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On imagined communities online, digital self and YouTube..

As life is moving deeper and deeper into digital existence, it’s important to discuss the change of society models: a change towards the digital self, creation and adaptation to imagined communities (however, in a slightly different sense to Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities). A few years back I watched a video on anthropology of Youtube and it all triggered a deep interest in the topic. Now, working with audiences on YouTube every day and helping to create a tailored content for them, I often wonder about the communities created (imagined). Why do these people like this content? Who are all these people behind the countless usernames and avatars? Is this brave and aggressive person actually really shy and obeying in the life offline? Have the BFFs online ever met or will ever meet outside of this platform?

The ‘self-image’ is the key to human personality and human behaviour. Change the self image and you change the personality and the behaviour. [Maxwell Maltz]

In my mind, this is exactly the quote to describe the individuals in modern digital societies. You can be whoever you want to be, there are no restrictions, no borders and no end to imagined communities. There’s even no time when it comes to our digital personae – you can exist everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Time doesn’t work the same way online as it does offline.

Identity & the concept of imagined community

Identity, the notion of “the self”, community, cultural change and social networks have been popular themes in anthropology and sociology from the beginning when writers like Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, Alfred Radcliffe- Brown, Edmund Leach and others were debating community ties and individuality. Identity construction has always been linked to modernity and self-consciousness; for example, Mauss’ idea is that the person is the self; the notion of the self involves consciousness shaped by our mental and physical being (Mauss 1985[1938]: 1).

So this tells us – identity is a big part of the concept of self. Self is the totality of person’s thoughts, feelings etc. with regards to oneself as an object (Rosenberg, 1986). In this wide concept, our identity is whatever we show to ‘the others’, it is whatever others know us by (Altheide, 2000, p.2). To create an identity it’s not enough only deciding on our personality traits and claiming them ours, it’s also about others accepting these claims and associating us with our chosen identity (Stone 1989, p.188 – “coincidence of placements and announcements.”). In other words, in every community, online and offline, there is a need of acceptance by others, both – as part of this group and as the individual you have chosen (and been accepted) to be.

Identity in local (face-to-face) interaction is constructed based on rules of the certain setting. The physical existence at that point is what constraints and prevents people claiming more daring identities that would not fit their real life offline characteristics from social background and race to looks and gender. (Zhao S.; Grasmuck S.; Martin J., 2008, p.2 (p.1817)). These restrictions might be lower when interaction happens between two strangers, but let’s be honest, we’ve all seen someone trying to bullsh*t us into thinking they are something they’re not… it has its limits!

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I mentioned in one of my earlier post that “people do have aesthetic addiction to objects and there is a great need for that physical proof of existence no matter how digital we are.” Even in the digital sphere we need to have a certain personality and traits. We need to prove to someone else we are a fan of this band or that we are interested in a certain type of sports etc. And even though we cannot physically touch or sometimes verify this information it is still important to us.

Considerations such as these can help us appreciate the notion of „imagined communities‟ (B. Anderson, 2006), both virtual (social networks, high-tech communication) or physical. Anderson’s work has been noted as one of the most influential works on imagined communities in anthropology nowadays and fairly so. His theory on imagined communities, when talking about creation of nations, is easy to weave in discussion on digital communities even though they are fundamentally different. The main point Anderson raises is that the communities are imagined because even in the smallest of them there is no chance that all the members know each other, however they do experience the sense of communion.

Digital self and the creation of identity online

Internet as most might argue has opened a way for expressing yourself in more ways than offline life ever could. Everyone can become an artist with their own gallery that will not cost a penny on Flickr, everyone can own a blog and become a writer in hopes someone would read their work, feed-back on it wherever they might be without leaving their homes or spending money on editors or post. However, these are just the few examples of internet extending the opportunities based on our ‘real-life’ interests. Main thing I am interested in is why do we seem to change our identity online and does it have an impact on our offline one? One’s identity often differs from that adopted in different online settings that may vary from anonymous to full exposure of the ‘real’ identity.

Internet has changed the traditional ways of how we look at ourselves, meaning there is also a way for us to make others see us differently. Internet has changed the rules of identity creation. More so, there is no need to stick to one identity. It is mainly due to the fact of the ‘missing physical body’ giving space to the disembodied text. And it can go the opposite way where even with the physical characteristics being visible we withhold any or some information about the off-line personae, giving us the control over our new desired identity. Tempting isn’t it?

