Contextual research & reflection – “Insta-culture”

I have chosen to explore the topic of social media and online personas for my final project. This idea came to me after the nostalgic experience of returning to my teen-hood MySpace page, some 7 years on. After scrolling through the cringe inducing photographs and ‘bio’ I started to consider the more serious side. As a lonely, awkward, home-schooled 14-year-old my online presence was incredibly important to me. Many of the feelings and worries I had were no different from those of my peers however my fairly uncommon situation meant that I felt isolated from the habits, activities, expectations and general discourse of people my own age. Self expression and representation via an online profile became disproportionately important to me, with the aim of appearing achingly, effortlessly cool to strangers whilst also attempting to remain mysterious, all the while being very conscious of the need to seem like I didn’t care one bit what they thought one way or another. Of course these social anxieties did not just disappear overnight, and neither has social media – for the latter, the total opposite. Thankfully as I have matured the obsession with what others think of me has dwindled and I no longer feel the necessity to try and influence their opinions via social media. But I would be lying if I denied putting any consideration into what I post on social media. The process has always been, to some extent, about cultivating the coolest possible image. Posting the funniest status, the hottest photos, the coolest songs to give a reflection of yourself that others will admire or aspire to be like. Sharing your location and day of enviable activities just to let others know how exciting your life is and how envious they should be. Broadcasting each life event to glean congratulations/admiration/consolation/comfort from as many people you know as possible. How much do you know about the life of someone that was once the pot-wash at your first job for 3 months and whom you have never  seen or spoke to again? I dare say a frightening amount.

It’s easy to quickly become cynical about the falsehood of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Although the image I am personally trying to cultivate has changed the thought process of “What will people think?” remains present. Of course it would be ridiculous to claim that one posted anything on Facebook (etc.) without considering what reception it might get, else why share it at all? We are always seeking a reaction, either through interaction (likes, comments) or simply to passively effect their idea of us. Where once I may have shared funny anecdotes or photos from parties I now choose to post links to favourite songs, articles I have enjoyed reading or causes (e.g. petitions) I support. The latter are more in line with my age and who I strive to be, which has undoubtedly changed in the 6 years I’ve been using Facebook. Yet I’m still trying to communicate something; about my mood, from which song I share; about my passions and the issues I care about; even occasionally trying to make people laugh with my own words. The comments we attach to our posts are carefully considered to properly portray our stance on what we’re sharing. Where I was once trying to project a popular, cool me I’m now trying to demonstrate an educated, socially aware me. But the point is that I’m still trying. And still further than what we post is what we don’t. The trends we choose whether or not to involve ourselves in; meme sharing, hashtags, announcements of personal news, relationship status. Whether you do or you don’t says something about you.

What I find so interesting about social media and the broader world of online culture is the social aspect. Many habits and interests that we now take for granted, not to mention words and phrases, simply did not exist 10 years ago. We are the last generation to remember the before and after. And yet the ways which we behave and communicate online, the manifestations of social anxiety and resulting judgements and worries are all aspects of human nature that already existed. The ways which these are indulged and expressed has simply evolved, mutated, been short-handed and accelerated. Despite the freedom of the internet, which has arguably been an incredible platform for previously unheard voices, we still restrict ourselves with yet another set of social rules and expectations, an unwritten (though frequently analysed) code of conduct. Perhaps this has been the reason for my reluctance to involve myself with newer social media trends such as Twitter, and in particular Instagram. For fear of ‘doing it wrong’, breaking some unknown rules and being judged and forever humiliated. The other aspect of my reluctance to engage with these social media sites is that I think spending a lot of time documenting and sharing one’s life online is narcissistic and ultimately unhealthy. I would never argue that these sites are inherently bad, or that people who engage with them are, but I think that the constant practice of sharing and connecting via phones etc. tends leave you feeling empty and unfulfilled. It takes us away from the moment, away from actually experiencing the life we are so desperately trying to share online, and encourages the desire for constant emotional validation from responses to posts. I am fortunate to feel comfortable enough in myself and busy enough in my life that engaging with these habits feels false and time consuming. Yet I’m sure if I were put in the situation of being surrounded by people who do judge a persons value on their appearance and habits then I would no doubt feel intimidated and inadequate by their standards.

