Seeing Heroes in Social Networks

            When Nicholas Mirzoeff explores the roots of Visuality within Western Culture in his essay “On Visuality,” he unveils a condition of the contemporary digital era. Thomas Carlyle, who first coined the term Visuality, uses it to create a moral imperative for heroes, history and aristocratic power. Since Carlyle promulgated a failed imperialism through Visuality, it might seem that Carlyle’s Visuality is antiquated and inapplicable to the digital age. Instead, the “clear visuality” (Mirzoeff, 57) described by Carlyle has been revived in the Social Network. These websites, through text, picture and their interconnectivity, empower individuals to articulate and construct their own “clear” vision of history, transforming members into their own self-styled heroes, or “self-heroes”, ultimately publicizing these self-heroes to others. The Social Network’s structure not only affirms those identities’ reality, but also engenders community memory and cultural capital through interaction.

Carlyle used perspective and the historical narrative, part of what he called Visuality, in order to justify hero-worship and imperialism. The aristocratic hero was able to see a “clear picture of history” that “could not be seen by the minor actors of history themselves” (57), such as the common man, who was incapable of such a clear perspective, or even the historian, who only sees history in retrospect. The hero, as an embodiment of the moral right of Enlightenment theory, is able to witness history as it happened and steer the correct course. Just as Napoleon “understood the grammar of gunpowder” (McLuhan, 13) and could navigate that world with ease, Carlyle’s hero was almost the “medium,” to borrow from Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message, of history, adroitly maneuvering its “principles and lines of force” (15) and seeing the imperatives of correct history, in contrast to the common man whose “simple observation of events did not constitute visuality” (Mirzoeff, 57).

With the fall of imperialism and the popularity of Carlyle’s conservative and aristocratic thinking, Mirzoeff retraces Visuality in terms of conflict and network. Visuality exists in two modes, Mirzoeff ‘s Visuality 1 and Visuality 2.  Visuality 1 courses a trail of history according to Carlyle’s model of the hero, while Visuality 2 diverges from that path in opposition to Carlyle’s model. Visuality 2, like subaltern studies, seeks to represent the unseen in Carlyle’s visual landscape of history (66). Ultimately, Visuality creates an historical narrative based upon the “embodied struggle over who is to be represented” (76) or a conflict between and congruence of Mirzoeff’s two modes of Visuality. Visuality 2 is only viable in relation to Visuality 1 and often must directly engage with Visuality 1’s constrained view of history in order to expose the unrepresented in that particular vision and to reveal the widest view of history. The two modes, essentially, are able to coexist.

The somewhat egalitarian “Social Network” would seem, at face value, to display no Visuality like that described by Carlyle. Populated predominantly by ordinary people, its view of history would be anything but clear. It, however, perfectly aligns with Mirzoeff’s requisites for contemporary Visuality, allowing for the self-hero to embody the struggle of Mirzoeff’s two visual modes through visual representation, interaction and the architecture of the Social Network itself.

The Social Network provides justification for the creation of the self-hero by its very nature. The Social Network is composed of websites, most notably Facebook, Foursquare, Flickr, Twitter and Myspace, that promote visual, as well as textual, representations of people that interact with other visual and textual representations through the interchange of brief comments, tags and pictures, as well as identifying themselves with specific interests and groups.  Ordinary people, as well as celebrities, aristocrats, etc., create mimetic avatars of themselves on the Social Network and use its tools to converse about their daily lives and activities. In their most recent incarnations, these avatars can span multiple websites and provide the same commentary from site to site. An avatar on one Social Network website can post the same picture on multiple websites instantly, or write a “status update,” or “check in,” that can appear simultaneously on all of the websites in which they participate. This current level of interconnectivity truly creates a unified “Social Network” of communication through a singular representational avatar.

These avatars have a history represented through textual interactions with each other along with photographic representations of the avatar and the world in which they reside, be it virtual or real. While video, audio and other communication devices are used in these interactions, text and image is perhaps the most universal, spanning networks that archive (such as Flickr) to others based on competition and games (such as Foursquare). By their definition, the avatars are usually stand-ins for real people, representing the real lives of those who upload photographs and interact online. Just as Napoleon understood the grammar of the medium of war, the grammar of Social Network seems to be based primarily on the articulation of the self through commodifiable virtual objects ranging from 160 character messages to tagged photographs.

