When Joan Didion wrote the now rabidly-quoted line ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’ in 1979’s The White Album, she was largely referring to the writer’s impulse. A nod to the fallibility of human memory and the tendency to build social fantasies, hers was a comment on the ways we dance atop the delicate tightrope between truth and illusion in the quest to validate the self.
Nowhere is this more true or palpable than on social media today. As we continue to construct meaning from our (arguably) hapless existences, our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram profiles provide us with unfettered opportunities to both amplify and censor our selves as we see fit. Where once this was only possible in how we chose to dress or speak, being online catapults this existential meaning-making into renewed frontiers: a selfie of my one day at the gym because I’m #workingout; a #shelfie of my #springreadingstack as a marker of my taste in cult literary fiction; a tweet about my amyl sniffing habits; an inspirational quote from a book I’ve never read. The theatre of success that we’ve engaged in since time immemorial comes to life on screens in real time – aspirational, performative, hopeful and true. We’re virtue-signalling, edgelording, telling secrets and engaging in banality, often all at once.
And what better medium for all this than the photograph? Even as clickbait articles decry new media’s role in the downfall of our collective attention span, the human brain has always processed images quicker than text – literally in the blink of an eye. This is the same logic that sees tweets with images perform better (94 per cent, in fact). When I find my attention span waning due to exhaustion or distraction, it’s easier to digest information on Instagram than it is to read a book.
These conditions present fertile ground for the ‘social photo’, a term social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson uses in his book The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media (Verso), to describe the ‘overwhelming bulk of photographs being made today […] made ubiquitous by networked, digital sharing’. Collecting and expanding on essays previously written across blogs and digital publications such as The New Inquiry and Cyborgology, it’s a philosophical look at the ways photography has been re-shaped, augmented and re-imagined via online spheres. When images become ultimately more accessible and omnipresent, how does it change the face of photography, or underscore previously-held truths? How do social photos alter communication in its abundance and disposability?
Like the bulk of his existing work, Jurgenson is quick to note that the internet hasn’t actually changed us that much; rather online spaces operate as auxiliary amplifiers of long-held beliefs about the self and society, that have merely been brought to light through their ubiquity. Nor is he interested in constructing black-and-white binaries between online and offline; as the progenitor of the phrase ‘digital dualism’, Jurgenson prefers to explore how society continues to fabricate truths about itself, how hierarchies are both dismantled and maintained through new modes of communication, and how human desire projects itself again and again.
We’re virtue-signalling, edgelording, telling secrets and engaging in banality, often all at once.
Drawing from Roland Barthes’ reference to photography as ‘extended, loaded evidence’, the desire to create an archive has never left us, merely been re-purposed. The Social Photo asserts that ‘the documentarian’s futile demands to embalm which is escaping’ is something that we have done since the invention of the photograph, from film cameras to Polaroids to digi-cams to smartphones and back again.
Indeed, as Robert Cornelius’ 1893 selfie (reportedly the first to be recorded in history) has shown, documentation is an urge that’s perhaps related to an overarching fear of death – and consequently, an ever-tightening grip on mortality – that lingers irrefutably within us. Susan Sontag writes that ‘all photographs are memento mori’: photos continue to simultaneously be a record of right now as well as a stab into the future; an act of truth-telling that can also be a smokescreen – what Jurgenson describes as ‘the fan dance, a game of reveal and conceal’. I can ‘overshare’ through 75 consecutive Instagram stories about my current emotional state, but they’re what I’ve chosen to tell you at this point in time, while other things are kept to myself – until I decide to divulge something else.
This is the Claude glass in full effect: a late 18th to 19th century-era tinted ‘black mirror’ that was used by artists and tourists to reflect the landscape in front of them as a way to frame potential sketches for drawings and paintings. What was cast back on the glass projected a desired image for self-consumption, then re-interpreted in the third-person. The social photo is no different – as Jurgenson unnervingly elucidates, ‘I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think you think I am.’
Questions surrounding ‘authenticity’ nevertheless hover like a spectre when thinking about or discussing photography, even more so within the social photo. During the quest to achieve a ‘true’ self, the frozen moment in time tends to either want to enhance this ‘truth’ or obfuscate it, particularly as a myriad of selves are being negotiated within a variety of platforms. How to be ‘real’ when everyone is watching?
Teju Cole, in his ‘On Photography’ column in the New York Times Magazine, presents a criticism of the photojournalist Steve McCurry (of Afghan Girl fame) for his photos of India that evoke a nostalgic sentimentality, showing a ‘lost’ time that might suggest to viewers a country stuck in the past – a time of elephants and looms, not malls and computers. To that end, McCurry’s pursuit of the so-called ‘authentic’ India is only one side of the story, what Cole refers to as a ‘permanent anthropological past’ that ‘edits out the present day’. By choosing to show this view, McCurry continues to perpetuate colonial constructs, creating a binary of the ‘primitive East’ fundamentally at odds with the ‘modern West’.
This attitude runs rampant in the social photo now. A quick glance at #bangkok on Instagram brings up images of temples and street food stalls, less so its reality as a bustling metropolis. Similarly, the ways in which many people choose to portray themselves and their lives tend to lean on this yearning for authenticity, as hashtags such as #authenticliving and #presentoverperfect proliferate. If I post a selfie in #nomakeup, I’m infinitely more #authentic than a #makeupjunkie. Likewise, if I put up a sharp image of myself lying on a bed of flowers instead of one where I am standing in front of a city skyline, I could be #livingintentionally.
When ‘authenticity’ becomes synonymous with desire, it’s clear to see why it’s so easy to get sucked into the pursuit of a single narrative.
