No one likes selfies… anymore

One interesting thing about social media is that users can notice behavioral trends about themselves. We can see how our timelines are affected by major events such as the Oscars Ceremony Award or the World Cup. Not only we get retweets and shares, but also new content is generated. Either unpublished or recycled. Pictures, videos, and memes. They’re everywhere within social media. However, as any organism, information gets born, grows, and eventually, it fades out.

Do you remember how popular selfies got after the Ellen DeGeneres’ selfie at the Oscars? Selfies has been part of Facebook, but definitely got burst after her picture. Selfies then started to become annoying. It seems that Instagram and the use of its filters have gone in the same direction. Also, we can add to the list the whining through social media, or the flood of cute cats pictures. On the other hand, it seems now that one function of social media is complementing Google, since their users are now asking about things in order to inform their decisions. Also we can note that social media is becoming an informal marketplace. Therefore, we can see social media as an interface in which multiple contexts affect themselves through the generation, modification, exchange, propagation and eradication of information. Of course, all these actions have an impact back to those contexts. They affect the real world.

The social media and the real world altogether affect the former, at least in terms of content and the usage of such content. Trends are consequence of these user-driven information management. And also, users kill those trends eventually, regardless of the actual agency they are supposed to have. Yet, social media, by means of current massive content in each of these contexts, dictates what is on fashion. And eventually when such massive content will not be in fashion anymore. It’s just like the comic strip by the Oatmeal shown below. No one likes selfies (now) (?). 

Selfie by Oatmeal Comics
Vignette from “No one likes selfies” by the Oatmeal. Inspiration to write this blog post. Please check http://theoatmeal.com/comics/selfies

What does this mean, and why do we need to care? There’s no simple answer whatsoever. That’s why many people try to understand the related phenomena from different perspectives, including HCI and Design. However, I really enjoy the idea of seeing that information is alive. It’s somehow organic. We can see how we apparently affect social media content, and how social media content affect us, and hence the real world. The trends have rhetorical implications for us. The Facebook that will be experienced in USA this 4th of July, because of the Independence Day, won’t be the same as the Facebook experienced in Brazil whilst the World Cup keeps going. Our understanding of the world, what shapes our culture, and what modifies our values are subject to this creation and dead of information. And still, I cannot avoid questioning myself, what’s our role, as users, in this phenomenon?

If you want to know how this phenomenon could be related with design, or user experience design, my colleague Azadeh Nematzadeh and I recently presented a paper in the Design Research Society Conference 2014 about some theoretical concepts by which we try to explain this connection. Please, give the paper a look. Thanks!

 

Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura and Experience Design

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887). The Art Institute of Chicago. Instagram: @omitzek

In “A Short History of Photography“, Benjamin Walter introduces the concept of aura as follows,

What is aura, actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be. While at rest on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance—this is what it means to breath the aura of those mountains, that branch.

In other words, we can interpret aura as the quality derived from perceiving something, which involves intertwined stages of contemplation, admiration, reflection, and analysis. For instance, when we visit a museum and we find a piece of art of our predilection, we cannot avoid to be engaged with it. We take our time for observing, contemplating, measuring our level of admiration for the piece and the artist, or analyzing the technique or the historical context for that piece. At that moment we magnify the experience, and we take piece of art (and all the meaning around it) as unmeasurable and distant.

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887). The Art Institute of Chicago. Instagram: @omitzek
Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887). The Art Institute of Chicago. Instagram: @omitzek

Later Benjamin adds,

Now, to bring things closer to us, or rather to the masses, is just as passionate an inclination in our day as the overcoming of whatever is unique in every situation by means of its reproduction. Every day the need to possess the object in close-up in the form of a picture, or rather a coy, becomes more imperative. And the difference between the copy, which illustrated papers and newsreels keep in readiness, and the picture is unmistakable. […] The stripping bare of the object, the destruction of the aura, is the mark of a perception whose sense of the sameness of things has grown to the point where even the singular, the unique, is divested of its uniqueness –by means of its reproduction.

Here, Benjamin is pointing out that aura is threaten by reproduction. Because we become aware of the piece’s (or phenomenon’s) aura during the actual moment of perceiving, reproduction devalues the aspects of uniqueness and authenticity. By relating these ideas with HCI and design, I could not avoid thinking of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The extensive use of social networks implies a massive conversion of real-world phenomena into multimedia objects, facilitating their circulation all around the globe. Reproduction is not limited anymore for those who can access and control technology. In this sense,

  1. Have ICT and social networks killed  the notion of aura?
  2. Or are we just witnessing an evolution on Benjamin’s notion of aura?
  3. How aura and experience design are connected?

Although these questions may lack of basis, we could sketch some arguments by paying attention to our own experiences with any of the aforementioned social networks. For instance, I understood (in Benjamin’s words) that what I enjoy is breathing the aura of nature. As a designer, I like to listen what nature says to me about design principles. Nature’s aura facilitates my reflection about design. Although I understand that I can’t keep the state of mind caused by facing nature’s aura, I know that my reflection should be recorded, so I can remember and revisit it in the future. For doing this I use Instagram.

Beauty is in rhythm. Picture of one of the moments on which I try to ground design principles form nature. Instagram: @omitzek
“Beauty is in rhythm”. Picture of one of the moments on which I try to ground design principles form nature. Instagram: @omitzek

Once that moment is materialized into a digital picture, I have no control on who will watch it, share it, or even modify it. Further, what I contemplated, admired, reflected, and analyzed –in other words, experienced– might not be the same that my Instagram friends (or any potential owner of the picture) will experience. Notwithstanding, I wouldn’t argue that aura is being diminished as consequence. It just changes.

At the moment other users interact with Instagram (with the digital picture as one substrate of the use experience design) a variation on the original aura is present. Now, we talk about the combination of perceiving the digital photo and the experience of interacting with the system. Moreover, since the context of use can vary –type of users, geographical location, devices, and culture– even for a group of Instagram friends, the manifestations of the “new” aura are plenty different. Aura becomes an inherent element of the experience design. Certainly, the latter generates more questions than answers for experience design practitioners. So far, I glimpse matters of literacy, culture, aesthetics, and materiality. Further third-wave HCI research could contribute to a better understanding of the relation between Benjamin’s aura and experience design.