The Uncanny Valley is a term coined by Masahiro Mori: a roboticist in the 1970s who plotted a graph visualising how the empathy levels of human beings towards robots will increase as the realism of the robot increases. However, “the graph showed a significant dip at the point where the robot’s resemblance to a human is perceived to be almost exact.” Essentially, it’s as if human beings cannot handle their own ability to create such a realistic yet false representation of another human being. Nearly fifty years on from Mori’s graph, I cannot help but think about the relevance of his graph in relation to the connection we have with others online. At what point would the graph dip when we over-connect with people’s online personas? When do the people we were once excited to follow become dehumanised? I spoke with five young social media users about where the line is drawn for them, particularly for those who use the internet as a platform for their work, identity and art.
It makes sense to start thinking about what makes us feel connected in order to trace the origins of disconnect. Maisie Pearson, a 20 year old fashion student, tells me that she follows, “people whose lives bear no resemblance to my own – because it’s interesting to see a wide scope of lifestyles that otherwise I would have no access to. [Otherwise] I use Facebook primarily for seeing what my close friends from school are doing in all their different locations. I don’t feel as though any of my friends really have any element of online persona to their social media output, so it’s mostly just pictures of them doing stuff. It’s been lovely to see my friends living such happy lives, even though I can’t see it with my own eyes at the moment.”
27 year old Laura Kirwan-Ashman, co-founder and screenwriter of female film collective and web series ‘Sorta Kinda Maybe Yeah’, explains that “most of the self-educating I’ve experienced in the past few years, particularly in terms of becoming woke and learning about identity politics, has come from social media. It’s also been an integral part of my promoting my work, as well as forging relationships within the rad DIY, self-publishing scene that’s flourishing in London at the moment. I am most inspired by images, posts, articles etc that celebrate and explore identity politics, whether that be discussions of systemic racism or just women, non-binary & LGBTQ + people expressing and representing themselves.”
“Marginalised voices now have a more democratic space in which to speak out”
So we could say that our emotional response to others thanks to the Internet, if it were plotted as an uncanny valley graph, has actually increased post-Internet. Marginalised voices now have a more democratic space in which to speak out and share their work and real life shyness can be done away with in order to connect with other likeminded people, whose primary platform of self expression is also not the spoken word or physical mannerisms.
Judith Klempner, a 24 year old fine art student and DJ/founder of London EBM night Proteus elaborates, “I’m reluctant to say too much online as I don’t feel I have the ability to put into words all that I mean… I love Instagram because it becomes a scrapbook of semi-conscious, revealing moments. People always misrepresent themselves through text, whilst images can be more revealing.”
But at what point do the scales tip between over-curating and over-sharing? Dancer and actor Lee Bridgman tells me, “I don’t really get FOMO from people’s posts, but I do get negative feelings from posts that I know don’t feel real from people. When they’re posting purely to look cool or try and make them self appear like they’re living a different life.” It’s an interesting idea; that people are very much aware of trying to make themselves look like they are busy and having fun. Is it for the control over one’s image, or the validation that they are worthy people, or even to make others feel jealous that they just weren’t there too? And if one is finding the time to share every experience, are they even experiencing it all? I think most people are social media savvy enough to take the sharing of experiences with a pinch of salt. A perfect photo doesn’t necessarily signify a perfect experience – it’s simply good curation. Maisie would “definitely only expel a tiny fraction of myself onto the internet, and thats also what I presume everyone else does, in the same way that I wouldn’t tell a stranger on the bus my entire life story because it just doesn’t really seem appropriate to me.”
