2007 - 2021

The Big Other is Watching You

newmediaBy Mark Smith

Most big stories in today’s media include analyses of the way social media reacts to the events being reported. If a politician is caught lying, or if a celebrity is seen doing something unsavoury, newspaper coverage will usually include something about what people are writing about it on Twitter. Indeed, sometimes Twitter itself even becomes the way people in the public eye bring about their own downfall, as happened when Labour’s Emily Thornberry tweeted a picture of an English flag and a white van during the Rochester by-election and had to resign as Shadow Attorney General. Twitter and other social media platforms are crucial for anybody in public life, and most well-known people now regularly use the internet to keep in touch with their fans and disseminate their ideas.

The fact that communication is so easy seems like an entirely positive part of modern life. Politicians and governments can communicate directly with citizens. Activists can use social media, as we saw during the Scottish referendum, to exchange ideas, organise and bring people together. Writers, actors, sports stars and musicians can speak to their fans and are able to read and respond to what those fans write back. Even the Pope has a Twitter feed, giving God a (broadband) connection with billions of Catholics all over the world. The ability to tweet and retweet cuts down distances. The Prime Minister or Prince Charles are no longer locked securely behind the doors of No.10 or Clarence House. Famous people can’t isolate themselves in their mansions like Howard Hughes. And God himself isn’t way up in Heaven anymore, but here on the planet sending his Word, via his representative on earth, whizzing through servers, wires and routers along with the billions of other bytes of data that move around the world every day.

In a remote part of the world like Shetland, where I live, this reduction of distances is surely a good thing. Shetlanders, or indeed anybody living in an isolated place, can join the conversation and be part of a global electronic community. We can sit in Sullom or Baltasound or Scalloway and send our thoughts out into the world for people to read, and we can see instantly what people from other parts of the planet are saying. Social media and instant communication, no matter where we live, can allow us to both keep the powerful in check – by not allowing politicians to get too far away from “ordinary people” – and mitigate the effects of geography. And, at its best, it can even help bring disparate groups and individuals together and unite them behind a just or emancipatory cause. The distance to a computer (in the relatively affluent parts of the world at least) is the same for everybody.

There is a fair bit of truth in this utopian picture, and it would be wildly reactionary to suggest that the way social media has disrupted traditional ways of communicating – letter writing, for instance – is a bad thing. But there is an element of social media use that is less than savoury, as we see, for example, when Katie Hopkins tweets her latest attack on disabled children or people with dementia, or when a feminist campaigner is bombarded with threats of rape. Why do people think it is OK to do this? What is it about social media that allows people to behave in this way?

One reason, perhaps, is that, despite the way telecommunications brings people together, it also atomizes people into faces in front of screens, typing out hatred and sending it into a void. Typing and sending a rape threat takes a few seconds and, once the mouse if clicked, the message is in some way divorced from its author and catapulted into the stream of words running across a monitor. To put this another way, people writing on Twitter often don’t mean what they say, in the sense that their words are a prelude to an actual event (this, of course, doesn’t reduce the seriousness of making a rape threat), but are engaged in some kind of wish fulfillment via their keyboards. The fact that they have written and sent their message makes what they are saying in some way “real”. They act out their terrible fantasy by writing about it and sending their words out into the world. A minority of psychopaths might go a step further and actually do what they say they are going to do, but for most people, their nastiness doesn’t carry them past clicking ‘Send’.

In Shetland’s own media and cultural environment, Twitter is less prominent than it is nationally, but that isn’t to say that the same arguments about social media aren’t relevant here. A lively internet community, for example, has developed on the website of the Shetland Times newspaper, where local stories are debated at length, and where it is not unusual for a letter or a report to be commented on dozens, even hundreds of times. And this, most people would agree, is a healthy thing. People in the community get the chance to have their voices heard, and those in positions of authority (such as councillors or politicians) can engage in dialogue with the people they represent. Even in a small place like Shetland, websites like the Shetland Times can cut down distances and provide an important medium for public debate.

