Saturday, 14 June 2008

Self-presentation Through Facebook Photo Albums

The other night I was in an insipid bar with fellow graduate students. The mood was grim with the heavy weight of exams, thesis write-ups, and general alcohol and college food-related sluggishness. We self-consciously and frantically cheered each other up with drinking games (throwing a penny in a glass to enforce skulling), grisly dentistry and burn stories, unsubtle sexual comments and by re-enacting happier times together; what have become our collective myths.

But we rode home on our cheap town bikes with flashing LED lights feeling desperate, undignified, wanting, calculating who had received the most attention, why our jokes and anecdotes were not indulged but, rather, taken as challenges for someone else, why no one cared about our academic progress, our families, our dreams and goals since these seemed to get in the way, to be incomprehensible and dull, or to be seen as bait for the insecure and competitive.

Let's face it, most graduate students at elite universities would be more likely to share verbal gun shots than anything else if there weren't the threat of collegial sanctions, and of course if there wasn't some chance that these verbose frenemies would soon become the next leader of one's country, one's boss, a celebrity campaigner with a rainbow family, end up in statue form.

What has become a prevalent way to release envy, tension, boredom, to make things right, to restore a sense of wholesome fun, egalitarianism and community is the immediate creation and posting of Facebook photo albums. Often these albums are created seemingly at the same time that the creator is moaning about their supervisor and necking their house red. Through the creation of online albums, one can present all of those moments where one's social group is together, giggling, leaning on one another, touching breasts, intensely pouting, making silly faces, tipping beer on someone's head, cuddling, smiling crazily. This is where one can erase all those moments only seconds before the photograph was taken where we wondered what on earth we were doing with these people, again, when we wondered whether things would become more interesting if we stayed, when we anxiously hoped that we would be accepted, validated, understood, made to feel clever, funny, popular, astute and special.

Facebook is, as Alice Mathias has said:
an online community theater. In costumes we customize in a backstage makeup room — the Edit Profile page, where we can add a few Favorite Books or touch up our About Me section — we deliver our lines on the very public stage of friends’ walls or photo albums. And because every time we join a network, post a link or make another friend it’s immediately made visible to others via the News Feed, every Facebook act is a soliloquy to our anonymous audience.
Mathias was in all likelihood drawing on Goffman's (1959) dramaturgical analysis. Goffman sees social life as though played out by actors on a stage. Most of our social lives can be divided into the front stage - where we act our formal roles in our encounters with people - and the back stage - where we assemble props and prepare ourselves for these "onstage performances".

This feature of Facebook allows for a curious and disturbing form of self-performance. The photo albums we present to ourselves and to the rest of our online world can eclipse the actual experience (indeed the very act of taking the photographs can engender a sad competition to be included amongst friends). The albums allow us to deceive ourselves and each other that the past was glorious, that we are celebrated.

But sometimes we're not celebrated. I'm still waiting for one of last night's photos to include my exuberant face.

[photo courtesy of mrquicknet under Creative Commons license]

3 comments:

Kate said...

So many good points here, so little time! I tend to think very similar thoughts - and a related concern is that other people can post photos of you without your consent. I know, I know, you can remove the tag, but still, it's there for everyone else to see. So many problems with FaceBook!

Monkey Mind said...

Attempt 2! I am with you - I am constantly wondering why people don't exercise a little more discretion and compassion when they upload pics. I have had some shockers put up of me recently and the detagging function does not make me feel better (actually, I am often shamed into keeping them tagged as some kind of badge)!

Sasanator said...

I wrote on this topic (facebook self-presentation) in my psychology BA paper a year ago. You may find it interesting - it's on http://folk.uio.no/sasanz/Mistorie/Annet/Selfpresentation_on_Facebook.pdf