September 9, 2014

WEISMAN | Pics or It Didn’t Happen

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“Pics or it didn’t happen.” While many people joke about this phrase or say it ironically, many people feel a twinge of fright when they leave a social event unphotographed, or agonize over what their Facebook or Instagram photos say about them. If a photo from something doesn’t get posted online, how will other people know you were there? In that same vein, if someone isn’t in pictures for a long time, do they even have a life?

This popular phrase is certainly true to some extent. In this day and age, people take pictures of anything and everything they are doing, from major life events to mundane, everyday activities. We all know that social media and technology are becoming more and more prevalent in our social lives and interactions everyday, which some argue is for the better and some for the worse (including many Cornell Communication professors!). While we could debate this until I graduate — though I certainly fall under the “media makes society better if we use it correctly” category — what matters is what this phrase means for us right now, and how it actually affects our lives.

In terms of college students, it generally means that some part of our social lives are defined by what we put — or what we don’t put — online. The other day, I heard a freshman say that her home friends were worried she wasn’t having fun in college, since she has barely been in any pictures on Facebook or Instagram. I am sure there is a difference between whether the girl has actually been having fun at Cornell and what it looked like from her Facebook page, but her friend equated them, as many of us do these days.

Now, instead of being concerned with how we look when people see us in person, we feel the need to be cognizant of how we appear online as well, especially since many of us stay in touch with (read: show off to) our friends from home through social media. This need — which is the reason for phrases such as “pics or it didn’t happen” — gives way to all sorts of new problems. While I don’t think that the problems of visibility outweigh the positives it can have (as I usually say, that’s a story for another column), I do think the potential issues can be extraordinarily problematic.

Some of the most important issues to consider and think about in our everyday lives are judgment, privacy and personal space. On one hand, we obsess over documenting our lives, our relationships with other people and how others will perceive them. On the other, we obsess over judging others: their photos, their relationships and their lives. We have no problem picking apart people’s lives based on the photos we see online, and yet we know our own lives are much more than they appear to the casual — or not so casual — Internet stalker.

How is it fair that the freshman girl assumes her home friend can’t possibly be studying if she has tons of photos of her going out, and yet feels judged when her friend assumes she isn’t having fun?

A great example of this current phenomenon is the private photos of celebrities that leaked online last week. Naked — and clearly very personal — pictures of stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton blew up all over the Internet, without the consent of any of the women involved. Stealing (because yes, it was confirmed that these women were hacked via their iCloud accounts) and distributing these personal photos was a huge invasion of their privacy and serves to show that personal curiosity and judgment can outweigh morals and decency.

When this first happened, I’ll admit, I was curious. I wanted to see if it was really them and what their bodies looked like (and of course, compare them to my own, because what media-brainwashed 20-something woman doesn’t do that?). When I really thought about it, I realized how horrible it was for me to look at those photos; it was disrespectful and a complete breach of their personal space.

Before you say, “They shouldn’t have taken those photos if they didn’t want to put them online,” think about what you are implying. Are celebrities not allowed to take personal photos? Sure, they should protect what they want protected, but didn’t they do that? They were hacked. As Lena Dunham put it excellently in a tweet, “The ‘don’t take naked pics if you don’t want them online’ argument is the ‘she was wearing a short skirt’ of the web. Ugh.”

While this example is extreme, it is also telling of the culture of our society today: that “scandalous” (though I prefer the term “stolen”) photos of people are a spectacle — there might even be an exhibit displaying these recent ones — and that privacy is obsolete.

People are allowed to have lives outside of Facebook and Instagram, even if they (gasp!) do not provide photographic evidence. I certainly do not believe I am an expert, nor do I think I have all of the answers, but I do think there needs to be a balance between how much importance we place on our online personas versus our actual ones, and how much we judge others for them. Privacy is important for celebrities and college students alike, and placing curiosity and judgment over our morals only perpetuates this problem.

That said, maybe we should change the phrase to “pics or maybe it still happened, not really our business though…” — but it’s definitely not as catchy.

And finally, make sure to share my column on your respective social media sites, since “likes or no one read it,” am I right?

Samantha Weisman is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She may be reached at [email protected]. A Weisman Once Said appears alternate Wednesdays this sem­ester.