Your Facebook Self and “Real” Self Are the Same

Forget my cup of exceptionally strong coffee. Nothing riles me up on Monday morning quite like the chance to debate the internet life, “real” life (or as I call it, physical life), and the convergence of the two. Thank you, Wired and Jessi Hempel.

Hempel begins posing a scenario she had previously posted to her Facebook friends: How do you handle running into an online friend in “real” life?  What’s the etiquette in regards to bringing up something you saw on their Facebook page? The answers Hempel’s friends provided her are actually chuckle-worthy: Wallflowering. Facial(book) recognition. Friendenfreude. A Facebookship. And stalking.

But Hempel, who struggles with coming to terms with these digital relationships, continues to call them awkward. She taps into our inner Foucaultian tendencies with terms to like “surveillance” and “watching.” She talks about liking posts from old acquaintances who are doing arguably really interesting things with their lives, such as working on reindeer villages in the arctic tundra and celebrating and supporting their endeavors. But then, she says “What I’m describing is the digital equivalent of looking into your windows on a dark night. You’re the one who left the curtains open. You live on a busy street. But if we happen to make eye contact…we both feel slightly violated.”

Oh, I love nothing more than writers pretend to be liberal with their ideas about the digital era when really, it’s just a frayed tourniquet on the phobias and disgust that are bleeding through. She negotiates this disgust with all things social-digital by saying “she is not friends with the woman she saw on the street; She is friends with her digital avatar.”

I couldn’t disagree more with Hempel. The digital avatar and the person behind it are the same person.

In my master’s thesis on this very subject, I coined the term “identity bending,” which I defined as this: The online person and the offline person are facets of the same individual. Online presentation is a highly selected, highly thought out version of one’s life. We may not present ourselves as the same person online as we are offline, but we are also not the same people across online platforms. This has to do with the audience of that site, performance norms that date back to sociologist Erving Goffman’s first ever discussion of dramaturgy in 1959 (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Online and offline, public and private, we are always two sides of the same coin. You wouldn’t consider the tails side of a coin any less real or valid than the head’s side. You need both sides for the coin to be worth anything, to mean anything. Our digital lives and “real” lives are the same.

Facebook (and social media in general) have redefined relationships, specifically friendships.  Hempel’s repeated use of “surveillance” and similar words invoke the idea of the panopticon, and that we are always on display, even when we don’t want to be.

But that’s just the thing –we want to be. People are free to post to social media what they want. They can post how much, and whatever, they would like to. It’s not creeping. It’s not stalking. It’s viewing information and updates that have been made readily available, fueled by that poster’s individual agency.

Agency is something I think that gets incredibly overlooked in digital media studies, and especially in the way digital and social media are talked about by the news media and blogospheres. Someone made the choice to post that selfie, that link, that video. No one forced them. Social media aren’t holding guns to our heads, forcing us, and we are not trapped.

If someone posts something interesting online, and I see them later that day, or within the next couple of days, I may mention it, especially if it’s something noteworthy. Hey, I saw on Facebook you got that promotion! Congratulations! Oh my goodness, that picture of your dog you posted was adorable. How’s she doing? Our dogs should have a play date!

Hempel worries too much about something that frankly, doesn’t warrant much worrying. It’s thought-provoking, sure. But I think her article reveals more about how we as a technology-fueled society still don’t quite know what to do with everything digital. It shows that we still privilege “real,” physical interaction over anything that happens online when they’re both equally valid, equally legitimate circumstances. The binaries strike again.

I’m saying that if someone posts something online, they did so out of their own free will, and out of their desire to have that information publicly known. Don’t feel bad about acknowledging something someone else willingly put out there. Honestly, they might actually be glad you did.

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Cultural Appropriation and White Icons

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Amandla Stenberg’s viral tumblr video has lately been a hot topic online. Stenberg went on to explain cultural appropriation and did a brilliant job for sure. The young Hunger Games actress identified Black hair and it’s link to Black identity which she then linked to Hip Hop and rap culture. Stenberg expressed, how more and more White musicians have been adopting Black culture in an attempt to remain “edgy and gaining attention” . The actress gave example of Miley Cyrus’s latest twerking trend and using Black women on stage and in videos as props. Furthermore, the famous White female rapper Iggy Azalea despite being from Australia uses a Southern American accent whilst rapping once again implying connections to Black Culture and Hip Hop. Cryus and Azalea are not the only White icons who have been adopting Black Culture, the list really does go on and Stenberg did an applaudable job…

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What People Say To You As a Selfie Researcher

The scene: A small party at my friend’s house. It’s Saturday night, everybody’s drinking a few beers, and she grabs my arm. Hey, everyone this is Jess!

