Last year when Jesse Eisenberg starred in the film depicting the rise of Facebook, anyone over the age of 10 could figure out that no matter how fine tuned the details of the film were, it certainly FELT like it was a fairly true rendition of those events. In a nutshell, a socially awkward geek figures out how to create online connections between people of vaguely similar interests. The film might have had any number of titles: “Poking the Ethers,” “My Face, Your Book,” or even just “Facebook Rising.” But instead, the producers chose to simply call it “The Social Network,” an almost generic name for a very specific project. And when we would mention the movie to each other in polite conversation, invariably “The” would be dropped; you’d simply say “…wasn’t Social Network spot on about ….” It’s a term that aside from sociologists or anthropologists, none of us would have used in the course of a normal week until the last half decade. It implies in a very obvious way, the interaction of humans, and in today’s context, it’s understood that this particular interaction has nothing to do with a breathing, living, drinking, exhaling, farting, grunting human being within … say… arms range. No, more precisely it refers to those people to whom you are ‘attached’ via certain interests, causes, and other similar traits in an online forum. It might be an interest in Libertarian politics, or cooking with shallots, or the neo-ancient art of wet-plate photography. The actual interaction takes place with a keyboard, a screen, and maybe a mouse or track pad, or if you’re newly hip and withit, maybe a forefinger on an iPad. It is merely perceived interaction. I can’t actually think of a case where modern day social networking is practiced without a computer-like device of some kind. Many of us have an aversion to sharing what we see as “private” information, and those folks tend to either not congregate on Facebook, or if they do, they don’t post a lot of thoughts/links/pictures. They are more browsers of other peoples’ pages than providers of their own. And then there are the kind of folks, and yes we all know them, who feel that Facebook is a place where every little scintilla of their lives should be shared. I’m constantly astonished by people who have incredibly slow conversations (you know, one sentence at a time, back and forth the over a day, or sometimes many days) about the most personal of things. One I recall was from someone who engaged in an open “chat” with her son about whether or not a certain doctor had a sympathetic bedside manner. The son had seen the doctor, and found him rather pushy. The mom “had never seen him be anything but nice.” They went on back and forth for a couple of days, till I finally was obliged to defriend her. I like her still, but I cannot keep up with the minutae of her life. Nor do I really want to. Hers is a network I don’t actually feel any obligation to be a part of. We try and choose those elements of networkness which work for us. But the last ten years have thrown a real wrench into how photographers view their work and yes, their own Social Networks.
There was a time (dare I call it the “golden age” of photojournalism?) when we photographers all still worked with that dainty and quaint material known as film. You loaded it into the camera, shot some modest amount of photos (normally 12 or 36) and then you would stuff the films into a big caption envelope, wrap it up in a bigger envelope and do one of three things: hand it off in the back of the union hall to a local messenger; leave it at the front desk of the hotel for a pick up by some anonymous courier, or drop it in a Fedex office, confident that the next morning said envelope would end up on your editor’s desk. Oh, how we long for those days. Having entered what could now be referred to as the “silicon age” of photography our lives have changed in ways we could never have imagined. Even back in the ‘golden age’ there were times when you would, usually a week after you’d shot something, pick up the magazine with your work in it. Sometimes it would turn around more quickly but often it was at least a week. You’d open the pages with great anticipation to see just what “New York” had done with your handiwork, only to discover, 5 times out of 6, that they’d chosen some crummy rendition of what you’d photographed, and completely missed the point. The first reaction would often be something like “geez, I sure wish I’d been able to edit that stuff before they got their mitts on it.” The unlikely idea of having the chance to edit our own material on deadline seemed about as likely as pigs flying. And I don’t mean the pigs that DO fly.
It was one of those pipe dreams, having that extra element of control over our work. Well, as they say, be careful what you ask for, as the ‘silicon age’ of photography started to change virtually everything. Memory cards were the new film. The need for those big caption envelopes disappeared almost over night. By 2003 the new digital reflex cameras started combining the quality, speed, and ease of use which would in a matter of a few years, render most film cameras to antique status. I’m speaking really of photojournalists who by definition are obligated to get their work to the “desk” as soon as they can. If you work for a wire service (like “A.P.”) you have rolling deadlines around the world that never end. As websites began to become popular and ubiquitous more unending deadlines would appear. The constant appetite for pictures created that giant sucking sound which you thought was jobs going to Mexico. No, it was just the world wide demand for photos, pulling them through the air towards a million websites.
What has it all ended up meaning for us poor photographers? Well, it means that at the end of a long day of shooting (14 hours on a Presidential campaign wouldn’t be unusual) instead of dropping the film in an envelope and heading out to grab dinner, you are stuck in your hotel room, transferring that day’s pictures to your laptop, editing them on the spot (oh, lucky us, we get to EDIT our own work!) and sending them on the ‘net to whatever the mother ship was, wire service, newspaper, or magazine. Even if you are quick, it adds another 2 to 4 hours to the day, sometimes more. You might get to bed before midnight, and wow, that tuna salad with the soggy bread the Room Service folks sent up really hit the spot. More often than not you jolt yourself awake, having just collapsed on the laptop keyboard with the bbbbbbbbbbbb key running amok on your screen.
The point is, for all the upside that digital has given us (basically it’s one thing: Speed) there are enormous downsides. For one, I remain isolated from my peers and pals, stuck in my room with MSNBC or Espn in the background while I try and wade through the pictures. What would I prefer? It’s easy: bring back the OLD Social Network. No, not Mark Zuckerberg’s version. The one that started operating just after my film was dropped off in its handy large envelope. The one that got us all together at the end of a long day of shooting politics, and gave us a chance to talk for a couple of hours over something more groovy than soggy tuna salad. The one that let us discuss what we had seen, what it meant, what tomorrow’s changes might be, and what sort of things we need to be on the lookout for. The one that actually let us be a social animal for a change. Talk, listen, talk, listen. That’s what real social networking ought to be about. Not clack-clack-clack-click-click-click. The kind that use a knife and fork instead of a mouse. A beer glass instead of a track pad. I want to be able to talk face to face with the sort of folks who, yes, I might “Friend” on FB. But more importantly I’d prefer spending some of that “upload, edit, and transmit” time with people whose opinions I value, and wisdom I trust.
In the world of the press photographer, those days seem to have just frittered away. You can spend all the time you want looking at your News Feed on Facebook, and updating your profiles on LinkedIn. I’ll try and get around to some of that stuff, but for me, the real Social Network, the one that makes me what I am, and helps me to be something better, is the round table at the pub, with a bunch of tired photoJ’s, their cameras piled in metallic mounds nearby, with a pitcher of Sam Adams being happily shared. We’re just sayin’….David