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S. Turkle (2011) points out that the creation of a ‘greater amount of culture’ doesn’t mean we are more sociable though, quite the opposite, we might have lost some of the sociability with the expansion of digital. She bases this on the fact that technology makes us less human. So is this one of the triggers that makes us to hide our real life self behind countless put on identities that might change some undesired physical or character traits? It can go to ridiculous lengths such as change from introvert to extrovert or even a digital change of the gender. And it can be empowering. This phenomenon of online roles has been researched a lot and it seems to me that our online identities are markers for what we secretly want to be, our hidden self which might be restricted in face-to-face interactions due to wide range of obstacles such as social background, race, gender and physical features.

One thing in my mind separates the concept of identity creation online and offline is the acceptance of your identity by others. Face-to-face interaction will always require the model described before where you claim the identity and others either accept it or declined it based on what they see before them. In my opinion, online identity creation is much easier to achieve as the other members of the online community will have to accept your identity the moment you claim it as they can’t verify details you don’t want to reveal about yourself, such as age, gender, race etc. (Not talking about stalkers here though, stay safe! ).

We have to remember however that no matter how limitless the online identity can be, there are some pre-determined parts of us and anchored offline relationships we carry with us to our online identity. People know people offline and interact with them online, get acquainted with the friends of their friends, losing some of that freedom of anonymity in the process. Let’s take G+ accounts as an example or even Facebook. Everyone is linked. Google learns information on our location, interests, etc. and based on that not only caters the advertising to our preferences but also suggests the connections – old classmates, people living in your town, people you have mutual friends with. This again implements certain constraints to identity claims.

So even though we could argue that identity online is the ultimate freedom and you can become whoever you want to, there are aspects that restrict this freedom from being limitless.

Is freedom anything else than the right to live as we wish? Nothing else. [Epictetus]

YouTube’s example of identity creation

YouTube as you probably know is the most viewed video-sharing site in the world and the third most visited website in the world overall behind Google search engine and Facebook (Alexa, 2015). Created in 2005 by three former employees of PayPal to make video sharing easier and sold to Google in 2006, YouTube has grown to be one of the most simple but at the same time one of the most complex networks on the web nowadays.

Most of the content is uploaded by individual users with  300 hours uploaded every minute in 2014 which was 3 times more than the year before and it’s still growing (YouTube data). Some of these individuals who create videos become highly influential and have a certain say in the creation of the identities of others, especially those of the younger age group. But is it only affecting their online identity? Or do they influence the everyday life decisions, choice of certain material things, choice of travel destinations and so on. And it works both ways. Influential or not, there are physical beings behind these online roles with feelings and choices. Creating an account on YouTube and putting time into making videos is one of the most popular ways to express ourselves for the new tech-savy individuals.

New media not only introduce new ways for us to express ourselves, but also new forms of self-awareness – new ways to reflect on who we are and how we relate to others [M. Wesch, 2009]

However, it is not only about ‘broadcasting ourselves’ as Youtube kindly invites us to do. It is about co-creation instead of creation – substitution of camera with community by letting them influence the content. What makes a successful YouTuber? Listening to your audience, letting them participate in making of your channel. “Let us know in the comments below, thumbs up if you like this video and subscribe for more” has become one of the most important phrases people add to their videos and it is working. Why? Because people love to be in charge as a default, they feel special when their suggestion is the one chosen from tons of comments and that makes them feel even closer to the person that seems to be the centre of this imagined community. The more appreciation you get from the influencer, the higher you step in the community, which is still in its core horizontal, anonymous and imagined. And it doesn’t end there, you can be a part of as many communities as you want, the more you surface online the higher the possibility to become influential even though this might not have any effect on your offline life.

Something to think about? Always.

Further readings:

  1. B. Anderson “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism” (2006)
  2. S. Turkle “Life on Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet” (1995)
  3. A. Acquisti, R. Gross “Imagined Communities: Awareness, information sharing, and privacy on the Facebook”
  4. H.A Horst, D. Miller “Digital Anthropology” (2013)
  5. T. Boellstorff “Rethinking Digital Anthropology” (2012)
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I went to a public pillow fight. And it was awesome!

“Why fly?  Simple.  I’m not happy unless there’s some room between me and the ground.”  ~Richard Bach

A month ago, I got an invitation from one of my acquaintances on Facebook saying “Come join me in this crazy, fluffy madness”. I have to say, I was well intrigued. Obviously, that was a mass invitation from the person, so I still had to find someone to go with. And at the last moment, luckily, I did.

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So now that I had a pillow, a partner in crime and a topped-up oyster, I was set to go. Attending a mass pillow fight was really exciting, mostly because I used to love pillow fights as a kid. Pillow fight in the middle of the London with thousands of people (mostly full grown adults, some in onesies, some in pj’s and some just being casual) enjoying life? The idea of strangers coming together and organising a pillow fight? Ridiculously GENIUS!