The Social Network refutes Carlyle’s assertion that the ordinary man was incapable of seeing a clear view of history (57) by deploying repetitive use of photography throughout interpersonal interactions. Mirzoeff alludes to the relationship between the hero’s clear vision of history and its relationship to the photograph. The photograph was able to create a “coherent and intelligible picture of modernity that allowed for practical, even heroic, action” (66) and was declared by Carlyle as tradition itself (58). The singular photograph, after all, could be used as a tool to solidify and authenticate the traditional heroic moment by depicting a clear and realistic representation of it. However, the oppositional view to history, Mirzoeff’s Visuality 2, also exploited the use of photography[1]. The conflict between these two modalities becomes the hallmark of “visual culture” (66) according to Mirzoeff. The Social Network lets everyone assert himself visually, whether in concordance with or opposition to the hero’s history, with a proliferation of hundreds, if not thousands, of images and pages of text.

The photograph and the image are able to further affirm the history of the self-hero by engaging reaction in viewers. It is the spectator’s interaction with the visual representations of the mimetic self that in many ways distinguishes the Social Network from other forms of internet communication. Susan Sontag and W. J. T. Mitchell point to the photograph and image’s ability to ensnare the observer, giving control to the “thing photographed” (Sontag, 157). Sontag, in On Photography, attributes this to the facility of technology, citing the Polaroid as a way of instantaneously connecting the photographer to the subject and, implicitly, the subject to the viewer. Certainly, the Social Network’s ability to publish photographs instantaneously and infinitely only amplifies this effect, creating an immediate connection.

Similar to Sontag, Mitchell, in his essay “What Do Pictures ‘Really’ Want?”, sees the image as powerful, beckoning and affecting the viewer by what Mitchell calls the “Medusa Effect” (Mitchell, 76), in which the image arrests the viewer in its gaze. While this effect, in contrast to Sontag, can intend to mobilize a reader politically (76), its true power lies in paralyzing the reader, or as Mitchell quotes Michael Fried, to “call to someone, to bring him to a halt in front of itself and hold him there as if spellbound and unable to move” (76). This effect can come from the “directness of the gaze” (76) itself in the picture, or conversely, by the observer’s gaze as represented on the canvas (81). The use of photographs on the Social Network conjures both forms of the Medusa Effect, as users post and trade photos and icons with each other. Facebook participants can browse and be arrested by dozens of direct gazes of their friends, colleagues, etc. while those who create the photographs know that they will have a captive audience.

The scope and magnitude of the interchanged images certainly resembles Sigmund Freud’s “Scopophilia” (Mulvey, 16) as articulated in Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and is perhaps the reason for the image’s importance in the Social Network. Applying the Freudian concept to watching film, Mulvey explains that with Scopophilia, the viewer takes a voyeuristic pleasure in analyzing moving pictures, a psychological explanation for Mitchell’s Medussa Effect. Howard Rheingold, in Virtual Communities, also references the cinematic or narrative engagement in the Social Network when he describes the interaction in cyberspace[2] as “an endless soap opera where there is no boundary separating the audience from the cast” (Rheingold, 11). Still, Mulvey’s analysis is not just related to that of the viewer, but also to an “identification with the image seen” (Mulvey, 18). Thus, the image itself allows for a subjective history to be identified, in the case of the Social Network, by both the viewer and the creator of the avatar, countering “empirical objectivity” (18).

A proliferation of photographs goes even further to establish the self-hero’s history within the Social Network. Sontag writes of photographs as an “elegiac art,” used to promote nostalgia and pathos in humans (Sontag, 115). These photographs, placed in long labeled sequences on many sites of the Social Network[3], create what Roland Barthes defines as “Syntax” (Barthes, 24) in his seminal work Image-Music-Text, promoting a unified feeling of nostalgia not just through one photograph, but through the collection or sequence itself. Members of Facebook, for instance, tag and brand photographs through their avatars, recalling events based on photography alone, using specific photographs to shape events according to their own view of who they want to be. In this case, “tagging” or placing a photo in a particular place, time and/or subject takes on special meaning.

