In the opening of her essay Katrina Sluis appears to be suggesting that individuals who capture images of themselves to share ‘amongst friends’ in an online social network are exhibitionists. Perhaps, but if this is the case then anyone who has ever placed a picture of themselves in the yellowing family album and passed it around a room at a social gathering would have to be characterised in the same vein.
By its very nature the Web presents its exhibitionist face to us, as the continuum of communal to private sharing is not revealed by search algorithms and therefore not easily made visible. The exact extent of image sharing which takes place within carefully managed kin/peer groups relative to the volume of so-called exhibitionism online cannot easily be quantified but it is likely that it represents a greater volume than ‘open’ or ‘broadcast’ posting. These distinctions between peer group image sharing and open posting are necessary when discussing what social paradigms are being re-imagined or invented in the digital context. Is exhibitionism thought of as open posting perhaps less prevalent than the more managed sharing of images within a curated network of peers? Is this controlled sharing of images still a form of online exhibitionism?
In this regard the amplification of the morphing of representation towards information alluded to in the essay is of note. Certainly, the informational aspect of images posted online, especially with regard to the data that becomes associated with the image (who posted it, who shared it, the title it was ascribed, comments, likes, copies, geolocation, time of posting, tagging etc) is utterly exposed to the algorithms and business models of the social media platforms. This is the case for any image shared via these platforms no matter how voraciously the individual has set their privacy settings. However, this cannot be defined as exhibitionism in a social sense as those that would wish to sell us product online do not care who-we-are – they are only concerned with what-we-are-most-likely-to-buy. The code which provides the roll call of adverts which now surrounds our imagery does not ‘see’ our photography as image but as information. Are we in turn being trained to value photograph-as-data over photograph-as-image? Is the currency of social response to our images richer than any integral meaning we have imbued the image with?
The more pernicious effect of those seeking to commodify images via the affordances of the network relates to the aggressively marketed notion of ‘becoming’ through the act of capture and sharing. This principle is an extension of the idea referenced in the essay that ‘exposing oneself online has become an irresistible temptation’ (Bauman). However, I would argue that the temptation to share is not driven by the ‘fear of exclusion’ but by the contemporary fear that an un-captured, un-shared moment has diminished social currency. The ubiquity of visual capture devices and the ability to share online is superseding the authenticity of our own limited memories. This is not a new idea within discussions of photography, but the interchange between our offline and online lives renders acts of photographic mediation increasingly integral to our sense of self and how we manage the narrative of our lives. The Web is not simply a tool by which we communicate our activities in the physical world, it is a place where we go to play out our lives. In this sense we are becoming more resident online. Digital photography acts as a bridge between the physical and virtual as we attempt to negotiate the dissonance of being present concurrently in both spaces.
If an event is not captured did it really exist? If what was captured is not acknowledged by my kin/peers can I claim it was authentically lived in the Facebook era? For example, a recent advert for an image curation and sharing website read, “Today I saved the life of my daughters” followed by an image of two young girls playing happily in a garden. Associating the computational concept of ‘save’ with the implied aversion of the loss of life is powerful and emotive, melding the digital and the social through image. We have moved from understanding imagery as a method to preserve memories to fuelling the paranoia that a moment not photographed or videoed is completely lost, as if not experienced at all. It is this, driven by commerce, not exhibitionism, which underpins the desire to feed the inexorable flow of social data online.
However, there is still an understanding that any image has the potential to find an audience which is socially unknown to the subject. Through resharing online at the fringes of kin/peer groups images can travel beyond traditional boundaries to be seen by greater number of people than their physical counterparts ever could. This potential is instinctively understood by many people and as such their performance in front of the lens often accounts for this unquantified audience. This perhaps is where exhibitionism has moved to as when we pose for a family photo (or take an image of ourselves) we now perform not for our kin/peers but for the Web. The image in question may remain within known networks online but there is the ever present risk that it could leak onto the wider web, become iconic, become, as Sluis’s essay asserts, appropriated, remixed, recontextualised.
Is our recognition of the permeability of our ‘safe’ social networks online the greatest influence on how we exhibit ourselves? An effect which changes our behaviour at the point of capture, driving us to closely manage our personal image through conscientious performance and editing, demanding that ‘unsatisfactory’ digital images be deleted immediately, before they can be uploaded and escape our control. For example, rather than exhibitionism, is the underlying motivation for the Social Media ‘selfie’ a spirited attempt to control self-image in the face of a data-hungry web and the voyeurism of an inscrutable audience? Have we accepted that our opportunity to manage the meaning of our images is now only in the act of capture and the moments before our digital-self is thrown to the Web?