What I did not know before attending is that this event was a part of a greater project – Sound Asleep film (A comedy about insomnia). FYI, they are having a kickstarter project, check it out, just few days left to help the dreams happen!  LITERALLY!

KICKSTARTER LINK HERE: SOUND ASLEEP PROJECT

So why do people need these kinds of activities and why they have so much response you’d ask?

Because of several reasons, in my opinion.  Firstly, we all need days when we can just relax, not be judged by the way we act (as long as it is legal) or dress. Everyone needs that one day to let go of all the problems, anger, emotions or just nothingness. And what better way than trashing another person, who you possibly see for the first and the last time, with a pillow. It did not matter – big or small, tall or short, foreign or local. Everyone got smashed with a pillow (even after the event, like in this video).

Secondly, it might have been a bit awkward if I have gone to the event alone, as obviously you want to share the positivity with someone, but nevertheless, it was a great way to meet people. I am certain that I would not know anyone in London and would go to the event it would not stop me from blending in and having fun.

Thirdly, everyone needs and deserves to act like a child sometime. Everyone needs to go back to that moment when you are self confident enough to be silly and make an ‘angel’ in the feathers. For me it was like returning to the simple days, like opening the memory box with all my old concert and festival tickets, pictures, little important things to remind me of what I do not want to forget. It is like when you visit your relatives and you find some old, forgotten thing that used to belong to you. It is all about the emotion, about the connection to yourself and others. It is about rethinking where are you at this exact moment of your life.

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And fourthly (And to be honest, not lastly. I am just lazy), these kind of events give us that extra kick of energy that we need to reboot and go on with out lives. At least it was like that for me. It might seem weird that fighting and spending energy will give you more of it. Maybe not straight away, but the feeling I had after the fight was amazing, I hadn’t felt that good and careless in a long time.

Anyhow, check out the awesome project of Sound Asleep and help them make this film (links down below after the video)!

 

Links:

1) Kickstarter project

2) Sound Asleep on Facebook

3) Sound Asleep on Twitter

4) Me on twitter

5) More pictures from the event

6) My video from the pillow fight 

On image and it’s meaning in the age of ‘Snapchatting’.

Photography and the idea of still image has been around for a long time. The idea of a pinhole camera has been described as early as Aristotle and Euclid 5th-4th centuries BCE. However, first documented chemical black and white photography was carried out in 1820s (first colour photography came in late 1860s). In comparison, the photography back then and now differ greatly, starting with the simple fact of extremely long exposure, which would make taking picture a terribly long and complicated process. We entered the digital camera age only in 1981 when Sony unveiled Sony Mavica which technically was not fully digital, but it did save image on the disc eliminating the use of film. It’s been a long way till we got to where we are now and the possibilities of capturing image are still evolving by days.

Some say images have no space in traditional social sciences and that they are the disciplines of words. However, image, picture, visual plays a great role in society and the way people perceive things. In some parts of the world an image is believed to keep ones soul alive after death or the belief that taking photos is a bad omen and ones image should never be captured in a still image.

“Anthropology has had no lack of interest in the visual; its problem has always been what to do with it.” [MacDougal, 1997:276]

The Yoruba, an ethnic group in West Africa, have even incorporated photography in their contemporary and traditional culture such as rituals (see Sprague, S.F.: 2002, ch.11). A possibility of capturing the moment has always been as tempting as that big red button to push.

The meaning and value of the image

An image (from Latin: imago) is an artifact that depicts or records visual perception, for example a two-dimensional picture, that has a similar appearance to some subject – usually a physical object or a person, thus providing a depiction of it.

What an image means to every one of us depends on how we value it. Our images are memories, friendships and moments stopped and saved for later. Every image has its own story and its own value accordingly, from a casual snap on the train to a long planned family reunion portrait. It might be just me, but I feel like with the evolution of apps and social networks, the value of an image has fallen greatly. And that is where Snapchat comes in. But I’ll return to that later.

To be completely honest, I am a ‘sucker’ for pictures which is probably why this post was hanging about my drafts for so long in the first place. I like taking them, not a great fan of being in them, but as it happens I do have a massive amount of pictures online and offline. The hell with it, I even decorated my white room into a kind of ‘a gallery of good times’.

