COMM 200 DePaul University Blockchain Technology Paper

Your report should have two main components (in addition to the bibliography):


Historical, contemporary, and future trajectory of the technology

Describe the history and background of the technology. When and how did it emerge and develop? What were its predecessors? When and how did it take off and become popular? Who are its major competitors? Discuss of the future of the technology. How might it evolve and change over time? Will it survive and thrive much longer or is it in decline? Why?


Communication & technology: critical engagement

Select one of the themes we have covered in class that has a bearing on the technology you are examining. Discuss its relevance to the technology you are writing about. You should pick a way to critically engage with this technology and evaluate it using the readings and concepts from the class, joined with your own personal thoughts and experiences.

For example, you can evaluate the role of that technology for self-presentation, forming and maintaining social relationships, civic and political engagement, health and well-being, news and  journalism, privacy, reputation, censorship, copyright, freedom of speech, and so on.

You can also discuss the composition of the people using that technology. Are there any groups that are particularly likely to use it? Are there any groups that are excluded from using it, either by choice or by necessity (think access and equity here)? Some relevant user characteristics to consider may include age, gender, race & ethnicity, ability, sexuality, education, income, etc. This is not absolutely necessary for all technologies, but it is often necessary to consider who things are and aren’t designed for, or how certain technologies benefit different groups in different ways.

You could also describe the role the technology plays in everyday life. What motivates people to use it? Think of key user goals that this technology may serve: seeking information, communication, social relationships, entertainment, self-presentation, self-improvement, etc. What social practices, rules, or norms have developed around the technology? That may include, for instance, using specific slang, jargon, or acronyms; using the technology in new or unexpected ways (e.g. changing your profile picture to support a cause), developing social rules for appropriate behavior (e.g. killing players in certain locations in virtual worlds is considered rude, even though the game allows it), and so on.

Whatever you choose – engage on a personal level to show us how YOU are rethinking technology through the class.

Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves
Walker Rettberg Jill
ISBN: 9781137476661
DOI: 10.1057/9781137476661
Palgrave Macmillan
Please respect intellectual property rights
This material is available open access under the Creative Commons license specified.
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Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
Also by Jill Walker Rettberg
BLOGGING (2nd edn, 2014)
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(edited with H. G. Corneliussen, 2008)
DOI: 10.1057/9781137476661.0001
10.1057/9781137476661 – Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, Jill Walker Rettberg
Jill Walker Rettberg
University of Bergen, Norway
Except where otherwise noted, this work is
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution
3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://
DOI: 10.1057/9781137476661.0001
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Seeing Ourselves
Through Technology:
How We Use Selfies,
Blogs and Wearable
Devices to See and
Shape Ourselves
© Jill Walker Rettberg 2014
The author has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work
in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Open access:
Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. To view a
copy of this license, visit
Palgrave Macmillan in the UK is an imprint of Macmillan Publishers Limited,
registered in England, company number 785998, of Houndmills, Basingstoke,
Hampshire, RG21 6XS
Palgrave Macmillan in the US is a division of St Martin’s Press LLC,
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.
Palgrave Macmillan is the global academic imprint of the above companies
and has companies and representatives throughout the world.
Palgrave® and Macmillan® are registered trademarks in the United States,
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ISBN: 978–1–137–47665–4 EPUB
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A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
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First published 2014 by
1 Written, Visual and Quantitative
Writing about the self
Visual self-portraits in history
The history of quantitative self-representation
Texts or people?
Disciplining self-representations
2 Filtered Reality
Technological and cultural filters
Aestheticising, anesthetising and
Choosing what technology can do
Genres as filters
A filtered world
3 Serial Selfies
Cumulative self-presentations
Time lapse selfies
Profile photos as visual identity
Automatic portraits
4 Automated Diaries
Life poetry told by sensors
Capture all
A photo every 30 seconds
Algorithms to find meaning
Gamified lives
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5 Quantified Selves
A fantasy of knowing
Dataism and subjective data visualisation
Measure more
What we cannot measure
The pleasure of control
Machine vision
6 Privacy and Surveillance
Forced portraits
Who the advertisers think I am
Power and discipline
Seeing ourselves
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This book was written while I was on sabbatical, and
although I have been thinking about the ideas and
practices discussed in this book for many years, I would
not have been able to write this book without that time
to devote to research. My sabbatical was funded by the
University of Bergen and by a Leiv Eiriksson fellowship
from the Norwegian Research Council that allowed me
to spend the first half of 2014 in the United States. I also
received generous funding from the University of Bergen’s
Open Access Publication Fund, which made it possible to
publish this under a CC-BY license. I am grateful to work
at a university that is willing to try out new models for
supporting open access to scholarship. Thank you also to
Palgrave Macmillan for experimenting with this model.
My host for my sabbatical in the United States was the
Communications Department at the University of Illinois
at Chicago (UIC), and I would particularly like to thank
Steve Jones and Zizi Papacharissi for generously inviting
me to spend a semester there. Steve also gave me opportunities to share my research, and I received very useful
feedback from professors and students in the department
and in the UIC Digital Humanities Working Group.
Thanks as well to the International Office at UIC, and to
the Norwegian Research Council’s guide for Norwegian
scholars going on a scholarly exchange to the United
States. I had no idea how many practicalities were needed
for an international exchange: the visa, finding an apartment, renting out our own apartment, finding schools and
getting all the health paperwork settled for the kids, car
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insurance and much more. I was glad to have competent guides both at
UIC and at home – and it was all very much worth it.
While in the United States, I have had the opportunity to discuss the ideas
presented in this book with colleagues at several other universities. Thank
you to Nick Montfort for hosting me at MIT for ten days and for very fruitful discussions with colleagues in Cambridge and Boston. I was also invited
to present this work at Brown University, at Winona State University and at
Wilfred Laurier University, and at all these places I learnt about new things,
heard stories or gained new perspectives that I have integrated into the
book. Thank you very much to Elli Mylonas, Davin Heckman and Jeremy
Hunsinger for arranging these talks. I would also like to thank Lars Nyre
and UH-nett Vest for arranging the Medium Design seminar in London in
December 2013, where I first presented the general plan of this book.
Writing about digital media I have found a lot of inspirations online.
In addition to reading blogs and finding relevant material from links on
Twitter and Facebook, I found great support and inspiration in the Selfie
Research Network established on Facebook by Terri Senft. It has been very
valuable to be able to throw out an idea and get instant feedback, to share
bibliographies and case studies, and to find a likeminded community of
scholars interested in studying these forms of self-representation online.
Many thanks also to Annette Markham for very useful feedback on chapter 3 and to my reviewers for many excellent suggestions.
Thank you to my colleagues in the University of Bergen Electronic Literature Research Group and the Digital Culture Research Group for frequent
discussions and day to day support. Thanks also to the University of Bergen
library, and especially the research librarian for digital culture, Aud Gjersdal, for exceptional library assistance. And thank you to everyone at The
Wormhole Coffee for providing a writing environment where you can sip
an excellent coffee with a dragon pattern on top for hours surrounded by
other diligently typing people all in a time-travel themed environment.
Most of all, I am grateful to my family. My husband Scott Rettberg
has been my trusted colleague and beloved best friend for over a decade,
and his input and our discussions always inform my work. My daughter
Aurora shows me how to see other parts of the Internet than I usually
see. She patiently taught me to understand Tumblr and to chat more
visually. I get some of my best leads from links she sends me. My little
ones, Jessie and Benji, have taught me that selfies are fascinating to even
the youngest among us, and they keep me laughing and climbing and
playing. Thank you.
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Written, Visual and Quantitative
Abstract: There are three distinct modes of selfrepresentation in digital media: written, visual and
quantitative. Each mode has a separate pre-digital history,
each of which is presented briefly in this chapter. Blog
and written status updates are descendents of diaries,
memoirs, commonplace books and autobiographies. Selfies
are descendants of visual artists’ self-portraits, and the
quantitative modes of lifelogs, personal maps, productivity
records and activity trackers are descendants of genres such
as accounting, habit tracking and to-do lists. In today’s
digital culture, the three modes are intertwined. Digital
self-representation is conversational and allows new voices
to be heard. However, society disciplines digital selfrepresentations such as selfies and blogs through ridicule
and pathologising.
Rettberg, Jill Walker. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology:
How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and
Shape Ourselves. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
doi: 10.1057/9781137476661.0003.
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Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
In 1524 Parmigianino painted his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Parmigianino used oil paints to paint on the hollow inside of half a wooden
ball, to mimic the shape of the mirror he copied his reflection from. The
distortions of the convex mirror are exactly replicated in Parmigianino’s
self-portrait. His hand is in the foreground, grossly distorted by the fisheye perspective of the convex mirror he is looking into to see himself.
We can just see the short pencil he is holding to sketch his own image.
We see what he sees.
Parmigianino used a convex mirror to see himself; today we use
digital technologies. We snap selfies on our phones and post them to
Instagram. We write about our lives in blogs and in status updates to
Facebook. We wear activity trackers on our wrists, log our productivity
and allow Facebook and other apps to track our locations continuously.
