by Nina Guo
Written for Liberal Arts Seminar: Beyond Reality: Postmodernist American Literature (LARTS 463, Fall 2011)
I log on to Facebook. Immediately, my eye is drawn to a “friend’s” profile picture change. The photo is surreal; its dreamy, yellow tint imitates vintage film, though the photographer used a digital camera. The subject poses on her tiptoes, picking a leaf from a tree, supposedly unaware of her role in the snapshot. I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of this picture. The poser, my supposed “friend,” is a girl from my high school class to whom I speak rarely, if ever. The photo makes her seem artsy and relaxed, as though she lives in a golden fantasy world where her only care is examining the beauty in a single leaf. However, her stance is inconveniently graceful for such foliage investigation; her neck is strained above an overarched back while her legs look unstable to the point of toppling. Oddly enough, I never saw this side of her in high school; she was always working in the computer lab or hurrying from class to class. Needless to say, her picture arouses a plethora of confused questions in this humble narrator. She did not give the photo an artistic context (such as an album dedicated to her photography); it is her profile picture, intended to represent herself to other Facebook users. At a glance of her profile and this picture (because who has time for anything longer?), I should get a sense of who she is. So, when did my “friend” transport from her Type-A-student life to an era of clean flower children and perfectly yellow film? Why am I so intent on criticizing a person who is no longer a part of my life? And most importantly, why am I on Facebook instead of practicing solfege?
The first question is the easiest to answer. Despite the photo’s sincere efforts to appear candid, its very existence undermines any suggestion of authenticity. The photo resolution is too high to be film, so it must be an altered digital photo. Since photoshopping takes excruciating amounts of time and effort, the picture is inherently less casual than it appears. The subject must not realize the irony of choosing to use the photo as a digital self-representation; its creation process shatters the lackadaisical image she forges. In Jean Baudrillard’s words, the information “exhausts itself in the staging of meaning” (80); in trying to look unassuming and innocent, the photo and its subject lose all credibility to such claim. The image’s setting also subverts the photographer’s attempt at a realistic representation. The dreamy background with its picket fence, grass, and sloping hills is too cliché to be meaningful or real. The space with the tree is a physical location, but the photo’s representation of the space as a secluded wonderland bathed in golden light is not real. The overly predictable beauty (as provided by some editing) plays to a cliché fantasy, showing the photo’s setting is rooted in imagination. Thus the picture is a textbook example of Baudrillard’s hyperreality; it is a representation (the photo exists) with absolutely no basis in a more profound reality (the subject’s pose and setting are not realistic). So is there a more “real” self beyond the computer screen? Is there anything beneath that this false representation is based on? Can both selves be legitimate as expressions of a single self? The girl’s profile picture representation makes these questions impossible to answer.
Despite the photo’s sincere efforts to appear candid, its very existence undermines any suggestion of authenticity. As noted by Frederic Jameson, a “crisis in historicity” is a feature of postmodern productions and includes a “lack . . . of historical or social context” and the presence of “fragmented spaces” that evoke feelings of “nostalgia,” “schizophrenia,” and “euphoria” in the viewer (Surber 225-226). The picture reminds the viewer of a time foregone, a time of natural serenity and simple joys like picking leaves. It plays off stereotypes of 1960s popular culture by portraying the subject as a “flower child”; she wears floral print and appears to strike a dance-like pose. The combination of nature and dance is reminiscent of hippie habits. However, this is a false sense of nostalgia; the subject is too young to know such a time. The photo could be suggesting she has accessed an ideal realm outside of twenty-first century life, but its saccharine quality eliminates any realistic blemishes, implying the area is just used for its nostalgic appearance. While the picture could have artistic merit, it has no validity as a form of reality. Its historical references with no context accentuate its hyperreality. By connecting to and reflecting the past—a real context—the photo tries to support its own claim to reality. However, since it is a hyperreality, the illusion falls flat. The subject does not frolic in a carefree, magical 1960s realm; more likely she sits on her computer for hours on end, just like the rest of us, trying to make us believe she’s different.
Really, I would have no problem with any of this—the hyperreality and crisis of historicity—if it weren’t on Facebook. Because its interactions are instantaneous, occurring in “real” time, Facebook is supposed to connect people in a genuine way, yet it has become a playground of false representations and hyperrealities. My “friend’s” profile picture should be a digital depiction of herself, a visual accessory to the information she presents. Since the photo is hyperreal, she is being inauthentic to the face-to-face world of Facebook. The picture creates the girl’s characteristics; instead of representing her true being, the girl can create a separate, idealized self and then embody that character. As far as the world of Facebook is concerned, the girl really is an artistically minded individual who enjoys the simple pleasures of nature. However, the photo’s unrealistic qualities prevent it from representing anything real; since the picture is hyperreal, the subsequent self is also a hyperreality. The girl’s Facebook persona is imagined and therefore cannot be genuine. Her disregarding of reality undermines the fabric of Facebook’s social networking.
While my harsh criticism of the girl’s photo may seem unwarranted, I’m simply projecting my own insecurities over my Facebook personality. After scoffing at the ridiculousness of her real self, I had to ask myself if I was guilty of the same crime. Though I cannot objectively judge my Facebook self, I know how much work I put into creating a digital identity, and my endeavors are uncomfortably revealing. Like the girl, who tries to look easygoing and unattached to the material world, I strive to appear more disconnected than not to the Facebook world. However, my efforts are subtler than a profile picture. I control urges to comment on photos and send messages to seem like I don’t need the Facebook world. My lack of activity subliminally suggests I have better things to do than spend copious amounts of time on the Internet; in fact, I am as much an addict as everyone else. I have created a digital personality to look the part of who others think Nina Guo should be. While I have not completely dedicated all my actions to Facebook Nina, my inauthenticity calls my own conviction in reality into question. Is one personality more real than the other? Why does this tension exist at all; can’t I just eliminate it by getting off Facebook?
No. At this point in my addiction, going cold turkey is not a viable option. Facebook has become too essential to the social experience; often, it is the social experience. Relationships between people now are validated by an online connection. Facebook allows the user to make “friends” with people who may be brief acquaintances. It forges bonds between people, no matter how distant they are in person. However, the system is flawed; it is one giant hyperreality. Everyone presents an imaginary, idealized self, and no one is real. There is an utter lack of profound truth. We have voluntarily stepped into a virtual reality that affects our physical existence, yet as cyberpunk author William Gibson writes, “Somewhere we have bodies, very far away, in a crowded loft roofed with steel and glass. Somewhere we have microseconds, maybe time left to pull out” (184). Our attachment to the virtual hyperreality causes a separation to develop between the physical and digital world. Of course, the Internet universe is more enticing; it offers instantaneous gratification for every desire. However, we still have “bodies” “somewhere.” The inherent link to the physical world prevents us from being fully absorbed into the hyperreality. Therefore, being attached to the hyperreality of Facebook is pointless. Instead, we should relearn how to make meaningful connections in person. We still have the choice and “maybe time left to pull out.” The hyperreality births only inauthenticity upon inauthenticity until nothing left has meaning.
So how has this analysis affected my life?
I go on Facebook a little less frequently every (other) day.
Epilogue (March 3, 2012): My Facebook has been deactivated for over two months.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. Print.
Surber, Jere Paul. Culture and Critique: An Introduction to the Critical Discourses of Cultural Studies. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998. Print.
William Gibson. Burning Chrome. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.