Overthinking Facebook and Instagram

Instagram Photobomb
An Instagrammable photobomb, by theycallmemouse on Flickr.

I have become an avid listener of the Overthinking It podcast. It is a few guys, chatting via Skype from disparate locations in the USA, shooting the breeze about popular culture.

A recent episode (an atypical two-hander between Matthew Wrather and Peter Fenzel) is called ‘Schroedinger’s Instagram’, and discusses in depth the pop-cultural implications of the recent purchase of Instagram by Facebook. In doing so, they cruise by many of the obsessions and diversions of this blog.

Wrather and Fenzel talk a little about party photos and holiday snaps. The way in which people ‘pose’ for ostensibly candid photos has always fascinated me. I know people who make a peace ‘V’ with their fingers, or open their mouths as if the excitement of the moment has overcome them… but then they lapse into a rather glum repose once the flash has fired. They are consciously creating an inaccurate facade for Facebook.

(This, by the way, is why photobombing is so funny. In the foreground you have one or more people, posing for an ‘impromptu’ photograph which conveys who was there and the fun that was had. Meanwhile, the photobomber confounds this, by adding, first, a genuine impromptu element to the photo, and second, by adding an extra person to the history and memories of the event who was not remembered as being there. It is the opposite of the Orwellian, Stalinist practice of removing dissenters from the official history. Photobombing is the addition of a person to an image, when they weren’t part of the memory in the first place.)

Instagram does more than help present a polished face to the world. As the name suggests, it instantly adds the sheen of antiquity to the most recent of images. The app was only released in 2010, so (at the time of writing) anyone old enough to actually understand what photography really is, has been conditioned to understand faded, Polaroid, black-and-white or sepia images as having age and scarcity, and therefore extra significance. Placing those filters over new images disturbs this learned behaviour, and confounds our expectations of what is old and scarce, and what is new and ubiquitous.

As well as conveying a sense of time, the Instagram filters also allow us to flirt with nostalgia. The filters tend to ‘warm’ (in the visual sense) the images they are applied to. Together, the tools might be said to overlay the quality of halcyon, or possibly, halcyoness, to the pictures.

In the short term, this helps you to maintain and promote that Facebook charade, in which you are a more epic and exciting version of yourself. But what will be the long term effects? Will our photo-filtering practices now affect our memories of ourselves, in years to come? Over time, photographs do not just help us remember an event. They become the total memory of that event (to the extent that doctored photos can create false memories). What we casually do now – deleting unflattering photos, excising entire albums featuring ex-lovers, refusing to be in photos if you’re not looking your best, cropping images so they fit the Instagram template – will demarcate the extent of our memories in the future.

Is there anything inherently wrong about presenting a facade? Photo albums have never been totally private – there was always a chance you would show your friends pictures of your vacations. The imperative to show that you are having a good time was always present. And who wants to see images of the drudgery of other people’s daily lives? Those who post images of what they are eating are rightly criticised!

Similarly, is there anything wrong with choosing what we remember? It is surely natural to want to preserve only our best memories, leaving nightmarish holidays or tough life experiences to recede into the fog of the past.

Or do we owe it to our future selves to provide an uncensored visual archive, the ugly memories as well as the beautiful ones?

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