Recently, I learned that the animatronics in the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland never turn off.
After all the park visitors go home, all of the lights turn off; after the music stops and the gates are locked, the little dolls don’t stop moving around the track. The tiny, smiling figurines keep waving and dancing and swinging around their fake little lassos. In the dark. In total silence.
In one word: scary. In three: really fucking scary.
That sense of unease we feel isn’t novel — it’s derived from a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley, a term used to describe that eerie feeling we get when we see something not-quite-human. Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term in 1970 after realizing that the more a robot resembled a human being, the more empathy a person would feel toward it. But, once it passed a certain threshold — once the robot looked practically identical to a human without being quite indistinguishable — people started feeling unnerved.
It’s that not-quite-rightness that makes the animation of “The Polar Express” just a little creepy, and sends a shiver down your spine when you answer the phone to a particularly life-like automated voice. Think of the movie “WALL-E” in contrast — he doesn’t attempt to look human and in fact looks classically robotic. So, we feel none of the same eeriness we feel toward the characters in “The Polar Express.”
The animatronics in “It’s a Small World” don’t look all that realistic. Their bodies are fairly small, all of their facial features are extremely rounded and their movements are simple and isolated — an arm going up and down to hit a drum, hands clapping.
What’s uncanny about them, though, is that they continue to perform, even when they don’t have an audience.
I learned about the ride’s eerie fact on Instagram — where I consume the ultimate mix of pictures of people I know, pictures of people I wish I knew and loads of useless information I’ll never have an application for.
But the uncanny valley isn’t restricted to animation and robots. As technology creeps more and more into our lives — and our lives creep more and more into the realm of technology — aspects of our reality may begin to feel uncanny — mainly social media.
Think about the act of posting on Instagram: You craft a post aimed at no one in particular and send it off to a faceless mass of followers to judge your digital footprint.
But, just like the “Small World” ride, you have no idea whether your online audience is there. Hundreds of people might be looking at your photo at any given second. Or none might be. Either way, it becomes part of your profile, the digital approximation of “you.”
Just like the dolls engaged in their ceaseless dance in California’s Disneyland, still dancing as I’m typing this, there is no “off” button for our digital personas. Our digital selves work around the clock.
I know plenty of people who have taken “social media breaks” to temporarily escape the pressure of that online image. But even when people have checked out and deleted the app, their digital approximation is still there. Unless they fully delete their account, their public image remains published, waiting to be looked at, judged. Just like the tiny, spinning animatronics, our profiles are always performing, regardless of whether or not anyone’s there.
Still, this reality doesn’t give me the same chills as poorly done CGI or hyper-realistic baby dolls. If social media functions in a way much similar to the characters in the “It’s a Small World” ride, why doesn’t it feel as unsettling?
Maybe it’s because we’re able to distinguish between social media and real life fairly easily. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read or heard something telling me not to trust the things I see on social media. It’s a highlight reel. It’s touched up. It’s a competition to see who has the most friends, whose life is the most aesthetically pleasing, who looked the best on Spring Break.
Or, maybe, social media has become so entrenched in our perception of reality that it’s become indistinguishable from real life. While in the past, we could always see the unsettling delineation between social media and reality, we’ve evolved past the awareness of the uncanny valley. There’s a calculated casualness to our social media presence — photo dumps and seemingly random posts aimed at making our profiles reflect a beautiful life.
In the throes of the pandemic, I used to do YouTube workout classes made by an Australian influencer named Chloe Ting. She had the most defined abs I’ve ever seen, but there was always some indefinable quality about her that felt off. People heard that she was a robot or an animation or some kind of AI. But, in a video titled “Answering Your Assumptions About Me,” she addresses the rumor, claiming to be real.
Still, it wouldn’t have been all that surprising if she wasn’t. Lil Miquela, “19-year-old Robot,” has racked up over 3 million followers as a CGI influencer. Her account, which started in 2016, features hyper-realistic photos of her taking trips to Los Angeles, getting ice cream and reading. She posted a picture last month wearing sweatpants that say “I (heart) real life.”
The funny thing is that, as someone who interacts with the two influencers only on social media, their robotic status does not dictate the ways I interact with them online. I consume their content in the same way I consume a real person’s. I see the things on their profiles that they — or in the case of Lil Miquela, her creators — want me to see. I have my own perception of who each of them is, even though one of them doesn’t exist in a human sense.
