Geek Love: The Observer Effect

We don’t do it a lot these days, but I remember when Instagram started being a thing, there was a lot of back-and-forth having to do with the use of filters, the accusations of hipsterism that came along with them. To some observers, the manufactured nostalgia of a pre-degraded image that gives the illusion of a history or Polaroid or Viewmaster cartridge seems to be emotional cheating. But to the person doing it, it’s a bit more involved and personal. That’s the part that interests me.

Digital images do not—and will not—ever degrade, and so the idea of putting forth an image as a thing-in-itself violates the most confusing, and omnipresent, rule of online life: Every statement made online contains within itself two completely separate levels of meaning. The first is the statement’s object, the thing we are talking about, and the second level is what it says about us. There’s a lot of confusion online about what’s a fact and what’s an opinion, and the reason for that is simple: All online statements are automatically both.

You are talking about a TV show, but you are also talking about yourself. You are making statements that are durable and global, and refer always back to you, and forth to the opinion you are presenting.

Huge amounts of trouble result from this admixture, because we’re only just getting comfortable with the internet as a means of self-expression. Derrida, for example, makes much about the opposition between speech and text: To paraphrase badly, speech is written on the breath, in a particular moment, for a particular reason, in a particular conversation, and then vanishes. Text is written for a reader who isn’t there, in the future. This distinction is made for different reasons in linguistics than we’re discussing here, but it’s a helpful thing to think about: Both are acts of communication, implying a second party, but carry vastly different associated meanings.

Likewise, McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message” was an important moment in understanding media and communication, but it also comes up pretty slim against modern online communication, in which that once-complex idea is so part of the landscape it doesn’t even really signify anymore. I would say in both cases that online communication combines the two streams into this transcendent third thing.

And so you have Instagram, Pinterest, even more classic-seeming forms of communication like Facebook and Twitter, and in each case it’s the same: A curated collection of images, thoughts, memories and creativity that amount to (one perspective on) a person’s life. The television show Caprica put forth the concept that eventually, a person’s actual self could be reiterated from this gestalt, recreating his or her authentic self without much data loss. It’s one of the more out-there concepts in recent mainstream SF, but it’s also one that I think is continually less and less problematic.

You could live your whole life alongside another person and still their “them” would only be true for you, filtered through your perceptions of them and your own conscious and unconscious biases and projections. Even ourselves, our visions of who we are, change hourly: Is everybody around you being an asshole, or do you just need to eat something? Are you still mad from the guy cutting you off on the freeway three hours ago? Your idea of yourself is already fractal, hologrammatic—containing a single ever-shifting lens through which you view the wholeness of yourself. Likewise another person’s vision of your self. And, therefore, the internet’s version of you.

Regardless of where we come from, generationally or regionally or otherwise-demographically, we progress with this idea riding shotgun. It’s the reason we get so upset when someone else is “wrong on the internet,” it’s the reason we freak out about “stop not liking what I like,” and it’s the reason for most burnt fingers on- and offline when it comes to hot-button topics like privilege, feminism, privacy and politics. We have an abiding sense of this personal branding, even though many of us would shrink from that word—and even though the most prolific and social-network addicted among us need to understand that nobody ever sees the whole of us, online any more than they do in real life.

Our avatars, even in their infancy, represent a second self. (Even trolls, even the disingenuous or determinedly anti-transparent, are telling the truth about themselves, if you think about it.) And while a simplistic read of this situation would say that’s a filtered “best self” coming through, you and I both know that isn’t the case. On a good day, maybe we’re selling ourselves. On a bad day, we’re reacting every bit as naïvely as the angriest toddler. I would argue that both versions are equally true, so it’s a zero sum: Your best self is still yours, as is your crummiest self. The fractured nature of your online persona is no less fractured than yourself offline, so is it really—even in its inaccuracies—all that inaccurate?

All of which is to say that the person you are on the internet takes great pride in being a person, as it should. But that removes irony from the equation in a big way, which reflects back on the things we have to share and the things we want to show the world. Which is why the Instagram part is so fascinating to me. Because presenting a digital image—which will never degrade, never fade, never take on the physical attributes of memory in the way photographs did—is only to present the thing-in-itself, you are lacking the subjective element. It’s simply an object, simply pop art, and you have no reason to have shared it online.

Obviously in terms of fandom and consumption and aesthetic, this isn’t entirely true: Some of the best Tumblr blogs, for example, are simply collections of photos either pointing up a personal aesthetic, or in tribute to someone else. A music or film star, a style of architecture, a particular TV show or group of them. I would argue by the act of curating these images you’re still saying something about yourself, but that’s on the fringe of what we’re talking about today. What we’re talking about today is generational, and has to do with irony.

