Social Media as Mirror of Erised

February 09, 2023

By Pranjali J. Mann

With social media providing space for self expression, feminist scholars question if this space remains caged and monitored.

Wondering what all our CMNS undergrad courses have in common, besides scholarly readings from Milton Friedman, Janet Abbate, Fred Turner, Karl Marx, Lisa Nakamura and others? A critical lens to examine information systems around us. Social media — the place where we often find ourselves strolling during the day — is central to the information ecosystem and public sphere. 

Take Instagram, for example: I love the app! Why shouldn’t I? It’s everywhere, allows me to connect with peers in an 8:30am lecture, provides the celebrity gossip and gives inspo for my chic girl outfits. I can also post my unlimited skyscape snippets! I can express myself freely, and so can you. 

Or maybe not.

Content from People of Color is often subjected to content removals and shadow banning. While we scroll through Instagram reels, our preferences curate what we want to see. But with 73% of female social media users abused online (2019 report: in-pandemic stats are worse), the internet doesn’t seem to be the free space it ought to be. Not to forget, these abuse and violence stats don’t typically look at the intersectionality of race, class and income on this scale. Plus, the mental, emotional and psychological repercussions are many. 

More indirect implications of online self expression include those presented by scholars like Lisa Nakumara and Anna Lauren Hoffman. They note that through the online presence of women and People of Color, they are considered “objects of the biometric and surveillance gaze, as they have always been.” Gendered surveillance has more far reaching effects than personal privacy breach. I’d argue that social media’s seen-ness is virtu-veillance (virtual + surveillance) and data violence at its best. The free platforms also provide a patriarchal gaze and peer comparison on a 24/7 basis. And obvious extraction of free labor (gendered platform capitalism) – that’s what a free capitalist system does anyway. 

To escape this surveillance and sexualized gaze in some way, trans women and gender- nonconforming individuals resorted to online anonymity and use of pseudonyms. This fear led usage of media, stereotyping and discrimination is nothing new. Danger of being disproportionate targets of hate, violence and abuse is nothing new. Gender, in the past, has been used as a lever for oppression and subjugation of women. Only new aspect is that the offline patriarchal control and surveillance is now translated online.

The “desperate desire” of the female heart to get liberty and freedom still remains. Social media created a space to express, but the space remains caged and monitored. In this sense, social media is the Mirror of Erised, showing us what we could do and have, but lacked  agency in actual sense to make it happen. There’s a lot more to say… but I’ll leave you to think if the social media and ‘neutral’ internet is recreating discrimination and hurting females all over again? Is there an alternate way we can imagine our futures of online presence?