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Review of The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media

Book cover for The Social Photo

Social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson describes his new book as “the culmination of [his] thinking about the rise of social photography, written from within and outside academia, within and outside industry” (113). The latter half of this description, taken from the last pages of his new book The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media, outlines Jurgenson’s ideal vantage point for analyzing the titular subject of this text. The “social photo” is the term Jurgenson uses to describe “the overwhelming bulk of photographs being made today [...] made ubiquitous by networked, digital sharing” (8). As a quick point of clarification, I should note that as a reviewer of this text, I’m quite the neophyte on the subject, knowing little to nothing about photography, but having a great deal of interest in social media. From this position, I can, however, note that Jurgenson’s text is an extremely helpful means of introducing the reader to the history, contexts, and discursive frameworks that surround contemporary uses of photography and the debates in which it’s immersed.

The Social Photo is broken up into two main sections: the first places the contemporary photo and the rise of social media photography apps like Hipstamatic, Instagram and Snapchat into a longer history of photographic technologies, stretching back to the mid 1800s; the second half of the text expands and critiques the discursive frameworks that surround the social photo and the role it plays in contemporary society, touching on issues of authenticity and privacy, among others. These two sections are then followed by a brief coda that illustrates how the ideas that Jurgenson has discussed might extend or translate into thinking about video technologies.

In the first section of the text, titled “Documentary Vision,”Jurgenson considers how the early trend of faux-vintage photo filters made popular through apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic were defined by an aesthetic of nostalgia. The “digital skeuomorphisms” (graininess, fading, and scratching) that were once popular on these apps mediated the present with an “authentic” past. But this early trend in the social photo was later replaced by the ephemerality of apps like Snapchat, which also marked a continuation of photography’s past. Building off of this framework, Jurgenson observes that the way we look to document life shapes every aspect of our lived experience. This was true of photography when it first emerged, and it remains true now. Jurgenson also notes a wider shift, however, in understanding what is being documented. Whereas the object of a photograph was once the most important element of photography, the experience (of taking a picture and sharing it) has superseded it. In the context of the social photo—which accounts for a nearly ubiquitous, nearly continuous, stream of photos—the camera helps us to view the experience itself as profound: “It’s not just the importance of the moment that drives us to the shutter button; the act of pulling out the camera itself imparts significance on the moment” (39).

In the second section of The Social Photo, titled “Real Life,” Jurgenson brings a history of photography criticism alongside contemporary media theory, and, in doing so, illustrates the role that the social photo plays in understanding the self and the world around us. He points, for example, to sociologist Charles Horton Cooley to help the reader understand the role that selfies play in identity formation. Likening what Cooley, over a century ago, referred to as the “looking-glass self” to the present-day selfie, Jurgenson unpacks how an understanding of these terms illustrates how “we come to know ourselves as selves precisely by taking on a third-person perspective on ourselves” (57). The conversations (and more notably, the prescribed digital etiquette) that results from the selfie trend mark a thin line between self-expression and self-policing. In expanding this concept, Jurgenson expertly incorporates and weaves together the work of theorists as diverse as Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault.

In this way, Jurgenson repeatedly approaches the question of what is authentic, what is real, in the social photo from a number of perspectives, before concluding that this very ability to approach a subject from multiple angles illustrates the way in which the social photo provides more “proof” than ever before in to understanding what is real (99). However, he is also quick to address the limits of this line of thinking—that more photos means more certainty—pointing to the inaccuracies of believing that Big Data could provide us with a definitive or objective truth. In applying older critiques of positivism to this mistaken conclusion, Jurgenson draws on a number of feminist theorists including Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding. Building on this claim, he cites Kate Crawford, Kate Miltner, and Mary Gray, concluding that Big Data, which has often been proposed as an end to theory, is—in fact—yet another theoretical offering: “It’s merely a theory that operates by failing to understand itself as one” (110). This is just one of the ways in which Jurgenson makes room for social media theory and digital literacy approaches without claiming any individual method as prescriptive or definitive.

I found that this book was immensely helpful in understanding the role that the social photo plays in the larger context of social media. Placed in conversation with such media scholars as Sherry Turkle and danah boyd, this text repeatedly widens the scope of current conversations surrounding social media theory. My only critique (which I hesitate to even mention as, I’ll be the first to admit, it’s rather puerile) is that the book offers no photos. I was initially surprised that a book on photography would only include text, with no visuals to illustrate the trends and images being discussed. I even questioned whether or not this seeming paradox would work. Obviously, I was wrong, as this book accomplishes what it sets out to do, placing the social photo into a history of photography and a variety of social media discourses, and probably even succeeds to a greater extent because of its exclusion of images, reducing the limitations that “examples” might produce. Jurgenson clearly knows what he’s doing, and I ultimately would recommend The Social Photo to anyone interested in photography, social media, or the digital humanities.

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