What is your understanding of the “digital self” and what is the effect of our everyday use of photography upon it? Discuss using relevant case studies and published research.
On interrogation of the OCA student website resources section and an exhaustive trawl of internet references it became apparent that there is no fixed definition of ‘The Digital Self’. The definition of this new subject is still evolving.
This essay looks at some aspects of digital self and tries to investigate where photography fits into the equation.
The digital camera became available to the amateur as well as the professional around the turn of the century and so for a lot of people (including myself and my first digital Canon) an awareness of digital identity started to emerge around this time.
At the same time, online presence commenced in the form of internet banking, shopping, holiday booking and many other uses, all in isolation and relatively unsophisticated compared with today.
Today, photography is used by mobile phone users and on social networking sites in a powerful way and to a point where the users have become relaxed about their product and its influence over the mass population (either positive or negative). Photographs can be used as incriminating evidence against as well as positive reinforcement for.
The selfie has developed in astronomical proportions and is used in various forms as self marketing for young and old. The introduction of the Kodak Brownie in February 1900 (Wikipedia) introduced the concept of the snapshot to the masses. It is important to note that at this stage the Brownie was not used for selfies at all. Today the selfie has taken off to such an extent that on my recent visit to Rome it was almost impossible to view or to photograph the Trevi Fountain without the interruption of a selfie stick.
Photography is used for citizen journalism and in information streams where the photograph becomes a part of the total information package. The value of this total information package is only just starting to become apparent and has a long way to go.
The Digital Self
A number of people have tried to define “Digital Self”. Zhao, 2005, Symbolic Interaction Journal wrote “Based on the analysis of teenagers’ online experience a present study shows that others on the internet constitute a distinctive looking glass that produces a digital self that differs from the self developed offline”.
That definition was made in 2005. The article was referring to online presence, mainly referring to the development of teenagers. Today there are approximately 3.84 billion internet users worldwide (Siri) . Siri found this information on internetworldstats.com from statistics dated June 2017 and this number constitutes 51% of the world’s population.
The point here is that the definition is changing rapidly, day by day. The last time I looked at the above statistic, 12 months ago, internet users were approximately 40% of the world’s population.
I prefer a simpler version of the definition of the Digital Self which is a Wikipedia definition “Our digital Self is many things and is in fact everything in our lives which requires some form of digital input”.
From the definition of “Digital Self” comes the question of whether we behave differently online than offline. The answer is almost definitely yes, and the evidence for this is growing rapidly.
“In early days our online activity did not have much influence over our real world persona. Things are very different today” (Premuzic, Sept 24 2015, Guardian, How different are your online and offline personalities).
In 2015, according to OFCOM, UK adults were spending an average of 20 hours per week online, twice as much as 10 years previously. As the internet has gained importance in our lives we have given up anonymity, and have needed to mask our true identity online. Now online activity is an integral part of our real life and so as it changes our outlook on life so our real life personality changes.
The course material for part 4 of Digital Image and Culture (Digital Identities) refers to social gaming and avatars under the heading of ‘The Digital Self’:
With the advent of social gaming and the creation of personal avatars, people participating in social media like to develop an image of themselves which is the image of how they wish to be presented rather than who they are. They may be personified as a dog or a cat or perhaps a thing of beauty or an aggressive warrior. These images have become more and more sophisticated as time goes by. One of the stimulants of this idea was the online game ‘second life’ introduced in 2003. Apart from each individual being able to develop his / her fantasy world, artists, musicians and gamers are examples of people who have developed complex online avatars. Art has been sold, complex online projects have been developed and interactive games are abundant. For many people now this has become a very large part of their digital life and has also strayed into their real lives.
Social media and the internet
At least 30% of our time online is devoted to social networking and this is one area where the integration of photography becomes powerful. No social networker needs to have a great understanding of photographic technique to produce excellent photographs at the right quality for Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. An up to date mobile phone will take pictures that can be transmitted in seconds.
Old family photos are being digitised and published on social media alongside more recent photographs to show physical likenesses and to share historic information. This is adding to the power of communication and is particularly relevant when communicating with past school friends, college mates or work colleagues. The power of the photograph transmitted in this way is in the speed with which it can travel around the world and the number of people it can reach. One’s digital self can share a part of many images of this type.
