Instagram Culture and the Democratization of Pretension

When I was going through the huge collection of photos I have from the Forum in Rome, I kept running across pictures containing two young Asian women (neither of them Kate). This isn't because I was stalking them, but because they were everywhere, stopping for long periods in front of virtually every significant ruin and striking exaggerated poses for each other to take photos of. I had to carefully frame a few of my own photos to avoid them, but I did also take a few that deliberately included their posing, because it was so amusingly over the top.

Tourists taking photos of each other in the Forum. Tourists taking photos of each other in the Forum.

I thought of this (and went to the trouble of cropping down one of those shots for the image above) because The Conversation ran a more-erudite-than-average "kids these days" piece with the dramatic headline "What’s lost when we photograph life instead of experiencing it?" While this drops a few references to modern neuroscience to claim that constant distraction is reshaping our brains for the worse, the central complaint is a fuzzier one: that the sort of self-presentation involved in taking and sharing photos at famous sites is Bad.

In pursuit of digital affirmation, even ordinary experiences become fodder for photographs.

Instead of staying present – being (and really observing) where we are – our impulse is to capitalize on all lived experiences as an opportunity to represent and express ourselves visually. Part of what’s troubling about this kind of tenacious documentation is the thin line between representation or expression and – as with the “Snap Pack” – the marketing or commodification of everyday life.

Personal photo collections, publicized through applications like Instagram and Facebook, risk primarily becoming a tool for self-promotion. The ability to constantly measure public feedback for each posted photograph enables, and may encourage, users to tweak visual representations of their own lives in an effort to simply maximize a positive response.

Now, obviously, as somebody who took 1600 photos on a one-week trip to Rome, and posted a whole bunch of them on the Internet, I'm obviously going to bristle at this a bit. I don't have a very concrete idea of what "staying present – being (and really observing) where we are" is supposed to mean, but it's not at all clear to me that my photographic activity is impairing that. On the contrary, I would be somewhat inclined to argue that taking all those pictures enhances the experience, at least for me (the effect might be less positive for Kate, having to wait while I futz around with photography...). Finding the right angle, lighting, and framing to get an image that captures a particular moment-- or even just lends itself to a flippant photo caption-- requires a level of closer observation than I might otherwise give some of these sites.

And, yes, when I select a subset of those photos to present on the Internet, that's an act of carefully curated self-presentation, both through the images I choose and the words I use to describe them. I picked the photos in Monday's blog post and the jokes in that album of art pictures as a way of putting forward a certain image of myself to the Internet-- what I find aesthetically interesting, what I like in art and history, what I find funny. Which is hopefully appealing to a particular subset of people who will read and link and leave appreciative comments, and generally think well of me.

I absolutely agree that self-presentation is a big piece of what's going on, here, but I would also argue that there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything particularly new about it-- the genre of self-presentation through carefully curated travel narrative goes back well before the invention of cameras, let alone smart phones. The idea of going to famous places and presenting a particular image of yourself by exhaustively documenting your reaction to them was already firmly established 150 years ago when Mark Twain got a really good book out of spoofing it.

You could argue, of course, that The Innocents Abroad is also a carefully curated work of self-presentation on Twain's part, and I'll happily agree with that. For that matter, writing a blog post about how selfie-snapping tourists are Doing It Wrong is also engaging in the same sort of activity.

A better counter might be to note that my blogging-and-photo-captioning is not remotely in Twain's league (another point I won't contest at all), and I think this hits closer to the heart of the matter. That is, I think the core complaint of the "photo-sharing is Bad" crowd is not so much about the fact that people are engaged in self-presentation through image curation-- that's an activity we're all engaged in, all the time. I think the fundamental complaint driving these thinkpieces is that it's being done by the wrong people.

