Tech's Dirty Little Secret
American domestic life is in a constant arms race with itself, and has been for decades. Every year, we pass judgement on the next generation of devices and software, looking for the “groundbreaking,” the affrontingly useless, the magic of a program or machine that will change the way you live your life. What’s often overlooked, however, is that our machines don’t just change our lives: sometimes, they actually redefine them.
Maybe only your grandmother, or even great-grandmother, will remember the great arrival of the electric stove, laundry machine, or electric iron into American households. These devices were expected to make women’s domestic work massively easier, cutting the physical labor and time spent on household chores and leaving our revered matriarchs with lives of casual respite and recreation. The advertising was, you guessed it, quite misleading:
“...despite the introduction of electricity, running water, and ‘labor-saving’ household appliances, time spent on housework did not decline. Indeed, the typical full-time housewife today spends just as much time on housework as her grandmother or great-grandmother. In 1924, a typical housewife spent about 52 hours a week in housework. Half a century later, the average full-time housewife devoted 55 hours to housework.”
What was the catch? As the expected ease of household labor rose, the demands made upon housewives rose too. All those miracle devices kept their promises, but it turns out that technology is a double-edged sword. If you no longer have to spend half an hour lugging firewood in to feed the stove, society expects you to use that hour to make a way more intensive and nutritious meal. New technologies bring with them implicit demands upon our behaviors and habits.
This isn’t the story that GE will use to sell you your next laundry machine, and they get away with it because we haven’t learned our lesson. In fact, we pick up on new consumer technology fads faster every day. If you don’t believe me, check out this graph:
It takes a fraction of the time for a new technology to become standard than it did a hundred years ago. That’s the physical corollary to a more abstract notion that is still, in many ways, much more familiar to us: ideas today spread faster and reach more people than ever before. When I say “ideas,” of course, I’m talking about media in general. We’ve taken to referring to these excessively proliferating media ideas as “viral,” and it’s very appropriate, because the only thing this many people used to have in common at the same time was an epidemic disease. Today, however, more people have seen Gangnam Style than caught the Spanish Flu, the Black Death, and Polio combined.
Clearly, these rapidly-proliferating ideas have some serious potential. That’s Upworthy’s whole business model, and plenty of other corporations, politicians, and individuals are taking advantage of the possibilities of viral media. It’s somewhat amusing that one name we use to refer to these viral packages of information is “meme”; the word has existed since Richard Dawkins coined it in 1976, but it took on a life of its own when we needed a word to describe the new wave of viral moments particular to the Internet. Wikipedia actually hosts separate pages for “Meme” and “Internet Meme,” speaking to the rapid shift in vocabulary that the Internet revolution has brought on.
I say amusing, because a central preoccupation of the field of study inspired by Dawkins’ work (Memetics) was the question: do we create and control memes (alternatively, “ideas”), or do memes create us? It sounds much more silly in the world of the Lolcat and the Harlem Shake, but perhaps we shouldn’t rush to dismiss the notion. Seriously, try to answer this question: why did you spend an hour of your time last year recording yourself twerking whilst doing a handstand with a chicken mask on, editing in the drop from a godawful dubstep song, and trying your damndest to ensure that the resulting clip was seen by as many people as humanly possible? Better question: why were thousands of people doing this every day for weeks?
To say that “It was funny/worth it” doesn’t really answer the question. You didn’t come up with it on your own, you wouldn’t have imagined it as a worthy expenditure of time any day of 2012, but you saw a video (or a few dozen) and, armed with iMovie and an Internet connection, knew exactly what you had to do. That’s the crazy thing about a meme: it isn’t just a piece of content, it’s content that urges you to replicate and distribute it, to spend even a trivial amount of time ensuring its proliferation. Some quick math: the Harlem Shake videos, each about 30 seconds long, collectively garnered no less than 1 billion views, which means that humankind has spent a collective 950 years watching various examples of that meme. That’s more man-hours than it took to build the Empire State Building.
Now we arrive at the meme of the decade, the Oxford English Dictionary 2013 Word of the Year, the third most popular tag on Instagram, the unbelievably controversial and infamous “Selfie.” They have been derided, lauded, and splashed all over your news feed, and it’s very clear that Selfies are here to stay. A Selfie is more than a self-portrait: as the OED puts it, a selfie is “typically...taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” They’re about taking your body, your image, and putting it on display, encouraging its dissemination. Selfies are fundamentally connected to the technology they’re captured and shared with, so by proxy your body and self-perception has become linked to your smartphone and social media accounts.
