Selfies as a second language

Of the people I follow on Snapchat, about half are old people (lots of middle-aged white male VC's, maybe trying to make sense of what it is), the other half are young and what I'd consider Snapchat natives. As a product person, it's fascinating to observe stark divides in consumer behavior. Often these are generational divides, less discussed than technological shifts like those fueling platform shifts or industrial revolutions, but no less fascinating. Often, these behavioral changes happen because of technology shifts, as humans evolve with their new tools and altered environment. In Snapchat is one of the cleanest, most universal of these behavioral fault lines.

When I send a Snap to any of the people in my address book, the oldies respond, inevitably, with some text message, maybe an emoji if they're somewhat hip. If I send a Snap to a young'un, inevitably I'll receive a selfie in response.

Since I noticed this a few years back, I've tracked it across the years, and it's still the case, to an astonishingly consistent degree. I'm talking nearly 100%, and I can't remember any exceptions.

My theory on this is that older folks did not grow up with front facing cameras on smartphones and thus experience an uncomfortable body alienation from seeing themselves in photographs akin to how most people hate hearing their own voices the way other people hear them. We perceive our own voice differently than others because we hear our own voices reflected back from the world mixed in with feedback from the machinery we use to generate that sound. Other people only hear the former.

For my generation, we grew up mostly seeing ourselves in mirrors, and thus that's the way we visualize our face and body. When we see ourselves in photos, we see a flip of what we're used to seeing in the mirror, and it's discomfiting.

Cameras can introduce additional distortion depending on the focal length of the lens. Almost all smartphone cameras have wide-angle lenses. The iPhone camera is something like 28mm (in 35mm camera terms); I'm not sure what the front-facing camera is, but it's wide. A 50mm focal length is typically considered a neutral lens in 35mm cameras, and any focal length shorter than that is usually considered wide. 

That old cliche about how the camera adds ten pounds? It refers to the distorting effect of wide angle lenses which are very common in television and film, especially for a lot of closeups and medium shots. If you ever see an actor or model in person they look surprisingly thin. People who look normal on camera look thin in person, and models, who look thin on camera, look malnourished in person.

What is unpleasant for faces can be flattering for spaces. Almost all housing interiors for sites like Airbnb or any real estate listing are shot with wide angle lenses. Often it's the only way to capture an entire room from a photo shot within the room, but it has the pleasant effect of expanding the space. This is why, if you ever go to a live taping of a TV show like Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show, it's shocking how tiny the studio actually is compared to how it appears on TV, and why that seemingly spacious apartment you rented on Airbnb feels like a bathroom stall when you arrive in person, roller bag in tow.

If the wide angle smartphone camera lens renders people's faces larger, the effect is exaggerated when the camera is held at mere arm's length. It makes people look heavier than they're used to seeing themselves in the mirror, and that's not pleasant for all except those with tail distribution positive body image. There's a reason a portrait lens is usually longer than neutral, often starting at 85mm or longer, and why fashion shoots often use telephoto lenses that require a photographer to stand really far from their subjects, sometimes so far they have to shout directions to the model through a megaphone. The longer the lens, the shallower the focus, the more flattering the portrait.

However, this generation of kids who've grown up with a smartphone pointed at their faces from the time they were infants have seen themselves hundreds if not thousands of times through the funhouse mirror eye that is the smartphone camera. So much so, I speculate, that they experience a much lower degree of photographic body alienation than my generation. I may see myself in a bathroom mirror a few times a day, once in the morning, a few times at work, and once at night. Kids of this generation, armed with smartphones from an early age, often see themselves in photographs, on a screen, dozens of times a day.

Furthermore, they've internalized this disparity in impact between their photographic and real world representation the way celebrities and models do. It's just math. Ubiquitous smartphones and social media allow exponentially more people to see their photographic self than their real world body. It's entirely rational to consider their virtual self to be more important in the accumulation of social capital than their physical selves. Time spent mastering the selfie is time spent on the largest audience, and while it may be horrifying to see young people shooting dozens of photographs of themselves before posting to social media, then subsequently A/B testing which photos garner the most positive social media feedback, it's behavior one would predict for homo socialis.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. While the exact ratio may be something we can actually calculate with a cleverly designed experiment, even in the absence of such a test it's clear that the multiplier is significant. We are, all of us, straining against the more narrow emotional register of text, especially when we often face character limits, both imposed and self-inflicted (due to the inconvenience of typing on smartphone keyboards). As email and text messaging replaced more expressive mediums like phone calls and handwritten letters, we find ourselves apologizing, quite often, for coming across other than we intended.

It's no surprise that many writers resorted to adding emotional modifiers like =) to emails. Even prior to those early emoji, the use of exclamation points in online communication was noticeably higher than in regular writing, lest we come off as bored, or even worse, cold (increasingly, it becomes a contrarian power move to eschew exclamation points entirely; the irony of Donald Trump ending every tweet with an exclamation point is how silly it is for the leader of the free world to resort to such linguistic chest puffery).

After early emoticons came the age of emoji, and now the GIF has shouldered its way into the conversation. Each successive communications trend brings a more efficient carrier of emotion, per byte, than text, and compression matters in this clipped conversational age.

