In Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise Jack and Murray, two academics, take a trip to see The Most Photographed Barn in America. On arriving there are indeed many people taking photographs. The academics stand to one side, Murray theorising about the meaning of this process while the Jack remains steadfastly silent.
I was reminded of this passage when I visited the Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Almost all of the visitors were capturing images of the building on a variety of digital devices. Why were they doing this when the web is already abundant with equivalent images? For me Murray’s postulating in White Noise has the answer:
“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
How many of those pictures of Gaudi’s cathedral will remain perfectly stored in the digital purgatory of a never accessed memory card? Not that this matters because the point is not the image itself but the act of capturing the image. The object gains authority in proportion to this act and as tourists we were happy to reinforce the building’s authenticity by taking part in the collective theatre of imaging. The principal factor being that the object of our capturing was easy to find because it resides in a fixed location which is relatively straightforward for a great number of people to visit.
The Social Web allows us to objectify ourselves in a similar manner. We can post aspects of our lives and identity online which remain in a fixed location and are relatively easy for a great number of people to visit. These representations take the form of Social Media profiles and postings, images, videos and comments. We create this presence for others to capture, the elegance of the Social Web being its ability to quantify the act of capturing. Each imaging is collated and displayed: hits, views, likes, retweets, comments, followers, friends. The higher the number the more authentic we become. We reside online and retain a presence beyond our live engagement. We have become the barn, available to be capture-constructed around the clock. The danger if we come to rely on defining ourselves in this manner…
“Nobody sees the barn anymore,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”