May 3, 2019

Kiss Cam

Last Sunday, while I was at a baseball game (the Phillies vs. the Marlins, at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia), the middle-aged couple sitting next to me made it onto the kiss cam. This is when, between innings, hetero couples in the stands are put on the big scoreboard screen as some song like “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer or John Paul Young’s “Love Is in the Air” plays. Once they realize they are on screen, they kiss, and then the shot switches to another couple. Sometimes fans cheer if the couple is unusually old or unusually passionate, or if one of the partners is reluctant or surly, but usually they just watch. It’s a streamlined, routinized version of the surprise wedding proposal, another occasional stadium sideshow. (Whenever this happens, I always remember a line from some stand-up routine I once saw: “What’s she going to do, say no?”)

The kiss cam is just one of the many between-innings diversions that involve putting fans on display and orchestrating their interest in each other. In the current rotation at Citizens Bank Park are the bongo cam, where people pretend to play along with “Bongo Rock” on cartoon drums superimposed in front of them on the stadium screen, and Simba cam, where parents in the stands hold their baby out over their head in emulation of a scene from The Lion King. I’m not sure if the ethically dubious “emoji cam,” which uses facial-recognition software to turn people in a crowd shot into different emojis, is still in use, but there are lots of other cams that involve people doing dances or other little bits of prescribed performance to earn the privilege of being televised. These are like arena-sized predecessors of the “challenges” that elicit content production on TikTok. But the stakes are slightly different in that you don’t see the views rack up over time (if they do) but instantly see yourself being seen by lots of people — like going viral, but all at once without even trying.

Sometimes people react to being on the big screen by scrambling to take out their phone to record themselves, tying to preserve the moment — like how one might get a selfie with a celebrity after a chance meeting, only the celebrity is also yourself made into something looming and strange. But usually this attempt leads to an awkward spectacle, as the person on screen must pivot from the stadium camera trained on them to focus on their own camera pointed at the scoreboard. They end up with a video of themselves turning away from their moment of glory to look at their phone. In mediating themselves being mediated, they end up athwart the frame.

This underscores the difference between broadcasting yourself — a commonplace that lots of people do everyday — and being broadcast, which seems as elusive as ever, if not more so. For all the time we spend looking at ourselves on screens, there is still apparently something exciting about being chosen for the big screen, about being captured and retransmitted not through an exercise of will but through a fortuitous moment of recognition. That thrill is evident in the stunned glee that settles on people when they see themselves on the Jumbotron; they tend to break into laughter and point at themselves in disbelief. It’s as if they are seeing themselves for the first time in a long time, with a slight lag and then a jolt of recognition. You can watch on their face the transformation of the private person into an object of public display.

When I was incidentally caught in the frame with the kiss-cam couple beside me, I saw this transformation take place in myself. It took me a second to understand what I was seeing on the scoreboard, and then I realized with a wince. Who’s that crumple-faced ghoul? Oh that’s me. And then I winced again at seeing myself wince from what could only seem like a strange, wrong angle to me, from above and to the side. It was like catching an unexpected glimpse of myself in a store window but much worse. I felt even more embarrassed, and my heart was suddenly racing — I was reminded of how much I take for granted the privilege of not normally feeling seen.

In the early days of social media, it seemed like they might disenchant the thrill of being mediated and make television moribund. There were even claims that they would democratize fame, allow everyone to become public figures on their own terms — like scaled-up reality TV. But that was always impossible: Fame is relative by definition. If everybody somehow paid attention to everybody else, it would be the same as if no one did. Besides, most users who aren’t vocationally committed to “influencing” wouldn’t want the kind of scrutiny that comes with genuine celebrity anyway — better to consume it vicariously. After all, as Mark Zuckerberg has now decreed, “the future is privacy.” (Translation: Now that Facebook has normalized commercial surveillance and helped destroy our sense of privacy, it will sell us privacy as a service.)

What social media catered to was the fantasy of exposure, while at the same time offering an illusion of greater control over one’s public image. It could seem like you could present a carefully curated version of yourself, and if you wanted to, you could imagine that lots of people might see it. In reality, social media undermined the kinds of de facto obscurity people were used to and made unflattering reflections pop up unexpectedly. Social media platforms grew not because they were aggrandizing but because they seemed convenient: They made it easy for us to communicate at arm’s length and at scale. It became ordinary to see oneself and all one’s friends as operating overlapping mailing lists. So if there was a newly supported fantasy of becoming “microfamous,” there was also the dull reality of being able to spam and spy on the people you knew.

Getting someone’s attention became superfluous to “communication,” which no longer required a sense of occasion or encounter. As this kind of “frictionless” sociality — where communication is consumed unilaterally and reciprocity is optional or more easily fakeable — became central to so many tech and advertising business models, people were urged to “connect” all the time. As constant contact become routine, it became correspondingly more rarefied and “real” to experience communicative friction — to encounter a medium that is not always on and open to us, one that has limits and can’t be infinitely subdivided into millions of simultaneous channels. In other words, the mundanity of everyday interpersonal broadcasting seems to have actually re-enchanted the idea of “being on TV,” and the idea that this constitutes a higher or purer form of social recognition.