The issue is far from black and white, and that’s part of the appeal of exploring it. I am not seeking an outcome that either condemns or celebrates. Very few things in life have such a definite answer. I would prefer to examine the attitudes, behaviours and values that emerge from these phenomena. I’m curious to explore first hand the feelings of broadcasting a life online. This has been somewhat inspired by the work of Amalia Ulman.

Ulman created an a ‘fake’ Instagram account, constructing the persona of a young woman who moves to LA in an attempt to kick off her modelling career. Over four months pastel filtered photos of glitzy hotel rooms, latte art and scantily clad selfies documented the rise and fall of this mythical version of Amalia. Her story spanned her rising modelling career, to a relationship with an older (rich) man, to drug addiction and finally return to a more… ‘wholesome’ life with her family. Thousands of people followed these updates completely unaware that they were being tricked, so perfect was Ulman’s persona. Afterwards, in interviews regarding the work, she commented on the fact that people followed her story with equal measure of attraction and repulsion; drawn in by her glamorous profile, but privately hopefully awaiting her downfall, a satisfying dose of misfortune to an individual who appeared to have it all. To me the fascinating aspect of this conceptual piece of work is the fact that really Ulman’s profile is no different from millions of others: working hard to project an illusion of an enviable lifestyle, using her carefully considered captions and snaps of the ‘right’ brands and products (apparently) surrounding her to communicate just the type of girl she was. Or was not. Ulman has commented that her aim was to demonstrate that societies expectations of middlebrow feminity are not nearly as effortless or common as they may appear. That no woman naturally looks that way and that self expression via consumption and materialism is vaccuous and far from individual.
While many around her strive to perfect their false ideal of themselves, was Ulman’s ‘fake’ profile really all that different? This is a good example of how concept, context and intentions can alter the meaning of two things that may seem identical on the surface.
However questions may be raised about the success of this particular work. Many comments of praise are now visible from visitors who have read about the project since and returned to check it out. But it has received more attention afterwards, from reviews and interviews with the artist being published in Magazines such as Dazed, i-D and Fader and even an exhibition at Tate Modern. The fact that the very people she was imitating and questioning and ultimately deceiving are probably a far cry from the usual audience of conceptual art perhaps is another aspect of the ‘performance’.

I am curious to explore the potential of creating my own false online profiles. With my work I would be more curious to explore the concept of social stereotypes, subcultures and self-labelling by attempting to portray several personas through the use of typically associated scenarios, and especially through images of possessions and consumption.
I will spend time exploring online cliches, subcultures, definitions and behaviour to gain insight into how to construct a convincing false image.
Although I will be exploring these ideas I am less concerned with contructing and entirely separate life and story, as Ulman did, and more attracted to the blurred line of these images being of me, appearing and acting in a way that is out of character and therefor false to me, but still as myself. This sparks questions about identity, self image and the relevance of the judgement of others in our lives.
I will go on to research the work Cindy Sherman which I think relates closely to this idea.

 

References:

https://www.instagram.com/amaliaulman/?hl=en

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/photography/what-to-see/is-this-the-first-instagram-masterpiece/

http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/16293/1/celebrate-commerce-with-amalia-ulman

http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/interviews/the-new-new-face-amalia-ulman-/

http://www.thefader.com/2014/11/07/social-anxiety-why-amalia-ulmans-middlebrow-instagram-feed-is-no-different-from-yours

http://www.thefader.com/2014/10/23/social-anxiety-basic-culture-normcore

http://jezebel.com/overanalyzing-basic-is-the-most-basic-move-of-all-1648927319

 

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