Seen, but not too much: the black hole, secrets and stigma
The double bind of visibility in digital society
This paper discusses the concept of visibility and its effects in digital society. Based on the case of an online community art project in Vietnam, I will question how digital forms of life narrative can bring out issues of visibility, and what it means to individuals and communities.
The Black Hole 2.0
King Midas had donkey ears, a secret known only to his barber. But keeping it secret was such a huge burden that the latter could not live in peace. One day, he finally decided to dig a hole and whispered the secret into it. He instantly felt relieved.
If the barber had lived today, he would have easily disclosed the secret without the King’s knowledge, saving himself from so much torment. If he wishes, there is a black hole to put the secret in. In 2014, an emergent Vietnamese artist created an online community art project called The Black Hole – a metaphor for a safe place to release one’s secrets, inspired by the story about the donkey ears. The artist asked people to send him anonymous secrets through Google Forms; in return, he would illustrate them. Artworks and secrets were posted on the project’s Tumblr and Facebook pages. One year later, the artist announced his plan to publish an art book compiling selected illustrations and secrets posted online. This decision sparked a heated debate on whether he had the right to use the secrets for his future book (hereafter referred to as the book controversy) and what effects it would have on the people whose secrets he would be using. Arguments opposing the book's publication strongly outweighed those in favor. Under public pressure, the artist finally gave up on his intention; shortly thereafter, he also stopped working on the project.
Visibility as recognition can lead to empowering effects for people dealing with life issues
Similar projects have had success in bringing their online contents into the offline world, much to their fans’ enthusiasm (see PostSecret and Deep Dark Fears), so why did The Black Hole fail? In this article, I propose to frame this event as an issue of visibility. Not only does this concept capture the nature of the confessional genre as bringing to light one’s darkest secrets, but much of the debate also revolved around the visibility of sensitive topics unfolded in the secrets and their psychosocial outcomes. These topics, usually not openly discussed in Vietnamese society, were put into the spotlight by the book controversy. It is therefore crucial to question the benefits and the limits of increased visibility and its implications for digital society.
Firstly, I will provide definitions of the concept of visibility and explore its different aspects. Secondly, I will examine the effects of visibility, both as empowerment and disempowerment, with a focus on the adverse effects of super-visibility. Lastly, I will discuss the complex process of visibility in relation to orders of visibility and media ideologies.
Visibility as a social process
Visibility, by definition, indicates both the ability to see and the state of being seen. It implies, therefore, a relation between social subjects. Issues of visibility have been tackled in different fields, such as gender and minority studies, communication studies or theories of power. As an interdisciplinary concept, visibility can be examined in relation to many other concepts of sociology, providing a rich and complex framework to interpret sociocultural phenomena, and also a flexible one to apply to the ever-changing landscape of digital media.
It is, however, a challenging task to find literature discussing visibility as a single field; the most prominent one would be the work of the sociologist Brighenti (2007). The author investigates the concept of visibility as an independent sociological category, defining it as lying “at the intersections of the two domains of aesthetics (relations of perception) and politics (relations of power)”. He argues that since there is a relationship between seeing and being seen, there is a question of power and asymmetry, resulting in strategies to negotiate and to manage visibility. This is a political question. This idea will be further explored through different aspects of visibility, such as recognition and super-visibility regarding minorities.
Additionally, Brighenti considers visibility as a field, meaning “when something becomes more visible or less visible than before, we should ask ourselves who is acting on and reacting to the properties of the field, and which specific relationships are being shaped” . He implies that the state of being visible (or not) isn't neutral, but results from interactions between actors. This perspective will help us gain insight into how social subjects acquire visibility, how they are presented and perceived, and how this process could have positive or negative effects on them.