People still wave at television cameras. They still try to angle into position to be captured in the periphery of a local news segment. They even try to get their name on TV by recording events and sending them in to local affiliates. Reality TV and social media have done little to sate or quarantine that impulse to get on TV; if anything, it seems more generalized, more plausible as an aspiration. And even though I found being on the stadium screen mortifying, seeing myself as countless others were seeing me in those few seconds made me feel more concrete. For a moment, I even wanted a do over — I wanted to lean back into the frame and try to look more normal. But by that time the camera had moved on to another couple.

What I felt in that moment — fear, then opportunity — made me think of China’s “social credit” surveillance system. Western media accounts of it (like this one) tend to emphasize its panoptic coerciveness, but as Shazeda Ahmed details in this Logic essay, that may be more of a projection of Western fears about the nature of its own surveillance society. Maybe it seems more like the kiss cam, promoting ostensibly pro-social behavior and collective witnessing. Maybe it serves as a constant reminder to people that they exist.

Ahmed suggests that China’s system is about promoting “trust” between individuals and businesses in the absence of a functioning regulatory regime, and that some of the punishments it doles out through its blacklists are already taken for granted in the West, as when credit scores determine who gets mortgages an car loans, or when travelers end up on no-fly lists. What seems innovative about China’s approach is how the blacklists can be used to make a new kind of media content: “Blacklists are adapting to new media while retaining their original function of shaming people into changing their behavior. The enormously popular social video streaming app TikTok has partnered with a local court in Nanning, Guangxi, to display photographs of blacklisted people as advertisements between video.”

That sounds a bit like being on the kiss cam between innings, only with the opposite valence working through shame rather than approval. But the social credit system intends to work both ways. Ahmed notes that it aims to incentivize good behavior with “red lists,” a prospect that sounds even more totalitarian than the blacklists. It’s one thing to avoid proscribed behaviors, and another to feel compelled to conform to a set of positive actions. When the on-air light goes on, you two should kiss. People who are “red listed” for, say, doing volunteer work apparently get discounts or coupons (is it still volunteering then?), but it is easy to see how they could also get special promotional treatment on social media. In a sense, TikTok users can already “red-list” themselves and not just in China, by using the app and participating in the various algorithm-appeasing challenges. Volunteering ourselves for social media content can be a way to try to confirm our normality, our “social credit” — it’s putting ourselves out there for a specific kind of accountability that plays out in likes and comments.

An apologist for the social credit system (and social media) might argue that blanket surveillance democratizes participation in the schema of social recognition. If everything is seen, nothing special to share is required; in fact, it is better to have nothing unique to contribute, so your willingness to cooperate, to pose dutifully for the camera, from whatever angle they are pointing at you, stands out more starkly. One minute you are your spouse are just passing time at the ballgame not saying much; the next minute everyone is cheering your exemplary love for each other. The camera elicits a social performance, which in turn becomes a lived reality and not so much of a performance at all but a sort of apotheosis.

What I didn’t fully realize until Sunday was that couples are asked beforehand whether they want to be on the kiss cam. I assumed that they were taken by surprise and didn’t have the option of consent, like when a stand-up comedian singles out audience members for ridicule. But they get a few moments to prepare. The couple beside me took that time to give their phone to someone in the row behind them to record it, so they didn’t have to spoil their own moment. After it was over, they got their phone back, and I peeked over at the footage as they played it back for themselves. (There I was again. Ugh.) Then I imagined their choreographed big screen moment spreading out to even more screens as they texted it to friends or maybe loaded it to Facebook or Instagram. It wasn’t exactly the sort of infinite recursion that happens when you point two cameras at each other, but it reminded me of that. There was no “real moment” that wasn’t already mediated; rather the cameras made an illusion of depth real, they make it stretch on forever.

In seasons past, the kiss cam segment would end not with a kissing couple but with a zoomed-out shot of a guy sitting alone in the cheap seats as the music changed to Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself.” I always thought this was a pretty weak joke, and I would get mad that it sort of worked on me — for a moment I would actually feel sorry for the person being interpellated as lonely. Suddenly it would seem that that person was the requisite sacrifice for all the formulaic expressions of love that preceded them. They might have been just sitting way up there, not lonely but alone, enjoying the game on their own terms, not unlike the way I often take in baseball games during the week, by myself in front of a computer screen. But the kiss cam reveals that this wasn’t a state of relaxation at all but one of dormant vulnerability, awaiting a camera to drag them back to the world. I would watch the solitary person on the stadium screen and hope they didn’t even notice they were on there, since no one was near enough to let them know.