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LikeMe: A Study of How the Digital Mediates Individual-Societal Neuroses

LikeMe: A Study of How the Digital Mediates Individual-Societal Neuroses

The LikeMe device is a bra that contains state of the art sensors that track how the outside world responds to your appearance – the device was conceived as a response to growing interest in wearable tech devices that track individuals’ bodily movements and responses to the outside world.  In creating LikeMe, I hoped to problematize the notion of a quantified self, and use a series of tracking features focused instead on what goes on around us to demonstrate how existing in the public sphere is a mediated relationship between individuals and society at large.

Like most wearable technology, the device tracks the individual wearer, making note of one’s location via GPS and checking the local weather in order to provide suggestions or reminders (e.g. wear an anorak because of light rain later today).  With wireless facial expression recognition technology and audio receptors, the device picks up on the public’s reactions and facial expressions when they see your outfits, and calibrates emotional vocal inflections when you receive comments or compliments on what you are wearing.  LikeMe records these facial expressions and grades them on a scale of 1-10 (10 being an extremely positive reaction to the wearer’s chosen look) in order to create a personal StylePoints score.  This score is entered into LikeMe’s virtual networked database, so users can track their scoring progress in relation to other users around the globe.

The LikeMe device has been set up as a two-part system – the first part, the bra, is only fully functional if users purchase a subscription plan for LikeMe 365 – the subscription provides full access to LikeMe’s stats tracking and global network.  This move on my part was prompted by a trend I have become increasingly annoyed by, which is the displacement of essential computer software (e.g. Photoshop, Microsoft Office) onto the cloud, where users must now pay a yearly fee to maintain access instead of buying the rights (or instead of buying a physical CD loaded with the software) to install software on a single computer.

LikeMe’s primary features are the following:

1) Selfie Timer (providing users with selfie alerts – the alerts can be calibrated to operate on an hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly basis, reminding users to take selfies and document their evolving style; additionally, LikeMe gently encourages users to take selfies when their outfits are garnering positive responses from the people around them.)

2 )GPS Capabilities (the GPS feature aids with sensing the weather and reminding users to wear stylish raincoats for downpours, and waterproof mascara for beach days – the feature also senses when people within a 1 mile radius of the user are wearing the same outfit as them, and gives them the opportunity to plan their route accordingly, thereby avoiding awkward run-ins.)

3) Reaction Tracker (The reaction tracker analyzes facial expressions of individuals who are around the user and observing their outfit, as well as vocal cues (e.g. compliments, comments about a user’s outfit – these social interactions are converted via advanced algorithms into StylePoints on a scale of 1-10 – these points are then added to the user’s overall score, boosting their stats on the LikeMe Leaderboard.)

4) Sartorial Comfort Optimization (LikeMe is concerned with marrying fashion and comfort insofar as the device is ultimately concerned about making sure you don’t embarrass yourself in public – the device synchs with your phone’s calendar and reacts to ‘buzzwords’ (e.g. beach day, pool, ski vacation, etc.) to make sure you pack and wear clothing and accessories that make you look your best in potentially precarious or otherwise physically uncomfortable situations.)

5) Custom Notification Settings (LikeMe is a device that functions optimally when the user is in public spaces and maintaining an active social life – wearing LikeMe while home alone negates its ultimate purpose of gamifying style in a public context.  That being said, the types of alerts the user receives while in public can be minimized and calibrated so that the user isn’t receiving an excessive amount of alerts in high-traffic areas (e.g. concerts, large parties) – this is also a move that was prompted by my increased frustration and annoyance with the superfluous alerts about non-events and minutiae I have been recently receiving from Facebook.)

If a user’s outfits are consistently performing well based on how others are reacting to your looks, they will have the option to partake in LikeMe’s affiliate program, which allows them to work with sponsors and test out unreleased clothing and accessories that earn the user extra StylePoints based on the efficacy of their sartorial combinations and the number of trackable positive feedback interactions (facial expressions, verbal compliments, etc.) the wearer has with the public.

Project Justification:

I wanted to use this project to question the notion of authenticity in relation to individual identities and one’s own self-presentation to the outside world.  How we dress is inherently connected to societal values and does not exist in a vacuum, and the act of dressing oneself is never entirely utilitarian, always offering a way to mediate one’s existence in the public sphere.  Fashion in particular has a tendency to exaggerate the importance of aesthetic authenticity and ‘realness’ in spite of being a medium that is completely constructed and intertwined with external codes of behavior.  By questioning the relationship with a multitasking sensor, I hoped to make these relations more visible and question their relationship to neoliberal capitalism and the commodification of the self.

The title of the Project is a play on the meaning of the words ‘Like Me,’ which can imply the phrase ‘I want you to like me’ or conversely, ‘Just like me’.  In having these dual associations with these two phrases, the title encapsulates the tendency to simultaneously crave individuality and group belonging.

