This essay was first published by Little Atoms on 09 August 2018. The image on my homepage is a detail from an original illustration by Jacob Stead. You can see the full work here.
Until recently it seemed safe to assume that what most people wanted on social media was to appear attractive. Over the last decade, the major concerns about self-presentation online have been focused on narcissism and, for women especially, unrealistic standards of beauty. But just as it is becoming apparent that some behaviours previously interpreted as narcissistic – selfies, for instance – are simply new forms of communication, it is also no longer obvious that the rules of this game will remain those of the beauty contest. In fact, as people derive an ever-larger proportion of their social interaction here, the aesthetics of social media are moving distinctly towards the grotesque.
When I use the term grotesque, I do so in a technical sense. I am referring to a manner of representing things – the human form especially – which is not just bizarre or unsettling, but which creates a sense of indeterminacy. Familiar features are distorted, and conventional boundaries dissolved.
Instagram, notably, has become the site of countless bizarre makeup trends among its large demographic of young women and girls. These transformations range from the merely dramatic to the carnivalesque, including enormous lips, nose-hair extensions, eyebrows sculpted into every shape imaginable, and glitter coated onto everything from scalps to breasts. Likewise, the popularity of Snapchat has led to a proliferation of face-changing apps which revel in cartoonish distortions of appearance. Eyes are expanded into enormous saucers, faces are ghoulishly elongated or squashed, and animal features are tacked onto heads. These images, interestingly, are also making their way onto dating app profiles.
Of course for many people such tools are simply a way, as one reviewer puts it, “to make your face more fun.” There is something singularly playful in embracing such plasticity: see for instance the creative craze “#slime”, which features videos of people playing with colourful gooey substances, and has over eight million entries on Instagram. But if you follow the threads of garishness and indeterminacy through the image-oriented realms of the internet, deeper resonances emerge.
The pop culture embraced by Millennials and the so-called Generation C (born after 2000) reflects a fascination with brightly adorned, shape-shifting and sexually ambiguous personae. If performers like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga were forerunners of this tendency, they are now joined by more dark and refined way figures such as Sophie and Arca from the dance music scene. Meanwhile fashion, photography and video abound with kitsch, quasi-surreal imagery of the kind popularised by Dazed magazine. Celebrated subcultures such as Japan’s “genderless Kei,” who are characterised by bright hairstyles and makeup, are also part of this picture.
But the most striking examples of this turn towards the grotesque come from art forms emerging within digital culture itself. It is especially well illustrated by Porpentine, a game designer working with the platform Twine, whose disturbing interactive poems have achieved something of a cult status. They typically place readers in the perspective of psychologically and socially insecure characters, leading them through violent urban futurescapes reminiscent of William Burrough’s Naked Lunch. The New York Times aptly describes her games as “dystopian landscapes peopled by cyborgs, intersectional empresses and deadly angels,” teeming with “garbage, slime and sludge.”
These are all manifestations both of a particular sensibility which is emerging in parts of the internet, and more generally of a new way of projecting oneself into public space. To spend any significant time in the networks where such trends appear is to become aware of a certain model of identity being enacted, one that is mercurial, effervescent, and boldly expressive. And while the attitudes expressed vary from anxious subjectivity to humorous posturing – as well as, at times, both simultaneously – in most instances one senses that the online persona has become explicitly artificial, plastic, or even disposable.
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Why, though, would a paradigm of identity such as this invite expression as the grotesque? Interpreting these developments is not easy given that digital culture is so diffuse and rapidly evolving. One approach that seems natural enough is to view them as social phenomena, arising from the nature of online interaction. Yet to take this approach is immediately to encounter a paradox of sorts. If “the fluid self” represents “identity as a vast and ever-changing range of ideas that should all be celebrated” (according to trend forecaster Brenda Milis), then why does it seem to conform to generic forms at all? This is a contradiction, that in fact might prove enlightening.
One frame which has been widely applied to social media is sociologist Erving Goffman’s “dramaturgical model,” as outlined in his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life. According to Goffman, identity can be understood in terms of a basic dichotomy, which he explains in terms of “Front Stage” and “Back Stage.” Our “Front Stage” identity, when we are interacting with others, is highly responsive to context. It is preoccupied with managing impressions and assessing expectations so as to present what we consider a positive view of ourselves. In other words, we are malleable in the degree to which we are willing to tailor our self-presentation.
The first thing to note about this model is that it allows for dramatic transformations. If you consider the degree of detachment enabled by projecting ourselves into different contexts through words and imagery, and empathising with others on the same basis, then the stage is set for more or less anything becoming normative within a given peer group. As for why people would want to take this expressive potential to unusual places, it seems reasonable to speculate that in many cases, the role we want to perform is precisely that of someone who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. But since most of us do in fact care, we might end up, ironically enough, expressing this within certain established parameters.
