I don’t normally pick on people whose work I really admire, but I recently saw a tweet from Mark Sample that struck a nerve: “Look, if you don’t instagram your first pumpkin spice latte of the season, humanity’s historical record will be dangerously impoverished.” While it got quite a number of retweets and equally snarky responses, he is far from the first to make such a flippant critique of the vapid nature of social media. It also seriously upset me for reasons that I’ve been trying to work out, which is why I found myself doing one of those shifts that researchers of knowledge production tend to do far too often with critics: don’t get mad, get reflexive. What is it that makes such a sentiment resonate with us, particularly when it is issued over Twitter, a platform that is the target of this kind of critique? The reasons have to do with a fundamental disagreement over what it means to interact in a mediated space: do we understand our posts, status updates, and shared photos as representations of how we exist in the world which collectively constitute a certain persistent performance of the self, or do we understand them a form of communication in which we subjectively and interactionally relate our experience of the world to others?
This comment also got me thinking because it reminded me of an interaction I had at Media in Transition 6, the first major conference I attended as a presenter. The year’s theme was “storage and transmission,” and there were a lot of well-established scholars from a variety of fields talking about social media in terms of archives and memory practices. I remember one discussion where people were talking about how exciting it was see the widespread emergence of Facebook photo albums, arguing that youth who share photos on Facebook were engaging in the 21st century equivalent of scrapbooking – a once-common cultural practice which had been in serious decline. I raised my hand and made a comment I’m not sure was fully grasped: that as one of the youngest people in the room, my friends and I understood photo sharing not a form of archiving but a mode of communication. In other words, I take a photo of the MIT Media Lab and share it on Facebook primarily to tell my friends that I’m in Boston at a conference. Sure, there is archival value to this kind of activity, but that is an added benefit which we occasionally utilize – and always after the fact. We don’t take a picture to remember an event and then later remember that event. We take a picture to communicate an event, later remembering a strange hybrid of the event itself and all the interactions we had about the event. This is especially the case with something like Facebook’s timeline: instead of carefully assembling scrapbooks ourselves, we have delegated these memory practices to Facebook’s algorithms.
Returning to instagram photos of pumpkin spice lattes, I admit that as a twentysomething techie-hipster in the Bay Area, I use not just Twitter, but instagram, Tumblr, and a variety of other social media platforms. I also enjoy pumpkin spice lattes, perhaps because they are delicious, but also because I really do take in all those little things that tell me that summer is ending and autumn will soon begin. We don’t have that much seasonal variation in the Bay Area, and coffee is a big deal here as it is everywhere – it is the world’s most popular drug. All this to say that the first advertisement for pumpkin spice lattes plastered on the side of a Starbucks is something I notice. And so I take photos of them, which I share with my friends and strangers. Some of them are in the Bay Area and have the same seasonal cues I do, while some are in completely different parts of the world, where frozen water falls from the sky and other crazy things like that. Together, we engage not so much in an act of collective sensemaking, but the sharing of a common experience: thanks to this and a hundred other little reminders, we know that winter is coming.
I don’t do it because I think I’m contributing to some grand archive of humanity’s historical record. Not even close. In fact, if that is how I thought about most of my social media practices, I would be so anxious about choosing what to post and when that I wouldn’t make use of it at all. I know this because there was a time when I did think of my social media usage in such a way, and that is exactly what happened. Today, I am self-conscious enough to realize that there are people who would harshly judge me for the fact that I do come to know and understand the changing of the seasons – such a timeless and universal force of ‘nature’ that humanity is always subjected to – in part through a multi-national corporation’s advertising campaign. So, fearing context collapse, I don’t publish those same kinds of photos and have those same kinds of interactions in the same place as I publish my academic musings.
Yet the important thing to realize is that in posting these instagram photos of pumpkin spice lattes, I am likely contributing to some grand archive of humanity’s historical record – or at least there are people who think I am, which is probably even more important for this argument. In fact, there are uncountably many digital artifacts on the Internet documenting the excitement leading up to everything from the McRib coming back to a new season of Mad Men premiering. These are the kinds of interactions which are being recorded and increasingly preserved at a startling rate, compared to what kinds of materials we have typically chosen to preserve. If we as a society preserve them not like members of previous generations individually preserved letters and memorabilia, but instead stored these interactions in massively-indexed digital archives, they will likely be an irresistible resource for future generations of historically-minded humanists and social scientists. Perhaps this is where the tension lies: it could be that many people don’t want the records we leave for posterity to be filled with what is certainly not a representative sample of our collective cultural experience. I somewhat agree with this sentiment, because I know that the people who post the most on these sites are probably some of the least representative of humanity.
