“Pics or it Didn’t Happen:” Archive Fever’s Assault on the Present

Of Snapchat’s 300 million users, nearly two-thirds — 191 million — use the app daily. According to recent data, the app’s users under the age of 25 average 40 mins of daily use, more than Instagram’s latest stat for same demographic. Every day, over 400 million Snapchat stories are posted and 10 billion videos are viewed; another 60 million images are uploaded to Instagram daily by its 400 million active users, with the company itself contributing another 50 million a day through their ads. That is A LOT of visual data!

In my own ethnographic research with college freshman, students reveal a norm that has emerged in which there is a social pressure to maintain a coherent narrative of identity through social media posts in day-to-day life, typically requiring one to take and post frequent or near-constant pictures. To not participate in this sharing, for many, would be to actively choose to write oneself out of social relevance. The more I investigated, the more I’ve begun to consider the larger sociocultural consequences of our proclivity for the visual.

I. ‘Archive Fever’ + killing memory in the digital age

In addition to from providing a personal archive to reflect on our lives and history, photos also offer a means of extending ourselves through our digital possessions. With the ubiquity of digital photography, extending oneself through photo-sharing has resulted in a kind of prosthetic memory where information is outsourced and stored externally beyond our organic (human) memory. As a result, we may be witnessing a “value shift in photography,” from a “stand-alone individual aesthetic” to a “collaborative and social aesthetic” thanks to services like Facebook and Instagram as Peter Neubauer, owner of a Swedish database company, suggests. Through this process, photos are becoming “less markers of memories than they are web-browser bookmarks for our lives” wherein we move through life, snapping moments as we go just as we scroll through and bookmark webpages with the intention and possibility of return (but do we, actually?)

With ever-increasing storage capacities and means of sharing online, are we not, then, becoming hoarders of moments rather than experiencing them as they occur, for what they are? Or, as Belinda Barnet writes in extending Derrida’s (1996) notion of archive fever, does our ability to capture memories with technology make us “at once pack rat and amnesiac…” “never to rest from searching for information ‘right when it slips away’ — to archive obsessively, and in the fevered consciousness to witness the death of memory.” This ‘archive fever’ in a certain sense can be re-articulated by today’s standards as “pics or it didn’t happen” — a common moniker emerging from internet culture to reference an event that is unverifiable or suspect without photographic evidence. More recently, the meaning has been adopted and applied more broadly as a sarcastic aphorism on social media, signifying that experiences are not as valid if they aren’t shared online.

During the 8-hour digital detox students undergo in my research, we take a trip to the beach. In a post-detox interview with one of these students, she describes a “surreal” experience of returning to her dorm after the trip. Scrolling through her phone’s camera roll, she says she was momentarily confused when she didn’t see any pictures from the beach. She laughs, explaining “I was like wait, did that [beach trip] even happen?”

With these students, and indeed for many of us, there is a precedent placed on the visual. (There is a reason Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire Instagram, after all).
AP Photo/Markus Schreiber As Scott Reyburn writes in a New York Times essay about the famous painting, much of the crowd is there merely to take pictures of it, as this is the way the digital generation experiences art. The goal is not so much to experience the Mona Lisa as it is to document that you were there, he writes.

When the experience of the present moment is approached with a “pics or it didn’t happen” mentality, this can present challenges for some to assess the value of a moment that cannot be documented or archived. One student tells me that even though he looked forward to and enjoyed moments of the trip, he couldn’t ignore the “sinking feeling” which he says “made it feel like a total waste” because he couldn’t share the experience on his Snapchat.

As Derrida & Barnett offer, the irony is that as a moment is captured and archived for future memory — sharing online with others in our social networks — the memory of the moment itself is “killed” through the act of capturing it rather than experiencing it through one’s own senses. Caught up in the process of co-constructing memory online and archiving it in the name of continual expression of self, one runs the risk of favoring this “archive fever” over an embodied experience with the moment, believing they can return to and relive the memory, like a webpage bookmark.

