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This was originally posted at my blog Cyborgology – click here to view the original post and to read/write comments.

The recent and popular Hipstamatic war photos depict contemporary soldiers, battlefields and civilian turmoil as reminiscent of wars long since passed. War photos move us by depicting human drama taken to its extreme, and these images, shot with a smartphone and “filtered” to look old, create a sense of simulated nostalgia, further tugging at our collective heart strings. And I think that these photos reveal much more.

Hipstamatic war photographs ran on the front page of the New York Times [the full set] last November, and, of course, fake-vintage photos of everyday life are filling our Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter streams. I recently analyzed this trend ina long essay called The Faux-Vintage Photo, which is generating a terrific response. I argue that we like faux-vintage photographs because they provide a “nostalgia for the present”; our lives in the present can be seen as like the past: more important and real in a grasp for authenticity.

If faux-vintage photography is rooted in authenticity, then what is more real than war? If the proliferation of Hipstamatic photographs has anything to do with a reaction to our increasingly plastic, simulated, Disneyfied and McDonaldized worlds, then what is more gritty than Afghanistan in conflict? In a moment where there is a shortage of and a demand for authenticity (the gentrification of inner-cities, “decay porn” and so on), war may serve as the last and perhaps ultimate bastion of authenticity. However, as I will argue below, war itself is in a crisis of authenticity, creating rich potential for its faux-vintage documentation. Read More »

This essay, like the one I posted last month on faux-vintage photography, is me hashing out ideas as part of my larger dissertation project on self-documentation and social media. Part I is found here.A barrage of media stories are professing the “Death of Anonymity,” the “End of Forgetting” and an “Era of Omniscience.” They are screaming a sensationalism that is part of the larger project to drum up fear about how “public” we are when using social media. While there are indeed risks involved with using social media, these articles engage in a risky hyperbole that I will try to counter-balance here.

Part I of this essay rethought claims of hyper-publicity by theoretically reorienting the concept of publicity itself. Using theorists like Bataille and Baudrillard, I argue that being public is not the end of privacy but instead has everything to do with it. Social media is more like a fan dance: a game of reveal and conceal. Today, I will further take to task our collective tendency to overstate publicity in the age of social media. Sensationalizing the risks of “living in public” perpetuates the stigma around an imperfect social media presence, intensifying the very risk we hope to avoid. But first, let’s look at examples of this sensationalism.

I. Media Sensationalism
Pointing out the dangers of living public online is an important task, but sensationalizing this risk is all too common. Indeed, the media has a long history of sensationalizing all sorts of risks, creating fear to drum up ratings, sales, clicks and page-views. From sexting to cyberbullying to the loss of “deep” learning, political activism, and “real” social connections, I’ve written many times about how the media has found social media to be a particularly fertile space to exploit fear for profit. Read More »

This essay, like the one I posted last month on faux-vintage photography, is me hashing out ideas as part of my larger dissertation project on self-documentation and social media. Part II will argue that the media also overstate how public we have become, sensationalizing the issue to the point that the stigma associated with online imperfections erodes more slowly. It is no stretch to claim that we have become more public with social media. By “public” I mean that we are posting (1) more pieces information about ourselves online in (2) new ways (see the Zuckerberg Law of Information sharing), and are doing so more (3) honestly than ever before. We are connected to the web more often, especially given the rise of smart phones, and new layers of information are being invented, such as “checking in” geographically. And gone are the days when you could be anyone you want to be online; today we know that online activities are augmented by the physical world. People are mostly using their real names on Facebook and nearly everything one does there has everything to do with the offline world.

But we are not as public as this suggests. We need a balance to this so-called triumph of publicity and death of anonymity (as the New York Times and Zygmunt Bauman recently declared). “Publicity” on social media needs to be understood fundamentally as an act rife also with its conceptual opposite: creativity and concealment. And I am not talking just about those who use false identities on blogs (see Amina) and pseudonyms on Facebook, those with super-strict privacy settings or those who only post a selective part of their multiple identities (though, I am talking about these folks, too).  My point applies to even the biggest oversharers who intimately document their lives in granular detail.

