Response to “Self-Representation in Social Media” by Jill Walker Rettberg (2018) and “Filtered Reality” chapter – from Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We see Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices & Shape Ourselves (2014)
In “Self-Representation in Social Media,” Jill Walker counters Stuart Hall’s reflective approach as a “representation of the true meaning.” She contends that most contemporary media scholars see “representation as constructed” or “filtered” so that the images are more aesthetically pleasing or more socially acceptable. What is problematic is that teenagers may view social media images as “true meaning” of the real world. Take, for example, Madison Holleran, a 19-year-old UPenn freshman, who committed suicide in 2014. From her social media posts, she appeared happy and well-adjusted teenager. However, according to her biographer Kate Fagan: “The photos hid the reality of someone struggling to go on.” Please refer to the ESPN article: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/12833146/instagram-account-university-pennsylvania-runner-showed-only-part-story. Photos, especially happy photos, hide sadness, depression, loneliness, insecurities, low self-esteem, and the truth. Madison’s story resonated with me since I have a daughter who is 18 and is a college freshman at Dartmouth. From her posts, my daughter Diana seems happy and well-adjusted as shown in her blog: https://admissions.dartmouth.edu/follow/blog/diana-dsouza. Hopefully, she is stressed, sad, or depressed. Hopefully, she will reach out to me if she is having any problems. I cannot help to think that Madison’s family also believed that she was doing well during her first year of college. In actuality, the first year of college is a transitional period for teenagers. It is their first time away from home. So, it is a challenging transition for them.
On a brighter side, Walker provides an interesting history of the democratization of self-portraits that “visual self-portraits are an age-old genre,” and that selfies are created by “ordinary people” and “intended for the moment rather than posterity.” Most people take selfies to capture a special moment in their lives, and it is meant to preserve a precious memory. Another important shift is that “selfies are usually taken on a smart-phone where the front-facing camera combined with the screen allows the photographer to simultaneously see and record herself” (Warfield, 2014). The ability to take a picture of oneself is appealing, liberating, and empowering. The subject now has the power to represent herself. She is not at the mercy of the photographer. So, a selfie does not have to be symbolic of vanity of “shallow vapidity.” We need to realize that selfies do not tell the “whole truth.” Or to use Aristotle’s theory, “selfies are forms of mimesis, that is, an attempt to realistically mimic the world.” Selfies are reflections of the world.
Here is a video of mimesis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5lJ5b57REE&disable_polymer=true
I would also like to provide my thoughts on insights that Walker provided in her two chapters that made me pause and reflect on self-representation in social media and the filtered reality.
As an educator, I appreciated Walker’s analysis of Kendall Jenner’s selfie in that she provides two ways of analyzing selfies:
Takeaway #1: Analyzing a Selfie as Representation
- Semiotic (signs)
- Denotation vs. Connotation
- Self-Representation: deliberately staged, photographed, and posted on Instagram
- Symbolism (heart, black heart emoji rotated sideways (darker, more complicated love), white wedding dress, hands folded, eyes closed as lying in a coffin, white carpet with a graphic pattern of a river)
- Allusion to Hamlet
- Theme: Dead virgin? Gender? Power relations?
Analyzing a Selfie as Presentation
If we were to analyse Jenner’s image as a presentation, rather than as a representation, we would focus less on its status as a set of signs, and more on the role Jenner was performing by posting this image, perhaps considering questions such as who the image was intended for, where and when it was posted, what responses it was met with and Jenner’s motivations for creating and sharing the image.
- Role Kenner was performing?
- Where and when posted (context)?
- For whom?
- Motivation for creating and sharing the image?
Takeaway #2: Quantitative self-representations
- I did not consider that data is a form of self-representation: “Today’s technology makes it easier both to track your personal data and to analyse that data.”
Takeaway #3: “Filtered Reality” chapter – from Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We see Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices & Shape Ourselves (2014)
- Walker cautions us by saying that we need to know how these filters work so we are not manipulated by them. She states, “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.” Here are some questions that we need to ask:
- What is filtered out?
- What flavors or styles are added?
- What is the purpose of the filter?
- Aestheticizing: Making beautiful
- Anesthetizing: Devoid of feelings
- Defamiliarizing: Make strange