BY Daniel Penny in Opinion | 03 MAY 19

How the ‘Social Photo’ Transformed Our Experience of Reality

Snapchat guru Nathan Jurgenson’s new book argues that our surfeit of images has ushered in a new way of existing in the world

BY Daniel Penny in Opinion | 03 MAY 19

The world is glutted with pictures, so many that some us have lost the will to organize and archive them. Most of these photos are aesthetically generic, merely evidence of the same rhythms of everyday life: an ice cream cone, a sunset, a panting dog, a dick pic. In The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media (2019, Verso), sociologist, media theorist, and Snapchat guru Nathan Jurgenson argues that this surfeit of images has ushered in a new way of seeing and existing in the world through our camera phones – one which no longer values the documentary function of photographs, but instead prizes their ability to expressively communicate with others. ‘...What fundamentally makes a photo a social photo,’ Jurgenson writes, ‘is the degree to which its existence as a stand-alone media object is subordinate to its existence as a unit of communication.’ In the age of the social photograph, we are learning to use images not to remember events, but to talk to one another.

Nathan Jurgenson, The Social Photo, 2019, Verso Books, cover. Courtesy: Verso Books

The problem for Jurgenson is the way we’ve been discussing this shift in photography, which should be analyzed by methods ‘less art historical and more social theoretical.’ He argues that photography critics have mistakenly focussed on digital images as objects, analyzing their formal merits or lack thereof – whereas, Jurgenson, who positions himself as a sociologist by training, wants to consider the ways photography is an increasingly crucial facet of how we construct our identities in the 21st century. To trace the history of the social photo, Jurgenson recruits concepts of theorists many readers will recognize: Jean Baudrillard's ‘simulation,’ George Bataille’s ‘non-knowledge,’ and Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquidity’ among them – and coins a few terms of his own – the photo as discrete object vs the social photo as part of the stream, which is to say, that endless river of images through which we all scroll. Most essential to Jurgenson’s argument is his pet concept of digital dualism, a rebuke of the popular notion that our performative, mediated interactions and experiences are fake, while our physical ones are authentic and real. This is a distinction Jurgenson rejects: ‘...Our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline.’

The Social Photo is a cumulative project begun in 2011, built from discrete essays Jurgenson first published in Real Life, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere. The slender size of the volume would lead readers to assume that the author has sharpened his theories to a gleaming point in the intervening years – yet the book’s structure feels sloppy and circular. The text is studded with callbacks to aforesaid definitions, ‘as discussed previously’s and even recycled jokes and anecdotes from earlier sections. Though the central thrust of The Social Photo is that we need to start treating photos as language, Jurgenson never gets into the grammar of contemporary photo-sharing platforms, since it would be ‘nearsighted to view the social photo primarily in reference to any specific photo or even any specific social media platform.’ And yet, Jurgenson begins his argument with an extended analysis of the nostalgia-soaked, faux-vintage filters of Hipstamatic and Instagram popular almost a decade ago – which insist so hard on their ‘objectness.’ If the age of the nostalgic photo object is over, why are we spending so many pages talking about it?

Hipstamatic photographs of Central Park, New York, 2010. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photographs: Rob Boudon

Anybody who’s used Snapchat or Instagram Stories will appreciate the charms of the temporary image, but as a matter of principal, Jurgenson avoids illustrating how these image practices are currently, or will become further integrated into everyday life. For a sociologist, Jurgenson is oddly averse to thinking about the actual habits and customs – the sociality – of the social photo. The result is that Jurgenson is able to make confident assertions such as ‘Documentation was valuable in its rarity, and as it proliferates, it becomes valuable to not document. So-called ‘oversharing’ becomes regulated, and a whole set of new stigmas, shame, and etiquette emerge’ without having to explain how those forms of etiquette are being negotiated. Though the olds may be complaining about 'kids and their phones,’ they are not the people devising or enforcing an increasingly complex code of digitally mediated interaction – rather, it is the users and platforms themselves who do that. Unfortunately, Jurgenson doesn’t spend any time reflecting on how those customs develop, spread, or become outmoded. Instead, he draws on Foucauldian notions of illness and health as moral categories – phone-zombies vs healthy abstainers – to claim critics of selfie-takers are acting in bad faith by ignoring ‘software companies’ capitalistic imperative to monetize their users,’ while harping on ‘the asserted unreality and unhealthiness of digital connection.’

