It’s a year since  when Seth Godin, the guru of permission marketing, a highly popular theory theory that became very popular during the first outburst of speculations on the dot-com,  published his ten golden rules on how to chose the right profile picture to use on social networks accounts. By following these ten simple tips on how to show one’s inner self through one single image, it is allegedly possible not only to achieve the aimed economic results, but also to become quite popular.

It would be too simple to ironize by analyzing each of these expedients singularly, they seem to be nothing but basic common sense, if we relate them to a commercial context in which presenting the right image of oneself secures success in selling anything. Nevertheless, such sarcastic glance at cultural and economic phenomena should be seen as the heritage of a self-referential cultural elite, which doesn’t bother to consider different perspectives or to reason on  the images used by different users to represent themselves.

Luckily, it is also possible since several years to confront with the work of researchers specifically dealing with cultural studies, analyzing those mass-phenomena that are often unnoticed. Professor Jeremy Sarachan holds the chair of communication and journalism at St. John Fisher College, he has been spending the past few years analyzing one of the nowadays most popular social networks – Facebook -, on which I already had the occasion to write about on Digimag.

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Probably, the most interesting side of the American professor’s research, consists in the attention he didn’t miss to put in analyzing users’ profile pictures, splitting them in several macro-groups, that by obviously forcing the categorization sometimes, for example not taking graphic icons and ad-images as logos, posters etc.. into account.

Surfing through account pages where users show the clear intention of representing themselves through pictures, we might find pictures made by professional photographers or amateurs, webcam shots, images testifying a relationship – like pictures with friends or boy/girlfriends – pictures that recall a pleasant holiday or situation, details of a boy or a room, images of the past (of childhood, often), digital manipulations and ironic editing of images from film posters to imaginary characters, all that in professional or amateur “art galleries”. However, all those options should not be considered separately. In fact, it is quite likely that a single user might employ many, if not all of them during the lifetime of his or her account.

The underlying psychological reasons are not that simple to scrutinize and would need much more time to be explained. Still, if one attempts to deepen the subject regarding the characteristics of those platforms, it is downright clear that they respond to specific intentions and/or functionalities. Images are more straightforward and give the idea of a quicker way of communicating. Also, an image might often be used like a status update, though more direct and expressing that may be difficult to be syntetized in a few words. In his attempt of explaining this phenomenon, Sarachan refers to Walter Benjamin‘s “technologic unconscious”, namely the capacity of a picture to somehow fix and show us what our subconscious records without us noticing it.

At this stage it is useful to go one step back and try to go deeper into two rather complicated elements of our speech. The first thing to clarify is what exactly are digital and analog photographs, second, what is a portrait and what a self portrait in terms of self-representation, of showing the self.

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In his Pour use philosophy de la photography (For a philosophy of photography), Vilém Flusser asserts that photographic or technical images flatly differ from traditional images such as paintings and drawings. The former are third-level abstractions, images created by devices that were themselves created on the basis of scientific texts, thus on concepts. Their apparently non-symbolic characteristics may give the impression of some kind of window opened on reality but such objectivity is totally delusive. Photographs “inform” the world, namely they tend to give the world a form, which is conceptual and tends towards characteristics belonging to the camera itself. Professional or amateur photographers do nothing but making use of devices’ potential, which was previously programmed following defined and intentional preset concepts.

We could compare that activity with the one of a chess player enjoying trying his moves in a game that has pre-defined rules. Likewise, photographers play with the external settings of devices, black boxes of which internal functioning they have no idea about. Flusser calls them executives, playing a game they cannot possibly know or control. They can have vast knowledge of the rules of functioning and combine them in different ways, but they cannot change or set them. The playfulness and high potentials these devices give, pull users towards a spasmodic utilization, a behavior we can also observe in social networks.

This is also because the characteristic of the technical image is not its matter, its hardware, the object, but instead its immaterial part, the software, the information inside, mainly based on the potential of the program that originates it. Hence, technical images do not represent the world but instead they encode a state of things in patterns following preset rules. The imperative for these informations to circulate testifies the existence of “Postindustrial imperialism”, as the German philosopher named it.

Production nowadays is no longer oriented towards the object but rather to its symbolic value. Markets and firms implemented this conceptual turnover very quickly, drawing advantage by trading informations. It is worth saying that the intentions at the roots of these photo images’ “informant” programs is certainly not to modify the world, but to transform its sense on the basis of a conceptual model which is difficult to be isolated since it is part of a wide cultural aspect that is not exhausted in the intentions of the photographer and of is cultural context, nor in the intention of his programmer or the one of the firms producing the device. This conceptual model deepens its roots in the text as writing and capability of conceptual abstraction, and it’s easier and more direct to be observed in digital images. Those are the visual elaboration of strings of 0 and 1, processed by the computer box.

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 Katherine Hayles develops this idea in the chapter “Speech, writing, code” of her book My Mother Was a Computer, in which she investigates orality, written language and code, considering them as three coexisting and interacting dimensions, rather than consequential phases of cultural evolution. Elements as the variations of the voltage flux and the bit flux find their significance in a higher programming language. The interlocking of different languages ends up in the interface. The interdependence between text and technical image is expressed at the interface level, especially in social networks, in a way that is evident even for the average user. There, in fact, you see photographic images replacing status updates or are bond to other textual aspects , like tags, comments and chat.