Social networking has really reached a new level now with all of these sites able to generate political comment, artistic opinion and to include each individual within groups of common interest. It is easy to make friends and to follow celebrity and it is also easy to be influenced by sophisticated advertising techniques.
There is the opportunity for any individual to have an influence at any level in other individuals’ lives via their photography and comment.
Thomas Chamorro Premuzic writing in the Guardian brings us right up to date. He states :
‘Today more social interactions are initiated, maintained and furthered online than offline.
People do not interact digitally in the way they would interact in real life. At this point the digital self has well and truly broken away and started to develop a life of its own.
In this parallel existence, likeability is measured by the amount of ‘friends’ and ‘fans’ acquired. Users judge themselves and self esteem varies according to user sensitivity.’
The use of photographs can become a danger. The publisher will have lost track of whether or not the photographs are for public view or restricted (usually by default they become public) and will be unaware that photographs or text could be incriminating. e.g. information could be used by the press.
There is no doubt that people drop their guard when they are networking. Dr Premuzic believes that “this is mainly because you no longer need to acknowledge the physical presence of the person you are dealing with. All physical influence is removed”.
‘Humans are 80% visual creatures and crave for an image. Photos still say more to us and determine more whether we like someone or not, than a million words. This is how superficial people are: looks are all too-powerful and personality is a superficial second.’ (Premuzic, 2015, Guardian)
So when does social networking become dangerous?
The simple answer to this is that it becomes dangerous when it becomes addictive.
There are however benefits to social networking:
• Relationships are made more quickly
• Physical boundaries are eliminated
• There is a structured approach.
‘Social networking is to relationships what google is to knowledge. The websites are neither good or bad. It depends on what users do.’ (Premuzic)
The use of a photograph can be enlightening, cheerful, comical, powerfully impressive, confrontational, insulting, shocking or frightening.
Using social networking and therefore developing your digital self has become an essential part of life for many people. It helps all ages to communicate, to retrieve information, to gain employment, to share common interests but none of these devices or means have changed the fundamental reason, the core psychological motives underlying our relationship with others. We relate to people in order to get along or to get ahead and both motives are present in social networking contacts.
The Digital Camera
At the turn of the century the digital camera started to become a viable proposition for amateur as well as professional use. At this stage quality of picture was still poor but all could see the potential and worked hard to convert from analogue technology.
‘The era of cheap, lightweight digital cameras has meant that people who did not consider themselves photography buffs are now filling ever-larger hard drives with thousands of images from their lives’ (Williams, 2006, New York Times, Here I am taking my own pictures).
So the use of the digital camera has started to fill up a large percentage of the digital self in many cases. This has happened because of the miniaturisation of the camera from digital SLR down to electronic viewfinder and again down to tablet, mobile phone, watch and what next?
At the time of the introduction of the Kodak Brownie (1900), virtually no citizen photographer was known to have taken a self portrait. There appeared to be some form of moral reserve. Nowadays the selfie stick has been manufactured in millions and at tourist sites all around the world it is often impossible to view the sites because of a constant barrage of selfie sticks in the way. Selfies used to be for younger people but in a matter of a couple of years this has changed and even retired couples are taking to the scene.
Is this sudden increase in the interest in self portraiture explained by narcissism? One explanation of this change in attitude is put forward by Dr Arnett , a Fulbright scholar at the University of Copenhagen:
‘This is the idea that adolescents think people are more interested in them than they actually are, that people are always looking at them and taking note of what they are doing’
He felt this was due to the fact that adolescents have been treated differently from birth (with more respect) and generally have a greater self worth and that this self worth is starting to spread into other, older people, a sort of contagion. I think he was totally wrong with his assumptions around young people. We all have the desire to take and use the selfie for record purposes, for bragging rights and for self publication. It is only human nature.
The quality of modern day camera equipment and processing has also contributed to the rise of the selfie. Not only are the photographs more immediate, they are easy to manipulate. They can be shown close to perfection (airbrushed) or distorted in some other way.
Uses of Photography
Each individual has the ability to become a citizen journalist, recording current situations by smartphone (either still or video) and to provide this information to the press or to the police or legal system to assist with publicising an incident. Well known examples of this are:
Alexander Chadwick’s screen grab of the London tube passengers walking through the underground tunnel on 7/7.
R Umar Abbasi’s photograph of a Chinese man about to be killed by an oncoming train on the New York subway.
