“If it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t really happen.”

By Deane Barker on August 2, 2010

Yes, I’ve really said that.  Sadly, I sort of meant it.

The NY Times printed a short but very thoughtful essay about Tweeting (and, by extension, social media in general).  In it, the author discussed how Tweeting has changed how she experiences the world.

[…] when every thought is externalized, what becomes of insight? When we reflexively post each feeling, what becomes of reflection? When friends become fans, what happens to intimacy? The risk of the performance culture, of the packaged self, is that it erodes the very relationships it purports to create, and alienates us from our own humanity.

Josh Clark does a great job of putting this in more practical terms:

I experience a day differently when I’m carrying a camera, or an event when I plan to share it on this blog. I look for the narrative rather than simply living in the moment. There are good and bad things about this. In the pro column, I’m more engaged in my surroundings, processing them with an intentness that I might bring to a museum gallery or a film screening. I see the world with more clarity and attention. Things slow down, and the world sharpens into a higher resolution.

In the con column, this means I lose a measure of flow and fluidity. I’m no longer strictly a participant, I’m an observer. A gauzy filter intercedes: I process events and evaluate them for their interest to others. The moments are still mine certainly, but I now share them with an anonymous audience. This phantom company changes my experience.

Josh compares it to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but I beg to differ.  I think it more closely correlates to the various Observer Effects.  Like, in physics, for example:

[It] refers to changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon  being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. A commonplace example is checking the pressure in an automobile tire; this is difficult to do without letting out some of the air, thus changing the pressure. This effect can be observed in many domains of physics.

The intention of conveying the moment has the effect of altering our experience of the moment.  In a way, we’ve stopped living for the moment, and now we delegate our current experience of the moment in exchange for a future representation of the moment.

I always felt this phenomenon begun when digital cameras got popular.   Now that we were liberated from film and could take as many pictures as we wanted, people started carrying cameras all over the place and recording everything.  I got to wondering how this changed their perception of things.  Could they truly enjoy something if they were stressed out about somehow getting the perfect shot?  If they did get the perfect shot, did that somehow lessen their need to experience the moment as fully as possible? Did their desire to preserve the moment actually destroy the moment?

I remember taking a break from a conference in San Francisco once and driving up to an overlook of the Golden Gate bridge inside the Presidio.  The view was amazing – the kind of thing that would sell a million postcards.  Just breathtaking.  (This view, essentially.)

I remember kicking myself that I forgot my camera.  Then, I suddenly felt a great relief that I had forgotten it.  Without it, I didn’t have to stress about taking the perfect picture anymore.  I could sit there and enjoy the view for what it was – drink it in as deeply as possible, and know that it existed for me only in that moment.

I think because I forgot my camera that day, I remember this moment more vividly.  Years later, I can feel this moment intensely with very little effort.  If I had my camera, I would have mindlessly delegated the moment to a picture, knowing that I could just re-live the moment vicariously through it at some undetermined point in the future.

After this event, I found myself much less interested in taking pictures of everything.  The only time a take a picture now is when I specifically want to show something to someone else.  As for me, I’ve learned to live on the memories alone.



  1. I can certainly relate, but I also think that at least since the cave paintings, people have been experiencing the world around them through the cultural and linguistic representations they’ve thereof. The extreme externalization of these representations, or maybe better: the extreme accessibility of these externalizations is something new (for most people). I can’t help but think about this scene from Don DeLillo’s White Noise about the most photographed barn in America. You can read it online: http://www.downwindproductions.com/barn.html

  2. For me it’s really a matter of size and scope. Your eyes take in way more then a camera (vid or still) will ever capture. So the act of taking it all in versus looking thru a view finder makes sense.

    My wife and I never look at our Hawaiian honeymoon pictures because they don’t do anything justice. We do however watch small parts of the video where things like Dolphins and specific/small areas (buildings, plant life, or people shots) were in frame. But scenery and such, never looks as good.

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