Social media and a culture of voyeurism

We are increasingly spending more time on voyeuristic apps that allow us into peoples lives and vice versa. But why do people consume other people’s social media content, sometimes to the point of obsession?

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, Periscope and numerous other apps have dominated our online activity over the last five years. 74% of online adults use social networking websites to interact with friends, family and strangers. We are indeed increasingly spending more time on voyeuristic apps, that look into people’s lives and let other people look into your lives. As of September 2014 71% of online adults use facebook, 26% use instagram and there has been a 10% increase to 52% of online adults using 2 or more social media sites from 2013 to 2014.

Illustration of someone using a phone and laptop

We know the statistics and big data surrounding social media but miss the more important question, why do people consume other people’s social media content, sometimes to the point of obsession? The answer lies in the analysis of human behavior in the form of ethnography and in-context research.

We consume other people’s blogs, photos, videos at an incredible rate, the average online user spends one hour and forty minutes on social media outlet per day. Therefore, more people are participating in other people’s lives: scrolling through newsfeeds, photos, status updates as well as contributing their own content. Facebook and Instagram are social media platforms that are based on the past and immediate past. Photos and videos posted have been captured, edited and then posted online that tell the crafted stories of users lives for others to enjoy.

The transformation of social media has been in the development of live streaming apps like Twitter, Periscope, and Beme, which share content in real time, broadcasting video to an international audience. Therefore, at any one moment we can watch someone eating a burger in Manila, riding the subway in New York, or walking to work in Toronto. The emphasis of these broadcast live-streams is the public aspect them, they aim to create global communities of streamers that can easily find each other through open social networks like Twitter. Broadcasts are are usually mundane slices of life, but what makes them popular is that they permit voyeuristic behavior.

One unusual phenomenon that is popular in South Korea is Muk-bang, which literally means ‘eating broadcast’. This involves people, usually attractive young men and women live streaming themselves eating enormous servings of food while chatting away to those who are watching. These people are called ‘broadcast jockeys’ and audiences can interact with them instantly via a chat box.

So why are so many people tuning in to watch other people eat ridiculously large amounts of food? To understand this we need to get a holistic understanding of the culture and context that this phenomenon is set in, which would be gathered by ethnographers in the field. Muk-bang’s popularity is due to a few cultural specific reasons: firstly in eating is an extremely social and communal activity and so those who are feeling lonely can virtually eat with a broadcast jockey. Another reason is that those who are dieting can vicariously eat through the Muk-bang hosts. Added with the intrigue factor, it has soon become an international internet phenomenon.

Therefore, has technology turned us into a society of peeping toms?

The short answer is yes… well, sort-of. We are indeed participating in these voyeuristic behaviors more and more, but this is because we are psychologically wired and socially cultured to. In other words, it’s not your fault that you spend hours aimlessly trawling through random people’s photos, videos and social media profiles, we are evolutionarily pre-conditioned to be curious about the world around us, especially in regards to social relationships.

Biologically, we are programmed to be curious creatures. We have evolved to retain neotenic traits, in other words, as a species we are more childlike than other mammals. Curiosity is one of these neotenic traits that has helped our species to survive as we constantly look for new information to adapt to our environment.

Social media sites, such as Facebook also activate the brain’s reward centre, called the nucleus accumbens. When we get positive feedback on social media sites, in the form of likes, hearts or comments our brain processes rewarding feelings. Therefore, we become addicted to consuming other people’s social media content as well as posting our own content.

Cultural and social influences also contribute to our social media obsessions. People are coaxed into joining social media networks by friends and family as a way to keep in contact constantly. Social media lurking and stalking has also become a communal activity whereby friends, co-workers, or even acquaintances do run-downs of a Facebook profile. Social media, therefore, becomes something to talk about between people.

We need to look beyond the big data of what the numbers state to examine what the numbers mean. A shallow look at the data would merely show that there is a correlation between increased use of social media platforms and increased voyeurism. Through ethnographic and behavioural research we can understand the psychological and cultural reasons of why people do the things they do. In this case, people are biologically programmed to be curious creatures and are culturally influenced to participate more and more on social media platforms.