Sense of self influenced by visual culture


Think about some of our common sources of entertainment and information that we are exposed to everyday — BuzzFeed, PowerPoints, Instagram, newspapers, Netflix, magazines, textbooks and others. What do they all have in common? They are infused with photographs and visual stimulation.

In a society filled with an overwhelming amount of images — which we are exposed to daily, thanks to up-and-coming technologies and a variety of other innovations — we have turned into an immensely visual culture — and not even always in the literal sense as we see with the examples provided above.

We seem to have this overarching cultural obsession with watching others, while, at the same time, constantly being watched ourselves.

As a result, it is shaping the way we live each day and how we perceive ourselves and others, similar to the psychological phenomenon of the observer effect, where we alter our behaviors due to an awareness of being watched. 

Even on our own campus, such a blatant representation of visual culture exists and manifests itself in a very literal way through the Quad Cam.

On the University of Illinois website, you can actually watch a live-view of everything and everyone on the Quad at any point in time (which I would argue is highly unremarkable content). The same type of public live cam exists at four other campus locations. With the ability to pan, tilt and zoom, these cameras quite literally reflect our own metaphorical cameras — meaning our real-world views — which pan, tilt and zoom in on our surroundings and guide our judgments of others. 

We rely on our sense of sight to such a great extent, in fact, that psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University says that people tend to remember 10 percent of what they hear, 20 percent of what they read and a whopping 80 percent of what they see and do. 

With such an astounding number, visual forums have an immense impact on our judgments and comprehension of the world around us. This differs from some historical times, in which print dominated.

This can become particularly important because I would claim that the most critical part of visual culture is that it shapes our self-perceptions and perceptions of others in a way that makes us stick to norms and expectations.

When thinking about various realms of life — such as the Internet, our criminal justice system and public spaces — we can see how they are all rooted in this visual culture.

In a common example, and one I have written about several times before, is this idea of presenting one’s self in an appealing way to others online (particularly through social media), regardless of who we are offline, which sociologist Erving Goffman would refer to as our “front stage.” 

We are constantly morphing and molding ourselves to meet the expectations of others, and these expectations may stem from images we see in various mass media and may manifest itself in our online presence.

And as we all know, much of our online presence is viewed by potential employers and even university officials to determine their interest in us, which only further emphasizes the importance of our appearance to society.  

Even when looking at our criminal justice system, we are made aware of how closely we are supposedly being watched through this concept of surveillance.

An interesting anecdote to surveillance and our criminal justice system is rooted in another sociological theory of a panopticon. The panopticon represents a particular arrangement of a prison in which prisoners feel they are always being watched by a central guard and how that is supposed to promote good, civilized behavior. 

On the University campus, we feel this same threat of being watched by authority with the overwhelming amount of cameras installed by campus police. As of March of last year, the number of campus surveillance cameras reached 900 with the anticipation of growing, all originating from a mere 13 back in 2008. 

With campus cameras and even those round black cameras we find in many public locations, we are supposed to be instilled with this mindset that we are always being watched, and as such, we need to act accordingly.

Essentially, our visual culture manifests itself in nearly every realm of life. Images and pictures guide our understanding, and we are constantly monitoring ourselves and our behavior because of the constant judgment and surveillance of others, both online and offline.

We dress our best for career fairs, we post flattering profile pictures, we people-watch from the Starbucks on Green Street and we act somewhat appropriately in campus buildings.  

But when it comes to our reliance on these visual means, if you ask me, seeing isn’t always believing.

Nicki is a junior in Media. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @NickiHalenza.