But, just as people on Twitter are often nasty, social media users in Shetland sometimes let their viciousness get the better of them, or let their views drift headlong towards paranoia or hyperbole. There are, for instance, frequent comparisons made between the Scottish Government and the Nazis, or extravagant claims about the harm the recently built, publically funded cinema and music venue Mareel is doing to island society, or wacky statements about Shetland not really being part of Scotland. Reading some of this material, you sometimes wonder if the authors really mean what they say, or is it the case that typing and sending something into the social media space increases the tendency to make outrageous statements? Pouring scorn and opprobrium on the arts, for example, has been a favourite pastime of local internet contributors since Mareel was first mooted. The argument goes that, in times of financial austerity, the arts, a needless waste of money patronised by a small middle-class elite, should be the first thing to go. But how many of the people who fulminate against the arts would go any further than shouting into cyberspace? Would they, for instance, stand outside the door of Mareel and try and stop people going in? Or go to the annual Young Musician of the Year Award and throw rotten fruit at the participants? Or go to schools and bellow at pupils in art lessons that they are wasting their time before horse-whipping them over to the physics lab to learn about the second law of thermodynamics?

Of course no sane person would behave like this. But is it not the case that acting precisely in this way would be more ethical (in the sense of committing wholly to a cause or higher purpose one believes in) than writing about it on a website? It’s as if the act of commenting online negates any real action. I’m not, I hasten to add, advocating mass protests outside museums and galleries and am firmly in favour of public funding for the arts, but what I’m trying to show is that, despite the things some people write, most of the time they will never enact or engender any kind of change in the social space they are so obviously unsatisfied with. Ranting on social media will be as far as they go.

Social media, then, provides a safe, clearly defined environment into which anybody can send their thoughts. It is a space which in some way mimics reality (in the sense that it draws people into a community), but which can also isolate people from the reality they are criticising or the person they are threatening. It is a space which has rules, usually in the form of an unseen moderator, but rules which seem to differ from those of the world outside cyberspace. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan described the network of linguistic, legal and social norms that define society as the Big Other. The Big Other is the authority we all keep in mind when we act or speak. It is the thing we come up against when we make a statement or behave in a certain way. We would feel the influence of the Big Other, for example, were we to stand naked in George Square and proclaim our liking for child molestation. It is the hidden framework of society that regulates the way we exist in that society, that lets us know which ways of living are acceptable and which are not.

It might seem like different rules apply in social media, but I don’t think that’s really the case. What gets written on Twitter or on the Shetland Times website is still subject to the strictures of the Big Other. A vindictive, hateful statement sent out on social media is still a vindictive, hateful statement. People who produce comments of that kind should ask themselves if they would say the same things to a stranger they meet at a bus stop, or to an anonymous person they happen to see at the supermarket. If the answer is no (because, if they did, they would look insane), then maybe they should revise what they are about to type. Even though somebody is alone in front of their computer screen, the Big Other is still watching you.

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  1. doreenmilne says:

    I admit I have been as guilty as others in expressing myself in, shall we say, less than courteous terms at times. However, the level of vitriol on Twitter has caused me concern particularly when I think about the future for my country and it’s relationship with others. We will all have to work and live together after May 7th regardless of the outcome. We can’t let social media cause rifts and wounds that may not easily be mended. A great piece timeously published. Thank you.

  2. Hey plater says:

    I’m not on FaceBook or the stupidly named Twitter which dumbs down its adherents by Tweets, which wee birds do, but for humans is deeply inarticulate, a regression in human progress.

    Yet I am aware of the abuse.

    But there is benefit in this froth and bubble – it reveals what people are really like, however ugly that is. Can’t be bad.

    1. JGedd says:

      There is truth in what you say, I’m laid up with an injury at the moment and I have to say that, safe in my own comfort zone,, I tend to develop a vaguely woolly benevolence towards my fellow human beings. Having come across some incendiary, not to say vulgarly abusive comments on line, it has been a salutary and, no doubt, necessary reminder of the angry psyches out there which feel the need to dish out hurt and insult. Needless to say, for the sake of my own equilibrium I also tend ignore and sail past most of it while, at least carrying with me the general impression that there is a lot spite and hostility out there.