A resounding, tipsy chorus follows: Hi Jess!

My friend nudges me forward. Jess is in grad school. She studies selfies.

 Wait, what? Seflies? SELFIES?

Yes, selfies. My paper, “Fear and Selfie-Loathing in America: Intersections of Image Theory, Feminist Theory, and Arm’s Length Self-Portraits” will be presented this May at the 2015 International Communication Association conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I think selfies are an excellent way to study interstices of inequalities and fears of the digital era.

Okay. What can you tell me about selfies?

Everybody needs to calm down. The Guardian just recently published this article claiming the death of the selfie, which is disturbing for a lot of reasons. My research presents, and supports previous research and articles (Huffington Post), which states that typically, the most common groups of people to take selfies are women, minorities, and homosexual men. If images do in fact stand for what they represent, clamoring for the death or destruction of the image essentially argues for the death or destruction of the person depicted.

 Huh. My ex-boyfriend used to take a lot of selfies. *grabs my arm* DOES THAT MEAN HE’S GAY? I KNEW IT!

I don’t know. My research was not about your ex-boyfriend. Just because a man takes a selfie does not mean he’s gay or bisexual or asexual or polyamorous anything or the like.  My research suggests that criticisms about selfies abound because of the demographics who were the initial adopters of the movement (women, racial minorities, and homosexual men). These are groups who have historically been misrepresented in the mass media through narrow-minded stereotypes, ridiculous tropes, and unrealistic standards. The selfie is a way for these groups to talk back and say, “Hey, this is me.”

 But isn’t it narcissistic?

Everything is fine in moderation.  If someone is blowing up your social media feeds every hour with selfies, that might be narcissism. I’m not going to pretend that people don’t do some stupid things with selfies. But people also do stupid things with cars, phones, bikes, toaster ovens, etc. But there’s nothing wrong with someone posting the occasional selfie. If anything, it’s empowering. They’re taking control of their own image production instead of relying on someone or something else. Three hundred years ago, if you were a noble, you would pay someone oodles of gold and jewels to paint you surrounded by your possessions. Variations of the selfie have been around for centuries.

The media likes to over sensationalize this. Some of my favorites include: “What did Narcissus Say to Instagram? Selfie Time!” (The USA Today 2013); “Selfie Addiction is No Laughing Matter” (The Huffington Post, 2014); “Get Over Your Selfie” (The Wall Street Journal, 2014) . These are all blistering critiques in some of the nation’s biggest agenda-setting newspapers – because meaning comes from how something is represented through language, it is no wonder the selfie is largely considered to be a digital era joke.

 Oh. Well, yeah, I guess. What about duckface?

If someone thinks they look good doing that, let them be.  In the meantime, read this. It explains it better than I could.

 Selfie sticks…?

Are excellent for reaching that spider that’s crawled up into the corner of your ceiling that you can’t get to on your own. On a personal note, I’m not a fan. On a scholarly note, I’m perplexed by them. Based on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a selfie, if you use a selfie stick, it is no longer a selfie. The dictionary definition explicitly states it is an “arm’s –length photo.” Not a stick’s-length photo.

 What do you think of that God-awful song?

You mean that God-amazing song? Just kidding (sort of). It’s fascinating. I don’t believe any song sums up the millennial generation more so than The Chainsmoker’s ballad. The backlash against it, like the selfie, says more about society than the song. It’s like society doesn’t want to be reminded of their own habits and culture.

 Well what do you intend to do with this privileged book learning of yours? (this courtesy of a nice gentlemen I went on one, and only one, date with recently).

I’m working on my PhD, and I intend to keep studying selfies. A paper of mine that’s up next is a twenty-first century take on Lessing’s Laocoon, selfies, and hashtags, arguing that a crucial component to understanding the selfie and looking past narcissism is the hashtag that accompanies the image. I hope to encourage my students to think critically about the issues at play in our digital culture, and hopefully look at them with a trained eye. As I said earlier, selfies are a great way to look at these issues. They’re great to look at in terms of activism, empowerment, social movements, agency, and what matters to various cultures across the world.

