Seeing Ourselves Through Technology

Jill Walker Rettburg

Jill Walker Rettburg, a Professor of Digital Culture at the University of Bergen and blogger of 16 years, believes selfies, blogs, and "lifelogging" devices help us understand ourselves. Her book, Seeing Ourselves Through Technologyanalyzes how we, as humans, use selfies, blogs and wearable devices to see and shape ourselves.


Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves

This book explores the ways in which we represent ourselves today through digital technologies.

Three Modes of Self-Representation:

Each mode has a separate pre-digital history. Blog and written status updates are descendants of diaries, memoirs, commonplace books and autobiographies. Selfies are descendants of visual artists' self-portraits, and the quantitative modes of lifelogs, personal maps, productivity records and activity trackers are descendants of genres such as accounting, habit tracking, and to-do lists. Rettburg notes that digital self-representation is conversational and allows new voices to be heard and the three modes are intertwined.

In the past, a convex mirror was used to see ourselves, today we use digital technologies. Rettburg writes, "we snap selfies on our phones and post them to Instagram. We write about lives in blogs and in status updates to Facebook. We wear activity trackers on our wrists, log our productivity and allow Facebook and other apps to track our locations continuously" (2).

Today, with digital cameras, smart phones and social media it is easier to create and share our self-representations. Rettburg reminds us that self-representations have always been part of our culture. "We have drawn, carved, sculpted and painted images of ourselves for millennia; we have kept diaries, scrapbooks and photo albums; we have sung ballads and told stories about ourselves. Sometimes we use the mediation of technology to help us see ourselves better, to understand ourselves or to improve ourselves, or simply to imagine someone to speak to, a 'dear diary' to tell our secrets to when nobody else will listen. Other times we want to share our experiences with others. We paste photos and memorabilia into a photo album to share with family and imagine on day passing it down to our children and their children. Some of us write autobiographies or memoirs to be published for a wider audience."

Texts or People?

"Self-representation with digital technologies is also self-documentation," Rettburg writes. The ease and inexpense of deleting digital images and taking new ones, allows us to control the way we are represented to a far greater degree than in a photobooth or holding an analogue camera up to a mirror.

Rettburg writes that social media is about communication with others, but we should be equally aware of how we use social media to reflect upon ourselves. Rettburg also explains that a selfie is an act of self-representation, which means that it involves the creation of texts which will be read and interpreted. "A selfie also exists in a social context, once shared. But just as importantly, creating and sharing a selfie or a stream of selfies is a form of self-reflection and self-creation" (12).

Images are the primary content of many services such as Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and We Heart It. "The earlier Internet," Rettuburg explains, "on the other hand, replied on words and conversations. People who just watched and read and didn't participate were given the derogatory term lurker, and it was clear that the expectation was active participation. When we write and share photos with our friends on Facebook we primarily see the social communication we are engaging in, rather than the text of their and our own self-representations" (13).

Surprisingly enough, some social media sites and apps make it hard to directly communicate with each other. For example, We Heart It is an Instagram-like photosharing space that does not allow commenting and only allows users to interact by 'hearting' each other's images. Tumblr doesn't allow direct conversational comments; instead you have to reblog a post on your own Tumblr blog and add notes to it there. In addition, Facebook, although a large medium for communication, now allows users to delete their own comments or delete the comments from others. Thus, this action in a sense makes some communication disappear completely, making nothing permanent anymore.

Twitter is an interesting in-between form. Every user's posts are presented in exactly the same manner and using @replies and direct messages allow people to have conversations but to an extent. The medium is still controlling how much is said with it's 140-character limit.

Disciplining Self-Representations

Selfies actually have gotten a lot of hatred in the media. Some of the hatred is quite direct, like the t-shirts with the slogan 'Go fuck your #selfie,' or the PBS YouTube video 'Why Do We Hate Selfies?' that normalizes the hatred (17). These selfies open the door for others to criticize, post hateful comments, and for an action that is supposed to be directed toward self-representation, self-discovery and self-esteem, selfies also release the gates for hate, negativity, and in turn, low self-esteem.

Filtered Reality

In everyday speech, we filter our photos and filter our news. "Filters can be technological, cultural or cognitive, or they can be a combination of these," Rettburg writes. Examples of filters include: skin tone bias in photography, Instagram filters and the genres of social media filters that embed a drive toward progress. Filters have become an important part of popular visual culture. Instagram was one of the first sites to really popularise filters, and they are everywhere, allowing us to make our selfies and other photos look brighter, more muted, more grungy, more retro than real life.

The word filter has been used in many domains, but usually to describe a process where something is removed. "Photo filters," Rettburg writes, "have become a cultural phenomenon that goes far beyond social media. Many photojournalists for mainstream media have taken to using smartphones and filters in their work, both as an aesthetic choice and because the look of a quick, filtered smartphone photo carries with it a sense of realism that documentary photographers may desire" (25). A reason for using a filter and why it fascinates is because it gives the image that strangeness that defamiliarises our lives.

Profile Photos as Visual Identity

A profile pictures is a visual expression of identity, and our choice of profile photos is clearly a form of self-representation. Profile photos change over time and they are a part of a serial and cumulative visual communication. In a sense we present a different version of ourselves in each profile picture we choose. "We change our self-presentation over time," Rettburg says.

Privacy and Surveillance

"One of the most frequent reasons for enjoying taking selfies is that it allows the subject full control over the photographic process, from deciding to take a photo, to choosing the angle and expression, to editing the image to choosing which photos to share with others" Rettburg says (80.)

The Timeline that Facebook introduced in 2011 is an interesting narrativisation of our lives, but it is also a goldmine for harvesting our 'life events,' from weddings and births to moving house or getting a new job. "Even breaking a leg or having braces removed from our teeth," Rettburg adds. These 'Life events' are valued by data brokers who gather data about us from multiple sources and sell it to marketers. If you can locate the exact people who will be most likely to buy your product, whether that is pregnant women or people who have just bought a new house, and you can market directly to them, you are likely to sell more products. You don't even have to be online to have your data tracked.

Ending Remarks

"In practice," Rettburg writes, "for now, we don't think too much about our machine audiences. We are too busy learning more about ourselves and each other by taking selfies, writing blogs, talking together on Facebook or Tumblr. We no longer need to rely on others to represent us. We represent ourselves."

Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves
Jill Walker Rettburg
October, 2014
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