Assignment 3 -Critical Essay


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 and, as “The Symbolic Interaction Journal” put it:

‘The impact of others in telecopresence on the formation of self has not been well studied’ (Zhao, 2005, Symbolic Interaction Journal)

Zhao goes on to try to define digital self by stating:

‘Based on the analysis of teenagers’ online experience, the present study shows that others on the internet constitute a distinctive “looking glass” that produces a “digital self” that differs from the self formed offline’

This definition was made in 2005, nearly twelve years ago. How have things changed since then? This article was referring to online presence, mainly referring to the development of teenagers. Today, there are 3.26 billion internet users, approximately 40% of the world’s population. 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 amateurs (and professionals) could see the potential and worked hard to convert from analogue technology. The fax machine started to die out and the digital scan came in. Photocopiers worked in colour as well as black and white. Telephone banking turned into online banking. Shopping was no longer about visiting the shops. Holidays were no longer booked through travel agents by asking them to telephone a resort and an airline or shipping company.

These changes have all contributed towards the formation of the digital self, a concept which is growing rapidly.

OCA course material for Graphic Design GD2 entitled “How to B” puts it well:

‘ We’re all digital now. In many parts of daily life the digital way is now the norm. Life is unthinkable without our digital life-support systems of smart software and sleek gismos’ (Graphic Design GD2, p.103)

So our digital self is many things and is in fact everything in our lives which requires some form of digital input. The majority of this is our life online but do we behave differently online to offline?

‘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.

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, Instagram. An up to date mobile phone will take pictures that can be transmitted in seconds.

Apart from social networking, the mobile phone can be used by adults or children to provide photographs which illustrate our desired identity (e.g. for selling on ebay) , for recording everyday activities (on the spot) for use as citizen journalism, for identifying information all around us rather than writing it down (a quick photograph of the calorie count on the back of a cornflake packet) or for recording information useful for insurance claims, proof of location or who we are with. All this forms part of the digital self.

The use of video is now also expanding exponentially and this adds the parameters of movement and sound.

But it’s not only about the photographs which we take, it’s also about the millions of images we are subjected to continuously. An early piece of work within this course was to photograph every photograph seen in a one day period Exposure Exercise. The number of photographs ran into hundreds and the exercise ended up as quite exhausting. The influence, sometimes sub conscious, of these photographs on the self is immense.

Once again 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’

If this is true, and it is certainly true for some people, does this mean that we have reached “digital saturation” or is there further to go? Digital saturation could be a little like compassion fatigue and have a negative impact on future generations.

For now, Premuzic says:

‘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’ (Premuzic)

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.’

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.

Another enormous upsurge springing from the digital self is the ease with which people manage to publish their own photograph.

‘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)

With the introduction of the Kodak Brownie, virtually no citizen photographer was known to take 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. recent visit to the Trevi Fountain in Rome. 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. This self worth is starting to spread into other, older people, a sort of contagion.

Jim Taylor, a trend consultant with the Harrison Group in Waterbury, Connecticut was struck by the element of self marketing in adolescents.

‘When I was a kid I didn’t want my picture taken’

‘But these kids are fabulous self marketers’

They can use this to confirm their identity and convince themselves of their status in society. They are out partying, taking photographs, eating well, doing exciting things.

The quality of modern day camera equipment and processing has also have 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.

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.

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. It may be a dog or a cat, it may be 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. 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 self and has also strayed into their real lives.

Old family photos are being digitised and published on social media alongside more recent photographs for comedy, to show physical likenesses, 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 of these images.

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.

So where does all this information go? Frank Gillett writes in the Guardian about the battle to serve your digital self. Cloud technologies account for between 60 and 70% of all stored digital data (personal or work stuff). This includes files, contacts, photos, music and videos. All the companies involved, Apple’s icloud, Microsoft’s Sky Drive, Google Drive and Dropbox, to name a few, are currently jockeying for position in the market and many of us are currently being targeted to use their product, often without realising it. At the same time we can join up for Apple Music, Spotify or Napster. These are all becoming part of our digital footprint, our digital self.

Based on current work carried out at Forrester, Cambridge Massachussetts, The battle to serve our digital selves is expected to unfold over the next six years (no sooner). Competitors, big and little, are in the race but none has a head start. ‘Individuals will come to be defined as much by where they store their digital selves as what their nationality is. Will you become a Google, ABT, a Carrefour or a Baidu? Your choices will remake the power dynamic of the online world.’

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.”


Reference List

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






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