 My friend and I are currently having a fight on whether the word selfie can be a verb. What do you think?

I think in our postmodern, poststructuralist world, anything can be anything. But no, seriously. “To selfie” is totally a verb. It’s shorthand for “taking a selfie.” We as a society seem to like shortening words and phrases these days, tbh.

 Why do you care so much? Isn’t it just a picture?

Nothing is ever what it initially seems, which is why I love my career path. If a picture is a worth a thousand words, the selfie is worth however many words you want to ascribe to it. In our participatory culture, individuals have more agency than ever before. It’s your world. Do with it – and document it – what you like.

Cool. Want another beer?

An IPA would be just fine, thanks.

 

Time Travel on Facebook

The Green Study

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I’ve written before about my aversion to some social media. Besides the conspicuous consumption of time, Facebook is how I found out that my best friend from 5th grade had lost the use of both her legs and arms in a car accident. Which led me to a search where I found out that another classmate and her brother were both dead in their early 40s. It was jarring and traumatic. These faces, frozen in my mind’s eye, were young and healthy and living happy lives in some far off world. Anything beyond that failed to reach my imagination.

When I was in my teens, we moved to a house, town and school far away from where I’d grown up. It was, in reality, only about 40 miles away, but rural miles. No public transportation or extra family car or cell phone plans to keep in touch with old…

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Black and Blue, White, and Gold – Real or Digital?

We could easily continue to beat the dead horse – is The Dress blue and black, or white and gold? (Personally, I saw white and gold, but that’s the last I’ll touch on that here).

I’m more concerned with what happened after the question infiltrated our lives, taking on a soul of its own and “breaking” the internet.

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If you’reliving under a rock and somehow have no idea what I’m talking about, a band was playing a wedding in Scotland last weekend, and this member of the band was perplexed by the mother of the bride’s dress. Some called it blue and black, others, white and gold. The unsuspecting band member posted it to her personal Tumblr account, asking her followers for their sage inputs, and like what frequently happens with the most surprising things on the internet, it took on a life of its own and The Great Dress Debate was born.

Everyone from Taylor Swift, Kimye, and Mindy Kaling weighed in, and the following day, The New York Times published this article as a comprehensive summary and subsequent analysis. But what made me throw my pen across my cubicle wasn’t the fact we were still arguing about this dress (and still are – thanks, advertising of America for perpetuating this). It was what Buzzfeed editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, said:

 “This definitely felt like a special thing,” said Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith. “It sort of erased the line between web culture and real culture.” (New York Times, February 27, 2015)

And if The Dress “erased the line between web culture and real culture,” that implies there was a boundary there in the first place. And what do lines do? They section off. They divide. They privilege.

Like it or not, we’re living in a post-modernist world (well, really, we’re in post-post-modernism, but I digress). Post-modernism has frequently grappled with the fact people still cling to the idea of high brow versus low brown culture (i.e.: opera, ballet, theater, vs. reality TV). Yet, now, for some reason, people, like Ben Smith, still assume that there are (at least) two cultures – digital, and “real.”

What happens on the internet is just as real as something that happens in our physical reality. Just because you can’t physically hold the computer code in your hands doesn’t mean it’s any less legitimate than something you can reach out and touch. We, as a Western society, have real trouble wrapping our brains around that concept.

It’s a digital world, and we’re just living in it. What happens online has very real consequences and reactions to things offline. Twitter sparked revolutions in Egypt. One asinine tweet got a woman (understandably) fired from her job and made her personal life an international mockery.

By differentiating web culture and “real” culture, we enter the messy realm of dichotomies and hierarchies. When you have a duality, one is automatically privileged and valued more than the other (Male/female. White/Black). And based off of Smith’s comments, it’s clear that “real” culture (i.e.: what happens in physical reality) is more privileged than the digital world (ironic, isn’t it, especially since Mr. Smith has earned his fortune managing one of the most popular digital journalism pieces in the world?)

I’m snarky by nature, so don’t let my words fool you. I don’t fault Mr. Smith or mean to maliciously attack him. His comment is just perplexing. In a world where so much occurs online, we as a Western society still feel uncomfortable to attributing legitimacy to our digital actions.

I don’t think The Dress erased the boundary between our “real” world and our digital world. I think it finally showed there was never a line there in the first place.

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