Photography, alcohol, college, facebook, and privacy
Somewhere, on the campus of a high-caliber north-eastern liberal arts college that will remain nameless, lurks a budding Martin Parr. Parr is the extraordinarily talented British photographer best known for moments seized in the street. He takes colorful, revelatory frames that skewer the gentility and decorum of his subjects, peeling back the veneer of contemporary civilization to expose, when he is at his most cruel, a kind of lowest-common-denominator of humanity. In the context of elite American institutions of higher learning, to judge by the photographs on this page, that lowest common denominator is the use and abuse of alcohol. But these images are not by Parr; I idly came across them, in a facebook photo album. To be fair to Martin, these are not quite up to his standard, but the photographer is, after all, only a college student.
The pictures, by a photographer or photographers who shall also remain nameless, raise a few intriguing, and perhaps even disturbing questions: How crucial is context to the interpretation of a photograph? If the intention of the photographer is not, like Martin Parr, to capture the defining moment, but rather simply to document one's friends enjoying themselves, does that diminish the artistic worth of the image? Is it possible that the spring-time ambiance of life on today's college campus is so beer-soaked that it is difficult not to obtain Martin Parr-like results whenever one snaps the shutter? And, do I have too much free time? What am I doing on facebook, paging through pictures of people I don't know, at some distant bacchanal?
There is a debate raging around facebook, centered on the question of privacy. It is essentially the result of facebook's ham-handed efforts to "monetize" their "product." The facebook "service" or "social-networking site" currently has something like 400 million "subscribers," "members," "clients," "participants," or whatever it is that we are, none of whom pay even one thin dime to share their thoughts, aphorisms, photographs and affiliations with their self-selected group of "friends." Mark Zuckerberg and the other inventor-creator controllers of facebook believe that having 400 million users ought to translate into untold riches, but while everyone understands that this gigantic number somehow represents power and potential marketing muscle, there is no obvious "revenue stream" gushing out of the website. Facebook collects vast amounts of data, and it seems increasingly to be looking for ways to sell that data along to whomever might find it useful. Recently, they made unilateral adjustments to the visibility of their users, making more data publicly accessible. Although these changes can be reversed after navigating and tweaking facebook's opaque and byzantine privacy settings, Zuckerberg and Co. rightly believe that most users either won't manage or won't bother. Savvy users are outraged. Facebook says "if you don't want to share, don't share," and their service is, after all, optional and free. But I have been using the optional and free web-based email services of Yahoo and Google exclusively for more than a decade, and while I understand that email is intrinsically insecure, I presume a certain level of privacy in my communications.
These photographs illustrate some of the issues of the facebook privacy debate, in that I stole them from the page of someone I don't know, not even a facebook friend, but the friend of a friend. This friend had been "tagged" in a picture in this series, and therefore it appeared in my "news feed," and I clicked through to the complete album. Even my "friend," in the way of facebook, is more of a glancing acquaintance, a person from whom I am separated both by generations and zip codes of socio-economic status. We encountered one another in my work environment a few years ago, have not seen each other since, and quite probably will never meet again. Yet countless drunken pictures of this friend's "friends," the country's future investment bankers and civic leaders, are available for my perusal, download, and subsequent exploitation here.
My presumption is that the intent of these photographs is purely commemorative; they are interesting to non-participants in the scene they document only once stripped of identity, becoming in their ensemble a portrait, and even possibly a condemnation, of a collegiate culture of kegs and cans. Note also that the two images above, handed over to a skillful copy-writer and given a line or two of text in an alluring font, might make excellent alcohol advertisements, but that in the context of the rest of the pictures they take on a quite different meaning.
So, anonymous photographer, you leave me mulling over a few paradoxes. And I apologize. I've violated your copyright, but only to draw attention to how interesting your images are. Your compositions are stunning and your thematic unity impressive, but I'm concerned that it's all inadvertent. I'll not reveal your name, because I believe you need to rethink your facebook security settings.