05.16.2008 § Leave a comment

The present stage, in which social life has become completely dominated by the accumulated productions of the economy, is bringing about a general shift from having to appearing — all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances.

~Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle 1:17, 1967
As a social photo-sharing network, Facebook creates unprecedented pressure for its users to be image-conscious. Central to this effect is a feature called “tagging” which allows users to caption the photos that they upload with hyperlinks to the profiles of the people who appear in them. Over time, each user’s linked photos accrue into a single portfolio which chronologically indexes their appearance and behavior. This portfolio can then be made available to a greater number and a greater variety of people than could have ever seen the user at the times she was actually photographed. Moreover, while members of this online public do occasionally choose to leave comments on these photos, the viewing itself is an invisible activity. Thus, each Facebook user’s image is standardized under an effectively perpetual and scrutinizing public gaze.

It is no wonder, then, that the Facebook user should have a strong vested interest in protecting her portfolio from undesirable images. While she may upload and tag herself in photos, the bulk of her portfolio consists of images that were uploaded and tagged by other people in her network. Many of these images are not quite as flattering as the favorites that she would choose to upload of herself. And, occasionally, a photo is uploaded and tagged that catches her in a position or situation that she would really rather have completely stricken from the public record. Unfortunately, while Facebook gives her the power to de-tag this photo, there are several reasons why de-tagging is far from a complete solution.

1. De-Tagged Photos Remain Online

De-tagging breaks the link between the photo and the user’s profile. However, it does not ultimately restrict anyone’s access to the photo. The same people who could view it and download it before still can do so. While the chance that someone will see the photo while looking specifically for photos of the user will be decreased, there is still a high likelihood that members of her social network will encounter the photo while browsing the album in which it appears.

De-tagging may also remove the user’s name from the caption, but it does not protect her from being recognized. If she really wants this photo gone for good, she will have to ask the person who uploaded it to completely remove it. Thirty percent of Facebook users polled, however, believe that such a request is too awkward and embarrassing to be worth making.

2. Social Pressure to Keep Photos Tagged

Since most Facebook users consistently tag every friend in every photo that they upload, it can be glaringly obvious that a person has de-tagged themselves when their name is the only one missing from the caption. This is especially the case when–judging by the photo–the person would likely have a reason to be embarrassed by it. In fact, forty-five percent of Facebook users feel it is easy to determine when a person has de-tagged themselves.

Sometimes one will see a comment on a photo which accuses a user of de-tagging herself. The de-tagger may be criticized for being self-conscious—whether prudish for editing out scandalous party antics a potential employer may not like to see—or shallow for editing out a photo whose angle gives her a double chin.

While eighty percent of Facebook users surveyed professed that they were concerned about their online image, forty percent of them did not want to risk letting this concern become apparent as it would in a de-tag. Clearly, the more effortless one’s image seems, the better.

3. De-Tagging Can Be Offensive

Remaining tagged in a photo is a continuous, public reciprocation of association with both the people the user appears with in the photo and the person who tagged the user in the photo. If the user wishes to de-tag herself in a photo, she must consider that she may offend these people. Her untagged presence in the photo would then continuously, publicly stand as a symbol of disassociation from them, whether or not this had played any part in her actual decision. Plainly put by one user surveyed, “De-tagging is considered to be really rude.”

4. Loss of Control

By de-tagging a photo the user also gives up a measure of control over it. She will now no longer be alerted when anyone makes a comment on the photo that she might want to know about or respond to — such as, for instance, a comment criticizing her for de-tagging it. Half of the Facebook users polled expressed that they have left an undesirable photo tagged because they were simply too unnerved by the prospect of losing track of it. With a whopping seventy percent of users reporting that they sometimes browse through their own photo portfolio to keep tabs on their image, it makes sense that accurate knowledge of one’s online image may be valued more highly than idealism.

5. The Window of Vulnerability

Furthermore, there is a window of time between when the offending photo is tagged and when the user can de-tag it. While this window may be quite brief—from a couple minutes for an email alert to appear in her inbox, to a couple days without internet access—this particular window is unfortunately the period during which the photo is most likely to be viewed by her social circle. This is because events such as being tagged in a photo are considered news stories on Facebook. Such stories may be published on the Home Pages of many members of the user’s network, as well as at the top of the queue in the News Feed on her own profile. And once an image has made it onto the internet, of course, it is nearly impossible to prevent its viral distribution.

