Facebook captures forced memories and the unforgettably mundane

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September 21, 2007

4:24 AM

I often wonder — and this is a testament to the kind of layman’s cultural analysis I’m prone to indulging in — how many pictures are currently on display on the pages of Facebook. While it’s tempting to hazard a guess, I’d probably be very wrong. I will say this much: I think it’s an unfathomably enormous number of pictures. Attempting to imagine each individual picture on Facebook is like trying to wrap your mind around exactly how big infinity is; you’re liable to end up catatonic in your favorite recliner, frothing at the mouth and mumbling something unintelligible about dead relatives in a language that only you can understand.

p. So here’s my thesis: Digital cameras are neither a boon for photography nor for our social lives. Since film as a material object is no longer part of the picture-taking process, we can take an almost limitless number of photos. This is the luxury of the information age. We don’t have to pause to consider whether the photos we’re taking are really good, per se, or of sentimental value. If a photo turns out poorly, we can delete it instantly and try again. We can point and snap to our hearts’ content. And we do — all the time.

p. For evidence, examine a random sample of photographs on Facebook. Let’s say Jane Doe has just uploaded a new album titled, “Tour de Frats pt.1!!!!” In Jane’s album are 32 photos from an outing she had Friday with her closest girlfriends. Accordingly, most of the 32 pictures feature Jane standing in a loose semicircle with those same girlfriends in a nondescript, poorly lit room made of cinderblocks. Sometimes the women are holding blue Solo cups. Sometimes they’re holding red Solo cups. They’re always smiling, and in maybe 78 percent of the pictures they have their arms around each other. In a few pictures, that guy in aviators and a polo shirt with a popped collar can be seen in the background giving the “rock on!” sign.

p. And that’s just part one.

p. If you were to ask Ms. Doe about her motives in taking and uploading the photographs, she might suggest something along the lines of, “Well, I really want to remember all of these great times I’ve had with my friends.” This is totally legit. College is so thoroughly hyped as the best four years of our lives that I often find myself wanting to somehow catalog every moment, even those when I’m only sitting in my room writing about my desire to catalog every moment.

p. Problem is, there’s nothing memorable about the slew of photos begotten by the era of the digital camera. They contain no pertinent visual information. Thirty-two pictures of Jane Doe & Co. posing in a sloppy crescent will not help Jane Doe remember that night in 32 years — as she enters her 50s. If anything, the pictures will denote a sameness and monotony in collegiate life.

p. The fact is that most photos are not taken for any long-term reason; there’s no act of preservation in mind, no fully formed thoughts about how the photo might best convey its subject. People take pictures because it seems like the right thing to do because everyone else is taking pictures, and because photography has this sly way of making it seem like something momentous is happening.

p. What’s more, the photos make people more likely to spend their Friday nights staring through a lens instead of actually socializing. There was a girl I met while studying abroad who once spent 30 consecutive minutes looking through a camera and taking dozens of photos of the rest of us. (We were only sitting at a pub, talking.) Hence, there exist more than 20 pictures of me in which I am in various stages of speaking from that half-hour. Throughout her photo spree, the girl scarcely participated in the conversation.

p. It’s selfish for anyone to believe that others are genuinely interested in seeing — in vivid and minute-by-minute detail — how we spent our weekend. I see no way around this. We’d be better off conceding that, much to our chagrin, we can’t remember everything, and that not everything we do or say is worth remembering. You can’t photograph the quotidian out of existence. Social events should be photographed because they are unforgettable, not unforgettable because they are photographed.

p Centuries from now — presupposing humanity is still alive and kicking — cultural anthropologists could have an interest in the lives of early 21st century youngsters. And for once, they might find too much evidence. They might unearth, download or research our near-infinite collection of photographs, get really bored and back away from the computer screen slowly — amazed at how self-absorbed people can become with the proper technology.

p. __Dan Piepenbring is a Confusion Corner columnist. Check the background of your Facebook pictures — he may just be that guy.__

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