There is something miraculous about how video conferencing allows you to see a loved one or a stranger across a great distance. It is like God’s eye. But it is ultimately disappointing. There is something of a synecdoche for all of social media to be found in the fact that video conferencing technologies like Skype allow for the miracle of face-to-face conversation, but, in its inability to allow its users to achieve eye contact, strip that primary encounter of its most essential feature – of that which makes a face-to-face encounter worthwhile in the first place. Similarly, through social media, we are able to share more than ever before, able to multiply our image and share it with world in an instant. But there is no contact. The “sharing” has become impoverished, no longer containing within it the liberating possibility of mutuality, of sharing-in.
By “sharing” without contact – sharing without recognition of the other– social media simulates the forms of accountability we see in the physical world, and in doing so expands the reach of anonymity. Online, we are more able to be anonymous than ever; in fact, we cannot escape it. In an ephemeral world of pixels and light, this anonymity feels strangely permanent. In the absence of eye contact in video conferencing, we see that even the primal scene of accountability – the face-to-face encounter – is shot through with anonymity, with the sense that the experience is unreal, that it doesn’t count, that both parties retain some plausible deniability that it is happening at all. We cannot answer the question “who?” This anonymity is not simulated; it is an experience native to an internet which, rather than finding some authentic source for its ethics, relies on – and is subordinate to – metaphorical approximations of the physical world. Rather than finding something other than eye contact to ground our online ethical relations, we are trying to digitally correct our eyes.