Yesterday, Quartz published an essay by Ankita Rao, in which she argues that “selfies,” images we take of ourselves, often with the intent of distributing them through social media sites, can be fun, but that they reveal our insecurities and a certain kind of posed inauthenticity as much as they do our real selves. Rao writes:
There is also the inevitable, palpable insecurity wrought in selfie culture — especially with those who often seek validation in the face they are willing to snapshot for the world. I often see that the photos people ‘like’ best are not the ones with most meaning, but the ones where they can easily justify a quick comments like “super hot” or, in worse case scenario, “werk it girlll”.
It’s further complicated by the constant, exhausting management of our online and real-life personas. Even if we enjoy the Twitter updates, the chronicling of food-truck tacos, the posting of political news, this new avatar is not native to our minds. And that can make our self-perception hazy at best. If someone else was taking your photo, on the other hand, they wouldn’t be concentrating on hiding that scar you got when you were four because they could see you as more than the sum of your features. There’s a reason the photos we take of ourselves are so different than those taken by others.
On the same day, Jenna Wortham, who covers social media for the New York Times, used the occasion of a rooftop picnic to reflect on the new video function that Facebook has added to Instagram. She argues, I think persuasively, that the problem with the video tool is that it’s in tension with the very attributes that made Instagram popular in the first place, the ability to record, edit, and filter the color and light on images in a way that captures not the literal reality of a moment, but the emotions that make that moment worth capturing in the first place:
Last week, when Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, and Kevin Systrom, the chief executive of Instagram, introduced the new video-sharing feature, they described it as the future of memory, a way to capture the moments and experiences that you wanted to remember and share them with your friends. But while that shaky video that I took on the roof was definitely steeped in reality and definitely true to the moment, it wasn’t the version of the night that I wanted to remember or share with my Instagram friends.
That’s because Instagram isn’t about reality — it’s about a well-crafted fantasy, a highlights reel of your life that shows off versions of yourself that you want to remember and put on display in a glass case for other people to admire and browse through. It’s why most of the photographs uploaded to Instagram are beautiful and entertaining slices of life and not the tedious time in-between of those moments, when bills get paid, cranky children are put to bed, little spats with friends.
What I think Rao’s essay misses, and that Wortham’s reflections hint in the direction of, is that the way we pose, even if it’s stilted or artificial, can be as revealing as documentary photograph taken on the sly. The preference for pursed lips in selfies tells us as much about what women see as valuable — a sense of sexual availability — as images of children dressed and standing like stiff little adults in oil paint, or portraits of powerful men surrounded by objects and images representing their offices and authority did. An image captured without a subject’s knowledge can capture what they actually look like, or provide documentary evidence of what they wore, or what their office or home looked like, or what they ate or drank. But an image that a subject has participated in creating can tell us all of those things and how the subject wants to be seen. Just because someone wants to conceal or to highlight certain facets of their physical person, or their personality doesn’t mean that they’re succeeding. And the gap between intent and execution is often as interesting as the material facts of a scene.