The Facebook Eye

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Like photography before it, social media changes the way we perceive the world

zola_Facebook.jpg

Emile Zola famously stated back in 1901, "In my view, you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it." Today, some make a similar joke: "it did not happen unless it is posted on Facebook."

For those who use Facebook, whose friends are on the site and logging in many times a day, we have come to experience the world differently. We are increasingly aware of how our lives will look as a Facebook photo, status update or check-in. As I type this in a coffee shop, I can "check-in" on Foursquare, I can "tweet" a funny one-liner overheard from the table next to me and I can take an 'interesting' photo of the perfectly-formed foam on top of my cappuccino. It is easy; I can do all of this and more from my phone in a matter of minutes. And, most importantly, there will be an audience for all of this. Hundreds of the people I am closest with will view all of this and some will reply with comments and "likes."

Simply, I have been trained to see the world in terms of what I can post to the Internet. I've learned to live and present a life that is "likeable."

Many have rightly criticized Facebook over how the site turns the unquantifiable beauty of human experience into something that fits into a database , or how Facebook misuses that database to earn fantastic profits. These are valid critiques; however, my concern is that the ultimate power of social media is how it burrows into us, our minds, our consciousness, changing how we consciously experience the world even when logged off.

Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal wrote about how technology changes consciousness. For example, the invention of the railroad changed our perception of speed. He writes, "humans had to learn to look at the landscape, instead of trying to focus on the foreground." The photograph Zola spoke of did the same. Invented some 150 years ago, photography caused a global sensation around the new possibility: to document ourselves and our world in new ways, in greater detail and in lasting permanence.

Today, social media has also provided a new, more social way to document ourselves, lives and world. Never before was it possible to record and display to all of our friends a stream of photos, check-ins and status updates filled with our thoughts and opinions in such quantity and with such ease. The transformative power of social media surely is of similar magnitude and consequence as the invention of the photograph.

The photographer knows well that after taking many pictures one develops "the camera eye": vision becomes like the viewfinder, always perceiving the world through the logic of the camera mechanism via framing, lighting, depth of field, focus, movement and so on. Even without the camera in hand the world becomes transformed into the status of the potential-photograph.

Today, we are in danger of developing a "Facebook Eye": our brains always looking for moments where the ephemeral blur of lived experience might best be translated into a Facebook post; one that will draw the most comments and "likes."

Facebook fixates the present as always a future past. By this I mean that social media users have become always aware of the present as something we can post online that will be consumed by others. Are we becoming so concerned about posting our lives on Facebook that we forget to live our lives in the here-and-now? Think of a time when you took a trip holding a camera in your hand and then think of when you did the same without the camera. The experience is slightly different. We have a different attachment to our present when we are not concerned with documenting.

Today, social media means we are always traveling with the camera in our hands (metaphorically and often literally); we always can document. When going to see live music I notice more and more people distracted from the performance in order to take photos and videos to post to Facebook and YouTube. When the breakfast I made the other week looked especially delicious, I posted a photo of it before even taking a bite. The Facebook Eye in action.

Susan Sontag once wrote that "everything exists to end in a photograph" and today we might say that more and more of what we do exists to end up on Facebook. The tail of Facebook documentation has come to wag the dog of lived experience.

This essay was originally published in Italian for the newspaper Corriere della Sera. You can find it here . The essay is reprinted here in English with permission.

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Nathan Jurgenson is a social theorist of media. He's working on a dissertation in sociology at the University of Maryland on self-documentation and social media.

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