But focusing too much on social dynamics risks underplaying the undoubted sense of freedom associated with the detachment from self in online interaction. Yes, there is peer pressure here, but within these bounds there is also a palpable euphoria in escaping mundane reality. The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has made this point while commenting on the “alternative identity” embraced by young social media users. The ability to depart from the confines of stable identity, whether by altering your appearance or enacting a performative ritual, essentially opens the door to a world of fantasy.
With this in mind, we could see the digital grotesque as part of a cultural tradition that offers us many precedents. Indeed, this year marks the 200th anniversary of perhaps the greatest precedent of all: Mary Shelley’s iconic novel Frankenstein. The great anti-hero of that story, the monster who is assembled and brought to life by the scientist Victor Frankenstein, was regarded by later generations as an embodiment of all the passions that society requires the individual to suppress – passions that the artist, in the act of creation, has special access to. The uncanny appearance and emotional crises of Frankenstein’s monster thus signify the potential for unknown depths of expression, strange, sentimental, and macabre.
That notion of the grotesque as something uniquely expressive and transformative was and has remained prominent in all of the genres with which Frankenstein is associated – romanticism, science fiction, and the gothic. It frequently aligns itself with the irrational and surreal landscapes of the unconscious, and with eroticism and sexual deviancy; the films of David Lynch are emblematic of this crossover. In modern pop culture a certain glamourised version of the grotesque, which subverts rigid identity with makeup and fashion, appeared in the likes of David Bowie and Marilyn Manson.
Are today’s online avatars potentially incarnations of Frankenstein’s monster, tempting us with unfettered creativity? The idea has been explored by numerous artists over the last decade. Ed Atkins is renowned for his humanoid characters, their bodies defaced by crude drawings, who deliver streams of consciousness fluctuating between the poetic and the absurd. Jon Rafman, meanwhile, uses video and animation to piece together entire composite worlds, mapping out what he calls “the anarchic psyche of the internet.” Reflecting on his years spent exploring cyberspace, Rafman concludes: “We’ve reached a point where we’re enjoying our own nightmares.”
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It is possible that the changing aesthetics of the Internet reflect both the social pressures and the imaginative freedoms I’ve tried to describe, or perhaps even the tension between them. One thing that seems clear, though, is that the new notions of identity emerging here will have consequences beyond the digital world. Even if we accept in some sense Goffman’s idea of a “Backstage” self, which resumes its existence when we are not interacting with others, the distinction is ultimately illusory. The roles and contexts we occupy inevitably feed back into how we think of ourselves, as well as our views on a range of social questions. Some surveys already suggest a generational shift in attitudes to gender, for instance.
That paradigms of identity shift in relation to technological and social changes is scarcely surprising. The first half of the 20th century witnessed the rise of a conformist culture, enabled by mass production, communication, and ideology, and often directed by the state. This then gave way to the era of the unique individual promoted by consumerism. As for the balance of psychological benefits and problems that will arise as online interaction grows, that is a notoriously contentious question requiring more research.
There is, however, a bigger picture here that deserves attention. The willingness of people to assume different identities online is really part of a much broader current being borne along by technology and design – one whose general direction to enable individuals to modify and customise themselves in a wide range of ways. Whereas throughout the 20th century designers and advertisers were instrumental in shaping how we interpreted and expressed our social identity – through clothing, consumer products, and so on – this function is now increasingly being assumed by individuals within social networks.
Indeed, designers and producers are surrendering control of both the practical and the prescriptive aspects of their trade. 3D printing is just one example of how, in the future, tools and not products will be marketed. In many areas, the traditional hierarchy of ideas has been reversed, as those who used to call the tune are now trying to keep up with and capitalise on trends that emerge from their audiences. One can see this loss of influence in an aesthetic trend that seems to run counter to those I’ve been observing here, but which ultimately reflects the same reality. From fashion to furniture, designers are making neutral products which can be customised by an increasingly identity-conscious, changeable audience.
Currently, the personal transformations taking place online rely for the most part on software; the body itself is not seriously altered. But with scientific fields such as bioengineering expanding in scope, this may not be the case for long. Alice Rawsthorn has considered the implications: “As our personal identities become subtler and more singular, we will wish to make increasingly complex and nuanced choices about the design of many aspects of out lives… We will also have more of the technological tools required to do so.” If this does turn out to be the case, we will face considerable ethical dilemmas regarding the uses and more generally the purpose of science and technology.