That is, when somebody with intellectual heft does it-- a Mark Twain, or a Robert Hughes, or even a Ph.D. candidate at a major university-- silently contemplates a cultural object without electronic aids, and shares it later in a more traditional channel, then it's important and worthwhile. A random tourist snapping selfies, though, is crass and shallow and insufficiently engaged with Experiencing the Moment. The problem with cameraphone technology and photo-sharing apps isn't that they created self-promoting self-presentation-- ostentatious intellectuals have been carefully curating their images by publicly sharing their cultural experiences for centuries. The problem with technology is that it's democratized that process, making it trivially easy for any yob with an iPhone to seek affirmation from their friends by presenting themselves as the sort of person who visits Important Cultural Sites.

I'm obviously choosing to frame this in the most unflattering way possible-- that curation activity again-- but these kinds of pieces push a lot of my buttons. To start with, there's the Luddite element of pretending that online life is less "real" than unplugged activities, which always gets my back up. More than that, though, at their heart, these essays seem to me to flow from a deep vein of elitism that runs through not just academia but the segment of modern society that self-presents as intellectual-- people who read and re-share the nebulous collection of smart-people magazines and websites that run pieces decrying the pernicious effect of Internet technologies on modern life.

Now, I'm not denying at all that the people who rail against selfie-snapping find some ineffable benefit in slow and silent contemplation, that would be lost to electronic intermediaries. I can't quite fathom what that is, but I take them at their word on that, and believe that it's true to the sort of people they choose to be.

What I object to is the presumption that this ineffable benefit is something universal, and those who aren't seeking it out are Doing something Wrong. Because this is ultimately a question of personal aesthetics, and those are highly variable. If some other subset of the population finds that their experience of culture is enhanced by taking selfies and sharing them with friends via social media, well, that's just fine, because they're not the same kind of people. It's just as viable and valid a set of personal preferences, and so long as it doesn't intrude on the ability of others to enjoy the same culture in their own way (I've had a few close calls with selfie sticks wielded by inattentive tourists), it's every bit as deserving of respect.

The critical stance of the standard cell-phones-ruin-everything essay, though, is based on the idea that people who use their phones to do the same thing that travelogue writers have been doing for centuries are Wrong because they're not approaching and experiencing culture in the same manner as an ostentatious intellectual. It's an attempt to elevate the aesthetic preferences of academics to a human universal, and denigrate the preferences of wide ranges of other people as lesser. It's an attitude toward the public at large that I find condescending, bordering on contemptuous, and its prevalence in academia is a constant low-level irritant.

(I should note that this, too, is not especially new. Twain's book devotes no small amount of space to lampooning and lamenting the crass and shallow among his fellow travelers. I'm inclined to think it's gotten a bit worse of late, thanks to a variety of network effects that are well discussed elsewhere, but I could easily be wrong about that.)

Now, am I going to make a big pitch for the underappreciated aesthetics of a well-chosen Instagram selfie? No, not really. It's not my thing-- of the 1600-odd photos of Rome on my camera and smartphone, the number with me in them probably doesn't crack double digits, and several of those are group photos with my friends from college who I only see once or twice a year.

At the same time, though, if that's what floats your boat, go nuts. I mean, I'd prefer it if people could keep their selfie sticks the hell out of my photo frames, and well clear of my head, but the quality of an aesthetic experience is ultimately a very subjective thing, and if having a duckface selfie in front of the Arch of Septimus Severus enhances your experience of the Forum, more power to you. Be who you are, where you are, share it with your friends, and don't waste time worrying about people who self-present as grumpy academics.


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Back in the days when cameras used photographic film, a professional photographer providing content for a magazine article (e.g., National Geographic) would typically take hundreds of photos, knowing that only ten or (if they were lucky) twenty of them would actually appear in the article. Amateur photographers like you or me could not afford the expense and weight of carrying all those film canisters around, so we'd be lucky to get a few dozen pictures over the course of a week's vacation. Most people tried to make every shot count.

Digital photography changed all that. Now, anyone who is so inclined can take hundreds of photographs, as you did in Rome, if they are so inclined. You can always delete your mistakes, at a total cost of only a few seconds of your time.

Of course this has its downsides, among them the phenomenon of selfies. But in the film days tourists would often try to get members of their party in some of the shots, and some cameras had timers that would effectively let the photographer be in the photo, so the selfie phenomenon isn't new, just more prevalent.