Baby Boomers were born alongside television, and to me that means they can be forgiven for assuming that the entire world is a movie about them: As far as they know, it is. Gen X reacts to this by importing irony into every conversation and concept, which is also understandable. Millennials, however, subtract irony from the equation—the rubbing-up of Gen X and Y is where we get “hipsters,” who are simultaneously ironic and post-ironic and it’s killing them—which leaves you with merely the Thing Itself, which exists regardless of whether or not you feel like sharing it.

Without irony, then, the generic image isn’t saying anything. If you remember the ’90s at all—think OK Cola, think snarky advertisements that tell you they’re advertisements—you’ll remember the primary of irony back then: The inoculatory power of, once having demonstrated you’re in on the joke, you have given the proper shibboleths and ablutions to carry forward having an opinion. (A soup can isn’t just a soup can, it’s a Warhol—but only by virtue of being in a museum.) The fear of having an authentic response, and thereby opening up yourself to humiliation for being wrong or simply too honest, becomes its own language.

But for those born native to the internet—to the calculus of current technology, which charges forward at a delta-v, a rate of change with its own rate of change—the Thing Itself doesn’t need to mean anything, because it already exists. You have to affect it, change it up, transform it, even if it’s just through the act of curation. (A sweater is just a sweater, but a sweater among kitsch wall ornaments and other postwar nostalgia on a Pinterest board, suddenly means something completely different.)

Similarly, a photograph of you and some friends is just a photograph, just a selfie (or just a meal!). But by applying the semiotics of nostalgia, you personally brand that moment as something greater than the sum of itself. Nonverbally, you give the rest of us cues to what that image means: Is it yearning, is it exuberant, is it sad, is it happy, did we feel cerebral or sexual or infinite possibility, is it some even-more-complex emotional deal only the Germans have a word for? There’s a filter for that.

The power, then, lies in our faith that the viewer—the theoretical audience for whom all of this split-second thinking was done, which includes our future selves—will understand the image in both states on sight: The filtered and the pristine. Yes to the image and yes to your subjective transformation of the image.

Which is why a geek history makes this stuff easier to understand—even for Gen X-ers, whose primary collective trait often seems to be difficulty or impossibility trusting anybody else’s intelligence at all—because we are used to making our imprint on and by our subjects of consumption. Whatever social lubrication or value a “Tippecanoe & Tyler Too” button had in 1840, assisting strangers in getting to know each other, that’s the value of a too-long Fourth Doctor scarf worn in public, an Invisibles blank badge, an Avengers t-shirt: Not just the subjects of our obsession, but our personal identity as drawing partly (sometimes maybe too much) from them.

And then, online: You go to a Tumblr that has a block of eight color-filtered gifs of Watson and Sherlock getting subtextually gay with each other, followed by a quote from the actress who plays Daenerys Targaryen, followed by side-by-side pictures of a newly shorn Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. Within three posts on this person’s Tumblr, you’re pretty sure how you’re going to feel about this person. And that’s just curation, that’s not even adding much of herself to the equation yet.

But the foundation is primed for how you will relate to this person moving forward. And, more importantly, you’re getting the exact impression of this person that she wanted you to get. What blows my mind is that these hologrammatic—yet honest—relationships exist alongside the common online complaints about other versions of what I would argue are the exact same thing. Why do I care what you had for lunch? Why is everybody on Twitter talking about themselves? (Why is my Facebook full of religious nutjobs and anti-woman conservatives?)

And this to me is a huge part of the disconnect: It’s not that anyone’s demanding your attention, quite the opposite. We know it’s all just noise—even the people who complain about this are doing it, both when complaining about it and when they’re not—and therefore, it becomes a mode of self-expression that doesn’t demand a viewer, any more than Emily Dickinson or JD Salinger was demanding an audience. Any more than any poet was ever being selfish.

So what’s different? You, little Heisenberg. The one putting that pressure on you is you. Those Tweeters are still going to eat lunch whether or not you care—and what you forget, when you sit back into your role as consumer rather than participant, is that you are doing the exact same thing. And with the whole industrial world pleading for your dollars and your attention, using SEO and Amazon algorithms and Netflix recommendations to make you feel special, is it any wonder? Of course the screen, and everything on it, were made exclusively for your benefit.

But this could easily be a source of pleasure, not pressure, and the same is true of the world. And everyone in it.

Jacob Clifton is a freelance writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. He currently recaps Defiance, Ray Donovan, Pretty Little Liars and other shows for Television Without Pity. Find Jacob on his website, Twitter, and Facebook.


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