“As McGill so persuasively argues, this visibility is a trap, promising us so much but in reality making us constantly feel like we are being watched and being monitored—it even changes how we behave on and off social media.”—Laura King on The Visibility Trap, by Mary McGill.
Readers have been spoiled for choice this year with excellent, insightful and innovative writing about the internet.
From Patricia Lockwood to Roisin Kiberd and now to Mary McGill, this is writing that really gets what it’s like for young people, especially women, navigating social media as a powerful conduit between the world and the self.
While Lockwood and Kiberd inhabit social media and the internet as a whole, and write about it creatively, McGill weighs in with an academic overview and analysis that spans Instagram’s relatively short yet influential career to date, including how visibility culture exploded when people felt isolated from one another during the pandemic.
While The Visibility Trap covers many topics, notably misogyny and the rise of image based abuse, McGill’s analysis of the selfie is particularly strong and can usefully function as a cipher for the whole text—how “empowering” visibility can leave people vulnerable, as well as decoding the mysteries of the widely popular app.
McGill’s reading of the selfie is at times quite positive, particularly in describing the genuine and uplifting ways in which the presentation of the self can be pure celebration or a rebellion against a culture that tells women that they show too much and not enough, that they are objects and not subjects, and where every kind of self-presentation is the wrong kind.
There are benefits, too, in connecting people socially, within their own communities and in some cases allowing marginalized groups to regain power in global conversations on the world stage.
While interesting, these arguments are nonetheless often used to excuse darker sides of the app and how people use it. Not only is Instagram detrimental to body image and contributes to anxiety about how people should look and live, interactions from other users can be mean spirited, abusive or even threatening.
To side step any possible traps, people tend towards agreed norms, “Instagram face” and filters that completely change their appearance, as well as behaviours to better fit in with others. McGill warns us that use of social media is constant self-fashioning, and then that self is destabilised through a distortion of reality and a disconnect between our “digital and embodied selves”.
It really should be unsurprising that selfies and the “engagement” users receive are underscored by privilege, but while the assumption might be that it is only the viewer who is biased in what content they follow and “like”, Instagram’s intentional and unequal censorship of some fat, non-white or otherwise “unruly” bodies is comprehensively detailed in The Visibility Trap.
Many users who believe they are expressing themselves as Instagram encourages them to do are surprised and enraged when their posts are censored for violating terms and conditions or are buried under the much discussed algorithm that manipulates our access to new accounts and even some accounts we already follow.
Ultimately, anyone fooling themselves into thinking that social media is a great equaliser needs to think about what content is deemed “unsuitable” for wider audiences and always what it is being used to sell us, whether that is a product, service, or a way of being that advocates consumerism as the solution to all life’s problems.
Moulding of self-hood
While “Selfie” is only one chapter in this book, the concept reappears throughout as the author explores the very serious corporate manipulation via Instagram of ideas of self-presentation and wellbeing and the moulding of selfhood into something merely individualistic.
Instagram by way of The Kardashian Industrial Complex, (McGill’s humorous yet apt term for the set of businesses and indeed the culture machine stemming from the highly visible lives of the Kardashian sisters) “urges women to change themselves rather than the world”.
This notion has recently earned the disparaging turn of phrase “Girl Boss feminism”, skewering the popular memoirs of female CEO’s and their imitators who advocate an individualistic drive for success that can often be tone deaf to privilege and how “success” in many senses comes at the expense of others.
McGill cuts through this pretence that legitimizes the selfish behaviours of users of social media, outlining bogus “empowerment” campaigns and tags that seem well meaning but realistically are just PR for businesses, and ordinary people who increasingly turn their lives and image into a commodity, paying lip-service to a charade of activism and awareness raising.
In essence, many so called “empowering” trends on the app stem from a hypocritical, limited view of female advancement, as if self-confidence is even the issue and affirmations can fix structural inequality.
Through technology we are more connected than ever, but we are also more visible than ever, more vulnerable to surveillance and to the harmful messaging that assaults us with every scroll through social media.
As McGill so persuasively argues, this visibility is a trap, promising us so much but in reality making us constantly feel like we are being watched and being monitored—it even changes how we behave on and off social media.
There is a growing awareness that there can be little reward and a lot of stress associated with being constantly online, but realistically it may be too late to reverse Instagram’s hold over us, even if some people simply delete the app.
In the introduction to The Visibility Trap, McGill writes “Social media has become mainstreamed into our lives so quickly that it has outpaced our ability to set boundaries, to create the space to reflect, to adapt”. The pandemic has only increased reliance on social media and weakened boundaries through isolation, and for so many people whose whole lives shrank down to the size of a phone screen, they were driven further and further into a totally online space, accelerating the dependency and burnout from “always online” culture.
The book ends somewhat optimistically in suggesting that change is still possible, though readers may find it difficult to accept this conclusion after being presented with so much compelling evidence to the contrary.
Whatever the future of Instagram may be, McGill’s compelling exploration of visibility culture and Instagram provides readers with the tools to take a long hard look at our lives online and begin to figure out a new, realistic and sustainable way forward.
Laura King works in publishing in Dublin, and in her spare time reviews books online under the name @lauraeatsbooks