In most cases, I much prefer receiving a selfie in reply to a message I send than a text response, because the human face is a miraculous instrument, almost incapable of the abstraction of raw text. Still, I can't bring myself to send selfies as responses.

Perhaps if I looked like Ryan Gosling or Gal Gadot, I'd spend hours admiring myself in a mirror, snapping selfies at all different angles just to see if it was even possible to make myself look anything less than gorgeous. Is it even possible for Denzel Washington to cringe at the sound of his own voice played back to him? If I were Denzel I'd just talk to myself all day, just to marvel at how I could make anything sound like the word of God.

But I suspect it's more than that. I've happily embraced emoji and the fetishistic allusiveness of the GIF. When it comes to the selfie, however, I'm a not-yet adopter. I am of that generation for whom selfies are not second nature but instead a second language.

Show don't tell

I suspect we do a better job teaching children than adults, and much of that has to do with trying harder to explain things visually, in the most intuitive, simple way possible, to children. As we grow older, we start stacking on level after level of abstraction, losing more and more students along the way.

Even language is an abstraction, and while I enjoy writing, the ratio that a picture is worth a thousand words is a cliche that describes a very real ratio. As someone I chatted with noted this week, we have an actual way of quantifying the relative value of video versus images versus words: the CPMs that advertisers are willing to pay for video ads versus display ads versus text ads. My early years at Hulu, it was unbelievable how high and rock solid our video ad rates were compared to other ad formats on the market. All the recent pivots to video are surprising only for how late they're coming for many; trying to run a business off of text and display ad revenues is life with poverty unit economics.

This is not to say video is always better. As a format, it's harder for many to master, and like many, I often roll my eyes when sent a link to a video without a transcript. It's not because I don't believe video is a more accessible, democratic, and moving medium. It's just that a lot of instructional video would be just as information rich and more quickly scanned for its key messages if transcribed into text. Many a media site will struggle with pivoting to video unless they understand the format at the same level they do text and photos.

Video at its best is much more than a camera pointed at a person speaking. Now, granted, some speakers are immensely gifted orators, and so a TED talk may have more impact when watched rather than read. However, the average MOOC video, to take one example, is dull beyond words.

Video as a medium still has enormous potential, especially for education. In the trough of disillusion for MOOCs, I expect we'll see something rise from the ashes that finally unlocks video's potential as a communications medium. We've done a solid job with that format as a narrative storytelling device, and that's partially because the revenue in Hollywood supports an immense talent development infrastructure. Education might be able to provide that level of financial incentive if global distribution through the internet allows for aggregation of larger scale audiences.

One of the core challenges of education, as with disciplines like fitness and diet, is motivation. That is another area where video shines. David Foster Wallace warned of the addictive nature of video in Infinite Jest, and the fact that the average American still watches something like four to five hours of TV a day, despite the wealth of alternatives in this age, is an astonishing testament to the enduring pull of filmed entertainment.

As with anything, the seductive nature of moving images is merely a tool, inheriting its positive or negative valence from its uses. When it comes to teaching abstract concepts, I prefer good visuals over clear text almost every time if given the choice. Our brains are just wired for visual input in a way they aren't for abstractions like language, which explains many phenomenon, like why memory champions translate numbers and alphabet characters into images, and why they remember long sequences like digits of pi by placing such images into memory palaces, essentially visual hard drives.

One could try to explain the principles of potential and kinetic energy, for example, with a series of mathematical formulas, in a long essay. Or one could watch the following video.

Here's the video of the full routine by Joann Bourgeois, performed in San Sebastian. Just gorgeous.

This is what I wish Cirque du Soleil would be every time someone drags me to one of their shows.

Charlotte turns 1

A few pics from my niece Charlotte's first birthday. She's half-Korean so she had a doljanchi, a Korean tradition celebrating a child's first birthday.

The highlight of the event was the part where Charlotte was placed on one end of a blanket with four objects on the other side: a spool of yarn, a paint brush, a pencil, and money. The first object she chose would tell her fortune: the yarn signified long life, the paint brush creativity, the pencil wisdom, and the money...money. 

Charlotte looked befuddled as everyone looked at her and urged her on, then she crawled over and put her hand on the money, at which point the room erupted in cheers which startled and confused her.

Programmed aging

In the whole Instagram TOS kerfuffle, Flickr got a lot of mention. I've had a Pro account with Flickr for years, though my annual subscription payment has felt like a charitable contribution the past few years. For what it's worth, I hope Flickr can start to justify the subscription.

I joked that Flickr had been around so long my photos there had naturally taken on an aged tone. But in all seriousness, I would love to use a service that could digitally simulate the effects of the passage of time on content I had produced, whether it was photos, my writing, music or video. Instead of applying the effect all at once, though, I'd love to see it aged gradually, as if the asset existed in the real world. As I'd revisit my photos or videos, the color tint would change, small scratches might accumulate on the video. The background of my blog might start to yellow a bit, like old parchment.

Since the original is digital, it would always be recoverable, but there would only be one aged copy and it would constantly be evolving. So much of how I mark large periods of time in my life is through the tangible aging artifacts of products that have been with me throughout, and some of that awareness of time's movement is lost in this digital age where everything remains frozen permanently in a pristine state.