Egyptian solidarity protest in Paris, Jan. 2011. Image by Jacques Delarue.
When it comes to thought and research on social movements and technology (separately and together), emotion is that crucial piece of the picture that everyone technically sees but hardly anyone explicitly acknowledges as worth paying attention to in its own right. Some of this is likely because emotion is hard to study in any way that social science would consider rigorous; it’s often taken as something fundamentally irrational and therefore fundamentally inexplicable. It is highly subjective. It is culturally and situationally constructed, and therefore conceptually slippery. It is interior; it is a difficult thing to see and to know. If explicitly drawing it out as an important factor is problematic for some, identifying it as a variable capable of carrying any causal weight is even more so.
Regarding technology and social movements combined, there is the question of how the digital and physical play out as far as what ends up really being important. What is the relationship between the two? Where exactly is the body in augmented contention and is the way in which it matters changing? What is really going on when we see a bunch of street protesters carrying smartphones?
What Facebook knows about you, via the Spectacular Optical tumblr (click for more images)
Rob Horning has been working on the topic of the “Data Self.” His project has a close parallel to my own work and after reading his latest post, I’d like to jump in and offer a conceptual distinction for thinking about the intersection of the online/data/Profile and the offline/Person.
The problem is that our online presence is too often seen as only the byproduct of our offline selves. Sometimes we talk about the way online profiles are passive reflections of who we are and what we do and other times we acknowledge our profiles are also partly performative adjustments to the “reality” of the person. However, in all the discussion of individuals creating this content what is often neglected is how the individual, in all of their offline experience, behavior and existence, is simultaneously being created by this very online data. We cannot describe how a person creates their Profile without always acknowledging how the Profile creates the person.
Photo by Michael Chrisman
One of the most heavily trafficked posts on this blog in 2011 was Nathan Jurgenson’s excellent essay on “faux-vintage” photography and the construction of meaning in documentation; given the discussion around this phenomenon, it’s interesting to consider photographer Michael Chrisman’s year-long photo project, especially in the details of how it was processed and how you and I are able to view it above.
When the occupiers in Zuccotti Park began setting up tents, it was an inherently practical move. After cold, uncomfortable nights on tarps and huddled into sleeping bags (a situation imposed by a no-tent policy in the park, which was eventually not enforced), tents were a welcome way to make an occupied space more of a home, and closer to familiar conceptions of an established community.
But we need to understand tents as more than just tents.
With all the rhetoric around “Facebook Revolutions” and “Twitter Revolutions”1 that we’ve had to endure over the last couple of years, it’s easy to get the sense that there’s something new about the character of contemporary political protest and revolutionary action, and that this newness is, in some fundamental way, the practical result of the omnipresent nature of technology. It’s difficult to miss the profound interweaving and enmeshing of the physical and digital aspects of protest as we see it in both the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street – the weight of the protests produced by the occupation of physical space by gathered human bodies, coupled with the constant documentation and nearly instantaneous sharing of images, video, and text that have chronicled these physical occupations and arguably helped them to grow – in short, the augmented nature of contemporary social action. We see this and to us it feels new. Even if we recognize that there are old things at work here – symbolism, patterns of mobilization and diffusion, pieces of the past reclaimed for the purpose of the present – we at least feel instinctively that there is something novel about the Arab Spring, Occupy, and all the other movements and events that have birthed themselves in correlation.
We begin with the assumption that social media expands the opportunity to capture/document/record ourselves and others and therefore has developed in us a sort-of “documentary vision” whereby we increasingly experience the world as a potential social media document. How might my current experience look as a photograph, tweet, or status update? Here, we would like to expand by thinking about what objective reality produces this type of subjective experience. Indeed, we are increasingly breathing an atmosphere of ambient documentation that is more and more likely to capture our thoughts and behaviors.
As this blog often points out, we are increasingly living our lives at the intersection of atoms and bits. Identities, friendships, conversations and a whole range of experience form an augmented reality where each is simultaneously shaped by physical presence and digital information. Information traveling on the backs of bits moves quickly and easily; anchor it to atoms and it is relatively slow and costly. In an augmented reality, information flows back and forth across physicality and digitality, deftly evading spatial and temporal obstacles that otherwise accompany physical presence.
When Egyptians dramatically occupied the physical space of Tahrir Square this past January (more…)
(Or: How we’ve come to be micro-celebrities online)
Facebook’s recent introduction of “frictionless sharing” is the newest development in a growing trend: data is being increasingly produced passively as individuals conduct their day-to-day activities. This is a trend that has grown both on and offline. We will focus on the former here; especially “frictionless” sharing that involves syncing Facebook with other sites or apps. Once synced, much of what a user listens to, reads or otherwise accesses are automatically and immediately published on Facebook without any further action or approval. Users may not even need to “opt into” frictionless sharing because many services are changing their default setting to automatically push content to Facebook. In short, we can say that users play a passive role in this process.