The hint Flusser gives for operating a reworking is to look at those artists and photographers who try to underline the textual aspect of photographic images and fight against the automatization of functioning in these devices that tend to exclude the human.

For this reason, The rules of the game have changed (Le regole del gioco sono cambiate), a recent work by young photographer Simona Barbagallo, is interesting. This young italian artist spent two years studying people’s profile pictures on Meetic,  a social network where people meet with the aim of starting relationships. The platform states this aim since the beginning, and the users’ pictures are thought and placed to look attractive for potential partners.

In her work the artist started by relating the pictures to chats and descriptions of the images given by the users. She then proceeded by  using other tools to take pictures of those users, such as the webcam. It was basically a process of intermediation, as Heyles called it, of the image going from the profile picture to the text, from the webcam to the picture taken by the photographer during the live-encounters. This work did not aim to unveil any hidden authenticity in the portrayed subjects, but rather to underline the structural characteristics of the chosen medium in its textual and cultural aspects.

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 On the top of that, the specifics of that social network allowed Barbagallo to scrutinize a secon aspect  concerning profile pictures, that being photographic portrait and self-portrait. The core element of the platform on which users’ activity is based, is to present oneself through details that give a representation of the whole self. These specific, we could call them performative, features, suggest that their underlying cause might be a principle of sexual identity organization.  Barbagallo used irony to put in evidence  how some procedures of socially representing sexuality, male sexuality in particular, are mediated by the technical image.

The authoress asked to the different subjects to stike poses that would represent them, photographing them by using different means and in the live encounters especially, by involving the body. Such process of face others thigh symbolic elements is evident in theatre performances. Especially considering to main aspects: the boundaries of the stage and all that is said during the play, one can notice ow the property of performing is not a prerogative of gestures, but of language too, seeing it as the capacity of showing oneself through words. By enacting this, one states his/her very presence and ability to communicate.

German philosopher Friedrich Kittker remarked a correlation between performative and computer language. In his view, code is comparable to a set of interconnected performative statements. Thus, code turns into a metaphor of the ability to speak reaching an elaboration in which any relation with the body is lost and the software becomes a reproduction of the faculty of speech seen as action, but empty and deceitfully neutral.

That feature can also be detected in 2.0 web platforms. The structure of these network is not just the expression of political and social decisions; we can remark, in fact, how the code can isolate the pure potential of stating and the one of acting. That characteristic is probably easier to be recognized on another web platform which became very popular during this past year, that is Chatroulette. There, users are brought towards a way of representing themselves, very similar to theatrical acting, the scene space defined by the webcam angle.

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 In her first installation called Strangers, Simona Barbagallo actually made use of that specific platform.the work consists of fifteen covered with photo-portraits of Chatroulette users. Portraits that actually are screenshots stolen within the few seconds between the transition from chat to chat. In the middle  we see a video of one the platform’s most common, although most extreme performances, that is a man masturbating. Equally extreme was the performance chosen by artists for 2010 No Fun project. They decided to enact a suicide on Chat Roulette. It is possible to see people’s reactions to that in the videos documenting the performance.

However, might the action be deadly or sexual, it will still be automatically recorded and streamed without needing to obey to any human intention, which, by its side, basically only explores the potentials of a pre-programmed device. Similarly, both artists sought for a brake within these continuous fluxes of data. The former did it by using the click of the camera, a stage one step before the total automatization of a system giving to its users infinite possibilities of self-representation, but at the same time leads to bring up the most obvious ones. The latter, instead, tried to cause a media-shock in order to arise doubts in the users about reality and fiction, world and technologic mediation.

So far, what we could notice is that either considering technical images or performative actions filmed by a webcam, the undiscussed leader of the contexts is and remains the text, the code, the information. The so-called information society is not only the most recent stage of capitalism, but a cultural attitude that has very distant roots. Again, according to Vilém Flusser, men started from the invention of writing to develop a process of abstraction of the world. Machines are an outcome of such abstraction. They simulate mental processes, but still following a Cartesian structure; accordingly, to each element of thought, there is a corresponding point in the world.

We can say, by simplifying the matter, that with the publication of A Mathematical Theory of Communication by Claude Shannon, the scientific basis were set for considering information as a core element within a formal system of data-exchange through a channel that defines the information form and rules. The system enhances its features with time; this also thank to the obstacles put by its users, but the final goal for a system such structured is total automation. The impression is that there is always something that escapes the simplification of this conceptual model, that human variability is impossible to be plainly expressed through that.

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 The attempt of a political critique to define the intentions  of programming up to its very system of production, would blind such critique when facing a wider cultural attitude. It’s not the classic matter of alienation that we are dealign with, but rather with one concerning human freedom in a completely new context in which neo-capitalism thrives. A radical critique should start from a cultural revolution that would question and displace the wester-culture though, which for centuries has been the base of our cosmological idea.

It is fundamental to detect, as Flusser states in the end: ” In the environment of automated, programmed and programming machines, there is space for human freedom, for showing eventually how it is still possible to create an area of freedom […] This kind of philosophy is necessary, since it is the only kind of revolution we are still allowed to enact.”