The project addresses readings and discussions on self-presentation and the influx of portable imagery into society.  The gamifying premise of LikeMe’s functionality demonstrates how “optical and chemical devices are set to work [in photography] to organize experience and desire and produce a new reality” (John Tagg “The Burden of Representation” p.2).  With the advent of selfie culture, lived reality is becoming increasingly fragmented, as digital selves and profiles become a more poignant, individually customizable way to express identity than simply existing and interacting in public.  I envisioned the audience for my fictional product to be someone young who enjoys experimenting with style, is up to date on all the latest trends from Urban Outfitters, and has a very active social life that creates a sense of extreme anxiety (having enough different, cool outfits to wear to social functions so that they don’t have outfit repeats in their profile pictures on social media – the sort of person who becomes incredibly anxious about preparing for numerous social events, but is also very anxious when they have to miss out on social events or don’t get invited somewhere…so someone for whom ‘FOMO’ [fear of missing out] is a very real concern and top priority).

Accessibility to digital image creation and dissemination infrastructures reinforces socially created insecurities more so than it actually disrupts the larger media system, or how we interact with one another.  LikeMe exacerbates and feed on the impulse to share images of ourselves in digital networks in order to reinforce that we exist in the real, physical world within a real space and place.  With the selfie tracker feature, I hoped to emphasize how “[the photograph] exercise[s] a new kind of power on the social body, generating new kinds of knowledge and newly refined means of social control.” (John Tagg “The Burden of Representation” p.59).  The advent of democratized photographic processes as a means of social control demonstrates Sontag’s notion that ‘photography is power’ to the utmost extent.  But in this sense, the name ‘selfie’ itself is somewhat deceptive – even though the term implies the function (pictures taken of the self, by the self; or as Jill Walker Rettberg states, “creating and sharing a selfie or a stream of selfies is a form of self-reflection and self- creation”) and seems to be the apex of visual agency and self-control, their existence within social networks and social society demonstrates how they are really second to the power of mass consensus and mass taste (as demonstrated by fashion blogs and Instagram accounts, which were supposed to democratize media, and which have to an extent – except that what constitutes a ‘popular image’ is subject to the same guidelines and trends as corporate mass media practices).

Finally, LikeMe also addresses the advent of a ‘quantified self’, a self that is turbocharged and performs better than ever previously imagined.  The idea of LikeMe’s ability to provide stats about how people react to your external appearance pushes the notion that “occupation often implies endless mediation” to the test, as the stats provided reveal how even though technology tells us more than we could ever imagine wanting to know about us and our surroundings, its mechanism is constrained by the hardware and what is can actually measure – the measurements often times leave out the crucial, contextual information about what is actually going on at any given moment, and we are simply fed a rendition of what the apparatus thinks is going on (Hito Steyerl “The Wretched of the Screen” p.104).

Project Structure:

I used Tictail as the e-commerce platform to build my site.  While I had some previous experience with basic HTML and CSS, it took a bit of time to figure out how to add pages to my site and customize the layout to meet the needs of the project.  In terms of tangible skills, I definitely feel more comfortable manipulating and customizing code than I did in the past, and I also feel like I have a better grasp on how different pieces of code come together to create a full site with multiple, linked pages, and I anticipate spending time experimenting further with coding and web design as a result of this endeavor.

To create the site’s graphics, I used a combination of found and self-made imagery that was spliced together with Canva (an amazing custom graphics site!) and Photoshop.  If I had to do this project again in the future, I might try starting with a web platform I knew more about (likely Tumblr) so that I could play around more with customization options for the site layout – that being said, working with the new platform pushed my code skills in a more meaningful way.  For others constructing projects involving creating a website or an e-commerce site, I would suggest giving yourself enough time to play around with different platforms before beginning to set up the structure for your work.

Intertexts & Project Inspirations:

Adam Harvey’s ‘Stealth Wear’ project was a primary source of inspiration, and served as a jumping off point for this undertaking.  While Harvey’s clothing is developed in order to camouflage and conceal the body, thereby mitigating the public sphere relationship between drones and targeted individuals, LikeMe was conversely designed to reveal the body, if not in a corporeal, physical sense, then in a manner that illustrates how social conceptions of what constitutes an ideal body are always influenced by the outside world.

Other examples of wearable tech ‘activity trackers’ that are not speculative design also served as inspiration – primarily FitBit, Lumo, and Apple Watch.  I also thought quite a bit about Facebook and Bogost’s rhetoric of failure, which states that the player of most contemporary games, or the users of most apps and new technologies, can never really win the game entirely or beat the system (e.g. how Facebook’s feed is never-ending as you scroll).  I was also interested in the notion of digital traces, or residue/detritus that we create and leave behind as we interact with digital infrastructures, be it something explicit, like a selfie posted to social media that becomes immortalized in Facebook’s timeline feature, or something less overt, like digitally targeted ads that calibrate invisibly based on the types of websites we frequent.

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