Please leave selfies alone – thoughts on the crisises of truth, identity and journalism

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“and since we live in present tense
the only hope of making sense 
all depends on the source of light” Fugazi

In his text “Homo selfiensis” Hans-Jürgen Arlt interprets the selfie as expression of what he calls “PR-Society”: a society that is dominated by striving for success by self-promotion. In quite a mental leap he picks journalism as the opposite of selfies because it doesn’t conform to the wishes of the photographed. Instead of that, he says, journalism follows independent criteria like “closeness to reality” and “collective relevance” (translation by me). As a selfie doesn’t have the same objectives as journalism it is no surprise he finds it lacks them but I find it somehow surprising that he condemns them for that lack.

But let’s be game, just for fun: Is what he criticises even speficic for the problem? Yes, selfies are staged. Yes, they only pick a segment of a situation and one that shows us in the light of our choice. That is not specific for selfies though. You can say the same about an anecdote we tell about ourselves: In it we also just chose a certain part of an event and might leave out things that could embarass us. Let’s look at it from the other side: What about journalism? News pieces also are hardly ever independent and they also often show just one perspective on an event. Not just when journalism goes commentary but as soon as it selects topics and leaves out others, and by what and who gets and what and who does not get mentioned in an article. It is typical of old school journalism to pass this as objectivity. That has worked out fine for a long time because if you take a perspective that is very common it gets almost invisible, or rather: all the other possible perspectives get invisible. But that does not justify a claim on objective truth. This is what gets clearer and clearer in our social media era, in which people with different perspectives have ways of expressing their criticism loudly. (So sorry, Chait.) What about photography and objectivity? We live in the days of Photoshop and Instagram filters and staged press pictures (just think of the latest fiercely criticised one, that showed government leaders heading a Charlie-Hebdo march in Paris). Of all those, to pick out the selfie as example for the loss of authenticity by self-promotion is weird. To conjure up the photographer as an entity that by it’s sheer presence magicly manufactures objective truth to a portrait in contrast to a selfie sounds too much like lamenting old boy’s journalism. You know, the kind that a couple of years ago complained about the dubiousness of blogging and today feels the loss of its exclusive control of the relevant perspective approaching by social media posts. In The silent revolution Mercedes Bunz describes a shift in the relationship between truth and facts: truth no longer is what lasts. The digital fact changes fast and constantly because it gets updated all the time. The absence of those fixed points that we were used to can be unsettling.

Truth no longer is what lasts.

In a review of The silent revolution (testcard, #24: Bug report) I summed up: “The polyphony, the multitude of the voices on the web makes a new kind of objectivity possible: the quality of the digital public’s truth is the immediacy of a lot of different voices – a pluralism that asks us to form our own opinion. Instead of trusting a single perspective that was vouched for by experts (journalists, historians, etc.), the recurring report from a lot of different sources has become the new criterion of truth. The active inclusion of the recipient is a central feature of the digital public.” The kind of journalism Reported.ly does can be considered an interesting way of trying to get a grip of this. Bunz also writes on the change of journalism’s role. “She says there hasn’t even been a real balance between press and politics in the past but that in today’s modern media democracies the positions have shifted even further apart: The media have turned into businesses, politicians use them for image work, media moguls strive for political regulations that are favorable for them, in short: conflicts of interest can be found everywhere, everyone is depending on everyone, everyone profits from everyone. Bunz could imagine the digital public, the smart mob (a term she borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari), as regulatory body. (I would be interested if she still thinks so when considering filtered timelines, and reactions of governments and social networks as Zeynep Tufekci described them in her latest paper, wrapped up here by Matthew Ingram.) What I also found interesting is Bunz’ claim that journalism’s attention logic is quite obsolete. While it still is focussed on events and breaking news the digital public gets driven by user interests: ‘If a message is important it will find me’, as Bunz describes it, pointing to Chris Anderson’s longtail theory of semantic niches. Recurring topics are not only meaningful as viral communication but also as criteria for truth.” That journalism mostly just applies viral logic to spreading its news and establishing its brand is a move into a questionable direction.

Selfies don’t exist outside of social media, the problem with selfies does.