The data we track is displayed back to us as graphs, maps, progress charts
and timelines. Parmigianino’s self-portrait may not seem to have much
in common with a FitBit user’s charts of steps and sleep patterns, but
both are examples of how technology is a means to see part of ourselves.
Whether we use a wearable, networked step-counter or a convex mirror
and oil paints, technology can reflect back to us a version of who we
are. And the data, filters and social media we use to see and share our
reflections distort our images in their own particular ways, just as Parmigianino’s convex mirror distorted the perspective of his face.
With digital cameras, smart phones and social media it is easier to
create and share our self-representations. But self-representations have
always been part of our culture. We have drawn, carved, sculpted and
painted images of ourselves for millennia; we have kept diaries, scrapbooks and photo albums; we have sung ballads and told stories about
ourselves. Sometimes we use the mediation of technology to help us see
ourselves better, to understand ourselves or to improve ourselves, or
simply to imagine someone to speak to, a ‘dear diary’ to tell our secrets
to when nobody else will listen. Other times we want to share our experiences with others. We paste photos and memorabilia into a photo album
to share with family and imagine one day passing it down to our children
and their children. Some of us write autobiographies or memoirs to be
published for a wider audience.
This book explores the ways in which we represent ourselves today
through digital technologies. Like Parmigianino, we create visual selfportraits and share them. Similar to Augustine and Montaigne, who
wrote the first autobiography and the first personal essays, we write
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about our thoughts and our experiences. Like Benjamin Franklin and
the farmer keeping a weather diary, we track our habits, locations, to-do
lists and other data about our lives.
In this book I aim to show how these strands of self-representation
intertwine in digital media in three distinct modes: visual, written and
quantitative. In the following chapters, I discuss selfies and photographs
as tools for self-improvement and self-knowledge and the power relationships that shift and are contested when new groups of people share their
self-representations in the public sphere. In chapter 3, I propose using the
word ‘filter’ not just to describe Instagram filters or the filtering of the
posts we see in our Facebook newsfeeds but also as an analytical term
that allows us to understand how certain aspects of our self-expressions
are removed or filtered out, and how our self-expression may be altered
as we use different technologies, genres and modes to represent ourselves.
Chapter 4 discusses the ways in which wearable tracking devices and web
services are automating our self-representations and writing our diaries
for us. In chapter 5 I look at our new trust in quantitative data, even to
express our experiences and emotions. And finally, in chapter 6, I discuss
the balance between self-expression and surveillance. Although we take
selfies, post updates to Facebook and use a step-counter, others are putting
together the data we generate to create their own representations of us.
But first, let us consider the three key modes of self-representation
that this book is about: visual, written and quantitative. There are other
possible modes. Curation is one, whether we are showing our identity
through our record or book collections or by our careful reblogs or
retweets on Tumblr or Twitter, or by sharing the music we listen to on
Spotify in playlists or as automated Facebook updates. Music, sounds
and dance are other modes for self-representation. But for this study I
focus on image, text and numbers.
Self-representation online began in text, with images and some sounds
being added as graphical browsers were introduced. The visual turn in
social media has been particularly strong in the last few years, especially
after smart phones with cameras and fast broadband connections for
downloading images and video files became increasingly accessible.
The quantitative mode of self-representation has also grown vastly in
the last few years as wearable devices have made self-tracking easy with
consumer devices and as we in parallel have become aware of the extent
to which our data is collected and analysed by commercial companies
and by governments.
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Written, Visual and Quantitative Self-Representations
Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
Writing about the self
[T]he very first man who set out to speak and write his name inaugurated a
new mode of human presence in the world. Beginning with the very first one,
any inscription is an inscription of the self, the signature of an individual who
tacks himself onto Nature, thus affording himself room to reflect upon and to
transmute its meaning. (qtd by Serfaty 2004)
Augustine’s Confessions, written in 397–8 CE, is generally recognised as
the first autobiography, but writing about oneself was rare until the late
sixteenth century. In the Western tradition, diary writing began with
spiritual and religious self-examination.
An important reason that people for most of human history only
rarely wrote about themselves is the lack of available technology. Paper
was expensive, but most importantly, until the last 200 years or so,
most people couldn’t read and write. In most of Europe, approximately
20–30% of the population were literate in the early seventeenth century,
while 70–90% could read and write by the end of the nineteenth century
(Chartier 2001, 125). This is likely one reason why early autobiographies,
such as Augustine’s Confessions, were written by priests and nuns, who
were more likely than others to have learned to read and write. Almost
1,000 years passed after Augustine’s book before autobiographies began
to become more common. This may have had to do with social ideas
of what was appropriate behaviour as well as to do with literacy and
access to pen and paper. In the late sixteenth century, Montaigne noted
that drawing yourself was more acceptable than writing about yourself.
In one of his many personal essays, he wonders upon seeing the king
of Sicily presenting the king of France with a portrait he had drawn of
himself, ‘why is it not in like manner lawful for everyone to draw himself
with a pen, as he did with a crayon?’ (Montaigne 1910). His essays, with
their digressions and subjective style, were in themselves an important
example of the first person becoming prominent in literature.
The first English language autobiography and possibly the first in
Europe after Augustine was The Book of Margery Kempe, written by
Margery Kempe in 1373. Like Augustine’s Confessions, Kempe’s book
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We humans have carved, painted, drawn, sculpted and written about
ourselves since we first found ways of making marks in the world. One
of the early theorists of the autobiography, Georges Gusdorf (1991), put
it thus:
told the story of her spiritual life, though her story is, according to Peter
Heehs (2013), ‘long and somewhat tedious’, mostly dealing with her travels in the Holy Land and Italy (31).
By the late eighteenth century the personal diary had become
common. Heehs (2013) describes a move from the accounting ledgers necessary for running a business in the renaissance, where people
would often add personal notes to their financial accounts, to the
‘scores of English Puritans … keeping their daily accounts with God on
paper manuscripts’ by the end of the sixteenth century (8). As paper
became cheaper and a wider group of people learned to read and
write, personal diaries, not necessarily meant for publication, became
increasingly common.
It is important to remember that diaries not intended for publication might have still been shared to a greater degree than the private,
padlocked diaries that we often think of today when we imagine personal,
non-digital diaries. In her study of early blogging, Vivane Serfaty (2004)
compares blogs to the diaries of the Puritans, which were, she writes,
‘a requirement of religious self-discipline’ that ‘recounted a spiritual
journey towards personal salvation’ (5). In this tradition one examines
one’s own flaws and failures, seeing self-examination as the source for
self-improvement and attaining grace. As we see in later chapters, this is
much the same stance as we see in productivity apps and the Quantified
Self movement.
Heehs argues that the increased availability of books, increased
literacy, and not least the growth of Protestantism and its insistence
on each Christian’s individual relationship with God led to what he
calls a ‘radical alteration of the way people looked at themselves and
the world.’ Heehs continues: ‘It became normal for people to examine
their own consciences, and many expressed their thoughts and feelings
in memoirs and other first-person genres (2013, 34). While Catholics
could confess their sins to a priest and be absolved, Protestants were
left to their own devices, and so, Heehs argues, many used their diaries
as a way of confessing their sins directly to God (49). Heehs quotes a
self-help book by John Beadle called A Journal or Diary of a Thankful
Christian that was published in 1656 and recommends keeping a journal,
because this,
especially if we look often into it, and read it over will be a noteable means to
increase in us that self-abasement & abhorrency of spirit that is most acceptable in the sight of God. … Oh! How will the serious survey of such a Journal
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Written, Visual and Quantitative Self-Representations
Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
Although Heehs and Serfaty argue that diary-writing was important
to Protestants in particular, writing about the self as a method for selfimprovement was also part of Catholic traditions. For example, the Jesuits
had a whole system of spiritual exercises intended to support followers in
writing a narrative of their life that allowed them to understand themselves
as sinners to become less sinful in the future (Molina 2008). This emphasis
on sin is similar to what we saw in Heehs’s quote from Beadle’s book, and
just as Beadle wrote a practical guide to diary-writing, the Jesuits had
explicit guidelines for how to write spiritual narratives about oneself. J.
Michelle Molina quotes a late sixteenth century description of the Spiritual
Exercises that were initiated by St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order:
Consideration of oneself. Tuesday. Points: consideration of self and of time and
place: Where are you? Who are you? Also, reflection on each phase of your life:
the time, the place, the state of life, circumstances in which he then lived as a
sinner in each period; the things he happened to witness, and how swiftly and
unmindfully everything passed by. His state of mind then and now. (2008, 289)
Although Christian traditions of writing about the self emphasised sin
there was also room for joy and gratitude. Heehs sets the self-abasement
in Beadle’s book in contrast to today’s self-affirmation (52), but reading
through this best-selling seventeenth century guide on how to keep a
spiritual journal, which has been digitised and can be read online, we
discover that Beadle also writes a great deal about recording mercies,
grace and deliverances, not just sin. Here are some of Beadle’s notes
(1656) about the importance of writing about the good in your life:
To keep a Journal or Diary, especially of God’s gracious dealings with
us, is a work, for a Christian singularly. … It is good to keep an History, a
Register, a Diary, an Annal not only of the places in which we have lived;
but of the mercies that have been bellowed on us, continued to us all our
dayes. … Remember, and for that end put into your Journal all deliverances
from dangers, vouchsafed to you or yours. And indeed, what is our whole life,
but a continued deliverance?