This projection is the most evident within Instagram influencer culture. A hopeful, seemingly achievable stab at stardom, influencers strive at a kind of micro-celebrity, embodying the status of role models for onlookers to then emulate, envy and/or consume. It’s what ethnographer Crystal Abidin calls a ‘more visible version of the ordinary person, albeit being closer to fulfilling collective aspirations of wealth and health.’ Amongst influencers, it doesn’t hugely matter if their clothes or apartments are sponsored, but more that they are presenting a lifestyle which viewers can aspire to – unlike TV or movie stars, these lives seem more attainable, #goals we can collectively work towards, whether that’s projected by a fat activist or MMA fighter. Like the Byron Bay surfer mums, these oh-so-real lives sometimes simultaneously possess a ludicrous, manicured sheen. If we adopt a ketogenic diet, a 10-step beauty regime or decide to only buy local, then perhaps we can be like these influencers too. In these cases, ‘authenticity’ becomes the drawcard.
When ‘authenticity’ becomes synonymous with desire, it’s clear to see why it’s so easy to get sucked into the pursuit of a single narrative. Or as Jurgenson puts it in The Social Photo, ‘To be a poser is an insult. Instead, the common wisdom is “be true to yourself”, which assumes there is a truth of your self.’
Can this truth be consistent across a range of platforms? Before the commercialisation of huge swaths of the internet (i.e. pre-Google/Facebook/Amazon, et al), it felt more possible to maintain a slew of identities that didn’t necessary need to correspond with one another. Now, as Facebook demands that we use our ‘real’ names, and as previously-discrete spheres of our lives congeal on these ever-present platforms, the thought of indulging contradictory selves seems fraudulent, like you have something to hide.
And when the algorithm acts as an oracle for the quantified self, why would one deviate from a ‘true’ self, lest we miss out on seeing it reflected back to us? Jurgenson makes a wry point of this: ‘Now that everyone knows you’re a dog, it’s difficult to be anything else.’ Who hasn’t compulsively rewatched their own Instagram stories? Who hasn’t felt the bemusement of being shown a recommended ad that doesn’t correspond to how they see themselves?
Of course, this self-surveillance, as Jurgenson notes, is ‘complemented with a healthy dose of external surveillance, too.’ And whether this surveillance is done by fans, friends, nemeses, corporations or the state, it adds to a kind of voyeurism that resembles watching television as we contribute to both looking and being looked at. If the social photo’s abundance results in desensitisation, individual agency can then be depoliticised and devalued. Like the affluent, western influencer who travels to India and takes non-consensual ‘street photography’ shots of food vendors at their jobs, it can become a kind of ‘creep shot’ that props up preexisting power dynamics on the pretext of ‘sharing’. Or, as Jurgenson writes: ‘people in public are objects to be claimed and exposed, and incipient virality takes precedent over permission.’
Why would one deviate from a ‘true’ self, lest we miss out on seeing it reflected back to us?
This sense of unrelenting tourism blurs the ethics of consent, especially if it seems like the world is a grab-bag of looking, conveniently captured whenever, wherever. At its best, it can lead to a decentralised mode of citizen journalism, circumventing state-censored news or capturing police violence that would otherwise be kept hidden. But if ‘the documentary consciousness…turns the world into a massive department store in which everything is free,’ then what does it mean to require privacy? Already, as researcher Kate Crawford has observed, this tension is resulting in what she calls ‘surveillant anxiety’, where people are reacting to big-data surveillance in offhanded ways: dressing in normcore fashion to blend in, posting less, ‘whitewalling’ (regularly deleting social media content and starting from scratch), encrypted messaging, moving on to less ‘serious’ platforms like Snapchat and TikTok. But she also recognises that this way of camouflaging the self isn’t immediately viable or available to everyone, particularly those who are already marginalised in society.
As with the pursuit of ‘authenticity’ within the social photo, it’s important to note that privacy isn’t necessarily the opposite of visibility. For those already hyper-surveilled in society, it is more a matter of being both hypervisible and rendered unseen. It’s no accident that the accusation of being ‘attention-seeking’ online is often lobbed at those on the margins – queers, women, people of colour, disabled folk, and anyone else who sits on the intersections of these, and more – for indulging in the act of actualising selves that traditionally did not merit attention.
Amid cries of ‘narcissism’ that these types of social photos regularly elicit, beneath it lies a sense of personal storytelling that not only acts as an archive of the (mutable) self, but seeks to attain self-determination through documentation. Like other Do-It-Yourself pursuits such as zine culture, it’s a form of seizing back ownership that refuses to foreground permission; instead people actively choose to tell the stories they want, how they want, and when they want. Are these modes of storytelling only ‘attention-seeking’ because of their racialised and gendered natures?
Within the shareable social photo, it’s not a contest between human nature and technology, but a dance; they move in tandem with each other in the world.
In The Social Photo, Jurgenson acknowledges this: even as we tell new truths through these mediums, ‘holding a camera over one’s lunch has come to be a paradigmatic example of oversharing… Unless a meal is very special, the photo of food fails at being a scene, the traditional domain of photography.’ As such, these tensions construct a dichotomy that is made up of the false axes of ‘high art’ and ‘low art’, much like when selfies, not professional portraiture, are taken less seriously, or when photojournalism is celebrated as more ‘objective’.
For all of ‘social media’s gluttonous phenomenology’, the fact of its boundlessness acts as both a guise and upholder for human experience and identity. Within the shareable social photo, it’s not a contest between human nature and technology, but a dance; they move in tandem with each other in the world, revealing societal flaws, reinforcing capital, dismantling power. If, as Jurgenson writes, the ‘messiness of lived experience’ is ‘made to be something merely observable’ online, how do we distinguish ourselves from or replicate the pack, how do we create a sense of community that’s doesn’t automatically fetishise so-called ‘uniqueness’? The stories we tell bend and fold according to angles and the light; and the relationship to desire will always show its hand.
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