Photographers have a complicated relationship with social media, and none more so than with the biggest of them all: Facebook. For photography professionals Facebook is a divisive entity that has managed to beat its way into our collective consciousness, forcing us to communicate and operate in an entirely new way. It is a virtual landscape that most, if not all find themselves traversing at one stage or another.
The truth is, the photography community has gained massively from Facebook. More than that, it has helped shape the contemporary landscape of photography, whether we like it or not. Between dedicated groups, specific pages or on individuals’ personal walls there are a huge number of people starting discussions, sharing important information, arranging meetings and even doing business. It could be argued that today’s photobook mania would not be the bonanza it is without Facebook or social media in general. In this respect, Facebook has had a direct impact on promotion and sales, which ultimately means it has helped kick-start, revive or maintain individual careers that might not have had the opportunity otherwise.
Of course certain issues can arise when it comes to Facebook, as it is a “social” medium after all. Personal differences can come to the fore, and things can be said (or typed) that might not have been uttered or ever known in real life. Just as long-lasting relationships can be forged, so too can they fall apart. Most people need time to adjust their psychology to communicating through such platforms, while others simply do not understand emergent online etiquette. And in other cases there are those who, rather frustratingly, seem to not comprehend the notion of public versus private.
The public-private dichotomy is a familiar Facebook phenomenon. Knowing what and when to share personal information is crucial to Facebook survival for both photographers and the everyday user. But for photographers this can be of interest from an occupational standpoint too, as it becomes a kind of living image archive that offers an insight into developing social trends and image consciousness.
This and other popular trends among the young female demographic are brought to our attention by photographer and online editor Jenna Garrett, who has taken advantage of particular Facebook by-laws and collated a large number of images from thousands on Facebook. In Licking My Friend, one of four subsets that form The Public Profile of An American Girl found on her website The Public Profile Project, Garrett presents an online exhibition of a young anonymous American girl in which the eponymous character repeatedly acts out this bizarre expression for the camera. She explains the inspiration for the project came from “a source of bewilderment at the behaviour I saw on a daily basis. I needed to understand. In that way, the project is almost anthropological.”
Thanks mainly to the proliferation of smart phones, it is unsettlingly easy for the young person to express this longing to belong through a visual representation of the hive-mind. With casual abandon, the individual acts out what is perceived to be the norm, and repeats an act that to many older generations is one of curious self-sabotage. Garrett explains: “It is really difficult to pin blame on a particular outlet of media, however I do feel that social networks assist in a continual downward spiral of sexual copycats. I have asked girls “Why did you stick your tongue out?” And their answer is “I don’t know! I just did!” A lot of gestures and expressions are now ingrained go-to behaviours partially fed by the constant stream of images seen on Facebook and Instagram. I am fully aware that these types of poses were around before social media, but now we can actually step back and realize how prolific they truly are.”
On the one hand it is quite easy to vilify social media, yet on the other hand it is not strictly speaking social media’s responsibility to act as a proxy parent for every young person uploading such images as those collected by Garrett. However they do give each young person a public platform to perform their own semi-illicit acts while struggling to understand their unique identity in a world that apparently sees them not as valid contributors, but as baited consumers. Social media, and specifically Facebook, not only take advantage of those less savvy about the public-private dichotomy, they actively encourage users to share private information. This is dangerous for a number of reasons; one being that it further enables data mining so corporations can target users for individualized advertising. Encouraging the young and naïve to behave in various ways makes the advertisers job easier, as they now control the behaviour that will ultimately increase the likelihood of purchasing certain products.
One has to ask what can be done about this Facebook Paradox, if anything can be done at all. It affects us all in one way or another; Garrett recognizes the pressure she feels to behave on social media in a certain way, “But oddly in the exact opposite manner the issues in my work addresses” she says. “Working on Public Profile Project has made me increasingly guarded and private online. Admittedly, I am so paranoid of falling into particular online tropes that posting is often a source of anxiety.”
So, we must not mock the face-lickers and pouters in The Public Profile of An American Girl, rather we must expose the deceitful and insidious nature of those exploiting their respective disposition. “My intention has never been to mock these young women”, continues Garrett, “although I am sure many would believe that is my goal. Overall, my greatest wish is for people to simply think about their behavior in the online world as they do in the physical one. A bit more private self-reflection and humanity would go a long way.” With this in mind, Garrett’s project may be seen as a warning to us all that through our increasing connected lifestyles, the global corporate machine is having an unhealthy impact on the youth of today, and it is not just kids having some fun with their friends for the camera – it is the result of tailored manipulation on a grand scale.
As author of the website The Public Profile Project, Jenna Garrett does not claim copyright on any of the featured images.