A later, secular tradition of personal writing that also has influenced
contemporary digital forms of self-expression is the commonplace book.
In 1706 John Locke published a book explaining in detail how to organise
a commonplace book, with an index to make it easier to relocate quotes
and ideas. Ralph Waldo Emerson began to keep such a book, but fused
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abase the soul before the Lord! Such a course would very much help our faith.
(qtd by Heehs 2013, 51–2)
Written, Visual and Quantitative Self-Representations
it with the personal diary. Lawrence Rosenwald (1988) links this to the
specifically American tradition of transcendentalism:
Samuel Pepys’ diary is one of the first and certainly best known early
secular diaries. He offers as much self-examination as the Puritans, but
with less anguish, Heehs writes, citing an example where Pepys in great
detail describes a quarrel with his wife without moralising or guilt (60–1).
By the late eighteenth century diaries were common both in everyday life
and in fiction, with several novels being written in the form of a diary.
Blogs and online diaries are obvious descendents of the diaries and
autobiographies of past centuries. Filterblogs and topic-driven blogs (J.W.
Rettberg 2014, 23–7) tend more towards the traditions of the commonplace book or the early Japanese diary tradition of nikki bungaku, which
predates the Western diary by several centuries, but in which diaries tell
of daily events and barely mention the writer (Heehs 2013, 9). Filter blogs
often have a very personal style, much as Montaigne’s essays did, but
their aim is to share material and ideas that the blogger is interested in
rather than to tell the story of the blogger’s life. Personal blogs and online
diaries are more unequivocally self-representations. The lines between
a self-representational blog and one that is not self-representational
are not always clear cut. A topic-driven blog (J.W. Rettberg 2014, 23–7)
about fashion or the author’s research will often mix posts about fashion
or research in general with posts showing the blogger’s ‘outfit of the day’
or the researcher’s anxieties about finishing her PhD, topics which are
clearly self-representational. Anonymous blogs may consist of nothing
but captioned reaction gifs, and expose nothing of the author’s identity,
yet still express a personal experience of life.
Visual self-portraits in history
Centuries before Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait, monks copying manuscripts
would often draw small pictures of themselves in their texts, and artists
would paint their own face on characters in paintings. In the eighteenth
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Emerson has chosen to put in his diary not only the continuous record of his life
and thought but also the thousand evanescent thoughts by which that record is
complicated. In his book, that is, the private and public, the eternal and the
contingent, the life and the work will inevitably collide and fuse. Losty speculations must be shown to have arisen in time, in a sequence of other events, from
the mind of a particular human being. (59, qtd by Serfaty 2004, 46)
Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
century artists’ self-portraits became fashionable collectors’ items, and
towards the end of the twentieth century, artists have increasingly used
their own bodies in their art.
Some of the most interesting pre-digital self-portraits in our context are
those created by early photographers. Our digital cameras can slip into a
pocket or be a lens tacked onto a mobile phone. The first cameras, on the
other hand, were huge devices. Just as the camera taking the photograph
is visible in digital self-portraits taken in a mirror, so early photographers often included the tool of their trade in their self-portraits. When
included, the heavy cameras often appeared as powerful extensions of
the photographer’s body, as in Kate Matthew’s Self-portrait (c. 1900, p
118 in Borzello’s Seeing Ourselves [(Borzello, 1998]) or Margaret BourkeWhite’s Self-portrait with Camera (c. 1933, p 135 in Borzello). Alternatively,
cameras were presented as barriers placed between the photographer
and the audience, as in Germaine Krull’s Self-portrait with Cigarette and
Camera (1925, p 143 in Borzello). Ilse Bing, on the other hand, took
self-portraits with a small, compact Leica, including herself, her camera
and some of her surroundings and the mirror or other reflective surface
she was using to take the photo, in works very reminiscent of today’s
mirror selfies. In Self-portrait with Leica, 1931 (p 142 in Borzello), Bing
holds her small camera a little away from her face, looking just above
and past the viewfinder at the spectator, or, as we realise, at herself in the
mirror that enables the self-portrait. Another mirror is visible in the left
of the picture, offering another view of Bing’s face. Her face is serious yet
intent, as we usually are when we look at ourselves in the mirror.
Decades later, many self-portraits showed still more fragmented
versions of the self, tending to ‘conceal or suppress the face and head,
thereby thwarting traditional physiognomic/phrenological readings’
(Hall 2013, chapter 10, para. 2). Rather than showing a single image of
a head and shoulders, or perhaps a whole body, these images may show
many fragmentary views (as in Nancy Kitchel’s My Face Covered Grandma’s Gestures, 1972–73, p 163 in Borzello) or they might show a full body
shot again and again, changing a little over time, as in Eleanor Antin’s
Carving: A Traditional Sculpture (Borzello 1972, 162). As performance art
and video art gained territory, self-portraits have become more and more
common. Cindy Sherman uses her own image in most if not all of her
artwork, posing in different roles. She claims these aren’t self-portraits at
all, but acting. Sometimes it is hard to draw the line. Perhaps they are a
little of both.
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Today’s selfies are different in that they are a true vernacular genre.
They are rarely exhibited in art galleries; instead they are shared with
friends and followers on social media. Although early photographers
often used the camera as a barrier to protect them from the viewers in
their self-portraits (Borzello 1998, 142), the classic outstretched arm of
the selfie taken with a front-facing smart phone camera very strongly
includes the viewer in the space of the photograph. As Katie Warwick
points out, the outstretched arm is like a (forced) embrace, placing the
viewer between the face of the person photographed and the camera
(Warfield 2014).
The history of quantitative self-representation
My six-year-old runs to the window every time she hears a siren and
looks for the number written on the side of the ambulance or fire engine.
She has set up a siren-watching station with a pencil and paper at the
ready by the window, and carefully writes down the numbers in the large,
freshly learned script of a kindergartener. Sometimes the numbers are
backwards, but she doesn’t mind, she can read them. She has organised
her log in two sections, one headed with a drawing of a fire engine and
one with a drawing of an ambulance. Sometimes she point out patterns
in her logs: ‘Look, the ambulance with the number 33 on it went that
way down the street and then it came back a bit later.’ But mostly she
seems simply to want to keep her logs perfectly up to date. ‘I can’t miss a
siren, Mummy,’ she explains at bedtime, leaping out of bed to maintain
her perfect records.
If the mode of the diary is narrative, then the modes of quantitative self-representation are numbers, lists, maps and graphs. Before
today’s spreadsheets, activity trackers and GPS diaries, people used
pens and paper to track their habits, their money, their sleep patterns
and their travels. A prisoner scratching tally marks on the wall for
each day of imprisonment is creating a form of quantitative diary, as
is the teenager keeping a list of every book she has read or the father
noting down the time when he puts his baby down to sleep and the
time the baby wakes up.
The ways in which we have represented ourselves with numbers and
data have been less studied than the histories of visual self-portraits and
written autobiographies, memoirs and diaries, at least from the point of
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It was about this time I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at
moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I
would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might
lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did
not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. (63)
Franklin chose 13 virtues he wanted to focus on and drew a chart with a
column for each day of the week and a row for each virtue: temperance,
silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation,
cleanliness, chastity, tranquility and humility. He gave himself a black
mark for each day he felt he hadn’t lived up to each virtue, and two marks
if he had done particularly badly. In the example he shows us in his autobiography we see that he had trouble with silence. He gave himself two
black marks for silence on Sunday and one on Monday, Wednesday and
Friday. Order was also a problem for him. In the week shown, Franklin
was only satisfied with his sense of order on the Wednesday. He did quite
well at resolution though, only failing at that on Tuesday and Friday.
This kind of habit tracking was used by many before Franklin and is
popular today as well. We use star charts with our children and cross
items off our to-do lists with satisfaction.
But self-tracking must have started far earlier than this. The first
writing was developed not to record words and sentences but to keep
accounts. Arguably, recording quantities of grain or other valuables
can be a form of self-representation, or at least representation of what
belongs to the self. Medieval annals of history sometimes listed years
with no commentary: 726, 727, 728, 729 and 730. When words were used
to describe a year, the words were brief, as for the year 709 in Annales
Sangallenses Maiores, dicti Hepidanni of the Monumenta Germaniae
Historica as quoted by Roberto Simanowski: ‘Hard winter. Duke Gottfried died.’ (2012, 20). Simanowski compares the way the Annales lists
years and events without integrating them into a causal narrative with
Facebook’s automated Timeline (21), which likewise lists events without
explanation or causal connections.
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view of self-representation and aesthetics. Self-portraits and life-writing,
on the other hand, are studied by art historians and literary historians,
although unpublished or amateur works have been little discussed until
the last few decades.