“Ideas of perfection and being ‘proper’ have long been associated with female identity and that often involves keeping certain things hidden or not talking about them because they’re ‘taboo’ or ‘unladylike'”
However Laura sees the political potential in over sharing: “I’m a chronic over-sharer in every aspect of my life. I believe in radical softness and am really interested in the concept of exploring my identity in a very warts and all kind of way. I think that ideas of perfection and being ‘proper’ have long been associated with female identity and that often involves keeping certain things hidden or not talking about them because they’re ‘taboo’ or ‘unladylike’ etc. I like breaking that down and showing my hairy armpits or a photo of me looking kinda gross, and using self-deprecating, tongue-in- cheek humour in my photos, statuses, posts, captions etc. I think there’s power and confidence to be found in that.”
But what about when our own confidence within ourselves backfires into making others less confident about themselves? Laura tells me about her discomfort with young girls’ idolisation of those that they follow. “[I get more negative feelings] when I witness other people reacting to online content. Sometimes I allow myself to get sucked into the comments on posts which is never a good idea. I also find it pretty disturbing when I stumble across these young, pretty girls who seem to lead pretty average lives and don’t really do anything but have tens of thousands of followers, and other even younger girls commenting like ‘I’M OBSESSED WITH YOU, YOU ARE EVERYTHING #GOALS’ – a lot of the idolisation is often about how much they want to look like this person or envy the way their body is. Sometimes I also might get negative feelings from looking at other young talented girls just because they’re so young and have already achieved so much more than I have. But my admiration for the hope they give me for the future far outweighs that. I’ve got a lot better at accepting that my own journey is different from others’ and is actually more similar to most people I know. It took me a while to figure things out and that’s OK.”
Judith elaborates: “Self comparison to others is always extremely difficult, the sense of inadequacy that it brings. I see others and want to celebrate them, but even in appreciation there is an element of self depreciation. When I was younger I would obsess over my weight and face, I’d look at photos of thin girls pretty girls and it would devastate me. It’s still hard. Also, the line between pride and smugness? Pretentiousness, a little too much ego and impenetrability.” Laura concludes that, “obviously I’ll take fifty selfies before I’m happy with one, but I know that everybody does that. I don’t assume people don’t.”
So much of the internet, then, feels like a minefield of assumption towards others. We are given the allusion that we could stalk anyone enough and subsequently know a lot about them. And yet these facts still might not give us any representation of who they are in reality at all.
“Why be yourself and have one persona online, when you can have 20 Instagram accounts and be completely different in each one of them?”
18 year old Karim Boumjimar, who describes what he does as, “trolling people and experimenting with my body using different approaches” interestingly uses the idea of appearing to live a different life to the advantage of his work – predominantly on his Instagram account @beigetype. “I mostly use the Internet to create different personas, and experiment with the viewer … People from London have blocked me and hate me IRL because of my online persona without any reason and it’s because people believe that whatever your internet persona is, is probably what you truly are in real life. [But] why be yourself and have one persona online, when you can have 20 Instagram accounts and be completely different in each one of them? [Online], I’m always hiding nipples and bellybutton because Karim has them, but Beigetype doesn’t.”
Karim’s humour towards playing with the perceptions of his online audience is surprisingly refreshing. It is interesting to see how far he can push the buttons of those behind a screen and a keyboard, and the trolling he receives back for it. It’s almost an intentional experiment to see how disconnected one can make their online selves become from their audience. Who is the real Beigetype? He doesn’t exist, and the puppeteer behind them is someone else altogether, called Karim.
So in relation Mori’s Uncanny Valley graph, one could say that our unease towards a replica of a real human being can be diminished by reminding oneself that its purpose is simply not to be the authentic self in the first place but instead its own entire entity. “How you’re curating yourself online is probably less important than curating your little internet world; who you follow, the sites you visit, the content you consume,” explains Laura. “Follow people who inspire you, but think carefully about why they inspire you and make sure it’s in a positive way, not in a way that makes you feel jealous or worthless. What people have to say for themselves is more important than how they and their lives look, or appear to look. Concentrate on yourself, and having rad people around you IRL. The more you do that, the less you’ll need to search for external validation and the less the URL bullshit will affect you.”