Twenty percent of Facebook users polled had at one point wanted to de-tag a photo, but had left it tagged because they were certain that too many people had already seen it for it to be worth the other downsides of de-tagging. Three percent even reported feeling pressured to stay close to their email specifically to respond quickly to such threats to their self-image.

Stopping Unfavorable Photos at their Source

For these and other shortcomings of de-tagging, it seems that the best place for Facebook users to combat threats to their public online image is at the source: preventing unfavorable photos from ever being taken in the first place. It is in this way that Facebook’s social photo sharing network extends its influence into the real world.

We live in a time saturated by digital cameras; they are cheap and small enough to be built into most new cell phones. Eighty percent of Facebook users polled indicate that they use digital cameras, and seventy percent upload their photos to Facebook. With this strong correlation, it’s no surprise that forty percent of users specifically think about Facebook when they have their photo taken. They are well aware that with every digital camera lens follows the eyes of their entire social network.

Unnervingly, the Facebook user cannot escape her photo network’s gaze by simply staying away from digital cameras. She is pressured to attend group events to prevent the group photos from being taken without her, which would inevitably show up on Facebook later, where her absence might be cited as public disregard for the event and her friends.

Furthermore, she could not even escape the gaze by staying off Facebook. With the majority of her friends using the website, she would feel certain that photos of her would still be viewed and commented on. She would remain subject to the same scrutiny she would otherwise, but with less control and awareness over her online image.

Thus, the Facebook user is persuaded to conduct herself with considerably increased self-consciousness. She avoids ever looking less than her best, ever finding herself in a compromising situation, or ever being around people that she wouldn’t want to publicly associate with. She will, on the other hand, seek out the people and situations she most wishes to visually associate herself with. Securing a photo at a famous monument or club, or with a person who she emulates, can now be a significant token of public prestige. In these ways she preemptively tags and de-tags, or “pre-tags,” photos of herself for her portfolio.

The Human Pseudo-Event

In 1961 noted American historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” (false event) to describe an event which had no meaning intrinsically and only gained meaning through its documentation and distribution. The quintessential example of a pseudo-event is the posed photograph. There is no intrinsic logic to a group of people huddled together smiling off in an arbitrary direction; such a thing would never happen without the camera. The pose’s only use is to be made permanent and public for some purpose. Sixty percent of Facebook users polled believe that a single photo in which two people continue to leave themselves tagged together is enough to suggest that the two people hang out. Taking advantage of this, the user can engineer the appearance of a lasting relationship with someone she desires in nothing more than a single, instantaneous photograph.

Boorstin goes on to describe a celebrity as a “human pseudo-event” (he is credited with popularizing the sentiment that “a celebrity is a person well-known for his or her well-known-ness”). Precisely what fascinates us about these public figures is not that what they do is particularly noteworthy, but that we can parasocialize with them, and gossip about them with our social network. This is most apparent in the modern trend of “reality” television programming, wherein ordinary people become public fixations for nothing more than their willingness to open their lives to the public. Their events only attain meaning through their documentation and distribution. They have been granted the opportunity to exchange their privacy for social power and attention, and they have taken it.

It is no coincidence that the popularity of reality programming parallels the phenomenon of the social photo sharing network. This new internet technology provides this same privacy exchange service to any average person that has been provided by a television network to a few lucky average persons. Emulating these lucky few, the Facebook user is able to become a local celebrity, constantly in the limelight of her social network. She may become so immersed in this social photo sharing system that her image spends more time appearing to others online than it does in real life.

As the ratio of her appearing to her being increases, then, it may become difficult for the Facebook user to live her life without pre-tagging persuasions. Her behavior becomes increasingly consumerist and ostentatious. Her relationships become superficial and politicized—a series of obligatory pseudo-events—public statements wherein she must keep up appearances with her acquaintances or face the social consequences of slighting them. She may be distraught when a fashion statement or event that she was particularly proud about was not documented and distributed on Facebook. One user polled indicated that she had gotten in a fight with a friend because this friend still not uploaded photos which had been taken at a party months ago. And unsettlingly enough, thirteen percent of those I polled actually agreed with the sentiment, “If we didn’t get any pictures of it on Facebook, it may as well have never happened.”

(my chapter from the perhaps never to be published book The Psychology of Facebook)


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