Recognition is viewed by Brighenti as “a form of social visibility”, because of its role in identity construction: being seen means having one’s existence acknowledged by the other. Visibility as recognition would be empowering to minority groups, who often suffer from underrepresentation or misrepresentation by the social majority. However, this is only the case when one stays within a zone of fair visibility, delimited by thresholds of visibility. Below the lower threshold, one is socially excluded and invisible, whereas above the upper threshold, one becomes super-visible, defined by Brighenti as “a condition of paradoxical double bind that forbids you to do what you are simultaneously required to do by the whole ensemble of social constraints”. Brighenti refers to this twofold nature of visibility as “a double-edged sword: it can be empowering as well as disempowering”. Being visible could also mean being subordinated to social surveillance. The other’s gaze recognizes, but also evaluates and moralizes. Deviation from the norm will be noticed, sanctioned and corrected. Naturally, it is people who carry certain markers of identity who are most vulnerable to visibility.
Minority groups, deviance, and stigma
The reputation of The Black Hole is built on the troubling and controversial contents of many secrets that cause the public to be shocked and concerned, leading to criticism of the project. Secret-tellers often demonstrate antisocial attitudes and rejection of social norms. They reveal numerous sex-related issues (child sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, homosexuality), psychosocial issues (depression, suicidal intentions, post-traumatic stress, dysfunctional family relationships, domestic violence), and personal struggles (social anxiety, low self-esteem, existential crises). In general, these are the people who do not fit in with society, who suffer from stigmatized conditions related to their sexual identity, their behaviours, or their mental health, or who simply struggle in leading a “normal” life. Many characterize themselves as “weirdos”, thus auto-excluding from mainstream society. In the context of this study, I propose to consider them as minorities, those who are “singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.” (Wirth, 1945). Another concept that might be useful to understand the status of these secret-tellers is deviance, referring to individuals who violate social norms and are labeled as such. This leads to them being treated as outsiders (Becker, 1963). Lastly, Goffman speaks of stigma as a discrediting attribute that separates the “normals” from the “deviants” (1963). Stigma evokes a sense of disgrace or taboo associated with a particular condition; it results from fears and prejudices surrounding social representations of these conditions.
Secret-tellers find opportunities to gain recognition from others
The secrets that are unfolded in The Black Hole represent a heterogeneous group of individuals who nonetheless share a common characteristic: they cannot fully be themselves and proudly show their identity, because they have to hide certain aspects of themselves that are related to various social issues. These issues are often unaddressed in Vietnamese society, making them underrepresented or invisible. In the following sections, I will explain how The Black Hole could help them gain visibility as recognition, but at the same time make them vulnerable by entering them into the zone of super-visibility.
Visibility: A double-edged sword
Process of gaining visibility
The Black Hole was launched simultaneously on Tumblr and Facebook in January 2014. While Tumblr functioned as the project’s main site, the Facebook page was created as a community page. In the context of this article, I will mostly refer to visibility on Facebook, where, as we shall see, visibility is more problematic. The quantifiable metrics (number of likes, shares, and comments) will be used to assess the visibility of the project, but they are by no means an absolute measurement of visibility. In the first five months, the posts attracted very little attention on Facebook, only around 10 to 50 likes each. Numbers of likes rose up from June 2014 (300 to 500) onwards and by the end of the year, they fluctuated around 1500 likes for each post. Feedback to the secrets and interactions around the posts increased respectively.
The highly personal and intimate characteristics of the secrets might easily induce empathy in readers
The project reached another scale of visibility with the book controversy, as the artist explicitly advertised for the crowdfunding for the book publication (however he stopped after a few days, because people felt displeased by its commercial aspect). Artists in the Vietnamese independent art scene also backed it, endowing it with their own visibility. However, it was the debate that attracted attention from a wider public and gained significant visibility for the project, a situation enabled by the affordances of Facebook, especially with the public articulation of the network (Ellison & Vitalk, 2015). Social ties on Facebook are visibly articulated; for example when someone likes a post on The Black Hole page or writes a comment there, their traces will make the content visible to their friends, who then have the possibility to join in on the discussion. Interactive activities such as tagging, sharing the post to one’s personal profile or adding hashtags to make a post visible to people outside of one’s network multiplied as people got involved in the debate.
