Famous on Facebook
I recently discovered an envelope of photographs from a grade seven birthday party of mine. The pictures are embarrassing not least because I was in my pre-growth-spurt chunky phase. My school friends, dressed in late 1990’s camouflage tee-shirts and jean overalls, are shown dancing, almost frolicking, around my living room, at times even lifting each other up. Obviously, these pictures will never see the light of day and will not be uploaded onto a certain social networking website.
The remind me of a pre-digital era when I borrowed my parents’ camera for special occasions and had to wait what seemed like an eternity to get the pictures developed. There is a good chance that my friends in the photographs never even saw them. It was a more innocent time when the picture you took were yours alone, to place in an album and show people only on your initiative.
Every generation has the event that can in hindsight be viewed as the watershed moment that ended one era and heralded the next. While it may in the past have been the First World War, the assassination of JFK or the death of Kurt Cobain, for people my age it occurred when we signed up for our first social networking website and began being the purveyors of our own self-image.
It was the spring of 2006 and many of my friends had already joined something called facebook. “What unlimited forms of self-presentation!” I thought as I uploaded my first profile pic. No event was too small to document with my new digital camera. My second album was of my friends and I watching Julie Andrews musicals and throwing balloons at each other.
During my black and white-themed birthday party a few weeks later, I was so impressed by the creativity and diversity of my friends’ outfits that I kept my camera clicking all night. Thanks to facebook, I could upload and ‘tag’ these pictures, sharing them with all my friends.
The two parties were separated by less than a decade but seem eons apart. My grade seven friends didn’t need to over-think their appearance because they knew that the pictures would most likely disappear into an envelope (only to be discovered by their embarrassed creator years later). In contrast, my university friend’s black and white costumes were almost instantaneously viewable for all my friends, many of their friends and anyone who adds me on facebook up to the present day. What an increased pressure to look good! And while my black and white party was early in the era of facebook and many of my guests may not have considered the long legacy of their outfits, they definitely know about it now.
When standing in front of my closet and deciding what to wear to a party or night out or any other event where a camera may be present (and that’s prey much anywhere nowadays), a series of new questions have crowded the traditional venn diagram of ‘What do I look good in?’ and ‘What’s clean?’ I’ll consider if I’ve worn a certain shirt before, and in front of whom. Was I photographed and were those pictures private or accessible to all my friends? And maybe I should wear that new one I bought because I might get a cool profile pic out of it. Any outfit that may prove controversial has to be balanced with the consideration that I now have uncles and former nannies on facebook (my parents are not allowed to join). Even before being photographed I subconsciously consider the potential fall-out of being tagged on facebook.
Social networking has turned us into celebrities. Just as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears must consider how they will look in photographs on the red carpet, we now must consider how we will look on our friends’ home pages. Is it any wonder that we no longer stand awkwardly and wave (as in traditional amateur photography of the past), but coo and pout for the cameras like actors showing off their borrowed designer duds to ‘Entertainment Tonight’?
You may be thinking that you certainly don’t put any more effort into your appearance because of facebook, and that may be true, but I have an inkling that there are more people in the other column. How else to explain the phenomenon of ‘un-tagging’, the process of removing one’s name from a photograph so it will no longer be viewable to one’s friends? Un-tagging is our best defence against looking goofy online. I recently had a friend un-tag herself due to a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ so minor that I hadn’t even noticed it: the tassels of her scarf were sticking out the bottom of her jacket creating the impression of a Muppet hand reaching down towards her crotch. Although I have as many unflattering pictures as anyone (and I’m certain some will prevent me from ever running for public office), I have taken a strict stand against ‘un-tagging’. Who am I to decide which of my friends’ pictures represents me? Un-tagging is where the metaphor of celebrity breaks down, as Britney Spears cannot scan all the tabloid shots of herself and decide which ones she be deleted (although I bet she wishes she could!)
As someone who loves fashion and enjoys putting thought into what he wears, I like that our generation may put more effort into their clothes than they might otherwise because of social networking. But with all things internet-based there is the potential that as fast as it rose, it can quickly fall. Just as we were convinced (or peer-pressured) into joining something because all of our friends were on it, everyone can abandon something in the reverse movement. While facebook tries one ham-fisted advertising strategy after another, other companies have adopted the aesthetics of social networking to attract the youth demographic. The current ads for Virgin mobile feature pictures that evoke the amateur, spur-of-the-moment look of facebook pics. When advertisers have caught on to something, it usually means it’s on the way out. And simultaneously, hipster artists have rediscovered Polaroid cameras, whose grainy quality suggests a nostalgic, pre-digital authenticity that we’ve lost in all our uploading. Facebook may eventually decline, but the lessons it taught us about self-presentation may stick. It’s not unbelievable to pictures us mooning glamorously for the cameras at the old folk’s home.