      I don’t bother with Twitter or Facebook either which seem to be the bubbling cauldrons of all this seething rage. I can’t imagine myself ever resorting to the kind of expressions of ferocity which people give vent to, but I have a sneaking feeling that if I were to immerse myself in that poisonous brew and be on the receiving end of some of that fury I might react unthinkingly with equal nastiness. I choose not to go there but I agree with the article that, on the whole, taking the brakes off what can be said, might be destabilising in ways we don’t fully appreciate yet. .

      It has been observed before that there is a general collapse of empathy in society. I don’t know whether Facebook/ Twitter could be part of the cause or merely the symptom but I can’t help but think that giving out all this negativity is as corrosive to the perpetrator as it is to the recipient. It is often portrayed by participants as par for the course, macho behaviour if you will, but to me it seems more like wimps’ behaviour – how much easier is it to be pejorative and aggressive while safe at a keyboard and not in the same room as the target? Life is too complex for Twitter.

  3. IAB says:

    Not on Facebook or Twitter but work abroad and have ceased to feel isolated as I can read sites like Bella, contribute to campaigns and read the National etc

    I’m often appalled at the trivia that gets attention and by the extreme right wing views that are espoused.

    However, it gives me great comfort when I realise that things that matter to me, matter to other people too.

  4. Jock McNasty! says:

    Nice, but ow did you write this piece without addressing the anonymity of online identities?

  5. I welcome the application of French poststructuralism to our contemporary political problems. And this question of aggression on social media interests me too. But given my preference for Deleuze and Guattari over Lacan, I can’t resist imagining what this article would say differently if it had taken D&G’s concept of the “social machine” rather than Lacan’s “big Other” (not for arbitrary reasons – as you may well know, the big Other is the one part of Lacan’s work that D&G disagree with most).

    I would argue that aggression is a social machine, with its own unique history, and which is currently caught up in an entanglement with nationalism. Put briefly, I believe that if one of the motors behind the formation of the big imperialist European powers was the decline of the plurality of small ‘regional’ languages in favour of identities organised around the few major languages like English and French precisely because these offered passported access for the individualised aggression of social mobility, then we can attribute an increase in nationalism to the reverse of that process i.e. as social mobility declines, individuals are prepared to collectively embark upon a political retreat to the archaic imaginary community in order to launch a collective aggression appropriate to the radical change required.

    Of course, this isn’t a perfectly uniform process and there are individuals out there who enter the process with all sorts of baggage, leading them to word things poorly or launch counter-productive aggressive attacks online. But this is all the more reason, I would suggest, to opt for D&G’s concept of the “social machine” – for with that concept we can start to think about the accompanying social machines we can construct that would be necessary to make the process proceed in as favourable a manner for “our side” as possible. I don’t see that same opportunity with Lacan’s “big Other” concept, which is why your conclusion sounds a bit idealist (in the metaphysical sense) to me.

    Some more thoughts on this at a recent post at Independence Live if you’re interested: http://blog.independencelive.net/twitter-mobs/

    1. George Leslie says:

      Load of crap. Nationalism is not a retreat but an awakening to other cultures and identities from all over our small world. It is a challenge to the supranational global ethic which wants to crush our individuality and make us all part of a cultural conformity.. Long may it flourish

  6. Atrahasis says:

    A blogger I follow recently wrote the following, I found it to be coincidentally relevant.

    In these politically correct times, tolerance is often practically interpreted as a fundamental moral maxim. The truth of the matter is tolerance is a value.

    What differentiates a maxim from a value?

    – a maxim is a conception of right or wrong. Actions are inherently moral or immoral.

    – a value is an abstract social construct imputed with a certain measure of worth.

    Ideally, society places a ‘value’ upon the upholding of a maxim. Thus we tell little Johnny his friends will think him greedy if he won’t share his toys. He is taught to value the maxim.

    So the idea of value is the instrument by which society ensures right and wrong are recognized.

    Like all instruments, the purpose of a ‘value’ derives from its object, the maxim.

    But what if a value purports itself to be the maxim? What’s the implication when the instrument-object relationship is nullified?

    ‘Tolerance’ is a good example of this. Tolerance by itself contains no moral codification whatsoever. What should we be tolerant of? My Little Pony acolytes? Neo-Nazis? Some races? All races?

