Highlights from The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media

On Culture

  1. We are urged not only to discover that real, authentic version of who we are, but to remain faithful to it at all costs. It leaves little room for having more than one self, despite the many contexts we find ourselves in that draw on our different sides and different strengths. Advice to be true to some essentialized version of your self runs the risk of “discouraging change and flexibility.”
  2. To have more self, we need media that promotes the self’s mercurial fluidity and celebrates its tendency to change and multiply. Too much self is the self as a constraining spreadsheet; the minimal self becomes one with maximum

On social media

  1. This is part of the appeal of social photography: documentation of personal experience is reified and made shareable—what you do and who you are is given an audience, made part of social participation in new ways.
  2. Social photography, and the audience it promises, position us in the present with a constant awareness of how it will be perceived in the future. We come to see almost anything we do as a potential image, imploding the present into the past, and ultimately making us nostalgic for the here and now.
  3. Social photography, as well as social media more generally, encourages users to take the present as a potential document to be seen by others.
  4. Yet social media often fails to accommodate fluidity and change but instead fixates on permanence, identity categories, and social ranking. Much of the cultural understanding and development of social media centers on creating and maintaining ourselves as fixed selves, as real-name profiles, as selves-as-brands.
  5. The logic of the profile is that life should be captured, preserved, and put behind glass, like we are collectors of the museum of our self. Social photos are placed into social media profiles and streams as a collection of information that you and others create about your selves. Real name policies, lists of information about our preferences, detailed histories, and logged activities comprise a highly organized spreadsheet that one is asked to squeeze oneself into.
  6. The likes and hearts and follower counts give shape to the chaos, structure the torrent of experience into something with boundaries, something measurable and discrete.
  7. His fixation fails to accommodate playfulness and revision. It is built around the logic of highly structured boxes and categories, most with quantifiers that numerically rank every facet of our content, and this grid-patterned data-capture machine simply does not accommodate the reality that humans are fluid, contradictory, and messy in ways both tragic and wonderful. Will social media continue to pivot away from status metrics and toward permanent identity-containers that box our selves in?
  8. Big data is used to sort much of our social photography streams, structuring what you see and how you are seen. Algorithmic social media treat the visual tropes of social photography like Google does any information: they are there to be indexed, ranked, and sorted, as if the complex ways images capture the world and interact with social life weren’t opaque or infinitely variable and culturally contingent. Instead, social life is treated like a product or commodity, something to be manufactured and shopped for as opposed to the lived reality of social participation. This is the assumption that life can be translated into signs (measures, variables, data, algorithms) that approximate nature and will outline our selves and social lives—the view that, deep down, humans are numbers.
  9. Much of social photography is based on this anxious design. Each image is wrung through profiles that keep track of likes and followers and thus the success of every image and every person. This is not unique to social photography; on sites like Twitter, everything anyone says is gamified with scorekeeping through quantified retweets, faves, and followers. To make so much of our sociality permanent, categorized, and explicitly and quantifiably ranked into hierarchies produces not sociality for its own sake but one that is concerned with success and failure according to the metrics enforced by platforms. It’s hard not to conclude that part of the appeal of the entire metric-based social media project is seeing one’s own life standardized, uniform with others, and ranked.

On Social Photo

  1. social photos are not primarily about making media but more about sharing eyes. They are about developing and conveying your view, your experience, your imagination in the now—not as much the specifics of what you are seeing but the perspective from which you do so. Documenting a single moment from the ephemeral flow of lived experience was the end of the traditional photograph; for a social photo, it’s merely the means to a different end, more about communication than information.
  2. As such, social photography should be understood not as something removed from the moment but as something deeply immersed in social life. More than documenting moments to archive and preserve them behind glass, social photography often attempts to communicate being.
  3. Social photos are a “technology of the self,” in his terms, which constantly subject us to ourselves, prompting and sustaining our self-consciousness and self-preoccupation. Deposited into the history of our various profiles, the social photo makes us constantly confront ourselves as selves, challenging us to place each moment in a narrative with a point of view and a purpose, more like a memoir with a grand narrative arc than a meandering diary.
  4. If, as I argued previously, a social photo is one made less as a formally artistic object or documentary record and more primarily as a means of communicating experience, then in many cases, a video might work even better. If social photography speaks with images, then social video speaks with more of them, conveying more of an experience, more of a moment one wants to share. Of course, no video is the whole truth. Like any framed image, it can only present a portion of reality by cropping the rest away. But posting a video is an invitation to experience as it was experienced. While never complete, it more accurately suggests an experience as it was, in something closer to its initial flow, with movement and sound in sync with the original event.
  5. This overcomes, to some degree, the stiltedness that can make still photos seem more staged. As Roland Barthes wrote, “the pose is swept away and denied by the continuous series of images.”3 Stillness in an image emphasizes its performed quality; it suggests a decisive moment—that is, one that is calculated, controlled, refined, and shaped to send a particular message. No longer the standard but a choice, stillness foregrounds that this document is a document. By capturing more of a moment, more detail, more sensory information, social videos can seem less resolute and can be read as being simply the experience shared for its own sake.

On Self Documentation

  1. Self-documentation is not pure exhibitionism but more like the fan dance, a game of reveal and conceal. No matter how much “oversharing” occurs, all is not revealed. More is always hinted at (at times enticingly). The massive popularity of taking and viewing social photographs has to do with both what is shown as well as the seduction of what is not, what isn’t photographed, what lies outside the frame. In a stream of photos, it can be easy to forget the importance of the edge of the frame, the gaps between images. Each photo is at most only a limited truth, which raises as many questions as it answers.
  2. “obscenity” is the drive to reveal all and expose things in full, whereas “seduction” is the process of strategically withholding knowledge to create magical and enchanted interest (what he calls the “scene,” as opposed to the “obscene”). He writes that the scene is where the body
  3. When we share social photos, it seems apparent what they are revealing, but we need to think also about what they are concealing, the absences the images are framing or disguising.
  4. We all have strategies we use to hide some of what we do, what we post, and who we are.
  5. “photographs provide a basis for narrative work; there are stories about photographs, and there are stories that lie behind them and between them.”99 Who else was there? What are the emotions and motivations concealed by the image? What are people hiding by showing this? So many stories can be constructed from the same evidence.

On the Idea of Self

  1. “consciousness of the self is the ‘gravity’ that burdens the spirit.”
  2. We’ve turned recorded selves into ordered selves, making self-documentation a means to that end of keeping ourselves in order.
  3. What can be in one breath “self-expression” can become “self-policing” in another
  4. When who you are (and thus who you are not) becomes an increasingly significant part of everyday life, self-expression carries with it the danger of becoming more self-constraining.
  5. When who you are (and thus who you are not) becomes an increasingly significant part of everyday life, self-expression carries with it the danger of becoming more self-constraining.
  6. In this framework, the only real thing about the “true” self is the consequences of self-limitation and un-freedom that follow from it.
  7. To have more self, we need media that promotes the self’s mercurial fluidity and celebrates its tendency to change and multiply. Too much self is the self as a constraining spreadsheet; the minimal self becomes one with maximum

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