Smartphones’ intimate connection with our Self(ies) was realized in full with the popularization of the front-facing camera. iPhones included such a camera beginning with the iPhone 4 in 2010. The Selfie-friendly nature of a camera facing the same way as the device’s screen is obvious: no more must we migrate to the bathroom to take a decent picture of our outfit in the mirror or make a dozen attempts at blind-firing our MySpace photos before achieving the correctly flattering angle and framing. The New York Times even ran an article this month decrying the lack of quality front-facing smartphone cameras which questioned the logic of prioritizing phone size over the ability to take a beautiful, high-quality Selfie. Here again we see the implicit commands of our technology: “Use me to observe yourself.”
The most overlooked fact in our discussion of Selfies is that taking Selfies is a gendered activity. The commonly agreed-upon diagnosis for Selfie culture is narcissism, and if that smells fishy to you, it should. This is the exact rhetoric that has been used to hold women to a double standard for centuries: be beautiful, but if you work too hard at it you’re vain. Waitresses get better tips in makeup, but your boyfriend prefers that “natural” look. Try-hard, self-obsessed, conceited, plastic, slutty, dresses like a pornstar: these are the phrases we use for women who do no less than what society pushes them to, and they’re exactly the slanders deployed against people whose Selfie Game is too top-notch.
These were the forces at work when my friend showed me a Selfie taken by her boyfriend; he’d sent it to show her his new haircut. She commented as she passed me her phone: “He’s only ever sent me two Selfies; I’m not sure how much I’d respect him if he’d sent more.” Kate Losse accounts for this phenomenon in Model View Culture:
“[G]ender norms make the position of surveiller more available to men than women--a man who doesn't post is cool and privacy-savvy; a woman who doesn't post much is considered weird and antisocial. While women smile and perform for social networks, men can use social networks in a proto-surveillant mode, avoiding the gaze that follows women so intensely online. Women have always been the subject of the gaze that demands we reveal ourselves or risk the appearance of hiding something -- perhaps our deviation from patriarchal beauty norms (in sexist culture, a crime of sorts).”
As she points out, “the ‘transparency’ promoted and enabled by social networks like Facebook has long been gendered in practice, with women making up the majority of viewed profiles on the site, and men making up the majority of profile viewers and site creators.” So it turns out that the rabid spectating and performance embodied by the Selfie is actually a core component of social media. No surprises there -- it’s been fundamental to mass media from the get-go, and was never anybody’s personal problem. The most common criticisms of Selfies are every bit as stale as the argument that if we had a female president we’d be going to war once a month.
Go Forth and Multiply
What’s the positive spin the Selfie Nation so desperately needs? For starters, there are actually some very important differences between the Internet and mass media, primarily the source of the media: you. Not Disney, not Murdoch, not Time Warner, but the everyday person is the author of Internet content. Walter Benjamin saw it coming in the 1930s, when he wrote that “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.”
Selfies are a way for individuals to create their own representation in the media. Far from vanity, this is an activity which belongs to the domain of self-care. Blogger The Feminist Griote puts it well (emphasis added):
“The reason it is revolutionary and empowering to see selfies of beautiful Black women is because proper representation of people who look like me is nowhere near the point of over saturation....Social media allows for people of color, queer folks, fats, femmes, trans* folks, and differently-abled folks to find proper representation of ourselves sans gatekeepers....The fact that people who are maligned, marginalized, and strategically erased find the courage to make the deliberate choice of seeing themselves as beautiful, is both astonishing and miraculous.”
The agency exerted in taking a Selfie isn’t entirely one’s own. The networks which promote them, the smartphones we take them with, and even the very act of viewing Selfies all work to direct and encourage us to take our own, and then take more. Technology, and especially information technology, gives us a charge: go forth and multiply. When a television network or magazine responds to that exhortation, we know from experience that the consumer ingests media in bulk which is all kinds of oppressive. When you or I answer the call, something magical happens. The historical march of images and ideas parts way around a billion pockets of resistance, and Selfies aren’t the first time this has happened. Writing on her experience growing up in the 20th century, bell hooks speaks powerfully of the impact of the snapshots that documented her childhood in “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life”:
“Cameras gave to black folks, irrespective of class, a means by which we could participate fully in the production of images….All colonized and subjugated people who, by way of resistance, create an oppositional subculture within the framework of domination recognize that the field of representation (how we see ourselves, how others see us) is a site of ongoing struggle.”
We need to question, not accept, the people who tell us to deactivate our Facebooks, to stop being narcissists, to quit living vicariously through our online presences and return to our “authentic” flesh and blood lives. Media is real life, and we are both the instruments we use and the information we relay to others. That being said, don’t feel pressured to scream of the coming revolution in your every status update. There is real value in frivolity, and having fun is crucial to self-love today just like it’s always been. Share your Selfies with pride.