Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed an acceleration of how information is accessed and processed, a development that to a large extent has been driven by developments on the internet. There, it appears that things being ephemeral, without a physical form, has made many people believe that what was published the day before is not worth any attention the day after.
Up until I realized the effects this could have, in its previous incarnation this website operated along those same lines. Initially driven by my own excitement over what I was able to find, I published multiple posts every day, most of them simply links — a kind of proto-Twitter.
Given that to a large extent my own view was geared towards the compilation of what I hoped might be a useful database of photographers my approach seemed to make sense. But it also helped create the idea that there would always be something new, and much like the weather in certain parts of the world if you just wait five minutes, it’ll arrive.
That’s not how good art functions, though. Art, well good art anyway, often is more like sauerkraut, kimchi, or wine: it will have to sit for a while, and you’d be a fool to mistake the gas emitted while things are ripening for the end result. Online, however, all too often we act like those fools.
A little while ago, I had the idea of trying to subvert the relentless consumption of writing online. I thought I’d set up a big virtual barrel of sorts and dump in articles I’d find, to let it sit for a while. I was wondering what would happen if I came back to them later, after some time. Would they still hold up? Would they still be interesting, worthwhile one’s time? Or would their content be that flash in the pan that, it seems, so much writing online has become now?
So I thought I’d start linking to old pieces, where “old” here really only is that if you adopt internet time scales. It’s a bit of an experiment, and we’ll see how it goes.
It’s November 2015. Vladimir Putin has annexed Crimea, invaded parts of eastern Ukraine, and is helping his ally Assad bomb the opposition. A prominent member of the Russian opposition was killed a little while ago, and nobody believes Putin had nothing to do with it.
Anyone remember Pussy Riot, though? Back before all that happened, they were the focus of large parts of the West’s coverage of Russia. In early 2014, TIME published a picture feature on Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, who had been just out of their respective prison camps.
Back then, I found that piece a bit weird, knowing about these two young women’s politics: “Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova go shopping in Moscow four days after their release from a Russian prison.” (picture four) Really? That would be their concern? That’s what we needed to see?
Now, almost two years later, if you had no idea who they were, you’d know… Well, what? That they were really curious about “remodeled Gorky Park and new-generation smartphones”? Very strange, to say the least. Maybe we shouldn’t project what we are obsessed with onto other people so easily.
“Egyptian Aliaa Elmahdy became an icon of the Arab Spring after she posted a nude photo of herself online.” And then what? For me, there’s something profoundly heartbreaking about this particular aspect of our new social-media obsessed world, where one day, you can be a local or even global icon, and then a year or two later, many people won’t remember you.
A year and a half after the Spiegel article was published, Hyperallergic covered the Egyptian activist’s protest against Isis (hashtag “NSFW”).
And I really don’t mean to deny the importance of these forms of protest at all — on the contrary. What I’m wondering is whether the hype and attention generated through protest fueled by social media really support their underlying causes on longer time scales, time scales on which actual change might happen.
I’m not sure. It certainly is not a given.
The preceding, of course, has repercussions for anyone engaging with a possible audience on social media. Even if you merely want to build and engage with an audience: you’ll need to be in it for the long haul.
It would seem like this piece really argues along the lines adopted above: “Unfortunately, Snapchat rewards those very practices of rapid looking and reading that have so impaired our attention spans and hermeneutic dexterity in the Internet age.” Believe it or not, I have no opinion about Snapchat. I don’t even really know in detail what it is, nor do I care much. Someone talked me into downloading it this past summer, and I gave it a try for about five minutes (talk about impaired attention spans!).
For what it’s worth, assuming I understand Snapchat properly (which might or might not be the case), it’s really not all that different than any other engagement we have with photography online: who, after all, goes back to old pictures?
In fact, maybe Snapchat really helps us deal with photography. If we’re not going back to all those old pictures that we have on our hard drives, why not simply have them deleted for us after a short period of time? Saves us the headache of having to create backups.
And who can find old pictures online anyway? The other day, I tried to find something I hadn’t saved, and even though I’m pretty damn good at finding pictures online, I wasn’t successful.
So this then made me think that our engagement with images online is one thing, and it might be good or bad. But what’s really more interesting are the consequences of that: I’m not convinced our attention spans really have shortened so much (feel free to send me research that shows they have or not).
I am also not convinced our relationship with images online can be easily put at a very specific location on a spectrum that has “good” or “bad” (or “meaningful” or “shallow”) as its end points. It might be a lot more mixed, and I’m quite curious about that.
It would seem like we process pictures very fast now. But again, when we look at time scales what does this amount to?
Maybe related, and this is from the other day: “Google can make you think you’re smarter than you actually are, study shows”.