Online private webcam streaming is in its golden era with several websites and streaming platforms catering to specific needs ranging from gaming, cooking, music and pornography, the list goes on. In this blog post a focus will be made on the predominantly videogame streaming platform, Twitch and will explore the concepts of empowering exhibitionism where individuals reject societal norms that encourage them to anonymize and are empowered by televising themselves. This blog post will also look at the concept of empowering exhibitionism through the tower of Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the panopticon and the role it plays in the modern digitized age.
In 2003 Hille Koskela, a researcher at the university of Turku in Finland wrote an article about webcams and empowering exhibitionism. In the paper ‘Webcams, TV Shows and Mobile phones: Empowering Exhibitionism' an epistemological groundwork is laid in regard to how and why in a society heavily surveilled by security cameras, a sole individual would choose to pull a reversing act and exhibit their private lives to all. (Koskela 2003)
More than a decade has passed since Koskela’s paper was published, it is worth noting that the digital landscape has gone through tremendous seismic shifts since 2003. The social media and tech giants we know today were not yet conceived, there was no Facebook, no Twitter or YouTube. It is also worth noting that not everyone had entered the nexus of connectivity in the same fashion as present day. Technological breakthroughs in telecommunications, computing power, internet speed and data storage have played a vital role in this. Even the term Web 2.0 was just in its infancy in 2003. (Graham, Paul)
Through the democratization of social media and technology we’ve reached a point in time where almost everyone has access to a digital device or has their data uploaded in one way or form to a social media entity be it Facebook or LinkedIn.
The world changed drastically after Edward Snowden leaked information linking the United States National Security Agency (NSA) and the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to them harvesting and sharing private data of their citizens. This data ranged from phone call recordings, to Facebook posts, and internet search histories. (MacAskill et al., 2020)
The revelation that governments were breaching privacy policies by siphoning data without individuals knowing changed the rhetoric behind privacy and internet surveillance, especially in the name of national security. Nowadays one cannot visit a media website without being inundated by several notifications asking for approval to collect cookies.
This paradigm-shift in the way we upload, perceive and digest data online makes the individual question who has access to their data and how is it utilized? More importantly how is data being surveilled.
Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher theorized the concept of the panopticon in the 18th century. This concept visualizes a circular prison complex in which there is a central tower that overlooks all of the cells. The tower contains a watchman and in the cells there are prisoners. The tower is in an advantageous position to shine a light on whichever inmate, with full vision of their cell. The important factor present in the concept of the panopticon is that the optics are asymmetrical, inmates do not have vision of the watchmen, it is a one-way form of vision and surveillance. Asymmetrical optics ensures inmates are never truly aware of if or when they are being observed, so assume, they are always under observation. This concept is mainly theorized for the use of control by other philosophers such as Michel Foucault. (McMullan, T., 2020.)
There is truth and realism in the concept of the panopticon, prisons, libraries and even schools have influences of this ideology built into their architectural features.
Just as the panopticon may be a model for power and surveillance in a prison complex, it is also used in the digital sense. The concept of the panopticon transcends the default prison analogy as well, watchmen do not specifically have to be jailors but can be advertising agencies, world governments or hacktivists or even your everyday regular individual, depending on the context.
Neo-Panopticism is the panopticon concept in a modern digitized context where we are unaware of when or if our data is being perused by an entity we may or may not be aware of. It can be argued that whistleblowers like Edward Snowden have broken the panoptic process by pointing a light back at the tower to unveil who is surveilling the publics data.
The panopticon morphs into a polyopticon where all stakeholders except governmental agencies are observed, both knowingly and unknowingly, therefor the asymmetry in the traditional panopticon is compromised.
Private Webcams, Cameras and Exhibitionism
“Anybody may watch anybody, anytime. Cameras view a huge range of spaces and activities from public urban space to private summer cottages, from industrial manufacturing processes to babies and their nannies, from military targets to the internal organs of human beings.” (Koskela, 2003)
Webcams have come a long way from the 1994 San Francisco Fogcam, the oldest webcam which was used to observe weather changes. They are more robust, smaller, cheaper and accessible as they have been integrated into laptops, and telephone devices. It is fair to say that the ability to video oneself has also been democratized. From Silicon Valley US to Nairobi Kenya there is an equal ability to maintain a video call or to simply document an event with a private camera.(Koskela 2003)
For individuals with highspeed access to the internet, the ability to become digital individuals has risen. This is done through televising oneself through platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. Koskela acknowledges this occurrence and calls it the ability to ‘reclaim the copyright of their own lives’.
Examples of televising lives can be seen in YouTubers that upload daily vlogs of their lifestyles or Instagram influencers who broadcast themselves live to their audiences. This new phenomenon slightly alters Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon and morphs it into a polyopticon, where all stakeholders except governmental agencies are observed, both knowingly and unknowingly, therefor the asymmetry in the traditional panopticon is compromised.