    These questions show how we must immediately resort to a Kantian maxim to inform the value of tolerance. Yet most people, when they encounter someone making a judgment call – discriminating right from wrong – automatically (and in contradiction to tolerance itself) condemn this activity.

    Some things are right, some things are wrong. We should value embracing righteousness, and eschewing (being intolerant of) evil. Tolerance only works as a moral value when all ways of life are ultimately held equal. I fundamentally reject this relativistic premise as have most civilizations. By contrast, our post-modern West does accept this; which is why we no longer live in a civilization. Just a seething mass of individualistic impulse raging against the ‘oppression’ of right and wrong; the vainness of their imaginations only exceeded by the darkness in their hearts.

  7. Hey plater says:

    Mark! You instantly transport me to my Uni times, and this is delightful. But it cuts no ice with many.

    ”I welcome the application of French poststructuralism to our contemporary political problems. And this question of aggression on social media interests me too. But given my preference for Deleuze and Guattari over Lacan…”

    Leaving aside the tautology, you may indeed welcome etc etc – but teasingly we don’t know why. Which aspect of French poststructuralism? Which contemporary political problems? Given your preference for etc etc doesn’t mean much if you dont tell us why. Sigh.

    Have you ever considered a good Marxist suppository? Or it that unfashionable now? In the metaphysical sense that is.

    I always thought that the ‘Big Other ‘ was a VS climb on the Buchaille Etive Mhor.

    1. The reason why we should draw more upon French poststructuralism is because within that tradition there is an explosion of new terms and concepts that we can bring to political economy (here I agree with Gerry Hassan when he says nationalists have to start innovating in the field of political economy). The more terms we have at our disposal, the more innovative we can be. Indeed, that’s why Lacan’s notion of the big Other is not to my taste – it offers no room for conceptual innovation (in the way that D&G’s concept of the social machine does), it’s just posited as a transcendental structure.

      1. Hey plater says:

        Mark; you favour style over substance with your love of new terms and concepts, entirely empty of action. Terms are empty and I urge you spend some time with Wittgenstein. Better, David Hume.

        Conceptual innovation? Sounds like advertising jargon, and like advertising should be booted into the dustbin of history. ”I refute it thus”.

        Transcendental structures? Tell that to the folk going to foodbanks because of Tories we didn’t elect.

        ”The more terms we have at our disposal, the more innovative we can be. ” This is so shockingly off the planet I can’t express my feelings. Keep on taking the medication.

        What on earth happened to you Mark, to make you like this? Please take that Marxist suppository I recommended. You’ll feel better.

        1. I’m not sure if you intend me to take your comments seriously or not, although I’m aware that some people do seriously hold the views you express here – they might be reading, so it’s worth providing a reply.

          Firstly, there is no space of political activity outside of theory – to promote the idea of action being more potent or effective without an accompanying theoretical practice, is to have already inadvertently started the process of theorising.

          Secondly, given the kind of hostile pressures we are under to explain how nationalism can play a positive and progressive role in people’s lives, it would be a very foolish person who suggested that we neglect to discuss theories of nationalism, political aggression and so on. Indeed, I think the idea of pursuing nationalist politics without engaging with the burning issues of contemporary political economy would be as silly as pursuing anti-austerity politics without engaging with the burning issues of contemporary economics. (Although from your comment, I get the sense that you really do think anti-austerity politics should be pursued in this way.)

          Thirdly, even if we don’t use these powerful ideas for our benefit, the other side will. A good example: one of the conceptual tools the IDF use to teach their recruits how to maintain control of a battlefield is Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of smooth vs striated space.

          I am not suggesting that every Scottish nationalist needs to know the difference between Lacan and Deleuze, but it’s right that there exist spaces like Bella where people who want to do that kind of work can do it. The very title of the essay we’re discussing actually cites one of Lacan’s concepts – the big Other. That means if you contribute to this discussion, you’re doing conceptual work (even if your claim is that such work is unnecessary – see my first point).

          Finally, Wittgenstein is not my cup of tea, but Deleuze’s first book was on Hume, so I have lots of time for him.

