The Masks I Construct – Social Media Profile Pictures

reichstag ceiling – used as my cover photo on facebook

‘If you have a social media profile picture, write a paragraph describing the ‘you’ it portrays. What aspects of yourself remain hidden?”

IaP Coursebook p.13

I have several social media profile pictures, using different ones for different sites, representing a different avatar of mine.

‘I’m using “avatar” not in the Hindu sense of embodied deities, but in the modern sense of online creatures who stand for, or in front of, aspects of real life.’

Jackie Ashley, The Guardian, 17/02/17

hang on - is that what's the matter? ah! whirr-kerrr-chunkh! (inadvertant self-portrait # 352)This is the one I use (cut down slightly) on Flickr:

 I use this one on Twitter:

…and this, on Facebook:

And, of course, there’s the cut down version of  this, which I use here, with my Wordpress account: 

Individually they consist of a distortion, a cartoon, a mask and a reflection; They have in common the suggestion that you do not get a full picture of me from the particular social media stream you have stumbled across. Which is pretty much the way I want to play it!

On flickr you’ll get a long-running stream where you can see how I have developed as a photographer since 2005; it is fairly quiet now with the bulk of my photographic presence online is being channelled through this blog here.  On twitter, you’ll be able to find the one or two tweets I get around to making  year (I use it more to see what other people are saying than to make statement myself). And then there’s Facebook.

Facebook is more problematic. In physical reality I am deeply uncomfortable when i am put into social situations where different subsets of my friends (people from work in London, people from school, friends from Glasgow, say) are able to meet and see the contradictions between the various me’s that exist in their heads. Facebook creates an online version of some nightmare party where I can be viewed as the schoolboy, the colleague, the OCA student, the parent and on and on!

If anything, I probably should further splinter myself into several “me-s” for facebook, each with its own pictorial avatar. Each could offer a simplified version of myself (with its own mask for me to hide my complexity behind).  However doing this would require even more effort to maintain – at the moment, at least I have only one dropdown of notifications to work through when I go online. The concrete mask will stay; people who know me “properly” having met me, know what I look like already; people who know me from one online strand or another will be able to build up an idea of me from other things that I write or post to the site.

‘If you were to construct a more ‘accurate’ portrait of yourself, including various aspects of who you are, what would you choose to include? How might you visualise these things?

Try creating a new, more honest, self-portrait.’

 – IaP Coursebook p.13

To be perfectly frank, I resent the idea that I’m being dishonest in my use of a number of simplified pictures to stand in for my ‘true’ likeness on various social media platforms. (Insert smiley-faced emoji, or possibly the “sly wink” one, here.) However, I’m prepared to climb down from my huffy high-horse and give it a go. I’ll start here, I think, with a quote:

“Don’t try to capture a man in one synthetic portrait, but rather in lots of snapshots taken at different times and in different circumstances!”

– Alexander Rodchenko, 1928

The trouble with trying to combine many pictures into a single icon intended to act as a more nuanced portrait of me lies in the way the end result will be so small: flickr’s “buddy icons” are shown between 300×300 pixels and 48×48 pixels; 48 pixels is tiny; it is also pretty much standard for icons in most social media situations. Possibly something could be done with the banner that appears along top of pages associated with your profile…

This is the image I use as my cover photo on Flickr (it also reminds me of WW1 “dazzle ship” camouflage, an association which may have some relevance here). Like the series of reflections caught in the mirrored ceiling of the Reichstag, at the top of this post, it expands the idea of “me” captured in the icon into being the sort of person who notices things like this and then makes a picture from them. Perhaps I could go further and replace them with some sort of compilation made from many pictures, perhaps arranged “salon-style” on a virtual “wall”  like Elton John’s pictures that are being exhibited at Tate Modern at the moment (April 2017). But this would still not necessarily capture the full me. Nor would some dynamic banner that shows everything uploaded to the stream, although that would at least consist of everything that currently makes up that particular aspect of my online presence.

I’ll backtrack a bit: what exactly is an icon, anyway? I associate them with Orthodox cathedrals that I’ve visited in eastern Europe. St;listically, they tend towards the stylised and flat. They are used as focal points for worship and meditation. Cindy Egly writes on the Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America’s website:

“In the Orthodox Church an icon is a sacred image […] of a person, time and place that is more real than here and now […] an icon is theology in imagery, the icon expresses through color what the Gospel proclaims in words”

Words! Language! Of course! In Post-Structuralism – A Very Short Introduction, Catherine Belsey explores the way our position as a subject in society is constructed from language and the way access to sub-groups within that society is controlled by our ability to use words in discourse-specific ways. Perhaps I could do something with words. After all, as John Szarkowski says in the introduction to The Photographer’s Eye:

‘The heroic documentation of the American Civil War by the Brady group, and the incomparably larger photographic record of the Second World War, have this in common: neither explained, without extensive captioning, what was happening. The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, it was to make it real.’

And to make it real in a way that – like the Orthodox icon – would work for people who had low levels of literacy. I think I can count on a literate reaction to my various online postings; is there a way to turn my words (which I hope are generally more than “extensive captioning”) into pictures?  I have often used  to get an idea of what I might be saying in a business case or strategy paper that I’m putting together at work:

“Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.”

So here’s a possible, Facebook-style banner and icon, made on Wordle using seed text taken from my learning log- the banner – and – the square icon – my Flickr profile.

In conclusion, I should probably mention that the pictures I use have not changed for years. Ben Ambridge asked two questions in the Observer Quiz a month or so ago:

  1. How often do you change your profile picture on Facebook?
  2. Is your twitter profile picture a photograph or an avatar?.

My answers (“I have never changed my Facebook profile” and “Avatar”) both identify me as an extrovert apparently. When I generated my Myers Briggs profile for work I was firmly located at the introvert end of that spectrum. This surprised other people, but not me; I have always been aware that I’m quite good at erecting simplified versions of myself  between me and the world.

Very little of this process is conscious, although at times I’m aware of what I am doing. The degree of comfort I feel in any given social (or work for that matter) situation generally maps directly onto how much of myself I am suppressing at that time and in that place. I am being reasonably honest here I think, so to finish, here is a second wordle cloud which uses the post you are reading as its seed:

Ultimately though, I don’t think it gives a particularly clear idea of who I am, although possibly it does give a sense of what’s pinging about in my head as I sit here today, typing. For the time-being though I think I’ll stick with my various masks…




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