meMedia or iRobot?: Constructing Identity(s) in the Online World

Did I really take Tiffany to the beach last week?

And if she went, was I really there?

Brighton Beach.jpg
Photograph by Adam Brown, 31 March 2016.

I thought I would use this blog to expand on a story I told in my latest Digital Media Snapshot video. I actually expanded on this story a lot more when I was recording the audio narration, but had to cut it when the video was getting too long, so I can partly transcribe the ‘extended Director’s Cut version’ here. For some context, you might need to watch this clip below (just the 90-second beach-related section):

The first thing I need to say about this is to offer a correction, as my partner pointed out to me after I made this video that instead of telling me ‘I think I still have that’, she actually said:

‘I think I still feel that’.

While this might only seem to be a minor reminder of the fragility of human memory (even within the 24 hour space between beach trip and video creation!), the use of the word feel seems really important to me. My partner’s instinctive anwer highlighted the role affect plays in experience – and if someone felt nothing stir within them during a trip to the beach because of their smartphone or a DSLR camera hanging around their neck, then something would be terribly wrong. But that wasn’t the case here.

One of the photographs I used in the video without having time to explain it was of a woman in the distance who appears to be taking either a selfie or a photograph of the coastline. I can actually guarantee with relative certainty that she was taking a selfie (probably more than one), because she had passed us on the walking track a few minutes before and we’d already observed her spending a lot of time trying to get good quality pics with the sand and the sea behind her. This image shows a further round of selfies she took just around the bend, just a short distance away from her previous series. And given she was on a one-hour walk, it’s likely she would engage in more screen self-love before she reached her destination. (Some people may have actually sighed, scoffed, or snickered at that, which is partly why I’m writing this blog).

Photograph by Chen, 31 March 2016.

When our paths crossed in the middle of her selfie rounds, this woman was the third person I asked to take a photo of the three of us (Tiff, my partner, and myself), as the previous two beach-goers we’d enlisted had done a pretty terrible job – not trying to sound judgemental, but shit photos are shit photos! 🙂 Third time was a charm though, as this lovely woman gave a full minute of her time to us and not only made extra-sure we were happy with the snapshots she took, but also chatted to us before she moved on. Was she trying to prove that she was just as capable of holding a human conversation as anyone else? Well, no, of course not; she took her interpersonal skills for granted, and so she should. The other people we had asked for help from weren’t rude, but they weren’t more friendly than this selfie-taking creature plodding along the beach either. In fact, if I’m to be really honest about it, this narcissistic monster arising from the digital void was not only the best photographer, but the friendliest person we met all day.

Throughout the past week or so, I’ve been seeing a range of articles and videos tweeted by students that lament our alleged detachment from reality. This is really great stuff to kickstart conversations with, and raises fascinating questions for us to ponder. What’s perhaps been most interesting for me though is the realisation that the more I think about and teach this broad issue of online identity, the more I feel like I’m putting across an almost utopian perspective to counter-balance the anxiety – the fear – that we are no longer able to communicate, that we are no longer ourselves, that we are no longer (apparently) the people we once were. This video by Prince Ea is the perfect example of this kind of discourse:

An effective evocation of affect is unquestionably at work here – it’s a well-written reflection/poem/song and a beautiful filmed video, and I really enjoy watching it. But when Prince Ea mourns that it’s ‘Kinda ironic ain’t it/ How these touch screens can make us lose touch’, I find myself thinking that it’s also kind of ironic that he’s relying on the same media platforms, conventions, and engagement that he’s criticising to get across his message (and with more than a half a million more subscribers than me, he’s doing pretty well off the platform…).

As with the mainstream news media, there’s a lot of ‘harking back to the past’ in this and similar laments, a yearning for some kind of paradise that never really existed in the first place. The video introduction on my childhood I made several years ago, which is included at the beginning of the above Digital Media Snapshot, might seem to do a similar thing, but it was always meant to have a strong degree of sarcasm to it. When I get asked for interviews by journalists, I frequently get a very strong sense that this kind of discourse is informing their questions and expected answers – and I often find myself pushing back there too. I’m by no means someone who will glorify digital media in all its forms; I’m more than willing to accept and expose the risks, the pitfalls, the dangers, and the limitations so often evident in its use(s).

However, when it comes to this issue of online identity, many people – and I include here so many students – are so influenced by the commonplace dystopian perspective to the point of being galvanised into inaction, rather than the action that can bring about the creative expression of individuality made possible in media-making. For this reason, it was actually quite risky for me to recently use the ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror at the start of this unit, as a compelling cultural text such as this could just as easily have reinforced existing anxieties as motivated viewers to re-think their practices as passive consumers. Drawing on Brooker’s blurring of the boundaries of what exactly ‘reality’ is, and how this intersects with Prince Ea’s contemplation on human experience, it’s almost enough to get me wondering if we were really at the beach recently afterall…

'186.365 - July 5, 2010' by Morgan
186.365 – July 5, 2010 by Morgan (CC BY 2.0)

The generalised notion that we are somehow changed by contemporary digital media culture – and that this development is overwhelmingly for the worse rather than for the better – is particularly ironic to me given that I’m invariably working with people who are not only immensely reliant on social media in their everyday lives, but have also chosen the subject as the central element – or at least a significant part – of their university studies and future careers. People are of course welcome to have whatever perspectives, opinions, and beliefs they want to have, but it is curious that overcoming the doubt and skepticism around being active, engaged, and visible online sometimes feels like the greatest hurdle faced in a unit predominantly concerned with the unprecedented opportunities that the practical engagement with online media offers.

My Mum was visiting me when I was reviewing my Digital Media Snapshot to double-check the editing, and she was watching over my shoulder as the aforementioned section played through. As soon as my voiceover asked the question ‘Do you ever worry that we spend too much time trying to get the perfect photo and miss out on the experience?’, my Mum – who avoids Facebook like the plague and is for the most part very uninterested (to say the least) in social media generally – abruptly answered ‘Yes!!’. My partner and I would give a different answer. It seems to me that how one answers this seemingly insignificant question is actually really important.

Several years ago, if I saw a woman twice taking a bunch of selfies at a 30 metre interval, I probably would have thought her fairly strange, and maybe even made a joke at her expense. But my perspective has changed somewhat. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to push my answer to the above question down your throat, but I can honestly say that – having grown up before the Internet was really ‘a thing’ for most people (and certainly not for me when I was a child and teenager), digital media culture hasn’t really changed all that much about who we are as human beings; the really fundamental aspects of us are still there – both the good and the bad. Well, that’s my opinion anyway…

Oh, and by the way, Tiffany was really at the beach.

We both were.

Me and Tiff at Brighton Beach
Photograph by Chen, 31 March 2016.

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