Open Essay

The Self in the Selfie

Sreedeep is a sociologist and a fellow with C-PACT, Shiv Nadar University, Noida
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Living dangerously inside a camera

Trends of doing-it-yourself, propelled by easy-to- use point-n-shoot devices, have created a junkyard of images in the last half decade, one that has no physical burden. These snaps are clicked, leaked, shared, viewed and happily forgotten to accommodate the craving for the next selfie moment. The purpose could be official, erotic, the proud declaration of one’s current location or companionship. The postures could be poised, seductive, wired, jubilant or dangerous. But the explanation behind this symptomatic drift is not as varied. An unprecedented constant craving for visibility of the self, a desire to publicise and comment on the private, is the driving force behind this promiscuity of tethered access and habitual sharing.

The force must be sufficiently empowering and excessively expressive enough to capture the imagination of the universal, overcoming all demographic parameters and cultural barriers, and transcending rural-urban and rich-poor demarcations to start trending worldwide, round the clock.

So what’s so uncommon about declaring how you looked when you think you looked sexy, or sharing impressive one-liners that define you, or advocating your political or sexual preferences, or articulating your wish list, or revealing the pleasures of attaining the aspired-to, or disclosing updates about engagements, marriages, hook-ups and one-night-affairs?

This compulsive habit of snapping selfies (images or moments) begs the question whether it has a pre-digital history of drawing self-portraits. Similarly, isn’t it possible to trace the lineage of blogs and activity trackers back to the practice of writing or keeping a diary? We are not witnessing traits of exhibitionism and collective narcissism for the first time. Then why the puritanical cries against hourly status updates on one’s celebrated personal life, and why the scepticism over this contagious selfie mania?

Turning the pages of most family albums, which belong to a period well before the digital dissemination of self-created and self-curated moments and images would reconfirm the basic instinct of documenting our presence in a particular space, on a significant occasion, with others who matter. The visual turn in social media has merely accentuated this announcing instinct, enabling us with easy-to-create, easy-to-share, easy-to- store and easy-to-consume platforms, gadgets and apps. There is absolutely nothing new about framing the vision of who we are or what we want, visually or otherwise. Digi-tech has merely made it more user-generated and user-friendly. Consumers are empowered to book their faces and act as celebrities within the confinement of their respective friend lists, and communicate their activities, companionship and locations with minimal clicks and touches. What is unprecedented is not the desire to put out newsfeeds related to the self, but the ease with which this broadcast operation can now be executed, often provoking (un)anticipated responses from beyond one’s immediate location.

Imagine the discomfort of carefully loading negatives, back- counting the number of shots left, being constrained by the 32- 36 shots of a Kodak or Ilford roll, regretting a badly composed or wrongly exposed frame, searching for dark corners for vigilant unloading of the negative, waiting endlessly to see the prints, and the recurring expense involved in the analog scheme of visual representation of the self and the other. No matter how much you romanticise this process, it was slow and miserly as opposed to the abundance and immediacy and intimacy of the digital. Viewing the results no longer needs a social occasion that draws family members and friends around an album in concentric circles of shared memory. The new memory now resides within the enormous gigabytes of digital storage spaces that archive all valuable moments: textual, visual and musical. We remember what we store in our smart devices or we save what we would like to remember or revisit. These stored memories now travel thousands of kilometres in a split second. While the possibility of consumption has become more and more public, it is increasingly negotiated through a private apparatus with less and less concern for the process of consumption in a shared social milieu.

Technological manipulation of time-space-light has been the defining feature of photography since its birth. But it is the possibility of easy and instant clicking, viewing, altering, sharing and reviewing—realised through the digital leaps in the last two decades—that has made all the difference in the way we look at ourselves through the camera, and the way we look at it to focus on ourselves.