Balanced against that, artistic photography is a much more accessible hobby than it was 20 years ago. I have a nice photo from 2006 of the sun setting into the Pacific Ocean off Sonoma County, which photo I used as my desktop background for a few years. I took between 10 and 15 photos to get that shot. You probably take several photos of things you want to photograph as well. Of course you're only showing the best results--that's normal for artists.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 29 Jun 2016 #permalink

Is there a reason you choose stills to video? (Other than being what you have.)

I'm generally not a big fan of video-- too much of a time and attention commitment. My first choice of medium is always prose, with still images to supplement as needed. I can read and look at pictures a lot faster than most videos I've seen can do a coherent story. And cutting together a coherent video from a bunch of clips at a bunch of different locations is vastly more difficult than collecting together still images from those same places.

There are some things for which video is the best choice, but it's a little out of my comfort zone.

Why take a photo of The Forum? Aren't there plenty of photos of it already? There's nothing unique or special about such a photo. I once had a brief dispute with someone on the internet (casting a broad net there, I know) on photo copyright, because we had each taken a photo of a particular feature of Uluru, and our photos looked the same. What are the odds? Well, actually they are pretty good.

A photo of a thing with yourself or a friend in it, however, is a rather different beast. That *is* a unique, special thing, an image that could only have been captured at one particular place and time, in one particular set of circumstances. Details like the clothing the person is wearing matter and make the photo a distinct thing.

And that's what the 'selfie of a famous landmark' is about. It's the selfie that makes the difference between your photo and anyone else's.

By Paul Murray (not verified) on 29 Jun 2016 #permalink

"On the contrary, I would be somewhat inclined to argue that taking all those pictures enhances the experience,"

I would say it depends. If whoever is taking the shots simply snaps and moves on to another, without thought of what they are including or how it looks, I can't see much enhancement - and when, or if, shots taken that way are reviewed, the chance of much of an associated memory (context) probably won't be there. It doesn't sound like that was your approach.

"Amateur photographers like you or me could not afford the expense and weight of carrying all those film canisters around, so we’d be lucky to get a few dozen pictures over the course of a week’s vacation"
I did carry tons of film with me, much to the annoyance of my wife, but I was also able to sell a few shots to help offset the annoyance (though I was, and still am, far from a professional). The larger benefit of digital (aside from having to carry film) is the instant feedback - the ability to check composition and exposure - at the time of the camera click.

Why take photos of things that have already been heavily photographed? Lots of reasons. For one, as you mention indirectly, it provides me with a source of photos to which I hold the copyright, so if I decide to go and write a blog post for Forbes about the physics underlying Roman engineering, I don't have to waste a whole bunch of time finding a public domain photo I can use.

More than that, though, there are plenty of unique images and moments that don't involve photographing myself. As I said in the previous post, I try to take pictures of odd stuff that's amusing to me, that other photographers probably wouldn't bother with. The seagull on a headless statue in that post is a transient moment that defines a particular instant as clearly as a picture of me in a sweaty Mythbusters T-shirt would.

I have read several articles similar to the one you cite and I am always struck by the logical fallacy that is common to all I have seen. That fallacy is assuming OR to the exclusion of AND. My psychology colleagues cite some studies that indicate that when we take photographs of something we rob ourselves of the memory. As one who started as a film photographer and benefitted from the tutelage of more experienced (and gifted!) seniors, I was repeatedly lectured that to take great photos one must first get that image into memory and then onto film. This is a discipline, hard learned, that seems largely dissipated.

By Bruce Fowler (not verified) on 01 Jul 2016 #permalink

Might as well ask why look at the stars through a telescope: just go on the web and look at the HST pics.

The difference is that it's your view.

Same with photos.

@1: My very first roll of film included a selfie shot with an autotimer, so no, nothing new there. Then consider how many painters have done the same thing over the centuries!

My own view is that making photos will focus my mind on the present, even if it is just to decide if the place or the moment should be captured at all. But they also serve as a visual trigger for my visual memory. Old photos put me back in a place and a time with great effect.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 05 Jul 2016 #permalink