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Susan Sontag said that photographs “furnish instant history, instant sociology and instant participation.” Nowhere is this truer than on Facebook. A user’s photos create an “instant history”. “Instant society” is created by who is tagged in the photographs and where, and “instant participation” by the ability that all the friends have to comment on the photographs even if they were not part of the moment that has been captured.
When I first started studying the Facebook profile of the beautiful and popular Emma FB, I was struck by a photo taken on the way to her Matric Ball. She is standing next to her date, a handsome Alex Pettyfer look-alike; she dressed in a beautiful brightly coloured gown, he in a dashing white tuxedo. Her equally pretty younger sister is standing next to them.
The vast manicured garden they’re in, the elegant style of the building in the background and the designer clothing, all signify wealth and luxury. All three of them are smiling broadly. To me this was the ultimate Matric Ball photo, something straight out of an episode of Gossip Girl.
Some months into the study I noticed that this photo had disappeared. EmmaFB explained to me that she had deleted all the photos in which she was pictured with her ex-boyfriend (the blonde hunk). He had moved to London soon after the photo was taken and then promptly broke up with her.
She was heart-broken, but in the three months after the break-up she went to as many parties and social events as she could with the purpose of taking pictures for Facebook, to show him that she was having a good time and wasn’t missing him at all. The challenge was that she could not upload the “revenge photos” herself, as that would be too “obvious”, so her sister and friends had to upload them.
This is an excellent example of how she, with effort, created a fictional history of this time on Facebook. Then she deleted him off her Facebook completely, the only delete she has ever committed out of revenge. To her and her peers, deleting someone off Facebook is tantamount to killing them, a decision that is not taken lightly.
To me, Facebook is very good at understanding the behavioural developments of its users. Just as I did in my study, it recognised the social severity of a delete action, and changed Facebook in order to make it possible and easy to hide or unsubscribe from a friend without actually having to delete them. I also think Facebook realised the importance of creating one’s history on Facebook and addressed this by creating the Timeline mode, which acknowledged that Facebook is becoming the autobiography of a person’s life.
After some time EmmaFB started dating her current boyfriend, this time a Milo Ventimiglia-type hottie. When she first decided she liked him after having been friends for some months, she decided to look through his photos. (I can’t speak for the male of the species, but every girl I know has stalked out the man she likes on Facebook to see what his friends are like, what the ex looks like, etc.)
After initially meeting each other on holiday, as part of a group of friends spending the holiday together, he started dating another friend of hers for a couple of months, during which time she hardly ever saw them. When he broke up with the other girl, they started running into each other again, and then she finally looked at his Facebook and saw all the pictures of him and the other girl together, which made them having dated much more of a reality than it had been to her before, even though she had known all about it. She and her ex-boyfriend had broken up a year ago, so those pictures were not in the recent albums, but her new boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend was right there, in the most recent photos.
It is interesting to me that the Facebook photos made the relationship more real to her than reality. This is when she slowly started removing all the photos of her and her ex. Maybe because she didn’t want to rub a previous relationship under her current boyfriend’s nose, as his had upset her, or because the final step in her healing process was to have wiped out all the memories of the ex.
She also deleted the photos taken in the period following the break-up; according to her she looked too wan on these photos and would rather not see them any more. Now, according to Facebook, the relationship and break-up had never happened at all. Facebook only depicts the blissful success of the current relationship.