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People have a great aesthetic addiction to objects, other people, emotions. During my visual anthropology course we talked about the perceiving of image as a part of the culture and tradition. As a medium for documenting the culture, capturing lives in the exact form and moment. In my head it is completely different than the pictures we take at the events or so called ‘selfies’ at home. Don’t get me wrong, we still do document the moment, the people, the objects but it is not the same. Hans Belting is talking about image linked with our mental images. A body is understood as “a living medium that produces, perceives, or remembers images that are different from the images we encounter through handmade or technical pictures”, therefore, image would be just a still portrayal of the emotions, memory, a part of this living medium but at the same time not. Belting completely turns away from the understanding of photography as just a type of art. However, I still believe that the practice of photography itself  is a type of art. And it probably should be treated like one.

Photography in a digital age could be compared to a selective memory – we can take millions of pictures and afterwards decide which ‘memories’ to keep and which just erase with a push of a button. With all the technological wonders our progress has given us, almost anyone can do it which, much like with economy, means the value of image is decreasing. To add to this, image has the power of capturing the real and the staged you. With the digital photography age and knowledge of photo editing softwares, it has become a less relevant question, as you can look at the picture and decide to re-take or retouch it, whereas, back in the day of film photography, image was something permanent, something that had to work from the beginning, something that captures the moment without a chance of changing the memories.

“As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are therefore coincides, with their production.” [Marx, Engels: 1974]

Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, sharing online and the conclusions.

I have talked a lot about social media, sharing, communication etc. I personally am one of the people that does a lot of sharing like pictures on Flickr, I do have both WhatsApp and Snapchat, I do share on Facebook, Twitter and on here. However, as an anthropologist, I would say that with all this ‘cloud’ type of sharing we have lost the main idea behind a valuable image.

When I am looking for an example, I love to get other people involved in an opinionated discussion before writing every post and so I did this time. I started with a question on photography and social media apps, just the general opinion. Apparently, with social media like Facebook and applications like WhatsApp there is ‘still some hope’ as some of my friends told me (mainly because you know your audience and the reaction to photos that can be shared, viewed, reviewed, copied, saved etc). Instagram was rated as an app where you share only what is really important, something that would matter to you (again keeping in mind your audience), something that would describe you with addition of cool effects and countless hashtags. Finally, Snapchat was nominated as the most obnoxious and maybe a little bit creepy app that would be the complete opposite of meaningful or even important memories. In fact, I was told that the pictures there are mostly meaningless (!!!) and it is only great for sharing “a shitty day/looks/nudes with your friends without worrying they will use it against you sometime as it will be gone in matter of seconds”.

This raised my attention. How can a photo be meaningless? The whole idea since the photography evolved from the very first attempts was to capture the memories in still images, nice and easy. I guess I could say that by the development of technology we are going back to a point where photograph is not a permanent, physical object. Another thing that worries me on this is the loss of fear of consequences. With photos being taken we are taking responsibility for what is portrayed on them. With Snapchat? No worries, just put it on for 1 second and puff they’re gone – no questions asked.. or will they?

“Snapchat is the fastest way to share a moment with friends. You control how long your friends can view your message—simply set the timer up to ten seconds and send. They’ll have that long to view your message and then it disappears forever. We’ll let you know if they take a screenshot! Build relationships, collect points, and view your best friends. Snapchat is instantly fun and insanely playful. Show your friends how clever you can be and enjoy the lightness of being!”

This was the first description of Snapchat on iTunes when it just came out… This is the second one:

“Experience a totally new way to share today. Snap a photo or a video, add a caption, and send it to a friend (or maybe a few). They’ll view it, laugh, and then the snap disappears from the screen – unless they take a screenshot! If you want to share a Snap with all of your friends, add it to your Snapchat Story, where each Snap lives for 24 hours until it disappears, making room for the new.”

So at this point what has changed is the idea of telling you when someone decides to keep your 10 second moment for later. As I said before, people do have aesthetic addiction to objects and there is a great need for that physical proof of existence no matter how digital we are.

At the end of the day, it is no-one’s business what we decide to share and for how long. But I can definitely say that the release of Snapchat has marked a new age in photography. The one where it is no more about the image, it’s quality or the memory it keeps. It has marked the age of photograph as a means of conversation, a casual chat with no consequences, no long lasting memories and no promises. I just hope that with this new type of communication we won’t forget that the photograph can also be linked to our mental images, be used to keep important memories and value the moments captured through the lens.

Suggested readings:

  1. Belting, H. An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body (2011), available for purchase here
  2. UCL SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES & SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH PROJECT
  3. Phelan, P. Francesca Woodman’s Photography: Death and the Image One More Time in Signs, (Summer 2002) available here
  4. Collier, J. Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (1967)
  5. Sprague, S. F. Yoruba Photography: How the Yoruba see themselves in Askew, K. and Wilk, R. The anthropology of media: A reader (2002)
  6. Banks, M. Visual methods in social research (2001)