Last summer, I attended a wedding ceremony in Las Vegas. I did not know anyone there. I was not invited as a guest, nor was I present in any occupational capacity; neither was I crashing it. I simply happened upon it.
It's not uncommon to pass wedding parties in Vegas, but this was the first time I had ever chanced upon an actual ceremony being publicly conducted. This wedding took place in front of an artificial waterfall at the center of a shopping mall connected to one of the city's most prestigious hotel/casinos. It might have been a beautiful ceremony but the effect was diminished in a colossal atrium intersected by escalators shifting throngs of casually dressed, disinterested tourists up and down between floors of shops.
A velvet rope cordoned off the sanctified space from the surrounding commotion, segregating participants and invitees from everyone else. Within, invited guests sat in neat rows of chairs temporarily set up for the event. Without, interested onlookers lined the velvet rope, accreting on escalators and second-floor balconies as they gawked, gossiped, and speculated in hushed veneration; a few impassive passersby glanced indifferently in unbroken stride. The fact that the wedding was taking place in the middle of the atrium made it impossible to ignore: one couldn't just walk by without noticing it.
Bride and groom uttered vows amplified by microphones and directed by an impersonal celebrant presiding over the ceremony with a precipitancy akin to playing a movie at one and a half times its normal speed. Nearby, an extraneous dais, swathed in purple cloths and scattered with flower petals, provided a grand resting place for three pianos that were never played; apparently they were present for another event. Instead, music was provided by a violin player of generic appearance who was more formally dressed than either of the two bridesmaids.
Standing, from left: Photographer; celebrant; bridesmaid; groom; bride (behind bridesmaid in blue); bridesmaid; violin player. Note the spectator taking a photo on the escalator in the background.
As I stood at the edge of the velvet rope, dubiety gnawed at me. Why am I here? Why should I care? Why are other spectators so enthralled by the activities of complete strangers? Why would the bridal party even want so many spectators to watch what normally would be a private event? To me, everything seemed anticlimactic, as if the crowds and the commercial venue were sapping a momentousness from the event as it was occurring.
Perplexingly, the situation felt oddly familiar, and I soon realized why. Although the event was happening before me in three dimensions, I felt like I was on the internet.
On the internet, conversations, photos, and thoughts once held private and made privy to only a select few are shared indiscriminately with acquaintances and strangers alike. Social media makes spectators or performers out of all of us, depending on which role we assume or are assigned. This fuels either a narcissistic craving to be the center of attention or a compulsive urge to vicariously participate by watching those who are.
The social media ethos is polarizing. In the "real" world, social relationships used to not be clear-cut; categories of friends and acquaintances were defined in fairly open-ended terms. This is not the case anymore. Social networks and smartphones encourage people to divide each other into groups: "friends" and non-friends, inner and outer circles. These categories determine the interactive potential of their constituents, but not necessarily how much they are allowed to see.
Just as we now categorize each other, all social media participants may be objectively divided into two categories: grandstanders and bystanders. In the case of the internet, the grandstanders are the people creating the content in the form of pictures or words; the bystanders are merely looking at or reading them. The bystanders are only on the consciousness of the grandstanders collectively, insofar as they confer a small amount of value to their spectacle by watching, aggrandizing the egos of the grandstanders and lending weight to their demonstration by providing it an audience.
At the wedding, invited guests could be considered part of the grandstander category because they are present in the inner circle and therefore are part of the supporting cast of the performance. Their digital counterparts might be people commenting on someone else's photos, posts, or conversations. The uninvited guests are the bystanders. Their digital counterparts might be strangers or distant acquaintances looking at someone's published content without the implicit or explicit privilege of participating.
A third category exists behind the scenes: the enablers, who profit from the grandstanders' performances. They are sustained by the interplay between grandstanders and bystanders. In the case of the wedding, the hotel/casino was paid $4,000 for providing the venue. Online, the system of enablers is more complex and less transparent.
The grandstander/bystander/enabler pattern has always been applicable to celebrities, sports figures, writers, and others involved with mass media; but it has become applicable to everyday people publishing personal news via social media. Usually this phenomenon takes place in the digital dimension, where connection to the physical world is indefinite. Increasingly, however, it spills off networks of computer screens and over into the physical world.
By way of social media, the grandstander/bystander paradigm has embedded itself into our sensibilities, revolutionizing the dynamics of social events taking place in three dimensions. Instead of participating in activities on equal footing, all present are divided into groups of invitees and non-invitees. We can watch an ordinarily private event involving complete strangers, such as the wedding that I witnessed, happening before us without being a part of it. In so doing, we are acutely aware that we are mere spectators. A ceremony that normally would take place behind closed doors may be engineered to be viewed by an audience. The participants may bask in the attention of an audience while keeping it at bay with a palpable but nearly invisible line. The separation between invitees and non-invitees is more tenuously delineated than it would be in a private ceremony. In a public wedding, the tangible value conveyed by an invitation decreases, as the only things distinguishing invited guests from the public are a velvet rope, a piece of paper, and a chair. However, this deficit of tangible value is made up for in the way of increased status: enhanced by the presence of the public, the special rank of invited guests is visible to all.
Privacy lends a certain gravity to events like weddings. At private events, invited guests and live witnesses' participation is special and meaningful. The guests' presence is a mutual privilege; it is exclusive. Now, in cases such as this wedding, exclusivity is transferred from the tangible benefit of seeing the wedding, to an intangible subjective benefit of the privilege of seeing the wedding within the rope, visible to all spectators. It also opens up their event to be discussed and critiqued by strangers.
The experience of the wedding is reduced to a shell. The bride and groom value their guests and observers as accessories to a performance. Awareness of the spectators and increased self-awareness under their gaze is a distraction from the actual wedding for both the wedding party and the invited guests. The spectators, in turn, don't care about the people who are getting married. They mean nothing to them; they are complete strangers. Yet the bystanders enjoy watching the wedding because of the idea it represents. They feel important because they have witnessed a life-changing event of someone, even if they are complete strangers. In this way, the grandstanders become accessories to their spectators. They are only important to one another as abstractions, like cartoon characters. The bystanders might as well have been watching a wedding between two animated paper dolls. The idea of the wedding takes precedence over its personal significance.
How do we define "social media"? Generally, it is used to refer to things in the context of the digital world, making its exact definition elusive, subject to the constant mutations of that mercurial arena. Does it necessarily exist only in the digital realm? Perhaps a broader definition of social media is necessary in order to account for ways in which it defines us.
Increasingly, events are only seen as meaningful if they are shared with third parties. This wedding illustrates the extent to which our physical world is currently being defined by principles generated in the digital one. The conventions of social media are no longer confined to digital venues. They continue to distend flat screens, cannibalizing three-dimensional life only to bring it back to computerdom.
I did not stay for the duration of the ceremony. I had more important things to do.