No pleasure has any savor for me without communication. Not even a merry thought comes to my mind without my being vexed at having produced it alone without anyone to offer it to.
—Michel de Montaigne, Essays
A few months ago I started an Instagram account, and since then something funny has happened.
Whenever I go out—whether its on a walk, a trip to a new city, or sometimes even when I’m alone in my room—a part of my brain keeps on the lookout for a good photo. The shimmering reflections in a pond, the crisscrossing angles and vanishing perspective of a cityscape, or any chance concatenation of color and light: I notice these, and do my best to photograph them when they appear.
Now it has even gotten to the point that, whenever I am taking a photo, I mentally plan how I will digitally edit it, compensating for its defects and accentuating its merits— sharpening some lines and blurring others, turning up the contrast and saturation.
I am not mentioning all this to call attention to my photography skills—which are purely amateurish in any case—but to a pervasive aspect of modern life: the public invasion of privacy.
I have learned to see the world with an imaginary audience by my side, a crowd of silent spectators that follows me around. When I see something beautiful, I do not only savor its beauty, but think to myself: “Wow, there are lots of other people who would find this beautiful, too! I better record it.”
This requires a significant cognitive shift. It means that, aside from my own tastes, I have internalized the tastes of others; or at least I have learned where my tastes and that of others tends to overlap. The consequences of this shift are equally significant. A beautiful dawn, the way a certain window catches the sun’s rays, the flowers in bloom on my walk to work—these are no longer silent joys, but public events.
(Incidentally, as I learn to see the world with the eyes of others, something else is taking place: I am learning to see the world through technology. By now I know when something is too far away to capture, or when the lighting will spoil the photo; and I know which defects I can edit and which ones I can’t. This means I have internalized, not only public tastes, but also technological limitations. My seeing is becoming ever-more mediated.)
It is customary to bemoan this development. I have done so myself, many times. Just today, as I walked through Retiro Park, I found myself thinking evil thoughts about all the people taking selfies. “Just stop posing and enjoy the beautiful day!” I thought, and began ruminating on the decline of modern culture.
And indeed, I do think it’s unhealthy, or at the very least in poor taste, to spend all your time on vacation taking photos of yourself and your friends, photos to be uploaded immediately for the benefit of all your other friends. Like anything, taking photos can be taken too far.
Nevertheless, I think it is a mistake to see this phenomenon—the public invasion of privacy—as fundamentally new. As Montaigne exemplifies, in a time long before Facebook, nearly everybody has the urge to share their pleasures with others. Social media is just a continuation of this. Before the internet, all of us publicized our private joys the old fashioned way: telling our friends and family. Adding pictures to Instagram and Snapchat is just an extension of the ancient art of telling anecdotes.
When I was on my trip to Rome, traveling alone, I visited St. Peter’s in the Vatican. It was such an impressive building that I wanted to go “Ooh” and “Aah,” to gush, to blubber in admiration, but I had no one to do this with. Alone, I had to keep my pleasures to myself; and far from being a neutral fact, I think this actually diminished my enjoyment of the experience. Unshared pleasures aren’t quite as sweet.
Why is this? A cynic would say that we share our pleasures as a form of bragging. “Look at the cool thing I’m doing! Bet your life isn’t as good as mine!”—this is what your vacation selfies say to your friends (and rivals) online. I do not deny that the cynic is partially right; bragging is an unavoidable part of social life. Who doesn’t like being envied?
This is the uglier side of the issue; and I think the bragging motivation—never openly said, but operative—is what drives people to take sharing too far. When people see themselves purely in the light of other people, in a giant popularity contest, then they fall prey to a cycle of envy and bragging. Naturally, everybody does their best to be envied; and since only public joys can be envied, somebody in the thrall of this mentality will neglect all purely private forms of pleasure.
Yet I do not think the cynic is totally right. We humans are a social species. Even the most introverted among us likes to spend time with others. And an extension of our urge to socialize is an urge to share our private selves.
Partially, we do this for validation: to have our judgments and perspective confirmed, to feel more ‘normal’ and less ‘strange’. If I think something is funny, it is a relief to know that others find it funny, too. Maybe this is a sign of weakness, a lack of self-confidence; but I think even the most confident among us feels a relief and joy when somebody confirms their own judgment.
Apart from validation, however, I think there is a simple joy in sharing. It feels good to make someone else smile or laugh; it even feels good to share a negative emotion. The feeling of being alone is one of the most painful feelings we experience, and yet loneliness so often creeps up on us. The feeling of connection—breaking through your own perspective and reaching another’s—is a natural joy, as inherently enjoyable as ice cream. Montaigne thought so; and this is also why, despite some misgivings, I enjoy using Instagram.
This is also why I write a blog rather than keep my scribbling to myself. Indeed, I find that, whenever I try to write something purely for myself, I can hardly write at all. The sentences come out mangled, the thoughts are confused, and the entire thing is mess. To do my best writing, I’ve found that I need a public (or at least a theoretical one). The knowledge that someone else might read my writing keeps me focused; it also makes writing far more fun.
Without a reader, writing feels entirely without consequence to me, and is consequently joyless. Montaigne apparently felt the same way, which is why, despite leading a fairly reclusive life in his castle tower, he published several editions of his essays.
It is vanity to seek fame. But is it vanity to wish to share joys and to connect with others, and to be understood by as many people as possible?