Benjamin Franklin (2007) was an early self-tracker. In his autobiography he wrote about how he tried to become a better person:
Quantitative self-representation is pre- or post-narrative. Whether we
look at Franklin’s habit chart or my six-year-old’s siren log there is no
causal narrative to be seen. We may well infer causality (if the ambulance
labelled 33 shows up twice in a row it was probably called out to a medical emergency and then returned to the hospital with the patient) but
this requires interpretation. As the literary theorist Wolfgang Iser (1988)
argued, we are good at reading more into a story than is written there.
We fill in the gaps, what Iser called the lehrstelle, that are not explained in
the story. Perhaps as we become more and more accustomed to reading
quantitative representations, we will become even more adept a interpreting them as stories.
Literacy and access to writing materials were a pre-requisite for diarywriting. Quantitative self-representations are dependent on other forms
of literacy: understanding counting, tables and graphs for instance. For
digital forms of quantitative self-representation, we need to understand
not only both these basic forms of numeracy and data literacy but also
some procedural literacies (Mateas 2005). You don’t need to be able to
program to use an activity tracker or a lifelogging app, but certainly the
most engaging examples of quantitative self-representation are produced
by people who know how to access and manipulate their data, and also
have the graphic design skills to present it in an appealing and effective
way, like Nicholas Felton’s annual reports or the examples reported daily
at sites like Quantified Self and Flowing Data.
In the last few years, however, we have seen an ever-increasing number
of consumer devices that automatically track our activity, posture, health
and so on. One in ten adult Americans now owns an activity tracker.
Quantitative self-representation is becoming commonplace.
Texts or people?
Self-representation with digital technologies is also self-documentation.
We think not only about how to present ourselves to others, but also log
or record moments of our lives for ourselves to remember them in the
future. In her ongoing research on selfies, Katie Warfield notes that this is
the first time we can use a device to simultaneously see our reflection and
record it. Mirrors allowed us to see our own reflection, but not to record
it. Cameras allowed us to record our own image, but until the digital
display and front-facing camera of the smartphone, they did not allow
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us to see our face as we pressed the shutter (Warfield 2014). That, and
the ease and inexpense of deleting digital images and taking new ones,
allows us to control the way we are represented to a far greater degree
than in a photobooth or holding an analogue camera up to a mirror.
Writing a diary is also a way of externalising our thoughts and the way
we see or think about ourselves. A private, paper diary may be written
for a future self who will look back upon the time of writing. Although
wearable devices like Fitbits or apps like Moves or Runkeeper generally
suggest we share our steps or runs or productivity in social media, many
(perhaps most) users prefer to keep their activity data private, or to only
share some of it. When we share photos of our children or a new home
or a night out with friends our target audience is not just our friends, but
also ourselves.
Social media is about communication with others, but we should
be equally aware of how we use social media to reflect upon ourselves.
Creating and sharing a selfie is an act of self-representation – which as
Gunn Enli and Nancy Thumin (2012) note, means that it involves the
creation of texts which will be read and interpreted. A selfie also exists
in a social context, once shared. But just as importantly, creating and
sharing a selfie or a stream of selfies is a form of self-reflection and selfcreation.
As readers, we encounter other people in social media as texts. From
our perspective their self-expression is self-representation. This is
particularly true when we are readers more than participants. Until the
late 1990s, being on the Internet typically meant communicating with
peers, on Usenet discussion forums, IRC, MUDs and MOOs. Early
online diarying communities similarly emphasised the community and
the social aspects of online diaries. In her study of Internet users’ experience of being online, Annette Markham (1998) discusses the relationship
between our bodies and the virtual online experience. There weren’t
many photographs on the Internet in the 1990s. Few people had digital
cameras or scanners, and download speeds were so slow that images
took a long time to load anyway, so our bodies for the most part were
hidden. We imagined that the Internet was disembodied, anonymous
and virtual. It wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s that webcams
became popular (Senft 2008), and we began to communicate with each
other visually as well as through text. The shift to the visual on the
Internet and especially in social media has increased a lot since then.
Facebook was originally created to show photos of peoples’ faces, and
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today shared images are central to most social media. Our bodies are no
longer hidden online.
Images are the primary content of many services such as Instagram,
Pinterest, Snapchat and We Heart It. The earlier Internet, on the other
hand, relied on words and conversations. People who just watched and
read and didn’t participate were given the derogatory term lurker, and it
was clear that the expectation was active participation. Seeing yourself
as a peer communicating with others was key to your identity online,
Markham wrote: ‘through conversations, self and reality are co-created
and sustained’ (1998, 227). We ‘write self into being,’ but to ‘recognize
our own existence in any meaningful way, we must be responded to’
(Markham 2013a).
When we write and share photos with our friends on Facebook we
primarily see the social communication we are engaging in, rather than
the text of their and our own self-representations. But when we merely
lurk or follow, we position ourselves as traditional readers, as voyeurs, as
an audience – and from this point of view, we analyse the other writer
primarily as a text rather than as a living, breathing human being. This
is the perspective from which selfies and other forms of online selfexpression primarily become self-representations.
Interestingly, some social media sites and apps make it hard to
directly communicate with each other, foregrounding the text rather
than the conversation or the speakers. We Heart It is an Instagram-like
photosharing space that does not allow commenting and only allows
users to interact by ‘hearting’ each other’s images. Tumblr doesn’t allow
direct conversational comments; instead you have to reblog a post on
your own Tumblr blog and add notes to it there. This means that only
your own followers and not all followers of the original poster will automatically see your notes, and although most Tumblr users write under a
pseudonym, it means that anything you write on another user’s blog also
shows up on your own Tumblr blog.
On the other hand, older forms of online communication such as
Usenet discussion groups, MUDs and MOOs or IRC positioned all
participants as peers. Each person’s words were presented in the same
font, in the same manner and made visible to all subscribers, to all
players in the same room or to all users in the same channel. Private
person-to-person conversation was also possible in many of these earlier
communication spaces. For instance, a player in a MUD could whisper
something to another character, and other players would only see a
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message such as ‘X whispers something to Y’ and only Y would see the
content of the message. And of course, in all communication spaces,
if users give each other their contact information in another medium
(email, telephone, messaging) private communication can be conducted
outside of the more public space.
Twitter is an interesting in-between form. On the one hand, every
user’s posts are presented in exactly the same manner, in a continuous
feed that is not dissimilar to the chat interface of a MOO or IRC conversation in the mid-nineties. Using @replies and direct messages people have
conversations, and hashtags allow conversations about shared interests to
take place between strangers, much as we used to see on Usenet or IRC.
On the other hand, every tweet is stored, and you can go back and read
all tweets from a particular user in order, as though they are a text. Some
users have millions of followers while others have barely any, and it is easy
to ‘lurk’ and read other peoples’ tweets without responding to them or in
any way making yourself known to the tweeter. It is possible to use Twitter
for communication between equals or to be a broadcaster or an audience.
In the latter case, a reader – and perhaps also the writer – will see other
users’ tweets as text, as self-representations rather than as self-expression.
The same tweets may be primarily experienced as social communication
by other users who engage in conversation with the tweeter, and the
tweeter himself or herself may see them primarily as self-exploration and
not even really care whether he or she receives any response to them.
An example of the mismatch between seeing a stream of tweets as text
rather than as self-expression can be seen in the frequent condemnation of people who tweet or blog or in other ways share stories of illness
or hardship in social media. Lisa Boncheck Adams (@AdamsLisa) is a
mother of three who tweets and blogs about her life with cancer, in effect
writing what G. Thomas Couser (2012) in his categorisation of memoirs
would call an autopathography. In mid-January 2014 Adams was undergoing radiation treatment and frequently posted about the pain of side
effects, with fairly detailed descriptions of the mundane mechanics of
undergoing this kind of treatment:
Pain today is worst in days. Cannot get on top of it. I have 1)constant drip
plus ability to do 2)on-demand drip, 3)emergency. All in use. (@AdamsLisa,
8 Jan 2014)
There is more to Adams’ Twitter stream than blow by blow descriptions
of treatment, though. Many of her posts are humorous, similar to her 16
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December tweet: ‘In the Cancer Olympics there would be a medal for
contrast chugging #contender’, where the tweet was accompanied by a
photo of a jug of red contrast liquid. And each morning she posts the
same words as an inspirational call to focus on what is beautiful: ‘Find
a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it.
Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.’ Importantly, more than half
of her tweets are conversational and directly addressed to other users.
Adams came to international media attention after two opinion
pieces about the way she tweeted about her illness were published, one
by Emma Keller (2014) in The Guardian and one by Bill Keller (2014),
Emma’s husband, in The New York Times. The two pieces received a great
deal of criticism in social media for their judgement of Adams, and
Emma Keller’s piece was removed from The Guardian a few days later
(Elliott 2014).