This event created a moment of high visibility for the project, a flash and halo – an “instant and limited duration of visibility” characterized by the absence of context and the separation from ordinary settings (Brighenti, 2007). By this I'm referring to people only learning about The Black Hole through the media storm surrounding the book, as shown in a comment: “A few days ago neither I nor my friend circle knew about The Black Hole. Now more than half of them are talking non-stop about it.” The effects could go either of two ways: it can bring awareness to a greater public, or it can lead to distortions. I will further discuss these outcomes of visibility in the next two sections.
Visibility as empowerment
Visibility as recognition can lead to empowering effects for people dealing with life issues, by fostering self-awareness, active self-representation and providing resources for coping.
Firstly, the confession format, along with the anonymity that digital media afford their users, facilitates and encourages the disclosure of topics that are usually not revealed in offline settings, because of embarrassment, shame or fear of moral judgment. Anonymity gives secret-tellers a better sense of safety and better control over their presence as they are not bodily involved. Additionally, formulating one’s thoughts, feelings, and problems into words could help bringing one into being (Harding & Pribram, 2002). This ideographic approach suggests equating digital visibility to being visible to one’s own eyes. In other words: they become visible to themselves in the first place and then to an imagined interlocutor without being completely visible, because it all takes place online instead of offline.
According to Brighenti, this process of making oneself visible is an active one. The secret-tellers in The Black Hole are aware of the publicity their secrets could potentially generate, but they choose to be seen regardless. Sometimes this can be a political act, for instance when they give their testimonies as victims of maltreatment or abuse. By raising their voice, they trigger visibility for taboo subjects and contribute to their representations, a process that might open the way for questioning prejudices. They are also active since they have total freedom to present themselves through texts: it’s not their image that is being seen, but a written version of themselves.
Parallel to self-recognition, secret-tellers find opportunities to gain recognition from others. The ability to reach a large and diversified audience on social media increases their chances of connecting with people sharing similar issues that they might not encounter offline. The organization of social network sites around a focus (Feld, 1981) contributes to this location of like-minded people online. Messages on similarity (“I feel the same”, “I thought I was the only one”) were common among the feedback. From minorities in the offline world, deviant subjects become the majority in a virtual community of their own. The Black Hole gives us a snapshot of a society populated with depressed, socially anxious people or people engaging in extreme and transgressive behaviors.
The highly personal and intimate characteristics of the secrets might easily induce empathy in readers. People on The Black Hole reacted to secrets in many ways. They responded directly to secret-tellers, giving them advice from their personal experience, suggesting to seek professional help or sending messages of support and encouragement – messages to which secret-tellers sometimes replied. Some secrets encouraged people to share their own issues in return. Slowly, a dialogue was ignited between secret-tellers and readers (who were also potential secret-tellers). It can be said that a support group was formed within the fan community of The Black Hole, built on mutual self-disclosure and dialogue about the same subjects. These discussions contributed to the public recognition of sensitive issues and people suffering from them. By making their existence known to others, these people might find a way to counteract their offline invisibility and misrepresentations by gaining online visibility.
This recognition is particularly meaningful in the social context of Vietnam, where a wide range of topics such as sex-related problems, psychological issues, violence, abuse and personal struggles are usually overlooked, if not taboo. There is a lack of professional help and intervention from public authorities in these domains, as well as deep-rooted prejudices surrounding these issues. A digital platform like The Black Hole would compensate for this lack of institutional and social support with online resources for coping through recognition.
What emerges from The Black Hole is a kind of intimate knowledge emanating from ordinary individuals who say things about themselves that they are not supposed to say in the offline world. By revealing things that would not be visible otherwise, digital media disrupts the orders of visibility – defined by Hanell & Salö (2015) as the way in which social structure “renders some types of knowledge […] more credible, more legitimate – and hence more visible – than others”. In Vietnam, the internet has given (mainly young) people a space to produce and access information about taboo subjects, and in a way break the social boundaries of their identity.
