We’ve all heard the old philosophical quandary that goes along the lines: “If a tree falls in a forest but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
This metaphysical thought experiment raises interesting questions about the nature of observation and the knowledge of reality. It’s the kind of philosophical problem you might explore with your pretentious university mates down the pub after a fourth pint. But it seems that this provocative question about reality and perception has taken on a new form in our contemporary world – namely: “If an event happens but a picture of it isn’t uploaded to social media, did said event actually occur?”
The explosion of social media has changed the way we register, experience and remember things beyond recognition. We’ve reached a stage in our online lives where every event needs photographic evidence to prove it occurred. Even (or especially) relationships – whether between friends or lovers – need to be rendered in photographic form to gain credence and legitimacy in an all-seeing public sphere. The recent “#saythanks” fad on Facebook in which friends can share images of their happy times uploaded to the site neatly articulates this point.
It’s hardly exaggerating to say that actual real life events mean nothing unless you’ve got some visual evidence to prove it. Think how normal it has become to take pictures when out with friends or at music gigs. For many, it’s an instinctive reflex to grab your phone and take a picture at every given opportunity, let alone when presented with something actually interesting or unique. Perversely, many people now often upload images of events to social media channels before they have even finished in a kind of live-stream documentation of the night. Snapchat is the more socially acceptable chronicler of this trend. It’s little wonder then that Kate Bush asked fans not to take pictures at all her concerts earlier this year.
Some may argue that these pictures serve to capture a transient event and therefore allow us to relive our emotions in posterity. Fair enough. It’s nice to look back on an album of fond memories. But it seems that this personal meaning isn’t enough. Instead, the whole world must know our activities. We selectively document the best aspects of our lives on social media so our online friends know that we’re not just alive but thriving: we are relentlessly having fun in sepia-tinged harmony, embracing Drake’s enduring #yolo philosophy and are – crucially – more relevant than ever. Because unwanted staples of human life such as boredom and monotony are anathema to the exciting lives that we carefully portray as leading.
But we’ve become so predictable in our ostensible unpredictability when cultivating our digital identities that we self-regulate our online selves. Varied photos must be uploaded to social media sites at carefully structured breaks, for example. Profile pictures must compliment cover photos and should be changed regularly to reflect your developing states. Editing software ensures that we are seen from the most flattering perspectives to supercharge this practice of meticulous self-presentation. We no longer need rose-tinted spectacles when looking back at events; our phones were wearing them in the first instance.
All of which is pretty much stating the obvious. After all, social media really is little more than an inexhaustible exercise in self-advertisment. It’s a tired and clichéd argument to state that there is nothing social about social media – especially, as my esteemed predecessors point out in this piece, when thousands find love and launch careers online.
Yet I want to differentiate here between the act of using social media in general and the precise practise of capturing, editing and uploading slew after slew of photos. Indeed, in a surveillance culture that promotes constant recording, documenting and uploading we must surely ask: who are these pictures actually for? Our friends, or our ego? Do we treat the things we snap and share as ends in themselves? Or is there a more cynical motive to this projection, one that showcases an airbrushed hyper-mediated version of ourselves fuelled by a selfish desire to seek external affirmation and offset deep-seated insecurities? Think of a few serial uploaders you know when considering these questions.
Here, we run headfirst into the weird paradox that defines online life: everything we share is ostensibly for everyone to see, but it’s really just for ourselves. The dual desire for private and public validation is one that poses many contradictions and problems in our information age.
Whatever the interesting ontological questions thrown up by the private/public online debate, we must, in the first instance, not let the image take precedence over its subject. Obsession with future presentation usually entails a loss of presence in the present. I for one say that you should embrace your inner Buddha and live in the moment, man. Leave your phone in your pocket and see events without the soft hues of Mayfair or Earlybird in #nofilter naturalness. After all, the picture – from the taking to the editing and its final presentation – is very rarely more important than the event itself.