It’s common knowledge by now that the actress on the cover of Cosmopolitan, thanks to the miraculous image-manipulating software Photoshop, might have a few more droops and blemishes than meet the eye.
We understand how 70-year-old Barbara Walters can look forty on the cover of Redbook. Don’t get me started on the inanity of cosmetic surgery, but perhaps the argument is becoming moot as computer-generated nips and tucks extend beyond celebrities to the rest of us.
The ability to manipulate image goes beyond physical looks. The points raised in an interview can be mandated by the celebrity’s press agent, and the answers carefully rehearsed. Lindsay Lohan can be made to look contemplative and Simon Cowell empathetic.
I envy these people and their means to shape themselves. Ah, to have such power over how we are perceived.
Then along came Facebook with its capacity to shape visage and character. It struck me when I was setting up my own page, and the choices it required, such as the big one: which photo? So what if that whitewater rafting snapshot is ten years old. It highlights a rarely seen feature on me: triceps. And is it my fault I had way less gray hair back then? I could spray on some silver with software, to be more up-to-date.
Beyond imagery, Facebook is also words and stories. I could vanquish any perception of dull middle-agery by simply compressing my personal timeline. I traveled somewhere exciting once; can’t it be just last month? I said something erudite once; can’t it be repurposed, and offered up to my friends as spontaneous banter?
But little about new social media is truly spontaneous.
Before we created real-time virtual selves, custom-made avatars, personas for our flawed persons, human interaction contained risk. We might encounter an acquaintance at a party or walking down the street.
For the duration of the one-on-one exchange, we step into the spotlight and the cameras roll, no prerecording for subsequent cleanup. The unfiltered “we” comes through, bumbling and stuttering, the time between thought and speech milliseconds, as dictated by the rules of rapid-fire discourse. Yet the protocol of social media shelters us from such unadulterated exchanges.
Across this new generation of connection methods — e-mail, text messaging, Twitter and Facebook — we can avoid the spontaneity and danger of on-the-fly communications.
I was recently friended on Facebook by a professional colleague. Her page featured dozens of images of herself, each perfectly lit and angled. Her words were ecstatic and breathless, as if she only had seconds for sharing before her next engagement.
Her online presentation, the work of a skilled personal publicist, prompted me to click to another colleague, one who always struck me as overly attentive to his hair. Sure enough, his page featured only tanned bodies, including his own, in exotic travel destinations, but no image to suggest the suburban condo or fabric-walled cubicle where he spends the other fifty weeks of the year.
These are not the irrational fears of a Luddite. I embrace new technology. But I wonder what the long-term societal impact will be as more of our daily interactions shift from the spontaneous flesh-and-blood variety to orchestrated pics and prose.
Social media has been described as an equalizer and a unifier, but perhaps we’re just becoming unified in our homogeneity, reacting to a common view, however artificial, of what’s remarkable and desirable.
Or, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. We are hereby liberated from our true mundane selves. With a little work, I can expose my inner James Bond. That one photo of me holding Dad’s BB pistol could be tweaked to show a Walther PPK.