This removes the filter of a political press and can empower individuals giving them the ability to influence political strategies. The digital self is a powerful individual.
The threat of manipulation
In amongst all this freedom is a fear by many that the photograph, which when it was first invented was accepted as a true record of the situation recorded, is now so easy to manipulate that it is no longer possible to decipher its authenticity.
This famous picture by Robert Capa (Death of a loyalist soldier) taken during the Spanish Civil War is still today the subject of much disagreement about its authenticity. Rather than being a digital manipulation it is regarded by many as a set-up.
The opportunities for a set-up or a manipulation today are on a logarithmic scale compared with Capa’s valiant effort.
But the question today is “Does it matter?”. Although photography cannot be used in the same way to confirm a piece of information, it can be used in many other ways. It can be used to develop art, to create an avatar or a fictitious representation of whatever the digital self requires. It can also be used as part of an information flow and the use of information attached to a photograph or series of photographs is becoming more and more valuable.
By using photographs and associating them with other information it is possible to pull information together quickly as described by Fred Ritchin in his essay ‘Toward a Hyperphotography’ (Ritchin, 2009, After Photography).
A picture is the central nucleus of an information stream which can describe as much information about a subject as required. To the picture can be attached further pictures which fully describe (or even contradict) the item. Other written information, a video or cross references to web addresses can also be attached to expand the story. All this can be achieved digitally using metadata. The digital self is now often thinking in hyperphotographic terms in order to pull together the truth of a story and to use this truth to positive effect. The negative effect could also be extracted if required. Photographs and text are so widely published that there is never a shortage of material which can be easily found.
In the last 20 years we have been introduced to the worldwide web, emailing, chat rooms, online shopping, smart phones, internet gambling, internet pornography, snapchat, facebook, twitter, instagram, linkedin, pinterest, youtube, texting, tweeting, sexting, imusic, online searching, online dating.
So, what is the motivation behind mass digital social networking at the personal level? What feeds our digital self? Is the current upsurge of social networking likely to crack soon or will it increase at the same (or a faster) pace?
Not surprisingly, we are all struggling with our own self identity. Now is the time to hone our digital self into a self that is closer to our true self in order to attain sanity with integrity. “Like it or not, we all have a digital self, a mask that we put on to engage the technological world” (Hicks, Aug 23 2010, Psychology Today)
Although a lot of the photography we use today appears to be becoming the norm, we cannot guarantee that it is fixed. The ability to manipulate images is continuing to develop and the miniaturisation of sophisticated digital techniques still has a long way to go. We have progressed from the Canon 5D to the Fuji XPRO to the iPhone 7. What is next for the citizen photographer and his user generated content?
Some see working within the digital self as an opportunity to develop their photographic creativity and certainly there are many creative photographs, self portraits or other, moving around the world. Fred Ritchin, in his book “After Photography” goes one step further:
“In a funny way I don’t see this as photography any more. It’s communication. It’s all an extension of cell phones, texting and emailing. The photograph becomes a part of the total information flow.”
Whatever one’s view of the direction in which photography is moving, one thing is certain, that we do not know how human reaction to future photographs and photographic techniques will develop. My personal belief is that we should embrace all forms of output, not only the traditional methods for printed output, use in documentation etc. but also the various social media formats, use of hyperphotography, video output and other innovative formats and engage in this new form of communication which is helping us with making contacts, meeting friends and keeping up with our own interest groups.
These all help to consolidate a healthy digital identity.
Zhao. S. (2005) Symbolic Interaction Journal: The Digital Self: Through the Looking Glass of Telecopresent Others
OCA Course Material, Graphic Design GD2, p.103: How to B
Chamorro-Premuzic. (2015) The Guardian: How different are your online and offline personalities.
Chamorro-Premuzic. ((2017) Wonderlancer: The Digital Self (an exclusive interview with renowned psychologist Dr. Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Williams. A. (2006), New York Times: Here I am taking my own pictures
Ritchin.F. (2009) After Photography: Towards a Hyperphotography. WW Norton
Gillett. F. (2013) The Guardian: Personal cloud services and the battle to serve your digital self
Hicks. T. (2010) Psychology Today: Understanding and creating your digital self
Williams. Z. (2016) The Guardian: Me! Me! Me! Are we living through a narcissism epidemic?
Miles. L. (2017) IET Engineering Communities: Getting your Digital Self in Order