Is user experience beginning to dictate modern day relationship rituals? Do you like and follow as much as you real-life-love – or are some of these digital actions comparable to good manners as much as they are fandom?
The questions are as far reaching as they are confusing. The 21st century media landscape straddles performance, reportage, journalism, filmmaking, music, dating, friendship and so much more. It is a territory that is occupied by major media players from all sectors, as well as individuals with no promotional agenda. Follow represents the new relationship dynamics we have with digital icons - from the everyday individual searching for a deeper meaning in life, to the commercial catfish with the fake profile and the soft sell. As Shia LeBeouf’s appearance at FACT made clear - the thrill and power of the movie star is far from over; what’s new is this more efficient way of communicating with, and measuring audience.
The average person has been identified, and becomes seemingly less average through the granular detail with which we can now view their lives. This occurs either commercially via social listening, or otherwise recreationally and personally, via social media. If you’ve put it out there, digital agencies are telling businesses what your favourite lyrics are, and sometimes, even, where you are on a Friday night. The idea of being ‘followed’ is in a state of flux; it now discusses popularity, although there is still anxiety around the notion of ‘stalkers’ or more likely ‘trolls’. Following used to occur in real time, and was something invisible waiting to be noticed. It was sinister, and it did not surround the idea of success.
Pre-digital the un-famous self would have been referred to, in PR terms, as a comparative ‘nobody’. Now the individual has a public profile, and in the process the ‘nobody’ - within the corporate world - has been tracked and assigned a marketing persona. This new form of super-average selfdom possesses a power that comes from being part of a crowd; complete with an audience, SEO identifiers and behaviour that collectively influences trends – not to mention an app with vintage beauty lens. Duck lips, d*ck-pics and if that’s not enough, the ability to look up your ex. Ex Oh Ex Oh. Our rituals for both meeting cute and moving on have been forever changed. Self-discipline in light of accessibility is necessary.
At FACT, Constant Dullaart has demonstrated how the abstract persona of this new ‘somebody’ can be easily replicated through the creation of false, bought profiles. The intention is to make visible the difficulties of assessing value through likes and follows, and the resulting content of fake online identities carries both the weight of a published statement, and strangely, the temporal shallowness that accompanies the promise of the con-artist - and sometimes pop-culture.
Dullaart’s online performance involved the purchase of 2.5 million fake Instagram users; this false fan-base was then given to a selection of working artists. What does this say about user navigation and our key decision making processes regarding value? Within the tech industry website User Experience can be measured through eye tracking; during this process the observer is tracked and measured depending on how long their gaze rests on particular area of a webpage. Designers then use this information to manipulate and configure information in the most engaging and lucrative way possible. Viewers are design-lead to read Followers as endorsers, and their implicit testimonial is considered critical to a new purchase, or another new fan.
This relationship, and this herd behaviour, defines one aspect of UX and our digitally connected relationships. However, fandom and consumerism rarely get to cross the line into palpable human-to-human experiences with big stars. The scarcity of such an opportunity is part of its value, and it has been for all time. The archetypes of celebrity leadership can be clearly seen in old music videos such as Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark.
Here, a young Courtney Cox is picked out from the crowd to dance with her idol on stage, rather than just dance at him from afar. Fast forward to 2016 and the FACT exhibition includes a piece entitled sexy by Kurdwin Ayub; in it a female fan films herself dancing to a Miley Cyrus video, not from the front row, but rather on top of her bed. sexy asks the question: Why do we watch strangers online? The counter question here is: what makes someone a stranger online? Someone without an established brand might be the answer.
Ayub’s video starring a could-be starlet in autonomy doesn’t dream as big as the innocent, unsuspecting Courtney Cox. Cox becomes part of a real, and validated existing production. She shares similar attributes to the real life callers-in at the Follow exhibition that were lucky enough to ask Shia LeBeouf the question: ‘Can you touch my soul’? This question lies at the heart of the fan-to-famous person dynamic, and at FACT the question was asked and answered very authentically. You can read the answers to this important question on Apple Macs within the exhibition space.
The candid character in Ayub’s sexy, however, remains a mimic, albeit one with the potential to reach her own audience. The behaviour of this selfie has always been in existence, we just didn’t have the technology to back it up. Generation X spent the 80s dancing in the mirror, fantasising about leg warmers and longing for a camcorder. I know because I was there doing Cyndi Lauper routines on school walls – live shows no less, perhaps in the absence of cameras. The internet’s multifaceted media window has made visible our performative behavioural following of heavily promoted iconography – that now exists with technology as well as without it.
We read the selfie as if it were a completely realised production within itself. It isn’t. It’s the thought you have when you look in the mirror after getting ready to go out - when you pull the good-looking face. At this point the selfie taker turns into a snap-happy Eleanor Rigby, or a jovial J. Arthur Prufrock – preparing a face to meet the faces that you meet - and showing the faces that you meet before you even get there. It is the immediacy of that thought meeting the accessibility of technology. The subject of Ayub’s video, and her selfie pose created a disconnect because it is a request to be commercially received as a self, without the self being a product. There is one important thing I should mention here: to analyse this is to forget the spirit with which we operate in spite of operating systems – because it is true, and it’s like Cyndi always said Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, and cyber fun it is – from certain angles.
The speed with which we are entered into someone else’s likes has been accelerated, and new people are always on the horizon. It used to take hours to prepare a mix tape, and even more time still to listen to it before you knew what someone really liked. Moreover, our precise understanding of the instant in which someone has made a conscious decision to follow us is indisputable; as is the meaning of the 'unfollow'. Connected worlds and minds sometimes collide. The fact that we are doing office-like administration within our relationships has altered the dynamic, via user experience, design and content.
Follows in and of themselves are not experiences, they are long-distance expressions, and sometimes the beginning of something new. In spite of all sparkling social media fakery these algorithms are not entirely without romance. In the spirit of Follow at FACT, and I would argue, a new wave in confessional copy perpetrated by social media, I will reveal something to you; I’ve had loads of dates from people tracking me down on Facebook and Twitter. The guys that came searching for me after a night out have got new leads to follow - especially if I checked into an event. Some of them were famous. How juicy. How true? I’ll end this on a Tweet and a call-to-action. Follow me @sue_writes and forget the one that got away.
Join the conversation online using #FollowFACT or visit our exhibition, open Tuesday - Sunday until 21 February.