Emma and Bill Keller explicitly place themselves in the role of
traditional audience to Adams’ tweets. Instead of participating in the
conversation and seeing themselves as Adams’ peers or friends, they
are readers of a text, members of a large audience watching a performance: ‘Her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about
it, debate it, learn from it,’ Bill Keller (2014) writes, and his use of the
term ‘onstage’ is revealing. He sees Adams primarily as a performer,
not as a peer. ‘Look how swiftly the logic sweeps from “her decision” to
“our debates,” ’ Megan Garber (2014) wrote in The Atlantic. In this way
Keller goes from considering Adams as a living person to seeing her (or
at least her tweets) as a text to be analysed and criticised from outside
just like any other text or performance. Similarly, Emma Keller’s piece
in The Guardian (since retracted) asked questions from the viewpoint of
an audience: ‘Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is
there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed
selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?’
(E. Keller 2014)
What this approach forgets is that the texts we read in real time in
social media represent actual, living people. This is not like writing about
a movie or a novel and its fictional characters. It is not even like writing
about a movie star or politician, although they of course are also actual,
living people. Perhaps Adams could be called a micro-celebrity (Senft
2008, 25–8; Senft 2013), especially after the attention from international
news media which led to a rapid increase in followers and readers. But
as Alice Marwick (2013) writes, ‘the idea of using the tools of celebrity
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LISA BONCHEK ADAMS has spent the last seven years in a fierce and
very public cage fight with death. Since a mammogram detected the first
toxic seeds of cancer in her left breast when she was 37, she has blogged and
tweeted copiously about her contest with the advancing disease. She has
tweeted through morphine haze and radiation burn. Even by contemporary
standards of social-media self-disclosure, she is a phenomenon. (Last week
she tweeted her 165,000th tweet.)
In the piece, Keller stresses that Adams is ‘very public’, that she blogs and
tweets ‘copiously’ and is a phenomenon ‘even by contemporary standards
of social-media disclosure.’ The condemnation, almost ridicule, is clear,
and one of the reasons she is caricatured in this way is that she speaks
too much. 165,000 tweets.
Adams herself insists on being read differently. Despite being in
hospital when the opinion pieces came out, Adams responded, writing
among other things:
My tweet count is not high because I only churn out tweets. It’s conversation.
Talking.Asking people how they are … And listening for answer. (@AdamsLisa, 14 Jan 2014)
Looking at her Twitter stream it is clear that Adams is right: she places a
lot of emphasis on answering tweets from other people and on participating in a conversation. She uses Twitter as a social space for conversation
and as a diary, although she certainly also has many followers who don’t
participate in the conversation.
1305 of the 2402 tweets Adams posted between 15 December 2013 and
15 January 2014 were @replies: they were messages directly addressed to
other users. That means that more than half of her tweets were conversational. This is not just Adams talking with a small network of friends.
Adams’ @replies are addressed to 457 different users, so she participates
in a very broad conversation. Her 165,000 tweets do not mean she has
written an extremely long text, they mean that she is participating daily
in conversations with others.
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culture to analyze the lives of regular people is problematic because the
protections available to mainstream celebrities do not exist for microcelebrities.’ Micro-celebrities do not have agents and PR consultants to
protect them from the press and the public.
In both the Kellers’ opinion pieces they criticised Adams for how
frequently she tweets. Bill Keller’s The New York Times article begins thus,
Written, Visual and Quantitative Self-Representations
But of course there is a difference between reading posts from a person
we know and care about and reading those of a stranger. And it is natural
that Emma and Bill Keller read Adams’ tweets with their own response
and feelings about the tweets foremost in their minds. We are all at the
centre of our own world.
The Kellers’ condemnation of Lisa Adams is very similar to the disgust
that is shown for selfies in the mainstream media. Anne Burns’ excellent
research blog The Carceral Net: Photography, Feminism and Social Media’s
Disciplinary Principle (2013–ongoing) documents and analyses many
examples of selfie hatred, for instance in ‘Selfies and Hatred’ (23 May
2014) and ‘Selfies and Hatred, Part 2’ (30 June 2014).
Some of the hatred is quite direct, such as the t-shirts with the slogan
‘Go fuck your #selfie’, or the PBS YouTube video ‘Why Do We Hate
Selfies?’ that normalises the hatred. Other times the disdain for selfies is
slightly more subtle, as with the media stories that abounded in April and
May 2014 about selfies being a symptom of narcissism, or the idea that
selfie-takers need to be helped, for instance made over Pygmalion-style
by a benevolent man as in the autumn 2014 ABC TV series ‘Selfie’. Anne
Burns analyses the trailer for the series in her post ‘My Fair Selfie’ on 30
May 2014. Ridicule is another approach, and it is for instance seen in the
Chainsmokers’ video #SELFIE, which Burns discusses in her 2 May 2014
blog post ‘The Curious Confusion of #Selfie’. Here women are shown in
the bathroom having vapid conversations about men and dresses and
repeating the chorus, ‘First, let me take a selfie.’
Burns sees the hatred, ridicule and pathologising as mechanisms that
society uses to discipline the stereotypical selfie-takers: young women.
We saw the same mechanism in the early days of blogging. I began
blogging in my late twenties as a PhD student and was often called an
exhibitionist or narcissist by non-blogging colleagues (Mortensen and
Walker 2002; Walker 2006). I wrote a blog post about this on 24 July
2001, where I accepted the label but asked, ‘Why are we so afraid of
being thought exhibitionists, anyway?’ I quoted Nancy K. Miller’s book
on personal criticism where she writes about how her mother would
deride other women with the condemning words ‘She’s making a spectacle of herself!’ Women have been conditioned not to expose themselves,
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Disciplining self-representations
Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
I argued. We’ve been taught to hide; to be ashamed of ‘overly rouged
cheeks, of a voice shrill in laughter, or of a sliding bra strap – a loose,
dingy bra strap especially’ (Miller 1991, 23). Of course, blogging and selfies are not phenomena that are exclusive to women – far from it – but the
accusation of blogging or selfies as being narcissistic or exhibitionistic is
particularly common when women engage in these practices.
When teenage girls became the most popular and financially successful bloggers in Norway and Sweden towards the end of the first decade
of this millennium, they were met by the same disdain as selfies are met
with today (Dmitrow-Devold 2013, Palmgren 2010). It is true that the
most successful of these blogs were not about the sorts of topics typically
seen as valuable by mainstream journalists or arguably by most adults:
they were mostly fashion or makeup blogs, full of photos of daily outfits
and fashion advice, although the bloggers also sometimes wrote about
humanitarian causes or other political issues, and negotiate what Mia
Lövheim (2011) calls ‘ethical spaces’ through their blogging. Today the
most successful Norwegian blogs are run by young women and have
more daily readers than most Norwegian newspapers. Regardless of the
content, it is striking that when young women in their teens and early
twenties for the first time have found platforms that allow them to speak
without censorship to large public audiences, society’s kneejerk reaction
is to mock them.
Many scholars, including Anne Burns, have used Michel Foucault’s
writings about discipline and power to analyse the ways in which mockery, hatred and pathologising are used as disciplinary strategies to put
young women in particular back in their place. This is about power and
about who has the right to speak in public or to share images in public.
We don’t mind so much when celebrities share selfies, as when Ellen
DeGeneres shot the famous group selfie of movie stars at the 2014
Oscars. We don’t even mind it when people who already have an audience through traditional media tweet about illness and death. When
NPR reporter Scott Simon live-tweeted his mother’s last days at the end
of July 2013, there was a little discussion about whether this was insensitive, or whether it invaded his mother’s privacy, or whether Simon could
be fully present in the moment with his mother if he was also tweeting. Overall, though, comments were very supportive, and we saw no
sustained criticism in major mainstream media. Simon’s tweets shared a
deep grief, immediately felt:
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You wake up and realize: you weren’t dreaming. It happened. Cry like you
couldn’t last night. @nprscottsimon 7:14 AM – 30 July 2013
Mother cries Help Me at 2;30. Been holding her like a baby since. She’s asleep
now. All I can do is hold on to her. (@nprscottsimon 5:35 am, 29 July 2013)
Unlike Lisa Adams, Scott Simon was already a well-established journalist
with more than a million followers on Twitter. He already had a public
persona, so this series of tweets didn’t define him.
In 1960, Abbott Joseph Liebling wrote that ‘Freedom of the press is
guaranteed only to those who own one.’ Today you don’t need to own
a printing press, a newspaper or a television station to share your ideas
with the world. Anyone with Internet access can publish whatever they
want. But society is finding new ways to regulate who will be heard and
who will be taken seriously.
In her article ‘Me and My Shadow,’ Jane Tompkins (1989) asked ‘How
can we speak personally to one another and not be self-centred?’ I
think the answer is in the words ‘one another’. That is what the Kellers’
criticisms of Lisa Adams tweets about cancer miss, and that is what my
colleagues missed about my blogging with other PhD students in my
field in the early 2000s, and it is what is missed in the hatred and ridicule
of selfies. These aren’t simply texts published from a distance. They are
images and words that are part of a conversation.
Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. To view a
copy of this license, visit
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Mother asks, ‘Will this go on forever?’ She means pain, dread. ‘No.’ She says, ‘But
we’ll go on forever. You & me.’ Yes. (@nprscottsimon 11:07 PM – 27 July 2013)
Filtered Reality
Abstract: This chapter proposes using the term ‘filter’ as
an analytical term to understand algorithmic culture. In
everyday speech, we filter our photos and filter our news. In
today’s algorithmic culture the filter has become a pervasive
metaphor for the ways in which technology can remove
certain content and how it can alter or distort texts, images
and data. Filters can be technological, cultural or cognitive,
or they can be a combination of these. Examples discussed
are the skin tone bias in photography, Instagram filters
and the genres of social media as filters that embed a drive
towards progress, and baby journals and the apps that
automate them.
Rettberg, Jill Walker. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology:
How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and
Shape Ourselves. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
doi: 10.1057/9781137476661.0004.
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Filters have become an important part of popular visual culture. Instagram was one of the first sites to really popularise filters, and now they
are everywhere, allowing us to make our selfies and other photos look
brighter, more muted, more grungy, or more retro than real life. We
don’t just filter our images before we post them to Instagram, though:
filter has become an important and far more general concept in today’s
digital culture. We filter our images, our email and our newsfeeds.
In academia, we have been used to talking about how any technology comes with certain affordances and constraints. In an algorithmic
culture where we have far more data than we can possibly use, we need
to start thinking more about how algorithms filter our content, removing or altering our data. We need to think about how these filters work.
What is filtered out? What flavours or styles are added?
The word filter has been used in many domains, but usually to describe
a process where something is removed. A filter can be a piece of felt or a
piece of paper which filters out dust, dirt or other impurities when water
is poured through it or air blows through it. A screen can filter out certain
colours in light. On a cigarette a filter stops some of the harmful substances
from reaching the smoker’s lungs. In electronics a filter is ‘A passive circuit
that attenuates all signals except those within one or more frequency
bands,’ the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) states. In radiology a filter
can block out certain wavelengths in an x-ray beam. In March 2014, the
OED published a draft definition of the word filter as used in computing:
‘To process or reformat (data) using a filter esp. so as to remove unwanted
content.’ Instagram filters are not mentioned. Instead the examples given
refer to filtering your email, filtering the results from sports events and
filtering performance data to compare it with other data.
It is interesting that all the definitions and examples the OED lists for
filter as a noun or as a verb emphasise the removal of unwanted content
or impurities. Instagram filters may in fact remove data, for instance by
making a colour image black and white, but often the perceived effect is
of adding to the image: boosting the colours, adding borders, creating a
vignette effect or blurring parts of the image. A coffee filter does something similar, though coffee filters are not mentioned in the OED’s list of
usages for filter. Technically the coffee filter does stop the ground coffee
beans from getting into the pot beneath, but the point of a coffee filter is
to add flavour to water by slowing its flow through the coffee beans.
Filters can get worn out or clogged up over time, letting more particles
through than before, or altering the flow of the water, air, rays or words,
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images, numbers and behaviours that pass through them. We can change,
clean, adapt, resist or remove filters. But most of the time we simply take
them for granted, not even noticing that they are there.
By using the popular cultural term ‘filter’ as an analytical term, I want
to emphasise the similarities between the visual filters we apply to our
photographs, the technological filters we apply to our blogs and other
social media feeds and the cultural filters (norms, expectations, normative discursive strategies) that teach us, for instance, to mimic photo
models in fashion magazines or Instagram selfie stars when we photograph ourselves.
The terms we use to analyse our world and our culture matter. As
Kenneth Burke wrote,
Not only does the nature of our terms affect the nature of our observations,
in the sense that the terms direct the attention to one field rather than to
another. Also, many of the ‘observations’ are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made. In brief, much
that we take as observations about ‘reality’ may be but the spinning out of
possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms. (1968, 46)
Burke wrote about ‘terministic screens’, the terms in our language
through which our understanding of the world is filtered (Markham
2013b). Language can certainly be understood as a technology, and it is
another of the filters that surround us. Using the term filter to understand today’s digital culture is a conscious choice: let us use the terms
that are popular in our culture to understand it.
In her 2007 book Mediated Memories, José van Dijck writes about
‘normative discursive strategies that either implicitly or explicitly structure
our agencies,’ giving pre-formatted baby journals as an example (7). A
preformatted baby journal can be seen as a technological filter. It is a
conventional codex book, which means you cannot easily add very
large photos or video or sound, and it has written prompts and spaces
allocated to specific kinds of photographs. You can tear out pages or glue
photographs over prompts you don’t want to use, but the journal does
provide very clear rules for how you should represent your baby’s first
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Technological and cultural filters
An app like Sprout Baby (for iPhone and iPad by Med ART Studios)
provides even clearer rules. Baby journals have always had an element
of quantitative tracking: it is common to include dated notes about
achievements (first smile, first steps), weight and height charts and even
information about which teeth came in on which date. But Sprout Baby
encourages even more detailed tracking, letting parents track each feeding, each nappy change and each nap. Sprout Baby also prompts parents
to add photos of milestones: First Smile, Found His Hands and Feet,
Laughed Out Loud and so on. The iPad version of the app generates a
newspaper style layout of all the latest journal notes, photos and numbers
under the title (for a baby named Jack) ‘Jack Today’ in a newspaper-style
headline font. Personal data, notes and photos are combined with standard advice to parents with babies of this age, for instance as shown in
the demonstration screenshots in the iTunes store: ‘Baby and household
chores can add up. Make sure you divvy up the load by listing everything
you need to do and dividing it equally so no one is trying to handle more
than their share.’
Sprout Baby App is an example of how an app can streamline and
limit our options for personal expression even more than pre-digital
media. A pre-formatted baby journal may constrain our creativity, but
Sprout app does so even more. You cannot tear out a page or glue an
extra photograph over pixels.
Technological filters allow us to express ourselves in certain ways but
not in others. We can apply certain filters to an image we post to Instagram but not others. We can post animated gifs to Tumblr or Reddit
but not to Facebook, although this may change. With Photoshop or
programming skills and a self-hosted website of course we can express
ourselves in other ways, but most of us do not have these resources and
simply choose between different available filters. Twitter filters out long
form writing, requiring us to limit ourselves to 140 characters at a time.
Reddit uses upvotes and downvotes to filter out posts and comments
that are not popular with a large number of its users. You can still see
the posts if you dig deep enough, but not as easily. If we follow Alice
Marwick’s (2013) argument in her ethnography of developers of social
media in Silicon Valley, we could say that social media in general filters
out people who are not effective neoliberal subjects. Perhaps in this case,
social media is not simply the kind of filter that removes impurities, but
also shapes them and flavours people as the ground coffee beans flavour
the water that passes through them. An effective neoliberal subject,
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Marwick argues, ‘attends to fashions, is focused on self-improvement,
and purchases goods and services to achieve “self-realization.” He or
she is comfortable integrating market logics into many aspects of life,
including education, parenting, and relationships. In other words, the
ideal neoliberal citizen is an entrepreneur’ (2013, 13). These are the people
most likely to succeed in social media, most likely to gain followers on
Twitter and most likely to have their Facebook posts filtered into your
In the July 2014 debates around the ‘emotional contagion’ experiment
in which nearly 700,000 Facebook users were shown posts including
more or less positive words than previously (Kramer, Guillory and
Hancock 2014), we learned that this minor tweak to the way in which
the newsfeed filters our friends’ posts actually changed the users’ own
status updates. Users who saw posts with more positive words used more
positive words in their own posts, and vice versa. Whether this affected
users’ actual emotional state or not, it is clear that the way Facebook
filters our newsfeeds affects the way we express ourselves on Facebook.
Facebook filters our newsfeed, and it also filters our behaviour.
Cultural filters are as important as technological filters. Our cultural
filters, the rules and conventions that guide us, filter out possible modes
of expression so subtly that we often are not even aware of all the things
we do not see. Whether we create a baby journal for our baby’s first year
or not, most parents will take photos of certain moments. There’ll be
photos of the newborn baby, photos of the baby smiling, the baby with
its first tooth, the baby crawling, walking and of course its first birthday,
preferably showing baby with the birthday cake. We filter out many of the
other aspects of life with a baby when we create a photo album. Usually
we will not take as many photos of the baby screaming, of endless nights
trying to get the baby to go back to sleep, of the baby in a onesie that has
spitup all over it although baby has only worn it for an hour. Partly this
is because we would prefer to remember the good moments, but it is
also because we know what we are supposed to document from having
seen other baby journals and photo albums and from having seen which
photographs and stories our friends and family share with us, offline or
on social media. Our shared ideas about what moments and milestones
should be documented in life act as a cultural filter that affects our
We cannot represent our lives or our bodies without using or adapting, resisting and pushing against filters that are already embedded in
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our culture, whether those filters are cultural or technological. Cultural
filters change over time and are different in different cultures. We can
and often do resist or change cultural filters, but most of the time we
simply act according to the logic of the filter without even realising that
that is what we are doing.
Photo filters have become a cultural phenomenon that goes far beyond
social media. Many photojournalists for mainstream media have taken to
using smartphones and filters in their work, both as an aesthetic choice
and because the look of a quick, filtered smartphone photo carries with
it a sense of realism that documentary photographers may desire.
