This summer I bought two in-home security cameras. I told people I got them because my cat was sick, and I required on-demand proof he was still alive. But the truth is, I just wanted to spy on him. There’s something about a cat sitting by itself on a couch, staring into the middle distance in an empty room, that is inherently funny. What are they thinking? When they slink off camera, where are they going?
The problem with getting a camera for your pets is that you also inadvertently get a camera for yourself. Years ago, when my ex and I got one for our cat, he once caught me eating Pringles on the couch and sent me a text: “Once you pop.” The camera, in those moments, was a comical imposition, fulfilling its duty of surveillance in precisely the ways we didn’t want.
Eventually, though, my ex and I gave into our role as subjects. If we wanted to remember when we’d gotten home the night before, we’d check the camera and watch ourselves stumble in. One time I came upon footage of us getting in a fight. We sat stiffly on opposite ends of the couch. I remember thinking I looked different in the video than I imagined I did when it was happening. Did that matter? I lost the camera in the breakup, but kept the cat.
Today, my cameras aren’t set up to observe my boyfriend and I that way. One is pointed at Bug’s food bowl and another at our bedroom door, but they do catch us from time to time. In the beginning, I would go into the app and poke through random moments the cameras had captured. It was funny to see Bug going about his life; funnier, for some reason, because he thought he was alone. And whenever I’d catch myself on the edge of the frame – running to the bedroom for a pair of socks, opening the blinds – the way I moved was unfamiliar to me. It felt almost like looking at a stranger. I’d watch studiously, as if by inhabiting an outsider’s perspective, I might unearth some grain of truth about myself.
Technology and social media are full of such promises – not just that we might gain a 360-degree understanding of our pets, but of ourselves. We document accordingly, obsessively. And implicit in this compulsion is the suspicion that our lives are best understood at a distance, the way someone else might experience us, rather than the way we experience ourselves. This renders our online existence into a kind of diorama – we are not just people-watchers, but people-watched.
There is the trope, for instance, of reviewing your own Instagram story after you post it “to see how you come off”, or taking a video of yourself wearing an outfit to “see how it looks”. The comedian John Early has a joke about how he knows he’s truly bored when he starts looking at his social media accounts “through the eyes” of various people in his life. In 2017, I wrote that I don’t know what I look like, but I think I meant that I don’t know what I look like to other people. Such a paranoia presumes that what other people think about me is both consistent and matters a lot.
To witness and be witnessed, to be a “thinking, feeling, wakeful atom of life amid the constellation of other atoms”, as the writer Maria Popova once put it, is crucial to our sense of identity. It implies a level of interdependence: you do not exist in a vacuum, but in relation to other people. But our attempts to digitize that experience – of community, of humanity – don’t quite capture what it feels like to be alive or belong. Instead, we get spectacle; life as performance of life, in which we seek a sense of self through being cast in the right role.
There is a growing genre of TikTok that crystallizes this preoccupation. In one video, a beautiful girl sits on a couch as the white overlaid text reads: “New trend – this is supposed to show you how you flirt.” A Khalid song is playing. She looks off-camera as if someone were there and mouths the lyrics suggestively: “You say we’re just friends but I swear when nobody’s around …” The corners of her mouth turn up, her cheeks blush. The expression is sweet and self-conscious, like she’s holding back – not from us, the spectators, but from the imagined person to whom she’s confessing feelings. She holds the expression just long enough to observe it in the self-facing camera when she turns back towards us, and then she breaks character and grins, pleased to learn that she’s beautiful when she flirts.
There are countless similar trends on the app. One of the first I saw circulating last year was supposed to reveal what you looked like when someone called your name: people would pretend to look down or away and then, at a particular part of a song, look up suddenly. Another recent iteration uses the FreezeFrame filter to capture a “real” laugh. The laugh is performed on command – and thus fake – but the idea is that participants will be touched by how happy and pure they look, and briefly cured of their self-consciousness. Seemingly, it works every time.
The primary function of these trends is to help people document aspects of themselves that are impossible to capture with your average selfie. And similarly, they are full of tricks: when the imagined stranger calls your name, the music crescendos romantically; when the video freezes on your laugh, it immediately desaturates the candid photo, making you look old-timey or famous or dead. The unspoken goal is to love yourself the way you love the main character in a movie. That is, from a distance, in two dimensions. Under this purview the self becomes an object, like a celebrity posing on the red carpet, or a minimalist frying pan. The “reality” these TikTok users are attempting to capture is a Hollywood facsimile of it – hyperreality, as Jean Baudrillard might have called it.
There’s something distinctly postmodern about the fact that our compulsion to consume makes us want to consume ourselves. That as commodities, we feel more real. As a 32-year-old who wouldn’t dare post on TikTok, my version of this preoccupation looks different, but it’s there. And it’s a burdensome existence, seeing yourself that way – like living inside a science experiment, only you’re both subject and researcher, never truly free of observation. Maybe this is the logical end of mass media: a public so immersed in a consumable, aesthetic and narrative version of reality that it becomes hard for us to imagine our lives as meaningful outside that paradigm.
There was a time during lockdown last year when I was both exhausted by my boyfriend’s passive observation and starved for the passive observation of the public. Both represent a core tension of identity – to experience yourself both as complete on your own and as a counterpart to something bigger.
Technology and social media exploit this need. Many of us use it to document ourselves and our lives not out of self-love, but out of a genuine desire for self-understanding. It’s a flawed strategy, emphasizing the self as an object of interest instead of an endlessly subjective, ever-evolving, interdependent atom in a constellation of others. And maybe we find ourselves unsatisfied with these tools – scrolling and scrolling, looking and relooking – because they’re incapable of actually capturing that.
They say the unobserved life isn’t worth living, but what of the over-observed one?
This is an edited excerpt of a piece that originally appeared in Maybe Baby, a newsletter about hard-to-describe feelings. Looking for more great work? Here are some suggestions: