The Frame Makes the Photograph

A common thing we hear about social media today is that near-constant picture taking means not ‘living in the moment’. We should put the phone down and just experience life rather than worry ourselves with its documentation. This sentiment wrongly assumes that documentation and experience are essentially at odds, a conceptual remnant of how we used to think of photography, as an art object, as content, rather than what it is often today, less an object and more a sharing of experience. But not all social media are built the same, and I think we can use a distinction in social platforms: those that are based in social media versus those that are more fundamentally about communication.

Researcher Sherry Turkle discusses this in a recent New York Times op-ed, describing how very-famous comedian Aziz Ansari greets his fans on the street. They want a photo with him, some documentary proof, but he instead offers conversation about his work, leaving many fans unsatisfied. Turkle extrapolates this encounter as representative of how social media works in general, which, I think, is a significant misunderstanding of, and disconnection from, how people use social services today. Meeting a famous person is that special moment you may want proof of; conversation might be nice, but with a celebrity it will be a one-sided affair, they will likely not remember you or keep the conversation going at a later date. To compare everyday sociality online as akin to meeting a celebrity, as Turkle does, is inaccurate. Sure, meeting Ansari might be a situation where some desire a document more than conversation, but everyday digitally-mediated social interaction is often less about the media object but rather centered in a back-and-forth reciprocal dialogue, something different social services can encourage or preclude, depending how they’re designed.

The way to understand photography as it happens on social platforms is not to compare it to traditional photography, which is about creating an art object, but instead as a communicating of experience itself. It’s less making media and more sharing eyes; your view, your experience in the now. The atomizing of the ephemeral flow of lived reality into transmittable objects is the ends of the traditional photograph, but merely the means of the social snap. As photos have become almost comically easy to make, their existence alone as objects isn’t special or interesting, rather, they exist more fluidly as communication; a visual discourse more linguistic than formally artistic. As such, social photography should be understood not as a remove from the moment or conversation but a deeply social immersion.

Turkle centers her analysis on selfies—those photos you take of yourself—arguing that we are trading the experience of the moment for its documentation. But when viewing selfies as not an abundance of self-portrait photographs but rather a sharing of experience, a communication of this is who I am, I was here, I was feeling like this, the commonality of selfies isn’t surprising or anti-social at all. Selfies, largely, are not recording the exceptionally rare events with famous people but exactly the opposite, the everyday moments that weave the fabric of life in all of its variety. An immaculately framed and perfectly lit photo of the beach makes for a good art object can be a pretty boring speech act given how that same shot multiplies in social feeds looking kind of the same. Instead, the selfie is the image-speak that is uniquely yours, no one else can take your selfie, it is your own voice-as-image and is thus especially intimate and expressive. It’s intensely in the moment and that’s exactly why we desire to share and view them.

Through this example of modern photo sharing, the distinction being made here is between social services that are primarily fixated on content versus communication. All social media is both, of course, but not all media focus on both equally.

Today’s dominate social services are very concerned with the media object, the singular slice of experience that is pulled apart, made discrete, placed in a profile or stream, and given all sorts of metrics to quantify how many people appreciate it. More simply, dominant social media organize their sites and your experience around these media objects, be they photos, videos, chunks of text, check-ins, and so on. They are the fundamental unit of experience for you to click on, comment on, and share. A photo is posted, and the conversation happens around it, side-by-side, on the screen.

Alternatively, one key component of ephemeral social media—appreciated by its users but unexplored in most analyses—is that it rejects this fundamental unit of organization. There are no comments displayed on a Snap, no hearts or likes. With ephemerality, communication is done through photos rather than around them.

That media object, say, a photo, is the ends of dominant social media, but merely the means for services that are ephemeral, letting the media object fade away and making disposable the very thing that other services are built upon. Like the proliferating selfies, the actual photographic object is merely a byproduct of communication rather than its focus.

By diminishing the importance of the media object, by making it disposable, the emphasis is placed on communication itself. This goes a long way to explain the intimacy of a Snap versus a static image shared on another site. Other services, even their direct messaging components, are organized by and around persistent media objects. This is the media based sociality that gives social media its name.

An image becomes a photograph, in part, by having borders. The frame makes the photo. Tellingly, a Snapchat usually exists unframed, full-screen, more moment than an art object. Less than sharing experience-trophies and hoping communication happens around them, an ephemeral network leaves the art objects to fade in favor of focusing on the moments, the experience, the communication; more social than media, more social than network.

Perhaps the reason most of our dominate social media have been fixated on content, on media objects, is because content can be stored. Sociality is treated like information that can be indexed as search engines do to the Web. Photos and the rest are recorded, kept, organized into profiles to be measured and tracked and ranked. It made sense, that’s largely what people used desktop computers to do. Perhaps it was the rise of the mobile phone, where people do less information searching and more communicating that revealed this as a flawed model for organizing anything social. I’m concluding on a highly speculative note here, but it is certainly time to rethink sociality based so fundamentally on media objects.

One can still understand the appeal of the media object and why we continue to want to produce and consume those beautiful moments placed within a photo border. The band you are watching at their most intense, the sun setting, the family gathering, meeting a famous comedian: there’s certainly a place for the important photo, saved permanently. As I often argue, ephemeral and permanent social media work together rather than in opposition. Even Snaps are often turned into great pieces of art.

But as easy as it is to appreciate the importance of those special moments, it is equally easy to underestimate the seemingly banal moments in-between. Those who study the social world appreciate the complexities of the seemingly trivial. What is often thought to be the boring, mundane parts of everyday life are instead profoundly important. Minor social groomings make up the textures of our lives: saying hello, smiling, acknowledging each other, our faces, our stuff, and our moods from good to bad. Permanent social media have a difficult time capturing these important trivialities in a comfortable way. And this is exactly where ephemeral social media excels; built for everyday communication in its fleeting, often fun, always important nature. By not trying treating social life as just about capturing moments as trophies, ephemeral social media is more familiar, it emphasizes everyday sociality, and that is anything but trivial.

Nathan Jurgenson, Researcher