On Saturday I spent a delightful evening at Stanford's Senior Formal – it was a pretty spectacular affair. I didn’t bother to bring my camera because I can always rely on every young lady at the party having one – you've seen it: cute, pink, canon.
As I eagerly wait for the photos to post to Facebook, some musings I've had at the intersection of FB, digital photography and college culture (read as alcohol) are beginning to crystalize.
The jestful adage ”if it’s not on Facebook it didn’t happen” is becoming a powerful statement of reality for young people. Many can attest, for instance, to the sort of ripples that an announcement that “so-and-so is in a relationship with so-and-so” creates in a FB social circle.
A recent study aptly titled "Look at us: Collective Narcissism in College Student Facebook Photo Galleries" explores the ways in which FB has transformed the way we use and share personal photos.
Authors Andrew Mendelson and Zizi Papacharissi (of Temple and U. Chicago respectively) conclude from looking at some 20k+ photos, that "the central objective among college students on Facebook was the recording and posting of their participation in the social rituals of college." No surprise there.
Certainly photos are narrative aids in telling a social-status garnering story about participation in college life. More than that, I suspect that photos serve as a sort of cognitive aid or reality augmentation. The emergence of cheap digital photography and a nearly ubiquitous sharing medium increasingly shapes the way young people parse lived experience. Bear with me here:
Over the past several years I've had dozens of day-after-the-party conversations. What I've concluded from these is that many of my peers dramatically overreport “how good a time” they had last night. Part of this is semi-conscious – tales of epic nights of mayhem are an important cultural ritual in college and people play up the "good" parts while skipping over the bad. There may be more to it than that though.
How do you tell the story of a night you don't remember very well? You reconstruct it using the clues available to you.
You have a neon-yellow drink bracelet so you know you went to the Sigma Fratty Psi party. You have a receipt for five milkshakes and $30 worth of chicken tenders in your pocket to you know you hit up the LateNight eatery. The receipt has a name scrawled on the back, so you know you hung out with a girl named Mindy (or Minty?) who could only remember 9 digits of her cell number.
Then you go on FB. There are a couple of photos of you with buddies, with pretty ladies – you were all smiling and apparently having a good time. You vaguely remember some unpleasantness, but a dozen pictures of smiling, fun-having people assure you that a good time was had all around.
Not so. That vague unpleasantness you remember – shortly after the last photo you lost track of your buddies. You wondered around feeling alone, disoriented, miserable. Then you marked your territory around a palm tree…in vomit. Having lost your keys, you then called your roommate, almost unintelligibly drunk and maybe crying a little bit, and got him to retrieve you from the hallway.
Ok, so I took this scenario to a ridiculous extreme, but this is I suspect, representative of an actual phenomenon. Facebook photos don't just tell other people what we experienced – they tell us what we experienced. And like Fox News, they're only truthful in a fun-house mirror sort of way – the photos are out of context, plus, who doesn't try to put on a good face for those conspicuously staged, destined for FB snapshots?