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May 29, 2008

Digital Divides

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There's been a lot of earnest, worried public agonizing about the "digital divide" -- rich people are wired, poor people aren't. It seems to me not worth worrying about overmuch, at least so far as the U.S. goes. Anyone who can afford a decent TV and cable subscription can also afford an iMac and a cable-Internet hookup. Those people for whom such a package is out of reach have much more important things to worry about than Web 2.0.

The digital divide in the U.S. that fascinates me more is another one completely. It's the one between people -- mostly young -- who expect to be surrounded by snapping cameras and switched-on videocams, and those (mostly older) for whom having a digicam or a videocam pointed at them is an event.

Kids go to parties expecting that tons of photos of the event will be available for viewing online the following day. If cameras aren't whirring and files aren't being uploaded, then the event itself simply hasn't occurred. (Remember that line in the 1991 Madonna documentary "Truth or Dare" when Warren Beatty marvels at the way Madonna has no life except when she's being photographed? By the way, what ever became of Alex Keshishian, the film's wunderkind director? He was celebrated by many in the business and the press as a new Orson Welles. But IMDB indicates that he has made only two films in the last 15 years.) Of course, these kids have had vidcams trained on them their whole lives. Dad was probably zooming in on the blessed and bloody birth-event itself.

Most older folks by contrast seem to resent the presence of cameras, and to dread the possibility that pix and vids of them will wind up in public. I recently whipped out a digicam at a party I attended with friends around my own age. In terms of the response I got and the behavior my digicamming elicited, it was like returning to the 1950s. People posed; they put on their camera faces. And then they let it go -- they wanted the camming moment to be over. When they learned that I was taking video too they were perplexed. Since there's no obvious beginning or end to video shooting, how to "put on" good camera behavior? And -- although we were all lookin' pretty good, if I say so m'self -- each and every one of my buds asked for reassurance that the pix and clips I'd taken wouldn't wind up online.

Kids: Of course you're gonna put it all out there. That's not just fun, it's mandatory. Old-timers: The proper ultimate destination for a snapshot is a shoebox.



posted by Michael at May 29, 2008


Economics is, at bottom, the cause of the different way that the young and old look at photography.

For those who grew up in the age of film photography, every potential photo was precious, and carried a price. You had to buy film and pay to have it processed. For this reason, people thought it best to precisely pose photos, and to render only images that were uplifting and flattering.

The digital age has banished the cost. You pay for the camera, and that's it. You post your pictures on the web. Thus, the impetus is to just keep snapping photos without regard to the outcome, and to sort out the ones you want once you've downloaded the whole batch to your computer.

I take a ton of photos on my Canon Digital Rebel. I'm thinking of upgrading to a Canon EOS 40D, because it has a faster shutter speed, bigger playback screen and higher resolution. (It's a little pricey at $1,400 or so.) I hate flash because flash distorts color. The one drawback of my Digital Rebel has been slow shutter speed in low light conditions.

To those reared pre-digital, and who have not made the transition, the digital mentality seems wasteful and a bit frightening. You don't have time to run to the bathroom and fix up your hair and makeup before the shutter snaps.

I love the digital style precisely because the technology encourages candid, rather than posed subjects. For people over a certain age, however, getting your picture taken will always be about putting on your Sunday best and saying "cheese."

You really should get people's consent to post their pictures. For the most past, I post my pictures on private websites. If I'm posting pictures to a public site, I ask people for their consent. This is the correct thing to do, and you might well find your ass, justifiably, being sued if you fail to ask for that consent.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on May 29, 2008 1:21 PM

Being surrounded by attention-whoring new-to-New-York-ers is distorting your perspective on this, not that there's nothing to it of course. When I first joined Facebook, I spent a lot of time looking at friends' pictures, pictures of their friends, etc. These are all college or high school kids.

There are really only 3 types of events where kids will have 60 pictures snapped, and aside from these (rarish) contexts, they don't have cameras pointed at them anymore than old folks do:

1) A small, informal party -- not a frat party, not being at a bar or club, but just having 5 - 15 close friends over to someone's house / dorm. Most of the pictures focus on playing beer pong and making goofy drunk faces.

2) Getting ready for a big party -- not the big party itself. Usually only girls snap these pictures. A group of 5 - 10 people are prettying themselves up before the mirror, or making goofy poses as they walk to the car / subway, or making goofy faces while in the car / subway. It's rare that they snap lots of pictures at the big event itself, unless it's huge like senior prom or something.

3) Just hangin' around. Guys will snap pictures of their frat buddies doing goofy stuff for the camera, while girls usually gather in front of a large bathroom mirror and strike cartoonish sexy poses.

So, I don't think they feel like Big Brother is recording them. The context is always small and informal, with people they're pretty close to. And again, a lot of it still is posing rather than being candid, although the poses are silly and goofy rather than serious "say cheese" poses.

The events themselves are pretty rare too, occurring maybe once every couple of weeks for a normal person, at most once a week for a party animal. You can see this by how often new albums a person uploads to their Facebook profile.

Posted by: agnostic on May 29, 2008 3:57 PM

Interesting points. I never much cared for being photographed in any medium once I reached the age of self-consciousness. (Oh, if I only were handsome ...) On the other hand, my father was a home movie buff and shot many reels of me and my sister when we were kids. So wall-to-wall images aren't necessarily a digital age thing.

What kinda interests me is the video presentations that I see more and more at memorial services for the deceased. It seem that if it ain't recorded, it wasn't real. Hmm. I should post a rant about this.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 29, 2008 4:01 PM

I disagree with Agnostic. Nowadays, just a night out at the bar is insanely documented. It's not uncommon to be having a conversation with 2 or 3 people, when literally in the middle of a sentence, one of the group will take a few steps back and snap a picture. Or even more common, the arm outstretched shot to get the photographer and 2 or 3 others in the shot.

I'm pretty sure the "arm outstretched" shot is a specifically digital age phenomena, as the framing can be checked immediately. I don't remember this type of snapshot in the film days, or at least it wasn't nearly as common.

Posted by: JV on May 29, 2008 4:26 PM

Warhol got it wrong - in the future everyone will be famous for 15 seconds.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on May 29, 2008 11:17 PM

Agree with JV and disagree with Agnostic; I don't think a group of girls is allowed into a bar without at least two cameras.

I tend to think that the aversion to having photos of yourself published came from a scarcity of published photos. Back before digital, people all looked at the same stuff; basically whatever was published. Post digital, there are just so many photos and videos out there that the only way someone will look at one of you is if they already know you or if you're doing something world entertaining (like laughing baby). In that world, being photographed / videoed is like walking around outside.

Posted by: Steve Johnson on May 30, 2008 6:20 PM

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