The millions of people on Instagram and other photo sharing sites
may have no qualms in editing their photos, but photojournalists and
theorists do sometimes object. In an article discussing the ways in which
Instagram-style filters have been applied to photojournalism, Meryl
Alper (2013) writes that
Lowy’s concession to his critics – ‘toning down’ the illustrative style of the very
Hipstamatic photo filters that won him acclaim – touches upon an endless
discussion about understanding all photography as a manipulated interaction
between style and substance, and a timeless debate over the ethics of combining photojournalism with aesthetics. … [S]cholars such as Luc Boltanski (1999)
have argued that the aestheticization of what we see in the media emotionally
and morally insulates viewers from the suffering of others.
In a project such as #365grateful, where participants share daily photographs of something they are grateful for, aestheticising the everyday is
an explicit goal: a method to become more mindful of our daily experiences. Beauty can be seen in anything, and we can learn to be grateful
for anything: after all, we are lucky to have clothes that need washing
and should be grateful if we have a family to create that untidy mess of
shoes in the hallway. When we see our pile of dirty laundry framed in a
photograph we may be better able to see the beauty of the bright colours,
and if it does not look beautiful to us, we can easily add a filter to the
photograph to enhance its aesthetic qualities.
The photo filter both aestheticises and perhaps, as Sontag wrote of
images of war , the filter anesthetises our everyday lives (1973, 20). At the
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Aestheticising, anesthetising and defamiliarising
Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
same time filters show us images that look different than the world we are
used to seeing.
One reason the filter fascinates us is that it gives the image that
strangeness that defamiliarises our lives. The filter makes it clear that the
image is not entirely ours. The filtered image shows us ourselves, or our
surroundings, with a machine’s vision. As Bianca Bosker (2014) writes
about the wearable lifelogging camera the Narrative Clip, it ‘lets me see
my life through someone else’s eyes – or in this case, the unfocused and
impartial eye of a machine’.
In saying that filters ‘defamiliarise’ our lives I am referencing Victor
Shklovsky, a literary theorist who wrote an influential article in 1917 titled
‘Art as Technique’. Shklovsky argued that ‘defamiliarisation’ (ostranenie in
the original Russian) is the key device in literature and art. ‘Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war,’
Shklovsky (1988) wrote, and continued,
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived
and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception
because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be
Instagram-style filters may make our selfies and photos of our everyday
life seem unfamiliar, but the filter itself is repeated so often that the
defamiliarisation effect wears off and becomes a cliché. For the most
part, however, our everyday photos are not intended as art. They are a
way of heightening our own daily experiences and making them special
to ourselves. Shklovsky (1988) wrote, ‘After we see an object several times,
we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it,
but we do not see it – hence we cannot say anything significant about it.
Art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways.’
When we take a selfie (or any photograph) with a phone, the phone
suggests running it through a filter. After Instagram and apps like Hipstamatic popularised filters, almost every camera or photo sharing app now
comes with built-in filters. When you snap a photo on your iPhone, there
is a filter icon at the bottom of the screen. When you upload a photo
to Instagram, Facebook or Flickr you click through a screen that asks
whether you want to filter it, crop it and adorn it. Taken together, filtered
selfies are clichés. But for each individual me, seeing ourselves though a
filter allows us to see ourselves anew.
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Choosing what technology can do
Filters can appear to be deeply technological: a new iPhone can count
our steps with its M7 or M8 motion sensor and its accelerometer, gyroscope and compass, and it can use its microphone to measure how loud
our surroundings are, but it cannot measure – at least not directly – our
emotions. Our cameras know when we point them at a face, and can even
wait until the person smiles before shooting a photo, but they cannot
measure whether we love that person or not. Our bodies themselves
are technologies with their own constraints and affordances: we can see
colours and use language but cannot hear as well as dogs or navigate
using biomagnetism and sonar as whales and dolphins do. Our brains
and senses filter our perception of the world. In addition to technological and cultural filters, we have these cognitive filters that we cannot
completely escape, although drugs, diseases, surgical implants and body
modifications can alter them to some extent.
Individual devices have technological filters that are themselves influenced by cultural filters. For instance, an iPhone can track motion but
not heart rate or the sweatiness of the palm holding it. It could have been
designed differently, and we can study reasons why the choice has been
made to build it only to perceive certain inputs. Of course cost and technological development are very important factors in determining what
kinds of technological filters are built into a device, but many technological filters, whether they are built into hardware or software, are very
deliberate cultural choices. For instance, the creators of the app SkinneePix, which lets you take selfies that show you looking skinnier than
you are, wrote in a comment to an article about the app in The Guardian
on 4 April 2014: ‘We developed SkinneePix as a result of friends (mostly
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Selfies can be raw and revealing. They can feel too authentic, too
honest. Perhaps running them through a filter to boost the colours,
overexpose the skin to hide its imperfections or give them a retro tinge is
sometimes the only way we can bear to share these images of ourselves.
Putting a filter on our selfies, or framing them by placing them in a blog
or an Instagram feed, gives them a distance that makes them new to us.
We see ourselves and our surroundings as if we are outside of ourselves,
through a retro filter or in the same poses and layouts as we see fashion
models or homes in magazine spreads.
Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
women, some overweight, some not) who would say: “Use the Skinny
lens” when taking photos. So we made “the skinny lens.” ’ The results are
not necessarily as flattering as the developers’ friends might have hoped,
but the idea of the ‘skinny lens’ is an example of how we are aware that
technology filters our visual representations, just as Parmigianino highlighted the distortions in the self-portrait I described at the beginning
of this book. There are many other apps similar to SkinneePix that will
let you make your eyes bigger or your waist thinner or your skin more
Many filters are both technological and cultural, and often we are not
aware of these filters. An example that is particularly relevant for selfies
and photography in general is that of the bias towards white skin in most
twentieth-century photography (Roth 2009; McFadden 2014). Early
camera film was calibrated to provide good detail for white faces, but the
light sensitivity was so narrow that faces with darker skin were shown
with hardly any detail, with eyes and teeth often the only discernable
features. Lighting and balance were calibrated by using ‘Shirley cards’:
images of a pale skinned woman with dark hair against a white background. It is only in the last couple of decades that calibration cards have
reflected all skin tones, for instance by including images of a range of
people with different skin tones, as well as objects in a range of colours.
Even today it can be difficult to take a photo of a light skinned and a dark
skinned person together without losing all detail in one or the other
Lorna Roth writes that in the 1950s some parents did complain to
Kodak that class photos lit for the white children did not show the faces
of the black children, but despite this there were no organised campaigns
for Kodak or other companies to improve film. It wasn’t until the 1970s,
when companies selling chocolate and dark woods complained that they
couldn’t get good photos of these dark items that Kodak developed their
Gold Max film with better light sensitivity. Roth (2009) speculates that
the reason that the change came from pressure from advertisers’ rather
than from the African-American community was that ‘at the time, it
was assumed by the public that such things were based on science and
could not be changed, and so battles were fought on issues of economics,
poverty, and other civil rights matters that were of higher priority to the
African-American and African-Canadian communities’ (120). This kind
of technological determinism (the belief that technology drives cultural
change) is a common assumption, often criticised by scholars but still
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frequently taken for granted by everyday people who have not had the
assumption challenged (Winner 1980; Wyatt 2007). Photographers and
the people who developed the technology were not likely to be deliberately creating the skin tone bias, at least not on an individual level, but
the effect was far-reaching: people with darker skin tones rarely saw good
or natural photographic images of themselves. And nobody thought
of simply calibrating film to suit dark skin better. Even today, lighting
and photography techniques tend to be taught to suit light skin tones,
and as photographer Syreeta McFadden writes in her article ‘Teaching
The Camera to See My Skin’ (2014), the skill of photographing people of
colour well is often hard-learned and self-taught.
The skin tone bias of photography is a technological filter that distorts
photographic representations of many people, but it isn’t just about
technology. The common stereotypical drawings of Africans in the midtwentieth century show that the visual distortion was not just embedded
into camera technology, it was also a strong cultural filter. In many ways,
the skin tone bias in cameras is equivalent to an Instagram filter, but not
a flattering one – rather, this filter dehumanises people. And importantly,
it wasn’t, and isn’t, a filter we choose to apply, it is a filter or distortion that
is almost inescapable using conventional technology.
Feeling misrepresented by the camera is one common reason for
beginning to take selfies instead of being the subject of other people’s
photographs. Photographer McFadden (2014) describes how one of
her driving motivations to begin taking self-portraits and to become
a professional photographer was her horror at seeing photographs of
I couldn’t help but feel that what that photographer saw was so wildly different from how I saw myself. Is that how you see me? Could you not see blackness? Its varying tones and textures? And do you see all of us that way? … I
started taking pictures to self protect. I just couldn’t bear seeing anymore
shitty pictures of me. I didn’t know what I wanted these images to say, but I
knew I could make something beautiful.
Comments to another article on the same topic in the online magazine
Jezebel (Stewart 2014) speak of similar experiences and motivations, as
commenters talk about their dislike of the ‘skin tone bias filter’ as an
explicit motivation for taking selfies. One commenter writes,
Growing up all of my girlfriends (and immediate female relatives) were white.