Gadgets that create these images or moments and platforms that share them are packed with editing options that allow instant crops, filters, colour adjustments, clarity boosts, border and collage selections and a host of exciting neo-liberal tools of customisation and enhancements to see ourselves anew. Not only can one now capture anything and everything as many times as possible, using as many options without the fear of running out of negatives or storage-space, one can also single- handedly take up the responsibility of visual expression of the self by the self for the self (and others).

It is liberating to see yourself the way you want to. It is rewarding if the compressed yet compelling process of clicking away to glory can bring out what you want to see in yourself, or what you want to show the rest of the world. This near total control over point-of-view (angle), light, backdrop, subject and its demeanour offers the privilege that was exclusive to the ‘photographer’ who had loads of equipment, years of experience, a pool of undisclosed shooting expertise and even more confidential post-production-knowledge (dark room or PhotoShop techniques). You as a subject or object of interest would mostly follow the photographer’s directions. Contrary to that, now it is the pleasure of being in control that defines the point of departure in the evolutional timeline of photographing the self through an exercise of inexpensive trial-and-error. It is indeed the reverse of being captured by someone who dictates terms and conditions and decides the best angle for you, and precludes dissatisfaction with the outcome of such prescribed directives or interventions.

Technology has relieved us of that distress and handed us the decisions. What to shoot, when to shoot, how to shoot and how many times till we rediscover our hidden jawlines, edgy face-cuts, bouncy hair volume, permissible inches of cleavage, look-away-from-the-camera look, and what not— the onus is on us. There is no photographer to blame. The photo -grapher, indeed, is no more. You are teaching the camera to see yourself and also preparing yourself to look at the camera all the time.

These agency-driven selfies are digital by birth. And they could be raised and realised only through restricted or mass circulation. Circulation is imperative for its increasingly short timeline for generating views, likes, comments, etcetera. It is essential for its being. Getting it to go viral is quintessential to its temporal and sensational immortality. Like most other use-it-fast and throw-it-faster tendencies, the lifespan of a visual commodity is now possibly congruent with its inbuilt obsolescence. It attains an afterlife soon after it is shared. The promise of digital immortality is truly an ironic myth that is founded on the steady bandwidth of constant near-deaths. Hence it has to be serial— there has to be one soon after the other. You ‘are’ because you ‘share’. With a camera in everyone’s pocket, ever connected to a range of options—from Instagram to Pinterest to Facebook— every moment is photograph worthy. The insignificant is truly significant. And the photographer is finally dead.

Now you can keep clicking without the fear of being judged on aesthetic parameters related to the rules of composition. The body has been reclaimed from the manipulation of the other through the act of self-shooting. There are no rules left. Everything is right. It is a new medium, which doesn’t care to be judged by ancestral rules of thirds. Attention measured by ‘likes’ and comments are the new depths of field, and instant sharing platforms are your new gallery spaces. If you are not posting, sharing, updating, trending or advertising yourself, you are invisible. In other words, you do not exist, at least out there.

Through constant updates and images, we are creating enormous data and thus contributing to the algorithmic culture of digital databases waiting to be mined by corporations, marketers, brokers, the state or whosoever else. Relevant information on the quantified self can be tracked online for marketing purposes. If you buy anything on the internet (let us suppose lingerie), you might be bombarded by private messages, customised newsfeeds and mailers notifying you of special offers related to the product even if you visit a site that has nothing to do with the original purchase (see image above). Systems are smart enough to derive marketing conclusions from self-advertised statuses, tastes and preferences. From the number of steps walked to the number of steps climbed, from heartbeat to sexual performance (check out the iPhone app Spreadsheets that measures thrusts per minute, peak decibels and other variables of intercourse), most aspects of human behaviour can now be tracked and recorded. This new face and form of surveillance has aptly been termed ‘dataveillance’ by social media theorist José Van Dijck. We are increasingly being ‘datafied’ and it’s (not that) complicated. Voluntarily, we are producing a goldmine of data to be harvested, analysed and channelised to streamline sales.

Well, participation is not mandatory.

But we have willingly agreed to log in knowing that we are being watched and that visibility is a trap.