However, this visibility is not neutral. To be seen means to be represented in a certain light that may or may not be favorable to their image. Besides, artists often tend to hold over-optimistic assumptions about the therapeutic value of confessions. On the crowdfunding page for the book, for example, the artist of The Black Hole affirmed that sharing secrets had helped people to liberate themselves from anxieties and obsessions, and that the project led to more open-mindedness and respect in society at the same time. Such positive effects are too quickly affirmed and require us to look at the other side of the coin.
Visibility as disempowerment
If visibility is significant to minorities as recognition, which guarantees them social existence, super-visibility indicates a paradoxical condition in which their visibility could turn them into the target of discrimination again. In the case of The Black Hole, the upper threshold of visibility lay at the border between the online world and the offline world, and publishing the book would mean crossing the limit of fair visibility. A move from the online world to the offline world represents a change in orders of visibility, an idea resented by the opponents of the book publication. Their concern might not be irrational, and it reflects people’s thoughts about the medium. The book as a more traditional medium is believed to make the secrets more visible to a broader public and subjugate them to their judgments, which is precisely the reason why secret-tellers did not want to reveal them in the first place. A more practical reason concerns the publishing conditions in Vietnam, which are strongly regulated by the one-party government. In order to be published, a book has to undergo complex and often ambiguous processes of regulation, including registration with the authorities, screening, and verification of the contents. Apart from political texts, contents qualified as “irreverent” or “not in accordance with traditions and customs” could easily be the target of censorship. In this climate, it is not surprising that a book compiling secrets from The Black Hole would fall into the categories of “indecent cultural products”, and stigmatization from traditional media and the general public is a predictable outcome.
Below the lower threshold, one is socially excluded and invisible
Criticism and trolling
The issues unfolded in the secrets are usually potential objects of stigma in the offline world, as they deviate from normality and challenge morality in the context of Vietnamese society, that places emphasis on good conduct and conformity to social norms of behavior. The negative comments posted on Facebook reflect this public judgment, and they increased in numbers as the project gained more visibility. They included trolling, insults, libel, and condemnation of the secret-tellers’ immorality or morbidity (by labeling them as “disgusting”, “sick”, or even “animal”). This was the case with secret #80 in which a guy confessed to having been sexually abusing his little sister for years. The lack of co-presence that encourages self-disclosure here shows a disempowering effect as it facilitates unethical behaviors on the part of the audience (Miller, 2016).
Being seen means accepting to be converted into the object of someone else’s gaze. The act of confessing reflects this process of auto-objectification, as secret-tellers transform themselves (or their stories) into a digital portrait, ready to be consumed by an audience. The predominance of a discourse of self-blame in the secrets (“I have a problem”, “I know I’m wrong”, “I hate myself”) suggests this idea of self-surveillance. Secret-tellers, through the act of writing themselves into words, imagine the possible reception of their story by others, thus evaluating themselves according to social norms. Visibility becomes a means of control over the individual.
In addition, secret-tellers do not have total control over their self-representation as they are seen through the eyes of the artist before meeting the public’s eyes. There is also a selection of secrets to be illustrated. The artist plays the role of a mediator; he controls what is to be seen and how it will be seen. By illustrating the secrets, he engages in a process of objectification, as the stories become materials with an artistic purpose.
Finally, the secrets only offer a one-dimensional representation of the secret-tellers, which is a contributing factor for the insensitive reactions. People only see one side of the story and fill in the blanks themselves to develop their perception of the persons behind the secrets, which leads them to impose their perspective on the other. In this case, the online environment is detrimental to the recognition of minorities in their wholeness.
The contradictory effects of visibility suggest that it is a complicated and highly contextual process, raising questions about managing visibility, which is crucial for minorities in terms of recognition.
