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Pictures or it Didn’t Happen

Dec 8, 2009 In Web Culture By Joshua Allen


You’ve probably seen this meme on Twitter or Facebook. Your friend posts a juicy status message like, “I just saw Tiger Woods flirting with Richard Simmons at LAX!”, and someone quickly replies, “Pictures, or it didn’t happen!”. I love this meme, because it functions on multiple levels, and has a sort of ironic postmodern twist.

Allow me to explain: All my life, I’ve been fascinated with the concept of photography. We humans, as a species, haven’t had photographs for much more than 100 years—which is a drop in the bucket, evolutionarily speaking. Human nature has co-evolved with story and narrative, but the snapshot is completely foreign to our endowed nature.

In fact,the sort of snapshot we’re talking about here has been with us for less than 20 years! Not long enough for human culture to adapt,let alone human nature. Twenty years ago, many people had cameras, but 35mm film was expensive and slow to develop. Today, digital cameras allow us to take as many snapshots as we like, as often as we like. Kids today grow up posing for cameras more frequently than any other generation of humanity ever did. This could have all sorts of interesting consequences.

For example, we know from research in mirror neurons that people don’t smile because they feel happy; they feel happy because they smile. The neurological process of activating the muscles to smile is what makes us feel happy, an evolutionary adaptation tied closely to our capacity for mimicry and empathy. When you condition a child through thousands of repetitions from a very young age to “smile for the camera”, you’re conditioning a new happiness pathway that is very different from our innate pathways.

More than the potential behavioral conditioning, though, we learn to associate our personal identity with the collection of snapshots that capture our poses. Is it any wonder that the generation who grew up posing for snapshots is so comfortable projecting a personal identity in short status messages on Twitter and Facebook? There was something numinously prescient in the savage’s fear that the camera would steal his soul.

Long before we had the snapshot, Shakespeare observed that “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” And Stanislavski‘s adaptations of this insight continue to enrich both psychology and theater to this day. But it’s important to remember that both were talking about a performance within the context of a larger narrative or story. It is only in the digital age that the “performance” has become the “pose“.

This is what I find so deliciously ironic about the “pictures or it didn’t happen” meme. When you’re admonishing someone to provide snapshot documentation for a salacious or dramatic twitter post, you’re doing two things at once: You’re affirming that twitter posts should be authentic, and not just exaggerated titillating performances for an audience; and you’re simultaneously (and unabashedly) asking for some additional photographic documentation to add to your titillation. The irony of the latter point is obvious, but it’s the former that I find most intriguing.

Think about it. When you’re composing a Twitter or Facebook status message, you’re already doing it for an audience. And when your primary motivation is for an audience, how “authentic” can it be? You’re already posing or performing, by definition. Even if Tiger’s infatuation with Richard Simmons is totally spontaneous (and, if you believe in fairy tales, intended to be kept secret), your decision to tweet the fact is certainly calculated with an audience in mind. What sense does it make to demand authenticity in this situation? When hearing about a performance of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, wherein Puck entraps a mortal in an embarrassing romantic entanglement, does anyone say, “Pictures, or it didn’t happen!”? Of course not! It’s a performance, for heaven’s sake, so anyone demanding proof of authenticity would be considered an oddball indeed. Let’s face it: Twitter isn’y journalism, and you’re not tweeting about Tiger to make the world a better place.

This is exactly why the meme in question is so funny and appropriate. It perfectly encapsulates the paradox of the Web. The Web was born during the rise of postmodernism, lauded by idealists and futurists who saw its potential to transform human society. We wrote missives about how the “semiotics of hypertext” would empower us to deconstruct, disintermediate and discombobulate the centers of power and lead to a democratization of information. We wanted to believe that we were making the world a better place, and religiously affirmed that bloggers would have more integrity than old school journalists. Dan Rather might fabricate stories, but the blogosphere would exude integrity simply by virtue of being on the Web.

Such idealistic screeds were typically penned while listening to pirated music (unabashedly) from, and an uncomfortable sense of hypocrisy was never far away. Every now and then, a courageous soul would break the illusion and say something like, “Let’s face it, we’re not changing the world. We’re [helping people broadcast titillating snapshots]“. We could always secretly appreciate this brutal honestly, but it wasn’t the sort of “journalistic integrity” we imagined when we imagined that the Web would change everything.

Like the Web itself, the genius of “pictures or it didn’t happen” is in the simultaneous embodiment of two contradictory motives.  For the idealistic reader, it affirms the idea that Twitter is about authentic voices, “disintermediating the power dynamic of the interpretive middleman”. For the more cynical reader, it’s a request for salacious snapshots to entertain our baser appetites. If you can hold to both of these without having your brain explode, I daresay you’re starting to grasp what this whole Web thing is all about.

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5 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Offbeatmammal said on Dec 9, 2009

and when you provide the photographic evidence the first comment is innevitably "photoshopped"

Nishant Kothary Nishant Kothary said on Dec 14, 2009

Amen, brother.

Matt Brown said on Dec 15, 2009

This is such a great post. I too, am fascinated by how we always desire to construe ''truth'' through photography, and how limited the medium is at establishing it. Photographs rarely give us ''proof'' of anything -- really they just present us more questions about an event. It''s almost as if they just give us some fraction, a slice of reality, to _start_ disagreeing about.

Not sure if you''ve seen it, but Errol Morris (Fog of War, etc.) has an *amazing* piece on truth and photography, at the NYTimes blog. It''s 3 parts, here''s the first one:

Thanks again — very smart post.

Steve Steve said on Jan 4, 2010

Great, thoughtful post. Following up on Matt (love the site, btw), Neil Postman makes a similar point about photography is his book "Amusing Ourselves to Death". We so often assume photographic evidence to be the ultimate truth, but the only "truths" photographs can tell us are how something was, at one time, from one point of view, completely out-of-context. It''s clear, I think, that the truths that do and should really matter to us are the comprehensive ones, truths about the whole context, from various points of view. Perhaps a better motto for the modern age should be "comprehensive, well-evidenced exposition or it didn''t happen" :)

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