Social Media: Have We Built a Society without Closets?
Today, we are all familiar with with what it means to be closeted. In fact, coming out has become among our most widely recognized cultural narratives. No doubt, large swaths of the American landscape still present environments hostile to sexual preferences that deviate from prevailing hetero-patriarchical norms, but progressive circles, and increasingly, society writ large, have embraced the belief that coming out (i.e., rending oneself visible) is the road to empowerment. If this is true, the queer community should be more empowered than ever. Social media allows for unprecedented levels of visibility. Broadcasting your sexual preferences to the world is never more than click away.
I, for one, am dubious as to the promise of ever-greater visibility for the queer community and its political struggles. And, I am not alone. In 1999, Steven Seidman, Chet Meeks, and Francie Transchen wrote and essay entitled, “Beyond the Closet,” in which they argued that the closet is not merely a symbol of oppression, but also serves to create an important space for safe experimentation. Their call for ambivalence toward the closet was simultaneously a critique of the culture of visibility – of “mass exhibitionism.”
Queer youth in the latter several decades of the 20th Century famously fled the pastoral trappings of their hometowns to form accepting urban communities. In doing so, they were able to escape the normalizing gaze of their families, teachers, and other locals. Newfound anonymity (invisibility?), in essence, gave these youth the freedom to establish their own identities and, ultimately, the confidence to assert these identities in the face of others’ opposition.
Social media, however, is a technology that allows for all those people who we know or, even, don’t know, to project their gaze on us, reaching across continents. Because the closet only exists out of sight, social media, as a gaze-enhancing technology, threatens the very existence of the closet itself. For this reason, the queer community may have more at stake in the politics surrounding these newly emerging technologies than other groups, particularly with respect to privacy debates. We must ask ourselves: What can be done to create a queer-friendly Internet?
While these issues might be most salient for the queer community, the metaphor of the closet speaks to us all. We all have our own closets. These closets help us to discover who it is we want to be and give us the freedom undergo the process of change. I do not want to sound overly pessimistic. Social media does also serve as a tool to build and maintain sub-communities, connecting people with similar experiences in ways that might not otherwise be possible. What I take issue with is the notion that greater visibility is always better for individuals or communities. In an age of hyper-visibility, closets might actually be worth fighting for.