I’ll describe below how each instance of sharing online is done so creatively instead of as simple truth-telling, but will start first by discussing how each new piece of information effectively conceals as much as it reveals. Read More »

This post originally appeared on the Cyborgology blog. Find it here

I am working on a dissertation about self-documentation and social media and have decided to take on theorizing the rise of faux-vintage photography (e.g., Hipstamatic, Instagram). From May 10-12, 2011, I posted a three part essay. This post combines all three together.
Part I: Instagram and Hipstamatic
Part II: Grasping for Authenticity
Part III: Nostalgia for the Present

a recent snowstorm in DC: taken with Instagram and reblogged by NPR on Tumblr

Part I: Instagram and Hipstamatic

This past winter, during an especially large snowfall, my Facebook and Twitter streams became inundated with grainy photos that shared a similarity beyond depicting massive amounts of snow: many of them appeared to have been taken on cheap Polaroid or perhaps a film cameras 60 years prior. However, the photos were all taken recently using a popular set of new smartphone applications like Hipstamatic or Instagram. The photos (like the one above) immediately caused a feeling of nostalgia and a sense of authenticity that digital photos posted on social media often lack. Indeed, there has been a recent explosion of retro/vintage photos. Those smartphone apps have made it so one no longer needs the ravages of time or to learn Photoshop skills to post a nicely aged photograph.

In this essay, I hope to show how faux-vintage photography, while seemingly banal, helps illustrate larger trends about social media in general. The faux-vintage photo, while getting a lot of attention in this essay, is merely an illustrative example of a larger trend whereby social media increasingly force us to view our present as always a potential documented past. But we have a ways to go before I can elaborate on that point. Some technological background is in order. Read More »

I dropped in on artist Jonathan Monaghan‘s studio to discuss his art and how it relates to technology and our contemporary world.

The impetus for my animation “Life Tastes Good” was seeing different depictions of polar bears on television. If they are selling soda, they are having a great time, if they are illustrating climate change, they are dying slow painful deaths. I decided to mix this disparate imagery into a new schizophrenic reality using the same 3d animation tools as those Coke commercials. These alternate digital realities I create in my work are both familiar and alien; playing with our desires, dreams and anxiety.

Jonathan Monaghan’s work is art in the age of hyperreality. Baudrillard offered hyperreality as a bloated, obese and dying environment liquidated of meaning, and here we see the simulated polar bear literally expiring on the screen. Monaghan has turned the simulated polar bear against itself by reintroducing it to the real. Read More »

The New York Times recently ran a story about how “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” It describes a digital age in which our careless mass exhibitionism creates digital documents that will live on forever. The article is chock full of scary stories about how ill-advised status updates can ruin your future life.

These sorts of scare-tactic stories serve a purpose: they provide caution and give pause regarding how we craft our digital personas. Those most vulnerable should be especially careful (e.g., a closeted teen with bigoted parents; a woman with an abusive ex-husband). But after that pause, let’s get more realistic by critiquing the sensationalism on the part of the Times article by acknowledging that, with some common sense, the risks for most of us are actually quite small.

1-Digital Content Lives Forever in Obscurity

The premise of the article is that what is posted online can potentially live on forever. True, but the reality is that the vast majority of digital content we create will be seen by virtually no one. Sometimes I think these worries stem from a vain fantasy that everything we type will reach the eyes of the whole world for all time. Sorry, but your YouTube video probably isn’t going viral and few people will likely read this post.

What interests me about digital content is that it is on the one hand potentially immortal and on the other exceedingly ephemeral. In fact, it is precisely digital content’s immortality that guarantees the very flood of data that makes any one bit exceedingly ephemeral, washed away in the deluge of user-generated banality. Jean Baudrillard taught us that too much knowledge is actually no knowledge at all because the information becomes unusable in its abundance. This is what millions of people tweeting away is: an inundation of data, most of which will never be read by many and will probably be of little consequence [edit for clarification: I like Twitter].

If anything, one problem with social networking applications like Facebook or Twitter is that they do a poor job of archiving and making searchable specific past content. A quick glace on Facebook reveals that I cannot search my friend’s history of status updates. Looking at my Twitter stream, I cannot even find my oldest tweets. My digital content may live forever, but it does so in relative obscurity.

2-Flaws are Forgivable, Perfection is Not

The article draws from a quote about how the immortality of digital content…

“…will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them” […] “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

I disagree. As we increasingly live our lives online, always index-able, it should be expected that many of us will have some digital dirt on our hands. Instead of this idea that we won’t be able to forgive each other for not being perfect, new realities will change our expectations. I suspect being an imperfect human being will be just as forgivable as it always has.

In fact, it very well might be the too-perfect profile that is unforgivable. As any politician knows, you cannot look too clean and sterile; else you come off as phony. A too-polished and perfect profile is increasingly a sign that you are not living with technology and making it part of your life -and thus seem a bit technologically illiterate. The overly-manicured profile screams that you are not out there using social media tools to their full potential.

In conclusion, use scare-tactic articles like the one being commented on here to remind you that what you say indeed might come back to haunt you. But do not go overboard worrying and cleaning your digital presence. Yes, riding your bike or eating chicken might get you killed (potholes and salmonella scare me more than Googling my name), but we are willing to take these risks because they are exceedingly small. Be smart, don’t post about your boss, but, in any case, the vast majority of people posting status updates about their job today will not get fired tomorrow. ~nathan

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