Reading: Visualizing Facebook (on moodle); full book by Miller and Sinanan available here.
As an extension of the Daniel Miller that we read earlier (Why We Post), today I want us to think about why we post photographs. As a demonstration, let’s view a series from my own instagram account.
The chapter we read from Miller and Sinanan compares photographs and other media posted on Facebook between Trinidad and England (an English village that he calls ‘The Glades’). In many ways, this is a continuation of the classic SNA ethnography (Learning to Labour, by Paul Willis), who looks at “the lads” from a town in the British Midlands. I don’t think this is Miller and Sinanan’s intention, though – their point is to look at what people post media and why they think the young people in a small town in England do so. They spent about a year and a half working with young people, lurking on their social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), examining hundreds of images posted by a selected group of informants – the first thing they note is the difference in platform usage, in that the young people in Trinidad and Tobago use Facebook the way the English young people use Instagram and Twitter. In short, Miller and Sinanan conclude that photographs and other posted media help people have fun. As opposed to historical photographs, or perhaps the photographs that you had to take over the holiday break for those of you who went home, the images posted on social media are supposed to look spontaneous. They also focus on the content of the images, which for the young people in The Glades includes lots of pictures of alcoholic drinks, partying, and other activities which demonstrate people having a good time.
My intention today is not go into the history of photography theorizing (see classics by Benjamin, Sontag, or take ANT 372 Visualizing Anthropology). From my own work on photography, I think this is part of a larger trajectory of photography and images – the growing virtualization of everyday life. More than social media itself, I think it is the technology of the camera (and its distribution electronically) that has changed how we use photographs, or why we take pictures (here’s a short summary of this perspective). Images (although we know they can be manipulated) are tangible evidence that we were there, we were doing something, we were a part of a group. They are a way the we archive our life, and as Miller and Sinanan point out, a way that we project our identity and successes to others (much as we use other aspects of material culture). Many people argue that images on social media makes us unhappy because of this status display.
The one thing that I’d like to emphasize from our reading of Miller and Sinanan (and our brief narcissistic exploration of my Instagram feed) is that we need to be able to “read” images. Not only do we take photographs with intention, but we then curate our photographs and decide to post some of them for cultural reasons, for personal reasons. But the one thing to remember is that context is king – it is important to contextualize images within the lives and culture of the people who post them; the images are meant to have an impact, an impact that may be unexpected by the one posting.