Let me get back to selfies. Arlt assumes that in a selfie you are free to present yourself just as you like. That is a wrongful assumption. He neglects that the circulation in social networks is part of the selfie, it can’t exist without it. A self portrait is not a selfie. So a selfie always is staged to function in the logic of social networks. When we make a selfie we imply/apply the look and likes of the others. Selfies are pictures that instead of our view on a situation show us in a situation or pose. The can simply use our facial expression as non-verbal comment on a situation we’re in. Self-performed as meme. And the selfie always points back out of social media, back to us, points out that self-performance is not a specific phenomenon of the web. I don’t have to go to the level of the self only existing in its performance, which is pretty complex for most people. Let me try a simpler approach. Etiquette, rules of interaction, broad consensus on appropriate clothing for a variety of occasions, of genders, of body shapes – so many default settings tell us how we have to stage ourselves. At the same time we are expected to perform in a way that doesn’t show that we are performing. Fake it as if we mean it. Get caught while you are styling yourself and you can fall victim to mockery. Not that different from the public’s scorn that media and government leaders had to suffer for the staged picture at the Charlie Hebdo march I mentioned earlier.

Social media makes the tension visible that comes with the slow change of our understanding of truth and identity performance.

Actually we should thank social media for making the tension visible that comes with the slow change of our understanding of truth and authenticity and staging and performance and for sparking discussions. Precisely because this topic is not restricted to social media. Especially in social media though, deliberate lustful self-performance gets criticised. Criticising selfies often is nothing but an effort to claim control over how people depict themselves, and women and youth get the most of that. If the selfie-critics – who mostly take a male perspective – would stand up just as loudly against other omnipresent depictions, let’s say of sexistly objectified women, as they do when it comes to women’s selfies I maybe might take their criticism somehow serious. But most of the time they only call selfish what is not regulated by and for the dominant gaze of society. That just said to mention at least one problematic facet.

Arlt’s text shows how much criticism of selfies is about the fear of losing definatory power when he writes: “Self-marketing as requirement for economic existence and social career: No rental flat, no job, no application, no relationship without ‘selfie’, without approving the production costs of best possible self-representation. But these shows stay under control of the people that are present and can intervene.” (clumsy translation by clumsy me) For him self-marketing/self-performance is fine as long as there is a kind of supervisory body who can intervene. Says Arlt: because with an “unexpectedly interposed question” the “truth” can be revealed. A “truth” that he links to “efficiency” of all things. (I’m struggling how to translate “Leistung” in this context, secretly LOLing at the possibility of using “performance” and having this whole text collapsing over me. Tempting. But “efficiency” seems to carry that special german cultural background best.) As if self-promotion wasn’t about efficiency. How much Arlt believes in an impartial truth, in an authentic identity behind such fake stagings of ourselves, is especially well expressed in one picture he uses: he laments “the public as a tugging between obscuration and exposure”. I would say that this is exactly what truth is: it is an infinite approximation that emerges within a play of a variety of perspectives which shed light on one detail while casting a shadow on another. I find it amusing how much Arlt’s “tugging” reminds me of the picture of a burlesque “fan-dance” Nathan Jurgenson took from Marc Smith to describe how our self-performance on Facebook works. It can be expanded to all kinds of self-performance, maybe even to all kinds of representations: we show sometimes more, sometimes less, show a different side depending on the context, and identity just like truth only emerges in this dance, only in motion, and is ever-changing. I guess Arlt would not find this very sexy.

Journalism does suffer from the belief that for monetary reasons there is no other possibility but following the logic of social networks.

It is not that I am not agreeing with parts of the criticism of journalism and society Arlt puts forth, else I would not have felt provoked into writing this post. The selfie part just does not make sense in the way he applies it. The navelgazing of journalism on social media and how self-PR-aware many journalists post there, only to stage themselves and their news brand – yes, this is worthy of criticism and misses out on how enriching social media could be for journalism. What Arlt’s post falls short of, is consequently thinking the critical points to their roots. There is the very german yearning for a time in which it was still efficiency that counted and not just self-performance for marketing purposes (and I guess he would see any form of social media strategy of journalism as such. And I would not totally be not disagreeing on that). There is the very manly yearning for a time in which people were blindly accepted as gatekeepers; when that one perspective could be sold as objectivity and other perspectives only appeared as pesky readers’ letters. But there is no conclusive tracking of the “compulsory self-promotion” to its causes, the causes just “are”. Instead he sidetracks his anger and fears to new cultural technologies which he does not really want to deal with.

