October 6, 2014

The Disappearing Selfie, Part 3

Category: Digital Citizenship
screenshot of youtube video girl holding signs up explaining facebook bullying experience

This is the third and last of a three-blog series exploring the selfie as a digital object and the ways in which it posits challenges for us to understand and analyse it as embedded in everyday cultural practices and analysis. While I still await, with bated breath, for Peter Jackson to turn it into a movie so that you don’t have to read the first two posts and can just watch a movie generated entirely of crowdsourced selfes (like the “Selfie anthem,” for instance), here is a very brief summary of what you missed.

In the first post, I insisted that we need to think of the selfie as an object of irony — that it is, in fact, a digital object that hides more than it reveals. The post argued (ok, fine, I argued through the post) that the selfie has to be seen as the entry point into a much larger circuit of circulation and needs to be posited as hiding big analytics and protocols of control and manipulation even as it becomes a way of adding to the construction of the quantified self. In the second post, I argued that we need to think of the selfie as a selfish construction. The selfie, as demanding a shift from representation to simulation, where the selfie actually only references itself, and not to another reality outside. I had anchored this in the court case around Revenge Porn and suggested that we need to think of what it means to understand digital objects like the selfie as a simulation of themselves and not representing an external reality.

In this third and final post (with the possibility of a fourth post on Selfie: The Origin Story), I shift my own attention from the visibility of the selfie to the invisibility, or its disappearance. And, as I do so, things become more ominous. A large part of our conversations around selfie have been very literal, both in recognising the selfie and its emergence. The focus is always on the selfie’s appearance and the appearance of the self in the selfie. However, if we start thinking of the selfie as an object of irony, hiding as it reveals, simulating itself while pretending to represent something else, we might also want to see the disappearance of the selfie and the disappearance of the self from the selfie as hugely critical.

While the selfie might seem like just another social media fad that we all dabble in, for a lot of the younger people, it is more serious. Selfies and the publicity that they bring are not always positive. Bad selfies or ones that contest the status quo of young adult sociality can lead to mass-unfriendings and ostrasization without any warnings. Selfie videos, which are equally visible in the user-generated video content websites like YouTube or even on message-sharing platforms like WhatsApp and SnapChat, often are the currency of social survival and friendship in the lives of digital natives. While there have been an alarming range of self-destructive memetic selfie videos like NekNominate have become a part of the selfie culture, there is another kind of selfie video that I want to talk about.

It might not easily get recognised as a selfie video because it doesn’t have the same fun-and-games playful aesthetic that the selfies are generally attributed with: Notecard videos. In a world where the selfie and its visibility are the currency of polularity, fame, sociality and acceptance, there is a more ominous notes-to-video where the selfie hides the person even as it reveals things about him or her. Notecard videos are videos where the person making it, hides his/her face, and instead draws the camera to focus on note cards which are held in front of their faces or bodies. The notecards have a series of words, sentences, or sketches that tell a particular story of trauma, pain, anger, frustration or sheer neglect and desperation that belie the otherwise smiling duck-face of a selfie. In these notecard videos, we see young adults, often victims of intense sexual harassment, cyber bullying or neglect, making videos where their selves, or their faces are hidden, but we can see their words as well as their personal spaces like bedrooms, where these videos are shot in company of soulful music.

The notecards play with the same paradox of revealing and hiding, where, as they hide the person behind them, they also reveal stories that are otherwise hidden in the volatile world of social media, or that come out as secrets — weapons that can be used for harassment and blackmail. Possibly the most viral notecard video we know of is Ben Breedlove’s where Breedlove made a two-part video, titled “This is my story.” Breedlove, who was born with a congenital heart condition and knew that his time was coming to an end, made the heart-wrenching video narrating his struggle of “cheating death” and telling an inspiring story of living with courage against all odds. When he died on Christmas Day 2011, his video went viral, as his family found them just hours after his death and distributed them online. Ben Breedlove died, but his selfie video lives. The same holds true for Jamey, a young man who was harassed and bullied because of his bisexual orientation. Jamey’s video for the ‘It Gets Better’ project also went viral, and every time you see the young man, fighting tears, blinking them out, smiling, and telling others to hold on, because things will get better, it brings a pang of realisation that shortly after he made that video, he killed himself.

And things, perhaps get even worse, in the case of Amanda Todd, another teen who was harassed online for her bad decisions about trusting and developing emotional and sexual intimacy with sketchy characters she met both online and offline. Amanda’s video is particularly haunting, because for most of the video, Amanda directs the focus of the camera to her cards, as she narrates her mistakes as well as the intense bullying and harassment that followed. In Amanda’s case, the selfie-video was a non-selfie video. It was a video that obliterated her self from the selfie. And, shortly after, the selfie was erased, Amanda killed herself. Her non-selfie video is the last we would ever see of her. What is left of her is the incredible pain and the stories of horror that get thrown out of secret closets and as these stories become more visible, Amanda’s selfie and then her self, disappear.

The invisible selfies then, as much as the visible ones, remind us of the close relationships between the self and the selfie. They ask us whether we shall forget to remember the self behind the selfies, or if we shall someday remember to forget the selfies that replaced the selves. In either case, the selfies, the performance of the self in them, the surrogate relationship that they have where they stand-in for the self, and the way in which the obliteration of one seems to be mapped on the disappearance of the other, makes us think about digital objects and their relationships with our biological bodies and practices beyond practice, virality and memes. That in the tensions between the self and the selfie, are the building blocks that might help us think what ‘digital life’ can be.

Banner image: screenshot of Amanda Todd’s notecard video.