Selfie photo by Julian Gentilezza

Snapchat’s sociologist defends the selfie – but it’s not for the reasons you’d think

In 2010, Nathan Jurgenson was holed up at home in Washington DC writing his PhD thesis when he noticed something strange was happening. Two big snowstorms had hit the city, there had been nearly a metre of snow and DC was in shutdown.

“Everyone was posting these photos of the snow on Facebook. They were using this Hipstermatic app. It made the photos look like they were from the 1960s…full vintage photos.”

Back then Instagram had just launched, Snapchat hadn’t been invented and Hipstermatic was the cool new thing. Phone cameras were basic and the new filters were a great way to enhance images. But Jurgenson wasn’t interested so much in the photography as in the use of nostalgia:

“Why particularly vintage? Out of all the things you could do with a photo?”

Blended reality

The conclusion he reached was that social media gives us a different perspective on the world, because the content is made specifically for sharing, to communicate an experience or idea:

“It’s close to what people called the ‘camera eye’ a century ago. If you take a lot of pictures you know what that is: even when you put the camera down you still see the image: you see the framing, you see the lines. You’re seeing through the mechanism of the camera even when you don’t have the camera with you. And social media is giving us the same thing. We have a ‘Facebook eye’ or an ‘Instagram eye’. Even when you’re logged off, you still see things and think things through these platforms.”

This might sound dystopian, but Jurgenson’s argument is that there’s a kind of natural evolution happening. He sees what he calls digital dualism as problematic because, he argues, the digital and material worlds are not separate. The behaviour he observed back in 2010 with Hipstermatic was a good example of how the code, the platform and the technology were shaping a different way of thinking.

“It’s that blending, that mixing of technology and humanity, right at those intersections, that’s where I get really excited…what people are doing with cameras is the busiest intersection of the material and the technological I could think of.”

Jurgenson was speaking at The Photographer’s Gallery in London last week, hot off the plane from LA, to promote his new book, The Social Photo. (“The fact that I’m here in this room has everything to do with the internet. Technology has mediated this.”)

Ways of seeing

Jurgenson goes on to defend people who use the camera on their phone to share their experience of a concert (“the camera’s an eye we can speak with”) and, ultimately, the selfie, which he sees as unfairly denigrated and dismissed:

“100 years ago, the book was the paradigm of distracted, silly, and it was especially gendered: the idea that a woman was reading a book. It’s not domestic, right? It’s talking about things that aren’t inside the house! This was going to ruin reproduction, literally the fabric of society is going to go away because of novels!”

According to Jurgenson, the same thing is happening now:

“The hyperbolic, breathless hate around selfies, for instance, it’s usually really, really gendered. [The selfie] is a medium of being visible and of course that’s going to be gendered and a lot of the critique and the hate and a lot of the [negative media], they’re not really about the phone, they’re not really about technology.”

Gender imbalance

He compares social media to the novel and even the picture postcard as something that’s provoked a kind of moral panic – yet subsequently been completely absorbed into everyday culture. This new stuff is frightening because it challenges our conventional way of seeing things, and especially because it gives voice to those who’ve not always had one.

As for all those articles about the dangers of social media? They’re just here to make us, the reader, feel better about our discomfort. It’s not social media per se that’s the problem:

“This is about modernity…you can actually define modernity as being this existential dread of what is real: Who am I? Am I who I’m supposed to be? What is truth? What is real? These are questions that were invented by modernity…

“[In the past] your station in life was given. But then, post Enlightenment, post secularisation, urbanisation, globalisation, all these truths become questions…saying ‘just close the laptop and you’ll be more real, now you’ve solved everything’ – it’s completely disingenuous!”

Less is more

When Snapchat launched in 2012, Jurgenson found the mix of ephemerality with photography hard to resist. He joined Evan Spiegel’s company in 2013, soon after the company had raised its Series A funding, and has remained there ever since.

“I’m a proponent of a different way of designing social media…I try to bring that into the industry [through Snap]…I’m very happy to see less metrics, more ephemerality.”

It’s not clear exactly what he does at Snap Inc (“they don’t always listen to the sociologist. It’s a for-profit company”) but he’s been cited as one of the company’s most influential advisors. the fact he’s a long-serving member of the team is exciting.

I’ve got my copy of The Social Photo – will blog a review when I’ve read it.

Photo by Julián Gentilezza on Unsplash

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