I would watch them effortlessly take a photo or get their photo taken and in
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Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
return get an image that looked just like them. I never really felt that way. I
still don’t – unless I take my own photo. And people call it vanity but really
I just want to be able to see myself in a picture. I don’t see myself in other
people’s photos, I just don’t.
I’ve always felt this way too. Some people laugh at me for wanting to take
selfies rather than have someone take the photo but I’ve always felt kind of
shitty pre smartphone era when the photos would come back developed and
I just woudn’t look like me.
For McFadden and the commenters, taking selfies can be a way of avoiding cultural and technological filters that you don’t like or that don’t
represent you in a way that feels real to you.
Genres as filters
Another kind of filter is the genre. When we choose to share our stories in
a photo album or a blog or a handwritten diary or a pre-formatted baby
journal, these choices carry with them sets of genre expectations. Some
of the rules of a genre are flexible while others are absolute requirements.
A photo album is not a photo album if there are no photos in it, and it is
not a family photo album if all the photos are of landscapes.
Not all the rules in a genre are as obvious as photo albums requiring
photos. For example, a blog must have dated posts in reverse chronological order (Walker 2005a, 45), but beyond these formal rules there are more
subtle expectations that can be rejected but usually are not. Diane Greco
noted in her blog, Narcissism, vanity, exhibitionism, ambition, vanity, vanity,
vanity, on 25 February 2004, that the ongoingness of diet blogs (and by
extension, any other blog with a goal) requires them to aim for success.
By and large, the blogs tell success stories. They have to – blogging as a literary form supports the idea of eventual success. When there’s bad news from
the bathroom scale, the open-endedness of blogging makes it possible to cast
the gain as just a temporary setback, not a failure. Diet blogging recasts or
reimagines the yo-yo effects of a diet as a surface, a space, a site for potentially
endless re-inscription. Dieting as Etch-a-Sketch, very postmodern.
So long as the blog is not ended or deleted, any setback can only be a step
on the way to some as yet unknown future. I discussed goal-oriented
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Another commenter responds:
narratives and the ongoing and episodic narration of blogs in the chapter on blogs as narratives in my book Blogging (2014). Blogs are written
in real-time, and therefore, unlike the narratives in many novels, the
narrator usually doesn’t know what is in the future. But many bloggers
do write about clear goals, hopes or dreams.
Facebook functions as a filter that echoes this story of constant
progress, especially with the strong structure embedded in the life events
in its Timeline. As Roberto Simanowski (2012) points out, Facebook
lists weight loss as a kind of life event you can add to your time, but it
doesn’t list weight gain. It suggests you might like to add quitting a habit
to your Timeline as a life event, but does not suggest sharing that you
have started a habit (23).
The progress narrative can be inverted, as in the many communities
online where people support each other in what mainstream society sees
as destructive practices. While a diet blog may always point towards an
imagined future success, pro-anorexia blogs are examples of a drive to
self-improvement that can become dangerous. If you look at the recently
published photos on a visual social network site such as We Heart It,
you will quickly see that popular images include not only beautiful
photos with inspirational quotes about love and beauty but also a great
many melancholy images with superimposed texts about depression,
heartbreak and anxiety. The site We Heart It was actually designed to
avoid online bullying and negativity: there is no option to comment on
images and the only act a user can take is to upload an image or to ‘heart’
an image. But many images either include text or consist of nothing but
text, of course saved as an image file so as to fit the format of the site –
effectively circumventing the technological filter of not allowing text that
the site apparently intended. The progress narratives of social media can
be inverted, with progress still a drive that calls for more and more, but
where that ‘more’ may lead to ever stronger depression, self-harm or
hatred of others.
A filtered world
I have used the term filter in different ways in this chapter. I began by
talking about literal filters: the felt or paper that water is filtered through
to remove impurities and the piece of coloured glass that blocks certain
frequencies of light. I moved on to talk about technological filters, ways
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Filtered Reality
Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. To view a
copy of this license, visit
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in which our devices and algorithms have certain technical affordances
and constraints that cause them to act much as literal filters do: straining
out certain information and making other information more visible. We
can think of our body and mind’s ability to perceive certain things and
not others as a set of cognitive filters. And we are part of cultures that
also have their sets of filters: rituals, customs, terminologies, assumptions
and prejudices that are sometimes visible to us and sometimes taken for
Serial Selfies
Abstract: Social media genres are cumulative and serial.
Looking at an individual post, tweet, status update or selfie
tells us only part of the story. To really understand social
media genres we need to see them as feeds and analyse each
post or image as a part of a series. This chapter looks at
visual self-representational genres that are strongly serial:
time-lapse selfie videos, profile photos in social media, and
photobooths, one of the closest pre-digital precedents of
today’s selfies.
Rettberg, Jill Walker. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology:
How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and
Shape Ourselves. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
doi: 10.1057/9781137476661.0005.
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Seeing Ourselves Through Technology
One Sunday in June of 2014 I wandered through the Elmhurst Art
Gallery, a short drive outside of Chicago. Nadine Wasserman and
Rachel Seligman had curated an exhibition they called ‘LifeLoggers:
Chronicling the Everyday’. The walls of one room were completely filled
with hundreds of polaroids, many showing the face or body of artist
Suzanne Szucs, who took photos every day over a period of 15 years
and exhibits the photos in various configurations. Rather than curation,
Szucs emphasises quantity and rhythm: a photograph every single day,
no matter what. The immediacy of the photos is important, too: Szucs
used an instant Polaroid camera and scribbled a few words or a sentence
in the white space at the bottom of the photo.
The sheer mass of photographs in the gallery room was overwhelming. Some images were dull or silly: for several days Szucs only took
photos of her own face with her tongue poking out. Others are very
ordinary: friends having drinks together or a walk in the park. Some
photos aim to break with conventional ideas of aesthetics and femininity
in the visual, for instance showing Szucs in underpants with the sides
of her sanitary napkin visibly sticking out. There are sequences that
express great emotional pain after a breakup. An overexposed photo of
her face, totally washed out, has the words ‘BEYOND HOPE 4/5/05 1
am’ written beneath it. The photos are organised in lines downwards, so
the following day’s photo is beneath this one, and shows a bleak three
quarter profile shot of Szucs’s face, slightly overexposed against a black
background. A blurry selfie just beside it has the words ‘Prewashed to
limit shrinkage 4/5/05 5:27 pm’. Further over there are more selfies, with
titles such as ‘broken’ (4/22), then shifting to metaphor with shots of her
arm on two consecutive days (‘The bruise takes on color 4/27/05 12pm’
and ‘Day 3 – not as bad as I thought 4/28/05 4:10 pm’) and a little later, a
photo of an empty, untidy bed, titled ‘Unrest’.
Szucs’s mass of self-portraits cannot be seen today without thinking of
Instagram and the millions of selfies posted every day in social media.
Szucs began her series in 1996, well before Instagram, but not before
many people had begun sharing their lives online, in online diaries and
on homepages. The Polaroid photos were already retro when Szucs used
them: an analogue version of the filters offered today by Instagram and
Perhaps Szucs found the discipline of the daily Polaroid a useful
way to keep making art in very small but very constant doses. Decades
earlier, poet Frank O’Hara wrote autobiographical poems in his lunch
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Serial Selfies
Cumulative self-presentations
Digital self-presentation and self-reflection is cumulative rather than
presented as a definitive whole (J.W. Rettberg 2014, 5). A weblog or social
media feed consists of a continuously expanded collection of posts, each
of which may express a micro-narrative, a comment that expresses an
aspect of the writer or an image showing a version of themselves. This
cumulative logic is built into the software and into our habits of reading
and sharing online, and it acts as a technological filter that lets certain
kinds of content seep through while others are held back, either never
being expressed or finding other outlets (see chapter 2). Szucs’s series
of Polaroids predates social media, though. She began the series when
websites were eternally under construction and the structure of the
digital was either hypertextual complexity or peer-to-peer chat spaces
and listservs. And yet her project is so akin to today’s streams of images, a
little every day and the whole consists of nothing more than a potentially
never-ending flow of fragments. Frank O’Hara’s poems are even more
clearly pre-digital. Yet Tietchen compares them to micro-blogging, as
O’Hara escapes from the ‘technical time’ of a disciplined office worker’s
life to write a little each day. Of course it is easy to see the connections
in hindsight, but Szucs and O’Hara also remind us that if the ways we
structure our self-representations are technological filters built into our
software and machines, they are also influenced by cultural filters.
Artists have anticipated almost every form of self-expression we see in
digital media. Of course we not only have centuries of diaries and selfportraits, but also have flash narratives that are as short as tweets, photocopied zines that episodically tell stories from the artist-author’s life and
artists, like Tehching Hsieh, who have taken photos of themselves every
hour for a year.
DOI: 10.1057/9781137476661.0005
10.1057/9781137476661 – Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, Jill Walker Rettberg
Downloaded from – licensed to npg – PalgraveConnect – 2014-10-08
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