At Slate, Michael Agger narrates his efforts to put a flattering picture of himself online. This strikes me as a topic that gets more and more depressing the more one thinks about it, because it ultimately forces us to recognize the arms-race quality of self-advertisement.
Remember for a moment how much attention people used to lavish on the perfect quote for their e-mail signature. Now that self-conscious energy is applied to a photo. There’s nothing inherently bad about the rise of Web head shots. They just turn what was once a space for burgeoning Cyrano de Begeracs into a space for burgeoning Brad Pitts.
When you expect to be judged by your photo—in the context of countless other such photos—and the technology exists to improve that photo, it becomes virtually incumbent on us to deploy that technology, present our visual selves in the most state-of-the-art way. We are forced to see our face as a brand or logo, and we must isolate and reify the qualities that we want to use to market ourselves, and in realizing we are marketing ourselves we must also recognize how we have devised these instrumental means of achieving our particularized goals. We say to ourselves something like, if I capture my face from the right angle, people will think I’m mysterious. If I relax while I take this picture, I might look natural. I might come across as authentic, as “real.” Until I get the right photo, I am in danger of being unreal. I don’t quite exist. And then you have to think about how sad that is, reducing our complexity to a pinpoint, or a desperate calculation, and having our being reduced to a lighting effect and a camera angle and a set of well-chosen props—ontology as mise-en-scène.
But it is probably true that how we look forms the basis, the starting point from which people will get to know us, and it supplies the framework into which are actions and behavior are integrated. Managing how we develop social relations online provides a stronger feeling that we can manage the entire process—provide the flattering picture as the launching point and then carefully groom the online profile to present ourselves as the attractive and appealing product we want to be. But then we are at the same time inviting people to consume us as a kind of reality-TV program, a well-edited entertainment product whose purpose is merely to please them and nothing more. When we objectify ourselves (with online photos and the like) we seem to be liberating others of having to conceive of a reciprocal responsibility toward us—we want to be looked at and approval rests in that, and when we look back at others, we do it in a different time, with a different mind-set altogether. That is to say, social relations online don’t occur in shared time; they are by definition managed, mediated exchanges even when the messaging is “instant.”
Agger mentions a new site called Facestat, on which you can post a picture and have people evaluate it through a series of questions that are vaguely research-like.
To date, Facestat has collected 16,818,344 judgments on 126,090 faces. The people behind the site, a group of programmers called Dolores Labs, have played with the data in fun ways. They noted which pairs of tags tend to appear together—athletic and driven, gay and cowboy, old and sour, young and uninterested. They’ve also built a graphical explorer, with which you can follow the webs of adjectives for an entire afternoon. The promise of accurate “market research” hasn’t been totally fulfilled. Looking around the site, I’ve found the crowd-sourced judgments to be fickle. For every person who thinks you’re “not bad,” there’s another that thinks you’re phony—or worse.
This seems to suggest that our efforts at face management are wasted. It may seem like we can better control how we will be perceived online, and it’s almost irresistible to make the attempt, but other people will see what is useful for them to see anyway. So it may be that the illusion of control is the lure of posting photos online, and it ultimately has nothing to do with the results the picture yields. This may be true of social networks in general; they let us pretend we are controlling something that is inherently slippery and fluid. They allow us to forget about the contingencies of friendship by making specific friends and whatever specific response they are having to you beside the point. The trick works because we are able to prevent ourselves from seeing how the pools of eyes in the networks we construct for ourselves become mirrors.