Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"You Looked Better Online"

Summer party
A lot of my friends have met someone online and discovered that they were different in real life than they presented themself on Facebook or other social-networking sites. While I have never met someone first online, I find it strange not that people look better in their online pictures, but that we expect a person's pictures to accurately represent them in real life.

Before digital cameras and cell phones, we took photos more sparingly.  Unless you had a newborn baby, were traveling the world, or loved photography, most of the events in your photos - vacations, parties, graduations - covered a very small portion of your life. We all know this, and yet when we look at someone else’s profile, we assume that the pictures we see represent everything. It never occurs to us that maybe they’re only smiling because they’re on a beach vacation, that the picture has nothing to do with their everyday life.

No matter what you're doing, or how much fun you're having, the main factors that will determine how you look online are:
1. Whether or not you own a digital camera or camera phone.
2. Whether or not you like to take a lot of pictures.
3. Whether or not you hang out with anyone who takes a lot of pictures.

Not everyone has a digital camera, so posting photos online may not be an option.  Even if you have a camera, not everyone likes to take pictures of everything. Having a camera phone allows you to take casual pictures, such as your lunch, when you wouldn't normally have a camera with you. It's not really about who ate a better lunch - it's about who has the gadgets.

If you don't take pictures of every single thing you do, the pictures that do get posted may not accurately represent you.  On Facebook, for example, your friends can upload pictures of you and tag you, so that the photos show up on your profile even though you didn't take them yourself.  This can create a skewed version of your life depending on which events your picture-taking friends attended. Example: I always looked happy in my Facebook pictures even when I wasn't having any fun in real life. The only time I usually take pictures is when I'm on vacation, and my friend who takes the most pictures didn't go to college with me.  My Facebook pictures consisted mostly of vacation pictures and pictures of fun times that I shared with this friend. The reason I looked happier was simple: almost all of my photos were taken during school vacations.

Even if you are having fun in real life, some events just lend themselves to more photo-snapping than others. You can take as many pictures as you want during sports games, but none during plays and performances.  People usually take more pictures at drinking parties than at any other kind.  And while social events are captured, no one takes pictures of themselves having fun alone.

Finally, many of us forget that no one takes pictures at funerals. Even if people are working or studying in the picture, everyone is usually in a good mood. Lots of people write that they're feeling bad online, but very few will take a picture that shows how they feel. With no makeup, no touch-ups, and no fancy camera angles, we all look better on online, whether we want to or not. 

We know these things, yet it’s easy to start comparing ourselves to others who appear happier just because they have more pictures.  I once wrote a quiz to see how committed a person was to theatre, and asked a question about whether the person had a display of their show memorabilia.  After discussing this with my mom, we agreed that the answer to that question has less to do with a person's commitment to theatre and more to do with whether they like to keep their special things on display.  I think the same is true when it comes to photos - having a lot of fun photos posted online has less to do with how happy someone is and more to do with whether that person has a camera and likes to post pictures.

**Edit: This post really only refers to sites like Facebook and Myspace. The same issues don't apply on other types of sites and forums.

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