Along with commenting on photos, the textual additions to the photo have the affect of projecting significations onto the image. Barthes reflects that with the photograph, words become subservient or “parasitic” (25) to images, illustrating the signifiers in the photograph itself. This is typified on the Social Network, with text of photographs often depicting biographical and collective events, rather than the abstract. All of this acts as an advertisement for the self. The images in the context of the Social Network are not in a pure or naive state, but denote the feeling of “having-been-there” (42), inciting nostalgia for the self-hero and his previous interactions with other avatars.

The power of the image in the Social Network promotes nostalgia through syntax and advertising to the reader with groups of images conflated to represent the individual self. While not unique to the medium of the Social Network, it is the frequency and facility of the interchange that gives the self-hero such value, along with the easy accessibility and the pleasure of viewing that the Social Network brings. The Network also supports output of what Lev Manovich called “low-level” and “high-level” automation (Manovich, 32). High-level automation, in which computers must “understand, to a certain degree, the meanings embedded in the objects being generated” (32), is one of the defining characteristics of New Media in Manovich’s The Language of New Media. High-level automation also enables the Social Network to implement its systems of nostalgia-making and self-hero identification. Photos are uploaded and automatically understood to need tags and comments attached. It is the programs in the Social Network, such as tags, that allow for the sorts of interaction that might engender self-identification and the justification of that identity.

Another tenet of Manovich’s New Media plays an important role in the creation of a unique self-hero in the Social Network: what he calls “Variability” (36). The Social Network is set up for constant and mutable versions of the self and that is part of the fun inherent to the system. New versions of an avatar’s profile on the Social Network can be changed infinitely via image and/or text. The creator of the self-hero can modify his identity or part of his identity[4] in relationship to others, himself or whatever he desires.

Up to this point, the visual cues of photography, images, and the attendant textual systems have aided the self-hero in authoring a unique identity. Each individual is able to portray himself as unique and distinct from another. In this way, the use of text and image seems to promote Mirzoeff’s second mode of Visuality, rather than Carlyle’s “clear” view of history. Each self-hero is a unique part of the system, without attributing himself to the system. A self-hero can even oppose the system itself, but has the freedom to voice that opposition within the architecture of the system.

However, a clear view of history, similar to Mirzoeff and Carlyle’s “Visuality 1” (Mirzoeff, 66) is fostered more by the architecture of the system in the Social Network, establishing the conflict and congruence that ultimately defines Mirzoeff’s Visuality. It does this through Foucaultian control. While Carlyle attacked Bentham’s panoptic theories of reform, he embraced his version of occasional punishment as an ordinary and consistent system (60) of discipline. The panopticon, in this way, produces constant self-regulation, where fears of punishment are democratized. As Michele Foucault, who adopted the panopticon as a metaphor for societal structures in Discipline & Punish, asserts a panoptic structure “disindividualizes power” making it so that “any individual, almost at random can operate [or survey from] the machine” (Foucault, 202). This is made no clearer than in the Social Network, where fear of surveillance and exposure is both constant and often driven by the population of users themselves. Users are forewarned of inappropriate versions of their own history being exposed when applying for jobs, etc. Consequently, narratives that would be inappropriate are discouraged (pornographic content, alcohol and drug usage, to name a few examples).

This fear is associated with cyberspace in general. Citing Foucault, Rheingold states that along with the viewer, communication networks would bring “the prying ears of the state” (Rheingold, 15). In the Social Network, the self-hero is controlled by fear and regulations of the machine, for the machinery of the Social Network makes it “constantly accessible… so that an observer may observe, at a glance, so many different individuals [and] enables everyone to come and observe…” (207). The narrative of the self is defined by the rules and regulations of the Social Network, strengthening the social forces (208) of the particular network. In addition, because of the current interconnectivity of these networks, that allow the same avatar to broadcast itself over multiple websites and to exist in multiple systems, these uniform social forces are ever more pervasive.