Firstly, it is important to determine the thresholds of visibility. The fairness criteria depend largely on people’s media ideologies – “a set of beliefs about how a medium communicates and structures communication” that affects their practices and perception of a medium (Gershon, 2010). We have seen how the online community strongly resented super-visibility in the form of a book, a traditional medium that represents the “danger” of the anonymous and tangible offline world. Differences in media ideologies also exist between different online platforms, namely Tumblr and Facebook. On Facebook, the norms are conviviality and positivity. Publicizing the “dark” secrets on Facebook seems inappropriate and offending to the confessors. Facebook's affordances also put more emphasis on interactions and sociality, making Facebook more like a public space, whereas Tumblr is more associated with a private space. This is why many secret-tellers felt betrayed by the exposure of their secrets on Facebook, an online environment considered as too exhibitionist, disrespectful and intolerant towards differences. To them, super-visibility already came along with Facebook.
What emerges from The Black Hole is a kind of intimate knowledge emanating from ordinary individuals
In essence, secret-tellers confessing to The Black Hole want to be seen, but not too much. They only want to reveal their secrets to a certain degree, a certain audience and in a certain context. At the same time, by sending their secrets to the artist to be illustrated, they already accepted the rules of the game and gave away their control over their own image. If we learn anything from the myth of King Midas, it is that it could take only one other person for a secret to be known by the whole world. The very same process that empowers secret-tellers through visibility could compromise them in controlling their visibility.
The disempowering effects of super-visibility relativize assumptions about the benefits of visibility. They show that visibility is not a means in itself, and there are efforts to be made to use this visibility in favor of certain subjects. For instance, there is no guarantee as to the educational or therapeutic value of simply showcasing illustrations and secrets in their raw forms in a book. Even though the artist insists on the purely artistic purpose of the book, there are social andemotional consequences of exposing highly controversial topics that need to be taken into account. Letting the secret out is not enough.
The Black Hole has been buried. After all the debate, publicity, and criticism, it did not feel like a safe and intimate place to share one’s secrets anymore. Yyet it was visibility that the secret-tellers sought in the first place. Secrets and visibility seem so paradoxical that one risks excluding one from the other. However, confessions on digital platforms demand us to refine the definition of a secret: maybe it is not something “not known”, but “known” and “seen” by a certain public and in a certain context.
What would be the limits of visibility in the digital society then? Is the phrase “what happens online, stays online” still true, especially with regards to people who carry markers of stigma in the offline world? The phrase refers to information about transgressive behavior that must be kept confidential within a circle of people. Online platforms offer precisely this type of environment: a place for self-disclosure and identity experimentation that is relatively consequence-free, as long as it is kept separated from the offline world.
This leads us to relativize the hype around digital media as a tool for optimal visibility. The Black Hole case has demonstrated the contrary: internet users think of the online environment as somehow less visible when it is compared to the offline, tangible world. Maybe the question is not about gaining more visibility, but about gaining a fair one.
Analyzing the project The Black Hole through the framework of visibility has allowed us to explore various aspects of the concept of visibility as a sociological category. On the one hand, digital media create opportunities for taboo subjects to be recognized in a society still constrained by tradition and prejudice. Unfortunately, it is too soon to affirm the empowering effects of visibility, given the difficulty to measure its actual impact on people’s lives. On the other hand, super-visibility can be disempowering, turning minorities into objects of criticism and objectification. Therefore, there are limits to visibility: it depends strongly on the context but also on the process and on the actors involved in shaping visibility.
Despite the adverse effects of super-visibility, the book controversy has encouraged the emergence of public opinions about sensitive issues, opinions that would not be formed otherwise, because of the lack of public space for debate. This leads us to question the role of social media, especially Facebook, as a tool for civic participation. In the case of The Black Hole, even though it only touched a minority of the population (young, urban and active users of social media), it did set the stage for public debate and led to meaningful initiatives such as new communities being formed in response to the issues brought to light by The Black Hole, such as Beautiful Mind VN, a Vietnamese platform providing information on psychological disorders
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