Digital Aesthetics: Me, Myself And Myselfie

Expressing one’s love for his/her partner at a wedding anniversary used to be a very private affair. Not anymore. Now, love is not real unless expressed on Facebook or Instagram. Now, before the dreaded angel of death has arrived back in the heavens, mourners have al­ready posted pictures of their dear departed ones on Facebook.

Consider the following facts: Instagram, launched in 2010, had over 400 million subscribers who had uploaded over 40 billion pictures by 2015. By 2011, there were already 500 billion pictures on Facebook and six billion on Flickr; and we were taking over a trillion pictures annually. A sizable majority on such sites consists of users who are below 30 years of age. They usually post their self­ies. The very term ‘selfie’, introduced by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, had its use increased by 17,000 percent over the year.

Such is the urge to take a selfie that we have such terms as Auschwitz Selfies and Bridge Girl (denoting an incident whereby a girl took selfie ‘with’ some­body committing suicide over New York’s Brooklyn Bridge). Such is the urge to click selfies that heads of states such as Obama cannot resist even when attending the funeral of Nelson Mandela. At home, Komal Rizvi attracted online censure for her selfie with the late Abdul Sattar Edhi while he was ter­minally ill. In September 2015, a press report high­lighted that more people had died (12) while taking selfies than by shark attacks (8). In 2014-2015, 127 selfie deaths were recorded, mostly in India, which spurred a ban on selfies in June this year at least in Goa’s coastal areas.

What explains this selfie craze/madness? An apparent answer is narcissism. There is more and more evidence suggesting that various social plat­forms and networking sites are making their users increasingly narcissist. But how does digital net­working drive us to narcissism?

There are two possible explanations. On a socio-psychological level, there is the fear of loneliness. According to MIT professor Sherry Turkle: “Afraid of being alone we struggle to pay attention to our­selves. And what suffers is our ability to pay atten­tion to each other. If we can’t find our own centre, we lose confidence in what we have to offer others.”

There is much evidence to show that online ‘community life’ generates offline loneliness. For instance, a 2013 study of 600 Facebook users by the Institute of Information Systems at Berlin’s Hum­boldt University found that Facebook made more than 30 percent of its users feel lonelier, angrier, or more frustrated. Likewise, a 2014 Pew Research Centre report shows that only 19 percent of millen­nials trust others, compared with 31 percent of Gen Xers and 40 percent of boomers. To quote Andrew Keen, a fierce critic of mainstream accounts glori­fying social media, “After all, if we can’t even trust our own existence without Instagramming it, then who can we trust?”

The other possible explanation is peer pres­sure and the bandwagon effect. When from heads of states to your next-door neighbour are posting selfies ranging from their presence at funerals to their dash to holiday resorts, narcissist culture is generalised and normalised also because virtual ‘communities’ on Facebook and Instagram are out­numbering real-life nations.

Curiously, in terms of consequences, this nar­cissist digital culture symbolised by the selfie ma­nia is perfectly in sync with these neoliberal times. On the one hand, social media constitutes an ulti­mate example of Do-It-Yourself capitalism, while on the other, social media breeds fierce individual­ism (bordering on xenophobia).

The other feature in terms of digital aesthet­ics that stands out is ephemerality. This ephem­erality, in turn, is continuously shortening our at­tention span. It operationalises in two ways; one, there is a race and craze for online visibility and, hence, a stress on newness. Second, online distrac­tions abound. In fact, distractions are inbuilt in the system because distraction benefits our digital godfathers. Take, for instance, the case of Google. According to American technology writer Nicholas Carr, the Google advertisement system “is explic­itly designed to figure out which messages are most likely to grab our attention and then to place those messages in our field of view. Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention – and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.” Online distraction is moulding our social behaviours.

Turkle aptly describes how this online distrac­tion is translating into offline distraction: “We are always elsewhere. At class or at church or business meetings, we pay attention to what interests us and then when it doesn’t we look to our devices to find something that does. There is now a word in the dictionary called ‘phubbing’. It means maintaining eye contact while texting. My students tell me they do it all the time and that it’s not that hard.”

The element of newness coupled with the in­ternet’s super-ability to offer distractions has tak­en its toll on our ability to concentrate. Study af­ter study shows that the internet simply subverts human attention.

Why does this happen? Carr in his book ‘The Shallows’ has cited the experiences of Christine Rosen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. Many of us would identify with Rosen’s experience. Writing about her experience using Kindle to read Charles Dickens’ ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, Rosen states: “Al­though mildly disorienting at first, I quickly ad­justed to the Kindle’s screen and mastered the scroll and page-turn buttons. Nevertheless, my eyes were restless and jumped around as they do when try[ing] to read for a sustained time on the computer. Distractions abound. I looked up Dick­ens on Wikipedia, then jumped straight down the Internet rabbit hole following a link about a Dick­ens short story, ‘Mugby Junction.’ Twenty min­utes later I still hadn’t returned to my reading of Nickleby on the Kindle.”

Carr, while justifiably acknowledging the ben­efits and inevitability of online books, mounts a valid critique of online reading from an aesthetic viewpoint: “the inevitability of turning the pages of books into online images should not prevent us from considering the side effects. To make a book discoverable and searchable is also to dismember it. The cohesion of its text, the linearity of its ar­gument or narrative as it flows through scores of pages, is sacrificed. What that ancient Roman craft­man (sic) wove together when he created the first codex is unstitched. The quiet that was ‘part of the meaning’ of the codex is sacrificed as well. Sur­rounding every page or snippet of text on Google Book Search is a welter of links, tools, tabs, and ads, each eagerly angling for a share of the reader’s frag­mented attention.”

Ephemerality characterised by distractions and a short attention span is breeding superficial­ity. Columbia University, with the French National Institute, conducted a research based on 60,000 articles from global mainstream media shared 2.8 million times on social sites. The study found out that that 59 percent articles shared by social media users were not read before sharing. Aleksandr Sol­zhenitsyn was mourning superficiality in the press of the twentieth century. Pity his mighty pen did not survive to demolish digital superficiality.

The Article First Appeared In The News International 


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