Contrast this to more active sharing: when we “like” or “+1” something (by clicking the eponymous buttons that have spread throughout the Web) it requires the user to make a conscious and affirmative action to share something with others in their network. Nathan Jurgenson (one of this post’s co-authors) previously described these two models as types of “documentary vision:” We actively document ourselves and our world around us as if we have a camera in our hand (“liking”, status updates, photos, etc.), or we can passively allow ourselves to be documented, curating our behaviors along the way (e.g., reading a magazine article so that you can present yourself as the type of person who “likes” that sort of magazine) much like a celebrity facing a crowd of paparazzi photographers.
Let’s make another layer of complexity to this documentary model (more…)
I have been thinking through ideas on this blog for my dissertation project about how we document ourselves on social media. I recently posted some thoughts on rethinking privacy and publicity and I posted an earlier long essay on the rise of faux-vintage Hipstamatic and Instagram photos. There, I discussed the “camera eye” as a metaphor for how we are being trained to view our present as always its potential documentation in the form of a tweet, photo, status update, etc. (what I call “documentary vision”). The photographer knows well that after taking many pictures one’s eye becomes like the viewfinder: always viewing the world through the logic of the camera mechanism via framing, lighting, depth of field, focus, movement and so on. Even without the camera in hand the world becomes transformed into the status of the potential-photograph. And with social media we have become like the photographer: our brains always looking for moments where the ephemeral blur of lived experience might best be translated into its documented form.
I would like to expand on this point by going back a little further in the history of documentation technologies to the 17th century Claude glass (pictured above) to provide insight into how we position ourselves to the world around us in the age of social media. (more…)
I am working on a dissertation about self-documentation and social media and have decided to take on theorizing the rise of faux-vintage photography (e.g., Hipstamatic, Instagram). From May 10-12, 2011, I posted a three part essay. This post combines all three together.
Part I: Instagram and Hipstamatic
Part II: Grasping for Authenticity
Part III: Nostalgia for the Present
a recent snowstorm in DC: taken with Instagram and reblogged by NPR on Tumblr
Part I: Instagram and Hipstamatic
This past winter, during an especially large snowfall, my Facebook and Twitter streams became inundated with grainy photos that shared a similarity beyond depicting massive amounts of snow: many of them appeared to have been taken on cheap Polaroid or perhaps a film cameras 60 years prior. However, the photos were all taken recently using a popular set of new smartphone applications like Hipstamatic or Instagram. The photos (like the one above) immediately caused a feeling of nostalgia and a sense of authenticity that digital photos posted on social media often lack. Indeed, there has been a recent explosion of retro/vintage photos. Those smartphone apps have made it so one no longer needs the ravages of time or to learn Photoshop skills to post a nicely aged photograph.
In this essay, I hope to show how faux-vintage photography, while seemingly banal, helps illustrate larger trends about social media in general. The faux-vintage photo, while getting a lot of attention in this essay, is merely an illustrative example of a larger trend whereby social media increasingly force us to view our present as always a potential documented past. But we have a ways to go before I can elaborate on that point. Some technological background is in order. (more…)
I am working on a dissertation about self-documentation and social media and have decided to take on theorizing the rise of faux-vintage photography (e.g., Hipstamatic, Instagram). To start fleshing out ideas, I am doing a three-part series on this blog: part one was posted Tuesday (“Hipstamatic and Instagram”) and part two yesterday (“Grasping for Authenticity”). This is the last installment.
taken recently, this is a simulated vintage image of a simulation
With more than two million users each, Hipstamatic and Instagram have ushered a wave of simulated retro photographs that have populated our social media streams. Even a faux-vintage video application is gaining popularity. The first two posts in this series described what faux-vintage photography is, its technical facilitators and attempted to explain at least one main reason behind its explosive popularity. When we create an instant “nostalgia for the present” by sharing digital photos that look old and often physical, we are trying to capture for our present the authenticity and importance vintage items possess. In this final post, I want to argue that faux-vintage photography, a seemingly mundane and perhaps passing trend, makes clear a larger point: social media, in its proliferation of self-documentation possibilities, increasingly positions our present as always a potential documented past.
Nostalgia for the Present
The rise of faux-vintage photography demonstrates a point that can be extrapolated to documentation on social media writ large: social media users have become always aware of the present as a potential document to be consumed by others. Facebook fixates the present as always a future past. Be it through status updates on Twitter, geographical check-ins on Foursquare, reviews on Yelp, those Instagram photos or all of the other self-documentation possibilities afforded to us by Facebook, we view our world more than ever before through what I like to call “documentary vision.” (more…)