Even though one is decidedly real and the other not, they occupy the same space for me as a viewer. As someone who’s never going to meet either in real life, their online personas are my only point of reference. It doesn’t matter to me whether they’re out walking around in the world or not, because their profiles are always up, proof of their existence. Does a physical footprint mean much when our digital ones can cover so much more ground for longer, even infinite, periods of time?
20 — or even 10 — years ago, questions like this would be nonsensical.
Gen Z has been around since the very start of social media. The first recognizable social media site, called Six Degrees, was created in 1997. MySpace launched in 2003. Facebook came out in 2004. Twitter followed in 2006. In both their design and function, the original social media sites served an entirely different purpose than they do today.
I remember when I first downloaded Instagram in 2012, about two years after the app first came out. I was finishing sixth grade, and the first thing I posted was an oversaturated picture of a Pez dispenser shaped like Ferb from “Phineas and Ferb.” I think my next photo was posted later that same day (there weren’t yet any rules advising against multiple posts): me, standing in my kitchen wearing my outfit for the last day of school. Also heavily edited.
Before Instagram became widely used enough to spawn its own conventions — ideas of what’s an acceptable number of likes, what your followers-to-following ratio should be, how frequently you should or shouldn’t be posting — there wasn’t much stake in what was on your profile. Instagram was more of a mindless game and less of a projection of one’s entire essence, or what they wish their essence was.
While this was the origin of our never-ending performance, it didn’t resemble reality enough to fall under the uncanny valley. No one could mistake my Pez-dispenser post as an approximation of my real life. It was an online forum to display what you were up to and the kinds of things you liked, not who you were at your core.
Now it feels like the things we post have some sort of bearing on who we are in “real life.” Posting is no longer a way to tell people what you’re doing but to curate a certain brand or aesthetic. Now, I don’t post a picture without sending it to my friends first for approval — I check how it would look with the rest of my recent posts, deliberate over the composition, the angles of my life I’m curating.
You may be thinking to yourself that this doesn’t apply to you, that this only applies to the people posting pictures of their morning coffee or the bars they go to.
But, regardless of what sector of internet culture you’re in, there are unspoken rules that dictate your relationship with social media. Collections of random photos have to look sufficiently random. Ironic memes have to be decidedly ironic. Achievements have to be presented professionally, with at least a little self-deprecation.
Regardless of how you use it, posting on social media is a particularly demanding form of existence, governed by an unwritten list of rules and standards.
In real life, you can go about your day, having small, inconsequential interactions that will usually end up having no bearing on how you or the world see yourself. Saying “thank you” to your barista. Raising or not raising your hand in class. Giving a friendly nod to the person you pass on the sidewalk.
But you can never just exist on social media. Online, you have to act for anyone to know you’re there. There’s no such thing as inconsequential interactions when every exchange of dialogue, every “like,” every scroll is instantly archived by highly sophisticated software. Your presence is dependent on an action — in the form of a post or a comment or a like — for the sole purpose of being seen. And every action begins to shape the person you present yourself as online.
Before social media, the internet had a voyeuristic quality to it. You could scroll through other people’s blogs and personal sites without having your own internet presence. But now, you can’t join Instagram without creating your own profile. It’s the same with Twitter or Facebook or TikTok. If you’re watching other people, the understanding is that people are watching you back.
And that’s not necessarily bad. The people we present as online are not complete fabrications. Maybe it’s like having a video game avatar. It’s just as much about your own conception of self as it is anyone else’s. You live as the version of yourself you want to be or who you think you are. It makes you the center of your own universe, magnifying your own opinions and choices beyond anyone else’s.
But it’s still not you.
Just think of any time you’ve met someone in person that you already followed online. There’s that awkward pause where it’s clear you’ve both recognized each other, but don’t know whether or not to acknowledge it. You know each other but you don’t.
You might know what restaurant they went to last week or their stance on certain political issues, but there’s something that feels taboo about mentioning any of that. It’s as if we know people are watching — we want people to be watching — but we don’t want anyone to bridge that gap between who we are online and who we are in real life. As hard as we work to create these social media personas, we don’t want to know that others are watching. We’re happier living outside the view of the uncanny valley where we don’t have to acknowledge the complicated connection between our two forms of self.
In most cases, I opt to pretend we’ve never met before.
Sometimes I wonder how long we’ll keep these online doppelgängers around. In 20 years, will I be posting Instagram pictures of beach days with my kids? Stories of the restaurants I go to? I hope someday I won’t be tied to my digital alter ego.
But maybe we’re just destined to go around and around on the track, alone in the dark.
Forever performing for an invisible audience in this small world.
Statement Correspondent Lane Kizziah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.