Julian Dibbell’s example of the LambdaMOO MUD[5] in “A Rape in Cyberspace,” illustrates the consequences of deviating from the social forces at work in the architecture of a network. In Dibbell’s essay, a student creates an avatar, which committed what was called a “rape,” possessing another user’s avatar and making it degrade itself to various degrees (Dibbell). The avatar that committed the “rape” was eventually assassinated by the head, or “wizard” (Dibbell) of the MUD, who eliminated the avatar from the server. Ultimately, those involved in the Social Network are encouraged to remain “real” and conduct themselves according to the rules of that system. The manipulation of avatars is seen as a betrayal of trust and a violation of that system.

However, the variability of architecture within the Social Network provides a semblance of Mirzoeff’s oppositional Visuality. Joining groups of common interest in the Social Network is one of the most explicit ways of asserting the self in opposition to collective “others.” The infinite number of sub-groups possible inside of a Social Network allows someone to identify himself as both part of or against the “clear view of history” as he sees fit. Users can join a group promoting any kind of cause, or can merely express what they do or don’t like in constructing their avatar[6]. One can even exemplify Mirzoeff’s “Inverse Visuality” or those “hyperreal, excessive, overlaid, disjunctive” (Mirzoeff, 70), as well as implicitly ironic, oppositional histories. Because of this variability, the number of oppositional histories within the system can be infinite and tailored to specific personalities. Manovich states, “information about the user can be used by a computer program to customize automatically the media composition as well as to create elements themselves” (Manovich, 37). In this way, the self-hero can identify himself with or against other groups, tastes and interests and, as a consequence, is inherently positioned as unique.

This feature has been enacted in a similar community, the London International Financial Futures Exchange, as analyzed in Caitlin Zaloom’s essay “Markets and Machines: Work in Technological Sensoryscapes,” where stockbrokers were networked in a large interactive trading system. Zaloom points to the fact that quickly the hiring of “new university graduates, minorities, and women, groups largely absent from” (Zaloom, 830) the exchange became feasible once the exchange was networked and even took precedent over ability. The employers wanted self-identified unique characters, in contrast to the traditional traders at the exchange. Virtual communities and networks seem to promote the concept of being unique or different. This recalls the earliest, non-visual virtual communities, such as Rheingold’s WELL, which organized users into groups based on unique interests, ranging from “Deadheads” to those interested in child rearing.

Perhaps the most important legacy from earlier networks in the architecture of the Social Network is what Rheingold calls the “community memory” (Rheingold, 42) in which the network or community itself houses records of the textual (and now visual) interactions of its participants. The consistent archiving of images and text about the self affirms the identity of the self-hero and becomes a form of capital. Andrew Whelan points to this in his description of Peer-to-Peer file sharing networks in “Do U Produce?: Subcultural Capital and Amateur Musicianship in Peer-to-Peer Networks.” In these networks, “Subcultural capital” comes from the archiving and collection of music shared (Whelan, 63), whereas, in the Social Network, power emanates from the amount of “self” shared through visuals and text. Whelan alludes to this in his study, describing knowledge of the musical “canon” (63) in Peer-to-Peer networks and the amount of “textual interaction” (63) about this subject, as a primary mode of exhibiting expertise and knowledge. However, in the Social Network, that interaction is literally about socializing, engaging with other avatars and one’s own avatar to the greatest degree.

This empowers the person who authenticates himself through more, rather than less, interaction on the Social Network. The Network supports competition of the self and encourages those who interact more with it. It is not an overt democracy. Those with the most power are those who articulate who they are most clearly and consistently on the Social Network. The participatory nature of the Social Network is not new. Clear hierarchies appeared in earlier networked communication, such as Rheingold’s “Experts” (Rheingold, 60) on the WELL who could be quizzed on a diverse array of topics, as well as Dibbell’s “wizards,” who were the programmers and de facto leaders of the MUD. People in these older hierarchies provided some sort of service. In the WELL’s case, Experts were given power by knowledge about subjects in the real world, as well as the WELL itself. By contrast, power on the Social Network appears to be derived merely from participation and the assertion of one’s mimetic self. This particular nature has only been enhanced with competitive Social Networks, where points are actually awarded based on “checking in” to the network, and badges and mayorships are bestowed based on the consistent assertion of oneself in the network[7].