However, I must argue that if a future historian (or a contemporary social scientist or humanist) wants to seriously delve into what it is like for a certain segment of the population to be human and experience the world in 2012, they have to understand that they ought to be looking a lot of nearly-identical photos of Starbucks products. Not because pumpkin spice lattes themselves are such a culturally important phenomenon which reveal so much about the human condition – that’s completely the wrong way of looking at this. Rather, the activity of sharing nostalgia-filtered instagram photos of the first pumpkin spice latte of the year is one way in which some members of a globalized, corporate consumer culture collectively experience the changing of the seasons. If you’re not a part of a social group that engages in these kinds of practices, then you probably see the stray instagram photo that someone publishes to their Twitter stream as, well, something to be ridiculed. You also may think that someone who has let a multi-million dollar corporate advertising campaign overcode their experience of nature is also independently deserving of ridicule, which I also disagree with, but that’s another issue entirely.
On a side note, this ‘photography as documentation versus experience’ issue may also be why instagram, with all its filters and frames, gets so much hate. If you’re a photographic realist and understand photo sharing as a way of documenting the present world for an other who is not present in time and/or space, then those silly filters and frames seriously invalidate a core assumption behind such a practice. However, if you instead understand photo sharing as a mode of communication in which we seek to not so much objectively document the external world for others as subjectively express our experience with others, then filters and frames are probably one of the most innovative ‘features’ added to the social activity that is photography since the caption.
This is also where I disagree with the critiques of photography from theorists like Barthes and Sontag, or more accurately, I think their critiques are only specific to the kinds of photo sharing practices which were prevalent in their time. A photojournalist who waits for days to take an unrepresentative snapshot of a war zone is doing a completely different kind of ‘manipulation’ than someone who adds a washed-out filter to a smartphone photo of an empty street so that it more accurately conveys the dreariness they feel. Sure, I’ll be the first to admit that instagram filters are also so prevalent because they enforce an aesthetic field in which almost any photo – even those blurry, overexposed shots quickly taken in poor lighting with crappy smartphone cameras – can be made to look “good.” But that only strengthens my point: “serious” photographers who see instagram as a platform for collectively engaging in a centuries-old craft in which the world is captured onto a fixed medium don’t get that it is actually a platform for collectively engaging in a much older craft: conversation and storytelling. In fact, I see these critiques as essentially the same ones Plato had of writing and rhetoric: How dare you make it easier for people to competently relate their experiences in a way that has meaning to themselves and the people around them!?!
Those who study youth and social networking practices should already know that this entire issue is one of context collapse, but it is a more expanded case than the standard media narrative about college students posting wild photos that their parents or potential employers can see. The issue is usually framed as stemming from the need to use the same platform to interact with multiple, overlapping, simultaneously-existing social worlds that hold different values about what is acceptable behavior and what is not. However, I think that both of these cases also arise from a much less-discussed disagreement regarding the way in which participation in social networking sites is understood: When I share a photo of a party I attend, am I objectively documenting an event that happened to me, recording what took place so that my social network – including those people who I later friend on Facebook – can go through my profile and see how I’ve always been a cool party-goer? Or am I sharing the photo to the people I currently interact with on Facebook, communicating that I was just at a fun party not as something that will stand on its own for all time, but instead something to serve as the basis for a conversation? Either way, I will have to deal with the standard context collapse issues about how I should act in a social space where people from different social worlds are watching me, but this distinction is something more than that.
This issue about the profile as a performance of the self versus the profile as a by-product of interactions seems to be my main frustration with something like Facebook’s now-mandatory Timeline feature. Tensions over the rollout of Timeline, which aggregates your entire past on Facebook in an easy-to-read summary of your life, seem to be part of a larger trend that seeks to conflate these two understandings of what it means to engage in social activity online. And as a side note, it is interesting that Timeline conflates this distinction with code, as opposed to cultural critics who conflate this with discourse.
Anyways, after a terrible context collapse incident as a freshman in college, I like to think that I’ve always been a savvy Facebook user, self-censoring when I’m interacting in a space that could in any way be public. Still, I just spent quite a long time trying to remove as much as I could from my Timeline, not because it contains anything that I would be seriously embarrassed about, but because it doesn’t represent who I am now in any way. The people who I was friends with in 2005 aren’t the same as the people who I’m friends with in 2012, the things that mattered to me aren’t the same, the photos of me look nothing like I do now, and so on.
Especially because there weren’t that many ways of interacting as there are now, since 2005 I have understood and used my Facebook profile as a carefully-curated representation of myself, working hard to remove those little interactions about how awesome last night was after they served their immediate communicative purposes. However, that is getting harder and harder to do, which is why I move to other platforms – partially because their code is written in such a way that does not essentialize my interactions to form my profile, but also because the people who I communicate with share my same understanding of what it means to interact in such a space.