There is indeed, a distinction between the information we store organically and that which can be digitally outsourced. Ari Schulman writes that unlike the web, which provides access to memories, the brain’s connections indeed actually constitute the memories. For a memory to persist in our brains, Kandel writes “the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed,” by attending to it in deep and meaningful ways that connect with knowledge in existing memory.

By archiving a moment, we create an access point to the memory for later rather than attending to the event itself, as such the opportunity to form a biological memory is compromised and the memory is, in effect “killed.”

Through my research, I have also witnessed that such a visually-oriented and archive-fever culture may be having a fundamental impact on our linguistic prowess. By way of their “always on us” nature, our phones serve as a way of visually extending how we communicate. In the weeks prior to the digital detox, I sat in on students’ classes to get a sense of their typical interactions, and I began to notice how the phone served as a means of supplemented students’ stories. For instance, student talked about seeing Rocky Horror Picture Show responded to follow-up questions by showing pictures of the event to elaborate on details about the costume and theatre.During the detox, some conversations were halted by struggles to describe certain aspects of the story. “Ah- If I had my phone, I could show you” was a common utterance I tallied frequently in my journal throughout the day. The students had become so accustomed to the visual supplement to their stories that being without it highlighted the extent to which is has become an extension — or perhaps even substitute for our organic means of communication.

So, why does this matter?

For one thing, it changes how we engage in and perceive of the present.

GIF authors own. “Instalove”

I’ve certainly been out and about when I’ll happen upon an “Instagrammable moment” meaning I think I will get a lot of likes if I post a picture of it. When I’ve encountered such a moment and either don’t have my phone with me or have a dead phone, I have noticed that my inability to document and share the moment with my Instagram followers can actually detract from my ability to appreciate the moment for what it is.

Among the 400+ reflections I read from students aged 18–20 a common sentiment expressed was noting that prior to the detox, they had a desire to disconnect or knew that it would probably benefit them, but never moved beyond ideation to actually “disconnecting” from their digital landscapes. As such, many described the experience of the detox as feeling somewhat novel. As one student reflects on the detox, “when I think about the places I’ve gone to with my phone, I can’t remember them as easily, but I can vividly remember walking along the trails and seeing all the roots on the trees and leaves around.” There were vast differences in how such experiences were perceived, demonstrated by another student who wrote that without that possibility to archive, it helped her recognize that capturing moments with Instagram is “a quintessential part of the experience for me”

We can see that, at the very least, a life online has primed these students to conceive of any moment as a potential photo op, as a “pics or it didn’t happen” moment. But, attending to a moment without devices, they are able to attune to different qualities of the moment, like one student who noted it was the first time they heard birds chirping on campus (and has since realized this happens everyday). There is no value judgement being made here: I am stating that being “always on” primes one for engaging with the world in a certain way, and taking an emphasis off of archiving allows one to attend to different qualities and attributes of their experience in the world.

II. Media accounting our way to a qualified self?

There are certainly benign or perhaps even beneficial effects of being an active social media user. Cornell University communication professor Lee Humphreys recently published a book suggesting that the everyday “media accounting” of posting mundane aspects of daily life — something she considers to be a modern day extension of its pre-digital precursors like diaries and photo albums — contributes not to narcissism (as some suggest) but to a well-rounded “qualified self,” which is “an important way through which we come to understand and process changes — changes about ourselves and others.” She suggests that unlike the stats-driven “quantified self,” by sharing such mediated memories, “we come to understand ourselves in a new way through the presentations of ourselves that we create to be consumed.”

While this may be the case for many, my research reveals that there are also more troubling components that come with the norms of this constant sharing or “media accounting,” and separating the qualified self from the qualified self is easier said than done.

As enticing as it may be to consider today’s digital self-reflection tools as the logical progression of diaries and photo albums and therefore equitable comparisons, I’d argue that such claims require a more careful examination.