What is subsequently created is a “Veiled Visuality,” between the user and the self-hero he creates. Veiled Visuality divides “visuality in two by means of a veil that is both visible and invisible at once” (Mirzoeff, 75). The Social Network’s architecture seems to provide such a veil, allowing users to articulate a version of themselves, which can be viewed, but ultimately can’t be seen beyond the “dominant point of view” (75) of the network itself and the clear view of history that the dominant Social Network ultimately provides. However, within that system, a mimetic self-hero can be created and become beloved by both its creator and its viewers. The system permits, once inside it, as W. E. B. Dubois states, a unique site “where men create, where they realize themselves” (75).

Therefore, the creation of the self-hero and its relationship to Carlyle’s Visuality seems anything but new. From painting to photography to even earlier virtual communities and networks, the creation of a mimetic self has been a common theme. What is unique in the Social Network is the facility with which the self-hero can be created, archived and made into a nostalgic narrative. The Social Network’s architecture was designed to capitalize on and support the desire for self-representation, as well as to create and advertise one’s preferred vision of himself and his history. Through the hallmarks of New Media, the hero is able to be placed as unique within the system. Through cues and textual interactions, all of which are saved and commodified as cultural capital, the mimetic self almost immediately becomes a justifiable stand-in for its creator. It, in essence, becomes the most real version of the self, the clear vision historically of the user’s biography. If the Network survives, it is foreseeable that people will know each other more through their mimetic self-heroes than through personal interactions, and their “clear” view of history will be mediated by consumer networks.



Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. Hill and Wang, 1978. Print.

Dibbell, Julian. “A Rape in Cyberspace.” Julian Dibbell (Dot Com).

Dibbell, Julian. My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. 1st ed. Holt Paperbacks, 1999. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. Vintage, 1995. Print.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. The MIT Press, 2002. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage. Gingko Press, 2005. Print.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “On Visuality.” Journal of Visual Culture 5.1 (2006): 53-79. Print.

Mitchell, W. J. T. “What Do Pictures ‘Really’ Want?” October 77 (1996): 71-82. Web. 29 Nov. 2011.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Print.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. revised edition. The MIT Press, 2000. Print.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. 1st ed. Picador, 2001. Print.

Whelan, Andrew. “‘do u produce?’: Subcultural Capital and Amateur Musicianship in Peer-to-Peer Networks.” in M. D. Ayers (ed.), Cybersounds: Essays on Virtual Music Culture (2006): 57-81. Print.

Zaloom, Caitlin. “Markets and Machines: Work in the Technological Sensoryscapes of Finance.” American Quarterly 58.3 (2006): 815-837. Print.

[1]                 See Mirzoeff’s examples of Oscar Wilde, Sojourner Truth and WEB Dubois in “On Visuality.”

[2]                 It should be noted that Rheingold is merely talking about the interchange of textual conversations in this excerpt. However, as text and image are so closely related in the Social Network (See my explanation of Barthes), his words have particular relevancy.

[3]                 Once again Flickr and Facebook should be noted, though, while someone can browse through these networks for pictures, other sites, such as Foursquare or Twitter offer the same exact form Syntax via iconography.

[4]                 Also articulated as “Hypermedia” by Manovich. See Manovich, 38.

[5]                 a “Multi-User Dungeon” or online game, preceding the advent of the Social Network based around textual interaction and explicitly fictitious characters.

[6]                 For instance, Facebook not only has thousands of groups for every particular interest, but also allows users to cite the books, films, etc. that they like. Similarly dating websites like OKCupid use those very choices about representation to match users with potential dates.

[7]                 The prime example of this to date is the social game “Foursquare,” which allows users to “Check In” to real places via their mobile device and will award points for the amount of times checked in daily as well as mayorships for consistent checking in to particular places.

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