Journalism does suffer from the belief that for monetary reasons there is no other possibility but following the logic of social networks. That is how articles get designed for speed and reach while aspects like depth and societal relevance get – when in doubt – sacrificed because they do not matter in those networks. My guess is that only when all social networks will have become publishers themselves, media will get to know if they gave up more than they won.

Tl;dr: The crisis of journalism results partially from the focus on “advertising, PR and entertainment” and the logic of social networks, somethingsomethingaboutidentiy, but: Please leave Selfies alone.

P.S.: Arlt’s text does not outrank my no. 1 of curious selfie-angst-articles, the weirdest one still is this one about selfies giving kids head lice.

P.S.P.S.: The german version of this is online at Socialmediawatchblog.org

Pleasantville is no solution – social networks need to get more social

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Eine deutschsprachige Version dieses Artikels gibt es hier zu lesen.

US-Comedian Chelsea Handler posted a picture on Instagram, that showed a photo of herself next to a Putin one – both of them riding a horse, both of them topless. Her caption was: “Anything a man can do, a woman has the right to do better #kremlin.” Instagram deleted the picture referring to its community guidelines.

The simplest reaction to this would have been: “Well, it’s just like domiciliary rights: If I post something to a service I have to subject to their rules.” On the other hand users are increasingly aware that they have a certain power to have a say in this because their contents are the bricks that make that house. If a service strays too far from what its users want, they will leave it.

In such spirit Chelsea Handler posted the image once more; this time with the comment that it is sexist to delete it. When Instagram removed it again she posted a screenshot of the removal message, captioned “If a man posts a photo of his nipples, it’s ok, but not a woman? Are we in 1825?” This sparked a discussion about the appropriateness of Instagram’s action. Many comments agreed with Handler’s position but – surprise, surprise! – there also were smug comments like “hoho, if it’s about naked tits, this is exactly my kind of feminism”.

The interesting part of such disputes is that they shed light on social media’s problem areas.

The interesting part of such disputes is not their celebrity content nor their sensationalisability but that they show where the brickwork crumbles. They make it easier to find social media’s problem areas and to criticise and improve them. To ignore them as meaningless outrage can get dangerously close to the tradition of discounting women’s criticism as hysteric. Even though the tone of online discussions often is heated and polemic, they should be taken seriously as markers of problem zones. That media often treats them as problem and not whatever triggered the discussions, speaks for itself. Media often is part or platform of the problem.

Time has an article by Charlotte Alter that titles “Instagram is right to censor Chelsea Handler”. She argues that for childrens’ sake all images of naked women’s breasts have to be deleted from social networks like Instagram, even breastfeeding ones (something that even Facebook has abandoned by now. At least officially). Alter’s reasoning: “because that kind of monitoring helps keep revenge porn and child porn off of the network. It’s not that kids on Instagram need to be protected from seeing naked photos of Chelsea Handler–it’s they need to be protected from themselves.” How her argumentation gets from a picture of a self-esteemed satirically posing grown-up woman to child pornography ultimately mirrors its belittling and incapacitating gestus. That youth is far more sovereign in their use of social media than worrying parents that haven’t grown up with those can be learned from experts like Danah Boyd. That extensive censoring doesn’t produce the benefit that simplificating hardliners expect of it is just as clear. Both have their bets on control and the restriction of liberties instead of analysis and discussion. Both dash over and over against the complexity of human social behaviour. As Astra Taylor and Joanne McNeil sharply put it in “The Dads of Tech”: “Complicated power dynamics do not fit neatly into an Internet simple enough for Dad to understand.”

Drawing the line of what’s acceptable at the view of female nipples is rather arbitrary.