This critique of who controls and benefits from the social rules of digital life is a fair one, but it conveniently glides over ‘the capitalistic imperative to monetize … users’ (more on that later) while straight up mischaracterizing some of the arguments of Jurgenson’s opponents, whom he casts as technophobic boomers. Describing a chorus of recent pop-sociology books and articles, including a New York Times op-ed by Sherry Turkle, Jurgenson writes: ‘When identity performance can be regarded as solely a by-product of social media, then we have a new solution to the old problem of authenticity: just quit. Unplug – your humanity is at stake!’ Such a reading is either obtuse or intentionally misleading. Few would argue that we can live in a modern society outside the logics and frameworks of social media, which, even when we’re not actively engaging in them, have come to shape our social and interior lives.

People take a selfie in Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (2006), 2015, Chicago. Courtesy: Flickr; photograph: Alan Light

In the same breath, however, Jurgenson describes a pantheon of famous photographers at the end of their careers, sunk in a state of pathological documentation: Cartier-Bresson’s switch to painting, Arbus’ suicide, and the demise of Gary Winogrand, who ‘had thousands upon thousands of photos that were unproofed or unexposed upon his death.’ For Jurgenson, the problem of being unable to put down the camera is the ungovernable archive it produces rather than its power as mind-altering habitus. That the rest of us have begun to live this way, too, ‘when the moment is so constantly being put to work for other ends,’ doesn’t seem to bother him.

Throughout The Social Photo, Jurgenson suggests that our attachment to our phones and penchant for constant picture-taking is only another changing cultural/technological norm. Just as railroads ushered in the traveller’s panoramic vision, or the Kodak Brownie promulgated the snapshot, Jurgenson positions the social photo’s boom in neutral terms, rather than as a compulsive behaviour meant to extract profit from our eyeballs. Soon, he hopes, we will leave behind the necessity of holding onto the archive of our digital photos, and start developing a visual literacy that allows photos to have the same properties (and disposability) as texts or emails.

The core problem with The Social Photo is that by emphasizing the semiotic nature of the digital image, Jurgenson ignores the material conditions under which it is produced, consumed, and monetized – which are more than incidental to its rise. Jurgenson locates the materiality of photos in the past: glass, paper, chemical emulsions. He never seems to consider that social photos do have a presence in the code and energy stored on our hard drives and in server farms around the world – that data is kept in an actual place, even when we have moved on to posting the next pic. Aside from a single shout-out to our capitalist overlords, he refuses to ask who profits from all the data and meta-data we produce when we are performing our identities through selfies or sharing our latest trip to Shake Shack. And when we’ve forgotten all about it, who beyond our circle of followers can access that data, and what will they do with it?

Though Jurgenson describes this project as written ‘within and outside industry,’ referring to his role as a researcher at Snapchat, he scrupulously avoids discussing the consequences of choices made by app developers (including at Snap) to structure their users’ behaviour and therefore their vision. This is a shame, as nobody is in a better position to elucidate how these companies are theorizing themselves, and to show the gaps between theory and practice. The perspective Jurgenson offers in The Social Photo is an oddly blinkered one, saying more about the recent past of social media photography than its present or near future. If you are looking for ‘the Susan Sontag of the selfie generation,’ as Mia Fineman describes Jurgenson in a blurb, keep scrolling.

Main image: A visitor pokes her op-art smartphone into the window of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room-Love Forever (2017). Courtesy and photograph: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Daniel Penny writes about art and culture at The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He teaches writing and visual culture at Parsons School of Design.