          1. Heather says:

            Oh dear, the Nationalist obsession again. For goodness sake, just because the SNP have national in their name, does not mean rabid one way street narrow minded exclusion mentality. Many who are in favour of Independence for Scotland have no allegiance with the S National P. If anything, Scottish Nationalism, is of a civic and international kind, aside from the unionist nationalism, which is dangerous. New terms and concepts? Political economy? What do you mean here? Words are great, terms and concepts fancy, but they don’t engage the majority of people who want straight answers, and the truth, which are less than forthcoming from the anti Indy lot.

            Self determination should be the norm, could we have a philosophical discussion as to why this is not the case within these Islands, based on logic, of course.

          2. Heather – it’s a fair question that you ask: why use the term nationalism rather than autonomy or self-determination? My justification is that if we implicitly treat the term nationalism as indicating something potentially dodgy by staying away from it, then our unionist enemies have already gained some advantage. I would rather confront the issue head on and defend nationalism (in the Scottish context) as a Rousseauist movement.

            As for people wanting simple terms, I want people to find the terms which maximises their individual capacity for complex thought.

          3. Hey plater says:

            Mark – I didn’t say there was no place for theory. You made that up to cover your nakedness.

            While you are contemplating your navel and asking how many angels dance on the head of a pin, others are doing real work based on theory.

            ”Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” On this you fail miserably.

            On austerity, your theory has led you to a position where you want people who did not cause the financial crisis to pay for it. You want to privatise profit and socialise debt. Your theorising without praxis has addled your brain.

          4. Hey Platter – thanks for that final comment. You probably have no idea why, but I’m really pleased that anyone else reading this exchange will have that final piece of your contribution.

  8. Frederick Robinson says:

    Back then, I thought that one of the most socially-corrosive engines was – gossip. Twitter raises gossip to the level of the Tower of Babel.

  9. arthur thomson says:

    The social media have enabled the plebs to have a voice and some people don’t like that. It is no wonder that the privately owned media and the state media resent it because their information control been is being undermined. No wonder either that those who imagine that they have superior standing or understanding are upset that contrary and simplistic views can be communicated by plebs and in language that is ‘shocking’. I regularly read the comments that are posted on a variety of Scottish political sites and I can’t think of a comment that has actually shocked me. Many comments have angered, saddened, informed and/or inspired me but only a tiny number have warranted police intervention. By contrast I have read widely of and been thoroughly sickened by the terrible actions carried out by people all over the world in the name of imperialist regimes. It is those regimes and the individuals who support them, who feel that they have the right to exercise abusive power over others, who feel most threatened by mass communication. Not surprisingly, they are at the forefront of the complaints about the shocking nature of social media. Personally, I am delighted that more and more people are finding their voice and seeking out truth

    1. ross says:

      Well said. I couldnt agree more. Thats the first time ive read this view from someone else but ive thought it myself for a long time. We are rocking the boat and they do not like it.

  10. tartanfever says:

    Twitter also does the most unexpected things – like the aforementioned Emily Thornberry tweet. A perfectly rational observation ( a photo of a suburban house with a white van parked outside bedecked in England flags) to which she added the written geographical location – ‘Rochester’

    A simple every day observation of what was going on during a political campaign – an image taken from a public vantage point (the street) of a public display of political feeling. There’s no name calling, no invasion of privacy, no swearing, no accusation – it’s a mere observation in the form of a photo of which hundreds of similar imagery have graced newspaper pages and tv screens with no consequences. When I first saw the image I thought, that would not be out of place in a Martin Parr photography book or film (‘Think of England’)

    Whatever her motives (if anything other than making an observation I’ve yet to be convinced), there was absolutely no rational explanation of her need to resign, the media witch hunt ( Bella included) and the general pointed accusations and vitriol she received as a result, which were far, far worse in nature than her photo could ever be.

    On the other hand, a law student from Glasgow makes a threat that Alex Salmond should be killed and gets let off lightly.

    It seems that there’s more missing from Twitter than just plain decency, a sense of proportion and often times, rationality.

