Let's start with a game of spot the difference. The picture on the left was taken in the mid to late 70s. It's me & my brother (I'm the one who hasn't learned how to fold his arms yet - I didn't figure it out till I was about 10 years old - true fact). The one on the right has been treated to make it look a little bit like it was taken in the mid to late 70s, but as it's my wife and kids at roughly the age they currently are, it can't have been.
As well as a chance to share an embarrassing photo and even more embarrassing fact, this is also by way of an admission that I too have been taken in by the craze for 'faux-vintage' photos. The craze is nicely anatomised by Nathan Jurgenson in The Society Pages. The post went up about a year ago but was recently pointed out to me by a friend on Twitter, and gives me a good excuse to adjoin some brief thoughts to the talk I posted a couple of weeks ago. I was painfully aware at the time that I already had too much for ten minutes in front of a crowd, but to talk about digital remembering and not to mention this phenomenon did feel remiss.
My focus in this field tends to be structural - noticing the ways in which we are (sometimes, and patchily) getting better at structuring our data and thinking about future retrieval as an issue. But a corollary of our focus on the accessibility and structure of what Jurgenson describes as 'our present as always a potential documented past', is a focus on the style of the past. In other words, we have, for a variety of reasons, become increasingly aware of the dimension of time in our digital lives. But this is only partly about practicality - I would argue it is also to do with an emotion, quite possibly born of very modern socio-economic anxieties, of wanting to preserve and retrieve what we value. And in the second part of that - retrieval - we focus on style as well as practicality, turning to the surface of the past to give comfort to troubled contemporary lives.
More precisely, rather than worrying about future retrieval of the substance of the present, we reach for an instant retrieval of the style of the past.
Jurgenson has some good things to say about 'documentary vision' - how that sense of the lives we are living as constantly available for digital documenting, preserving and sharing can rob us of full presence in the her and now. (We might add the word 'narcissistic' to his phrase.) And his assertion that
Faux-vintage photos devalue and exhaust their own sense of authenticity, which portends their disappearance
is surely incontestable. As Justin put it when we were chatting about this the other day - what on earth will our children make of our 70s style pictures from the 2010s when they look at them 30 years from now (that's assuming they can still access them).
One key thing I think Jurgenson missed, though, is what I referred to in an earlier post as 'the paradox of Instagram': Instagram is interested in creating instant authenticity though nostalgia, but at the same time it is part of a trend away from creating structured metadata and archiving systems around our social content. Compare the organisational possibilities of Flickr (tags, sets, collections, groups - you name it) with the radical simplicity of Instagram. Users might be obsessed with the past in one way - but they are also getting a bit fatigued with the complexity of last decade's user experiences, with their complex classification and retrieval systems - thus Tumblr, Pinterest and so on. It's going to be interesting to see how Instagram's life as a separate product and network under Facebook's tutelage is going to develop - one way to read the acquisition is as a collision of very complicated with very simple systems.
Anyway - all I really meant to say is that the essay is well worth a read. Finally, here is a bit of fun.