JenniCAM and Empowering Exhibitionism
Jennifer Ringley asleep on stream
Hille Koskela explains that empowering exhibitionism is an increasing act where people reject the shame of anonymity online and are empowered by copyrighting and televising themselves to the public on the internet. This can be seen in live streams on twitch, and Youtube vloggers who display every intimate aspect of their lives for the public eye. There is a level of voyeurism to it especially when it involves vloggers who live stream.(Koskela 2003)
Jennifer Ringley is known as the first ‘life-caster’, she ran a webpage called JenniCAM in which she broadcasted her life in its rawest form. She broadcasted every moment included ones that are societally taboo to broadcast, such as one’s sex life. Her website in its time received almost a 100 million visitors weekly. (Lanxon, Nate)
Perception on broadcasting ones life has dramatically changed from the time Jennifer first went live in 1996. There are societal norms regarding privacy that many accept as general rules and going against them can make someone be viewed as an outsider. JenniCam highlights the Foucauldian idea that of control of the body by society that dictates what can be shown and what should not. The empowerment in exhibiting oneself comes from the liberation of societal shame in exposing yourself, Koskela eloquently states the following:
“Home webcams challenge this understanding, too. By presenting intimate pictures of private life, their owners refuse to play ‘the game of bad conscience’. They rebel against the modesty and shame embedded in the conception of the private. They may be ‘normal’ in some sense but they are also automatically outside some of the conventional notions of normal, exactly because of their cameras. They refuse to be humble which, to my opinion, is the most interesting point in the whole phenomenon”(Koskela 2003)
The focal streaming platform in this paper will be the popular streaming platform called Twitch.
Twitch is an online video streaming platform which was created in 2011. It started originally as a platform for gamers to stream themselves playing videogames for their fans to watch live and react to in the streams chatbot.
Over time the website has included more categories for live streaming, diversifying from just gaming topics to that of ‘In Real Life’ streams or IRL streams. These streams range from individual’s life streaming themselves backpacking through southeast Asia, to people hosting live political debates to others cooking in the comfort of their kitchens. It can be argued that content creators on twitch all subscribe to the empowered exhibitionist culture and it can also be argued that Twitch has furthered the normalization of exhibiting oneself to a broad global audience, as the website has 3 million monthly creators.
The standalone gamer streamer has evolved into a community where televising daily activities for viewers to watch is the norm.
A cooking stream
This ties back to the panopticon concept however, in a neo-panoptic society on a website like twitch, viewers are in the tower and have options as to which cell they choose to observe. However, in the context of Twitch viewers, ‘lurkers’ are individuals who do not make themselves known to the streamer thus driving the idea that optical asymmetry can be problematic in the power relations of the panoptic theory.
Twitch has guidelines that limit it from the likes of JenniCAM where nothing was altered, and her entire life was made visible. These rules and terms of services were put in place in hopes that its users would respect them. However problems do arise in terms of parity in what the sexes may broadcast. The ‘shame’ aspect that Koskela previously states comes to play as broadcasters are still limited to certain acts they can or cannot broadcast, primarily sexual acts or the showing of nipples which men can show but women cannot.
A male streamer shirtless
In early 2021 a new trend started that tested Twitches guidelines and shone a light on the community and how they react to women’s bodies on the platform. The ‘Hot tub Meta’ was a trend on Twitch, where mainly women, would stream from the inside of a hot tub while wearing a bikini. Twitches guidelines had stated that such clothes can only be worn on a stream if it is appropriate for the activity, and for being in a hot tub it was. The controversy started as predominantly male viewers thought that twitch was drifting too far away from having a core gamer base and that sexual content should not be allowed on stream for the safety of minors. While the safety of minors was the main argument put forward the controversy bordered towards harassment and sexualization of female streamers. This resulted in Twitch having to state that being ‘Too sexy’ is not a reportable offense.
Amouranth a popular streamer during a hot tub stream
The empowerment aspect of hot tub streams can be linked to owning one’s sexuality with the added benefit of monetary gain. One of the biggest contradictions of gamers who are against the hot tub meta is that the ladies in hot tubs are taking away their viewership because they are utilizing their bodies to gain views and followership.Twitch however allows you to choose what you want to watch and more importantly who you watch. They will only show you hot tub content if the algorithms have caught unto the fact that the viewer is interested in viewing such streams. It ultimately comes down to the notion of punishing women for their bodies. How much skin a woman can show on stream has been debated by men, with women with larger breasts being automatically categorized as derogatory terms like Twitchthot, or Titty Streamers, which diminishes their work and relegates them down to sex objects for the male gaze. This isn’t an issue localized to Twitch as a platform but a societal problem.(Farokhmanesh, 2021)
In our present time people are at a crossroads regarding privacy, on one side we are made aware of the dangers and breaches done by governments and companies who harvest data for uses we are unaware of. Equally we are at a moment in history where there is liberation from societal norms and especially the idea of shame is dismantled by empowered exhibitionism. Individuals feel comfortable in their skin to broadcast to the masses yet apprehensive in private as to who is collecting their data. The panoptical pendulum swings both ways, from a vertical perspective it is rigid in the traditional panoptical way designed by Bentham, but horizontally it is a polyopticon where individuals are both the watchers and the watched. This polyopticon example can be seen on Twitch where the community watches itself and the idea of a central tower seems almost meaningless.
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