    In our age of ten second soundbite information overloaded media blizzard and the restriction of Twitter’s character numbers it’s no wonder that people just write ‘f-off you ***t’ because it’s a limited format and you can be immediately replied to from multiple sources unlike any other form of communication. The mantra for many seems to be that to have an effect you have to shout loudest.

  11. almannysbunnet says:

    After reading your article I was tempted to go have a look at The Shetland Times but the comments section seems to have been taken over by a couple of zoomers called Harmer and Tulloch. There might be more zoomers but they caught the eye. Their sole aim is fairly transparent. Stifle any political discussion with reams of purile nonsense to sideline the topic under discussion. And of course SNP bad bad, Sturgeon very bad bad, Salmond !! the devil incarnate!! I suspect one, or maybe both maybe pseudonyms for old sausage fingers himself.

  12. Clydebuilt says:

    Bbc1 Scotland leaders debate 11.39 am….Nicola on her own up against the usual suspects plus Gordon brewer ……..third debate in five days……… Who needs it the most? … Unionists must feel it is in their interest to get another opportunity to trip her up

  13. Lochside says:

    Ditto Almannysbunnet: I had a swatch at the Shetland times and it seems to be dominated by SNP/Scotland haters. ‘Tulloch’ and friends all Ukipers who want to leave Scotland and Europe and stay with UK!

    The ‘Tulloch’ character keeps quoting an old Yorkshire expression which is odd for a Shetlander. But then again so many in the Islands these days are not local anyway, but just pretend to be. In line with their Britishness,I wonder how popular moving WMDs to Shetland would be to these types, irrespective of practicalities, but in principle?

    Their love of the ‘Norse’ is funny as well, considering that Norway is fully independent and the model for most Scottish nationalists. They also appear to universally have a lot of time on their hands and limitless access to quotes and ‘facts’…..could they be ’employed ‘ by their beloved State or am I just a paranoid Cybernat?

    All I can say is that many years ago I lived in Aberdeen, had a girlfriend from Lerwick, hung out with Shetland students (of which there were a large number) and regarded them as a great bunch of fellow Scots from a unique part of our country. Much as the same way that as I perceived the Western Isles crowd, who had an additional language, Gaelic, to add to their identity. Never did any of these people question their Scottish identity.

    The message from these trolls in the ‘Times’ and elsewhere is not necessarily about political belief, it really is about national identity. And what these people seek to do, and have done on this site in other threads, is to divide and conquer the concept of ‘Scottishness’ as essentially being both irrelevant and toxic. There is a concerted campaign by British trolls, paid and unpaid to collude in this narrative. It will not succeed.

    1. Darien says:

      Bang on Lochside. The ukipers in Shetland are mostly from Yorkshire/Lancashire/Englandshire, ditto in Orkney. They can’t stand multiculturalism, or the Scots.

      1. Barraload says:

        that sounds racist to me

        1. Hey plater says:

          Quite right Barra.

          Darien has pointed out a real problem in Shetland where he sees incoming UKIPers failing to integrate – and with the strong stench of racism.

        2. Darien says:

          Ukipers often are, no? But best to check your MI5/BT manual all the same.

  14. Ron Lee says:

    I also have nothing to do with either Facebook or Twitter which seem to me to do nothing to bind people together & indeed sometimes have the opposite effect. Whilst on the subject of binding people together I would like to ask the question of why we need to split the Union of our sisters & brothers in this wonderful United Kingdom when some would favour an alliance with Europe instead & could this not be considered to be traitorous on the whole ?

    Ron Lee.

  15. Hey plater says:

    Hey Platter – thanks for that final comment. You probably have no idea why, but I’m really pleased that anyone else reading this exchange will have that final piece of your contribution.”

    Me too Mark.

    I don’t actually mind your ”Platter” for it shows how far away you are from reality, action and wealth producers. Plater was/is an occupation, a trade. This is alien to you.

    I fear for you as an individual though. I have pointed out a direction to help you, but you really don’t get it. You are at an intellectual dead end and it shows.

  16. What next?. says:

    “Those with mental health conditions should wear wristbands, says Tory candidate for Cambridge”


    What next?, Branding peoples foreheads!!!.

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