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January 14, 2014

Not so picture-perfect

Facebook changes the process by which we make and record memories.

I’ve heard legends of a war that others have fought, but I never thought I myself would have to face. But now, sitting in my bedroom on this blustery winter day, one question hangs heavy in the air as my fingers hover over the mouse pad: to deactivate, or not to deactivate, my Facebook account?

Maybe the thought had crossed my mind once or twice, but it was always in a whisper, easily brushed away by my excuses. Over time, however, as reason began to shed light on reality, my excuses started to crumble, and I was forced to accept the truth: that my relationship with Facebook was an unhealthy one, and that I had to end it.

The most notorious characteristic of Facebook is its uncanny ability to facilitate the frittering away of time, particularly in the face of an important assignment. But time management was not my concern when I was forced to face the aforementioned question. The question of deactivating my Facebook was more a final step in the evolution of my relationship to photographs.

When I was young, I absolutely loved old photographs. My answer to the oft-asked question, “If your house was on fire, what would you save first?” was undoubtedly family photo albums. I envisioned a small me, running to grab a giant suitcase, stuffing it full of photo albums, and running out to make it just in time. Each of these pictures held a moment in time. Most of them were candid, taken at vacations and old church plays without my looking or caring, so the memories felt pure and undefiled. They took me back to a moment when I wasn’t even thinking about a camera. It was just me and my surroundings, and nothing else.

As I got older and spent less time with my parents and more with my friends, I inevitably found myself burdened with the responsibility of taking pictures. Looking back at the pictures I took, my memory was not only of the moment, but also of the conscious decision to pick up my camera and take the picture. The act of photographically capturing the memory invaded the purity of the memory itself. The desire to document for the sake of the future takes me away from that moment. It is a pressure external to the moment, one that shifts my state of mind to a much broader scope of time than just the present.

And then social media enters, making a total of three players on the scene: the moment, the choice to document, and all of my “friends” or “followers.” Now my audience is not only a future, nostalgic me, but also all of my Facebook friends.

The idea of wanting to preserve or capture a moment through a picture is already complicated in itself. Social media takes this little decision to remove ourselves from the moment and adds a completely new layer of complications to it. What used to be just taking responsibility for our future selves to remember this moment or feeling mutates into a convoluted thought process about our entire social network and how we fit into it.

When I found myself spending a disproportionately large amount of time at a Christmas party trying to find the best lighting in front of the Christmas tree or making sure my hair looked good as I posed for the perfect picture with my gingerbread house, I finally realized how much the process of making memories has been corrupted by the need to document them. I was using social media to manipulate events and circumstances into an idea of how I wanted others to perceive me, instead of letting these moments become memories that gradually shape and build who I truly am. And I decided I’d so much rather use the time and energy I’d spent being controlled by this insecure sense of self-indulgence catching up with old friends or decorating another sugar cookie instead.

The act of documentation itself is a distraction from being fully engaged in the making of a memory, but the pressures of social media expand that distraction into a complete export of the mind from the present to a state overwhelmed by the idea of creating a certain self-image. Instead of social media being used as a means, subordinate to real life, of documenting and sharing memories, memories become a means to build and serve social media.

Facebook was turning my life into a PowerPoint presentation and all of my pictures into just a series of slides. I would never run into a burning house for a pile of photographs, but for the memory of my last day of kindergarten, or hugging my little brother for the first time, I think I would. Or maybe I wouldn’t, who knows? That’s some hypothetical future; this is the present. So for now, on this blustery winter day with excuses crumbling around me, my finger falls onto my mouse pad and I click. Deactivate now.

Grace Koh is a second-year in the college majoring in political science.

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