On Facebook Self-Portraits
I am fascinated with the forced exposure that social networking sites create. Via Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's excellent blog The End of Cyberspace, I reached Slate author Brian Braiker's article on how he finds seeing old images of himself uploaded to the net uncomfortable. From there, I found Euan Kerr's piece for Minnesota Public Radio exploring the phenomenon of the Facebook self-portrait. This really piqued my interest since I've been fascinated by this phenomena since I joined the social network site.
The Facebook self-portrait is a product of network culture that reveals how we construct our identities today. It satisfies the version of Andy Warhol's rule as modified by Momus: "In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people," except that it's not the future anymore (in fairness the article is 15 years old) and it's not 15 but rather 150 or 300 people, a typical number in a circle of friends on a social network site.
The Facebook self-portrait makes everyone a superstar, famous for no particular reason, but notable for their embrace of fame. So it is that on Facebook, I see friends who I never thought of as self-conscious take photographs of remarkable humor, intelligence, and wry self-deprecation. The Facebook self-portrait insists upon mastery over one's self-image and the instant feedback of digital photography allows us this. Not happy? Well, try again.
Long ago, when I was in high school, I read a book on the Bloomsbury group. I remember that the caption underneath a group photograph in the book (whose title now escapes me) pointed out that even in this über-hip clique, only one member was relaxed, only one understood that the right pose for the camera was a calculated non-pose. Our idea of the self can be read through such images: from the stiff formality of the painted portrait to the relaxed pose of the photograph to the calculated self-consciousness of the Facebook digital image. Each time, the self becomes a more cunning manipulator of the media. Each time, the self becomes more conscious of being defined outside itself, in a flow of impulses rather than a notion of inner essence.
So it was that in reading the first article, I felt that the author missed his friend Caroline's point when she told him "You can never be too cool for your past." As your images catch up to you in network culture, you have to become the consummate manipulator of your image, imagery from the past being less an indictment of present flaws and more an indicator of your ability to remake yourself.