I’m likely not alone in this, but I can easily get sucked into a vortex where time seems to be accelerated and hours pass like minutes. This vortex is facebook. Of course my social media drug of choice is highly influenced by my age and I know that there is an ever growing collection of such image saturated mediums. It wasn’t always this way. I remember a time when I would see all the people I had any desire to ‘connect’ with in one day. As a child I would wake up to my family and see every friend I had at school. But as I have grown, moved and travelled I find myself longing to connect with people who are a great distance from me, located all over the world. My own personal shift to globalism I suppose, and social media provides a platform for that desired connection. This image driven space has also offered more public access to what Pink describes as “interiority.” Back when photographs were produced using film and only visible in relatively isolated print form, family documentation and the subjective stories were the stuff of photo albums and were only available to those we would feel comfortable having sit in our living room. Personal photos were displayed during intimate visits with close friends and family and had little impact on our culture and were more reflective and less dialogical. Digital images combined with social media have released these narratives into a much more public sphere and shifted them into a cultural dialogue rather than mere personal reflection.
Pink describes an experiment whereby a researcher “invites participants to photograph and narrate their feelings as they follow familiar paths through urban environments. In his publications Irving uses both photographs and transcribed recordings to represent these affective and interior experiences.” This study seems to anticipate what social media has become. People go through their familiar environments and photograph what they deem important and may offer a brief narration of why they deem it important. There is a secondary filter used to determine what is ‘post worthy’ and that is the image’s consumability. Whether there is a target audience (for example relatives) or a desire for a large audience (looking for the most ‘likes’), the value of our interior experiences is measured, in part, by its capacity to ellicit engagement. It is this secondary point which diverges from how Pink describes visual ethographies, where “visual ethnography, as [she] interpret[s] it, does not claim to produce an objective or truthful account of reality, but should aim to offer versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as loyal as possible to the context, the embodied, sensory and affective experiences, and the negotiations and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was produced” . There is minimal loyalty to context on social media, and yet it is increasingly accepted as a legitimate cultural ethnography.
The increasing division and polorization within social media heavy societies is amplified by the production of subjective realities that are presented to conform to expected patterns. For example, two key threads came through my social media yesterday (Halloween). The first was the onslaught of photos of kids or families in costume. Happy people enjoying community and candy in colourful attire. This is a key day to post photos of your kids and this has become a cultural pattern. The second popular thread was posts deploring the practice of Halloween and included testimonies of people’s experiences with the demonic. Another key theme I’ve come to expect. Admittedly it is difficult to reconcile that these two narratives are reflections of the same cultural practice. There seems to be two different stories being told that are expanded as more people engage with them and offer their own version. That “ethnographies cannot reveal or report on complete or whole accounts of reality; that they only ever tell part of the story” is part of their nature, however in social media, the desire for consumable posts leads to adding to an existing story rather than contributing to what could otherwise become a spectrum of opinion. I have yet to see a post with someone going about their day yesterday with the caption “Halloween: I could take it or leave it,” which may more accurately capture a reasonable section of society, but is entirely unrepresented on our ‘authoritative’ social media ethnography platform. The result is ongoing contributions to polarization on everything from political candidates to bottle feeding vs. breastfeeding. Obviously my own interests impact the debates that are hilighted within my newsfeed thanks to disturbingly accurate algorithms.
It is perhaps here, in my own newsfeed, that good research on myself might be done. “It is not solely the subjectivity of the researcher that may shade his or her understanding of reality, but the relationship between the subjectivities of researcher and research participants that produces a negotiated version of reality” . I might research my own story by looking at both what I post and who responds, how they respond and who doesn’t respond in order to understand how my reality is being shaped. This then might direct me back to some significant self-examination. Pink “explored questions around the relationship between visual ethnography and interior feelings. Drawing on Hogan’s scholarship in art therapy we have identified correspondences between visual ethnography and … ways of doing a visual ethnography of interiority” . If I can better name my biases and tendencies, I might be able to repent of my participation in polarization by re-engaging the actual contexts of my stories and recreating space for the middle of the opinion spectrum. Perhaps intentionally including some of the less ‘consumable’, more moderate options in our personal storytelling could lead to both more accurate ethnographies as well as more cohesive societies. Who could have dreamed that fence-sitting may become a key strategy to healing polarization?
1. Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography (London: Sage Publications, 2013) (Google Play). 58.
2. Ibid. 58.
3. Ibid. 53.
4. Ibid. 32.
5. Ibid. 55.
6. Ibid. 58.