banter from residents of my hometown, whereas Twitter keeps updated on recent political happenings and movements. I soon grew accustomed with this practice, gaining security in knowing these virtual personalities were attending to my phone while I was away. As soon as I closed one app, I could simply open another to be greeted by a refreshed array of online characters. This safety was shocked on March 25th however, when the slew of selfies that typically frequents my Instagram feed was replaced by a bombardment of posts all with the caption “until tomorrow”.

What was this? The invasion was sudden and intrusive. I couldn’t place its motive. These pictures held no binding qualities that could be identified throughout. Arranged for me was an odd assortment of photos of friends from years ago abutting recent captures of college life. All of which seemed thematically disjointed, none of which were particularly captivating.

I’d come to learn these were attempts to venture the forbidden; part a social media campaign to temporarily exhibit an unflattering picture of the individual. The post would be kept up ‘until tomorrow’, where it would then be deleted and never shown again. From my perspective, the entertaining aspect wasn’t in seeing the ‘embarrassing’ images my friends chose to confess, but rather objecting these photos on the grounds that they thought they were revealing. Having known these people on a personal level, I’ve been privy to witness their actual unattractive behavior, and I saw these posts as only a tease of the humility they were capable of displaying. Coming short of providing any sort of humorous nostalgia, participants of “until tomorrow” perpetuated an oblivious farce of what they intended to deliver.

But why was the trend so uniformly vapid?

Seldom is the online persona posed with any true agency, but instead a characterization of what is understood to be abiding, acceptable conduct. It has long been proposed that social media serves as the stage in the digital theater, that these profiles we create are merely performances seeking to render us likable and popular. Bentham’s Panopticon is a fitting analogy to carry this point, wherein your followers are the prison guards and, in the off chance any of them look in the direction of your profile, you must maintain posture that you are acting accordingly. ‘Correct’ behavior is superficially individual, but the subdued motivation is always primed to manifest the best version of oneself. Whether anyone is actually looking is beside the point, the individual has become conditioned to preserve the appearance regardless. What the “until tomorrow” trend uncovers is a collective reluctance to diverge from this rule, as posting truly embarrassing photos would dissolve the instilled mythology surrounding the user.

As the looming threat of COVID-19 edges further and further into our daily lives, we can expect to see an increased tolerance for similar internet fads; as stated before, I myself have already grown greater appreciation for the use of such outlets. The social playground runs a zero sum game, and if personable relations are halted, the online sphere must compensate accordingly. This environment is not practical in the long term, however.

Makeshift attempts for approval can be observed already with our culture’s elites; celebrities appealing to populist sensibilities by collectively singing “Imagine” comes off more as a back-handed gesture than genuine empathy. But who could blame them? Their being’s so reliant on an idolization from the public that any effort to level with them is prematurely thwarted. However addictive, the virtual identity is not an adequate substitution for the real, and the confined spaces we find ourselves are not sustainable environments to nurture the established ‘status grab’ approach to social media. A period of diminished delusion must pass, and one can only hope that the aftermath of coronavirus will instill a widespread realization that these profiles are merely facades. Minimizing the online status dynamics to a point of effective irrelevance.