Illustration by Anna DeFlorian

When comparing social media to a diary, for example, we must note the glaring distinctions. Both are a means by which one accounts for their day, but social media “can inhibit inner dialogue, shifting our focus from reflection to self-presentation” as Sherry Turkle writes. In a journal, there is typically an expectation of privacy, a space to engage in unfiltered self-reflection. When daily accounting shifts to spaces like Facebook or Twitter, one is cognizant that this is reflection for public consumption and as a result may present a selective, more aspirational version of self for an audience. Can this, then, inhibit our ability to understand ourselves and process how we are changing in the way that Humphreys is suggesting it does?

There is also a certain and very tangible social pressure associated with the present-day version of uploading images to social media that distinguishes it from the nostalgic and memory-storing function of physical photo albums of days past. In my research, such sharing appears to be performed more so as a perfunctory duty of these young adults’ social lives than it does to be a genuine desire to document and express their truest selves online.

Based on the hours of interviews I’ve conducted with college freshman over the past two years, one of the constant themes to emerge is how heedful they are that what they put out in the world is being by their peers, placing the onus on them to ensure their content aligns with the established social norms and aesthetics of their peer groups on a certain medium. This ensures they have a higher chance of achieving the particular rewards deemed valuable from the platform — be it likes, shares, followers or comments.

It’s nothing new to say that we share the best part of ourselves on social media and this notion has been pretty well established (see: Ingrid Goes West or Black Mirror’s ‘Nosedive’ episode). What these students reveal to me, however, are the lengths that are taken for this best self to be presented. I’ll give just a few examples:

One student told me how anytime one of her friends posts a selfie to Instagram, they instantly text their group chat soliciting the others to like and comment on the post. This feels disingenuous, and it bothers her that her friends will delete a post if it doesn’t get over 100 likes or enough comments within the first few hours it’s posted — even if she tells them “to their face that they look gorgeous in it.” She also says they’ll get offended if she likes a post but doesn’t comment on it, as “you can’t just have a lot of likes, you have to have likes and comments for it to be a good post.”

Another student reveals that when rushing for a sorority, she spent hours organizing a folder on her phone with photos she deemed would be appropriate for future Instagram posts that ascribed to a similar aesthetic of others sorority sisters’ accounts. She says that she keeps this folder because there are certain times that are more “strategic” to post to get more likes, and even though it’s a “huge burden” as she puts it, this makes it easier for her to be ready to post at those times.

In her own words:

I hate having to take part in Instagram, like how everyone else posts. Before bid day, I literally had like thousands of pictures…I was like, “Okay, these need to look like everyone else’s” and i just hate that I have to always conform ’cause I used to not and now it’s like… I have to conform, that’s like… who I am. But like, I used to be an individual, I used to be… different.
Examples of the uniform aesthetic & content of “basic Instagram” accounts, as one of my students call them.

These are just some of the measures that demonstrate how while these apps may be designed to facilitate archiving and sharing one’s lived experiences, it can paradoxically create more labor for users that may stifle self-expression as users put greater effort into constructing a specific version of online presence to garner desired feedback. This further suggests that these emerging adults may not so much be using these platforms to share the mundane aspects of everyday life to contribute to a qualified self as much as they may be jumping through the necessary hoops to garner the social validation elicited by participating in the normative performativity that has been established as acceptable by one’s peers online, the success of which is still largely interpreted quantitatively.

In all, I am not purporting to solve anything but merely to ask questions. One of the biggest questions that I have been posing for myself, and that I think is important to consider for younger people, is how does using technology is this way change my interaction with the world? What bearing does this have on culture? I like to consider Nicolas Carr’s argument that “culture is more than what can be reduced to binary code and uploaded to the Net. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation”Outsource memory, and culture withers.” If this is true, what does that mean for the state of our culture, which is undoubtedly feeding into the conveniences and luxuries of the prosthetic memory that our technologies are offering us.