Nude pix of women like the Handler one are a good example for the failure of such methods. The borders between the depiction of asexual, erotic and pornographic nudity are liquid and complex. A medical and arid picture of a fully naked body is less erotic than an image of a body wrapped in dessous. What if it’s an articial nipple, say as decoration on a cake? And so on. What is considered indecent depends on cultural background, age and other contexts. What’s for sure: Drawing the line of what’s acceptable at the view of female nipples is rather arbitrary. Amanda Marcotte describes it very good in her piece on Chelsea Handle’s clash with Instagram:

“The taboo around the nipple encapsulates how ridiculous and contradictory our expectations about women, fashion, and sexuality really are. On the one hand, women are expected to be sexually appealing, even to the point of mutilating our feet to achieve that forever-sexy mystique. But we’re also expected to avoid being too sexual, or else we’re considered scandalous. The conflicting demands reduce us to counting inches of cloth and arbitrarily deciding that the nipple is a step too far. We’d all be better off in a more sensible society where women could walk around topless to look sexy but wearing 3-inch heels was considered over the top.”

Different networks with different approaches for different needs?

Networks like Twitter or Ello have different ways of dealing with NSFW content. Instead of drawing such arbitrary lines of what’s accepted, Twitter – where Chelsea Handler posted her picture after she said goodbye to Instagram – treats its users as more mature and makes trust a preset. It does the complexity and subjective nature of what people find offensive more justice: it’s the users’ choice what to look at. If users often post sensitive content (nudity, violence, medical procedures etc.) they are asked to change the settings for their account so that other users get a warning that must be clicked away consciously before they see the picture. Twitter only reacts after reported violations. The video gamer service Twitch has chosen a different approach when it forbade all its users to show themselves with naked chests. Puritanical or equal? Gesture of solidarity or patronizing prudery? Those are topics that are anything but clear offline and maybe we can learn for it from such online discussions. The various approaches to the handling of potentially offensive contents might mean that the most sensible way of chosing and developing social networks is using different services for different needs. But what if networks aim for being the one-in-all ring to rule them all because it means more users and more profit.

It’s time to take the next step: How can social networks be made more social?

Charlotte Alter writes in her pro-censoring piece: “This is also a question of practicality. Ideally, Instagram would be able to distinguish between a naked 13-year old and a breastfeeding mom. In reality, it would be unrealistic to expect Instagram to comb through their content, keeping track of when every user turns 18, whether the user is posting photos of themselves or of someone else, and whether every naked photo was posted with consent. …”

In plain englisch: You can not expect adequate content moderation from Instagram. Let me be perfectly clear in my disagreement: Yes, this is exactly the demand we have to make: Content moderation and restructuring. Social media are increasingly becoming part of too many spheres of our lives to ignore their shortcomings. And after all they make a lot of money from their users and their contents and they already invest a lot of that in finely structured and highly efficient filtering of those contents – just for marketing clients. It’s time to take the next step and think about how social networks can be made more social. Simplification of complex issues, especially if it is about social ethics, should no longer be an acceptable argument for taking the cheapest and simplest route. There are enough signs that the need for this has grown, just look at the size and intensity of something like Gamergate or the current rise of social networks that promise to do things different (Ello or Heartbeat, to name but two).

Charlotte Alter ends her piece with the question: “So which is more important: the rights of a few bold comedians or breastfeeding moms to feel validated by their Facebook followers, or the privacy of people who might have their private photos posted without consent? I would side with the latter any day of the week.”

“Sometimes you need to sacrifice the liberty of some for the safety of all!” – a dangerous credo we know very well from privileged conservative circles. Considering the liberties and rights of a few as inevitable collateral damage you have to accept for a greater good is nothing but an ignorant denial of efforts to analyse complex issues that need complex solutions. We shouldn’t forget that in a lot of media and marketing the depiction of women’s bodies still means sexual objectivation for a male gaze while social media platforms give women the freedom to counter this with a self-empowering depiction of their bodies – no matter if erotic or breastfeeding or satirical or medical. It would be sad to give up the self-empowering possibilities of social networks in the name of safety. Instead we should demand changes that start doing the fluid diversity of their users justice without getting in conflict with accessibility for youths. Pleasantville is no solution.