face beauty

More faces, less books: are we going somewhere else with digital literacy?

If you’re a man or a woman on the internet, inevitably, you’ll be led to explore certain trends on sites you’d never want your parents to find out you were visiting, and that’s a fact regardless of your age or profession. Well, at least, it was supposed to be, until Pornhub’s community manager Aria Nathaniel narrated how she told her mom she was working for a porn site, a topic mentioned by this blog previously. Inevitable is a strong word, but in this kind of “niche”, you’ll learn some new words, for sure. And then you’ll learn more. It’s not appropriate to address the tone and language while we’re debating a better public discourse practice, but it’s worth mentioning that the private talk is supposed to be private; then, remind you that certain “niches”, so to speak, will lack careful consideration on the kind of strategy used to promote their content. As they make more of these and content consumption starts to convert into practice, we enter a sort of danger zone: are we supposed to think that what we saw online is going to happen in real life? When it comes to sex, that is obviously a sensitive topic. But there are subtleties — always.

Take a look at Instagram’s explore feature. We know there’s an algorithm that makes us see certain things on top, according to what we’ve liked previously — and a sad lack of disclosure from the company on how previous data is inputted or not to configure this experience. If you take that into consideration, you’ll start to think that your activity linked to an email was compiled and translated into a bulk of suggestions; but that didn’t happen since the Android boom: Gmail required your sign in. Before that, we only had IP addresses, but let’s bear in mind that people in general didn’t even know what the hell that was — and many still don’t. We can choose a path: to address lack of knowledge of basic concepts in technology or to require people to know everything about digital in order to be successful, pretty much in anything. A number of exceptions granted, we’re choosing the latter. If Instagram was more of a Flickr, we’d see a lot more pictures of streets, buildings, trees and cloud patterns. It’s safe to say that a considerable number of posts will instead display people’s faces.

What data says

A study on body image conducted in 2020 by the Florida House Experience, “a healthcare institution that delivers quality, medically integrated personalized treatment for those suffering from Behavioral Health Disorders”, gave us some important data to look at, not from the perspective of tech companies, but of wellbeing. For tech companies, it would never be valid: only 1024 people answered the survey. But among the findings is the fact that over 50% of people need more than 20 likes on a selfie to feel good about themselves; the average number of pictures they take before sharing their favorite varies from 2 to 5. Considering that almost 3% of women only feel good with over 100 likes, you’d wonder who are the people with Snapscores above the one million milestone. As it turns out, Snap took notice and decided to protect sensitive information, but that is according to California Law and only applies there. If you can think less about the numbers and more about the context, it’s pretty simple: people are talking, and their conversations are, let’s put it this way, “sensitive”. But then, of course, now we have the numbers. If 3% of women need more than 100 likes to feel good about themselves, how many of those likes will convert in a DM? This isn’t addressed in the 2020 study. Also, it refers to Instagram, not Snapchat — a platform that started out with the basic principle of bringing privacy to conversations, which disappeared right after the recipient read them.

If you need 20 likes to feel good, you need 20 people to see your content. Chances are you’re going to have a larger number of people you’re following in the hopes of getting followed back, and with a strong enough network, your follower count won’t ever be a reason for feeling unseen. But chances are just that: chances. Let’s imagine a scenario here: it’s late at night, you feel chatty and bored out of your mind; it just wasn’t a very productive day, you had concerns and things to look back on, but now you want something different. You’re not in a relationship, and you keep thinking that displaying this on your bio would make people see you differently; instead, you have the snap on your insta. First question, parents: why would your kid put the snap name on Instagram? Second question: what’s the content in both? You see, you’ll have to trust me on this one: they don’t want you to know. But I’m not gonna say I do — because that’s just a fact. Even when I tried to understand what exactly was happening with younger generations, exponentially connected to more people every day, but in almost equal measure, rejecting connections and building bias in the most unethical ways imaginable, I couldn’t really get it. I wasn’t looking to understand factors in rejection, or ethics as a concept for different generations; it was the numbers that bothered me. I found myself represented, in a crazy but accurate parallel, in the socialist perception that so many have so little while so few have so much. The only possible outcome of my personal analysis, which wasn’t a scientific report published anywhere, was that rich people would hate my guts; but I had to deal with the fact that, for a great number of people as well, I shouldn’t be so interested in that kind of dissecting investigation. As it turns out, I would conclude later, teenagers are just that: teenagers. I wanted to understand how this “bias” is actually purely reproduced racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and generates a stronger than ever trolling culture, with connection to the most awful practices of web participation. But there were always other factors at stake.

It’s not just exposure

When I noticed, long ago, that body positivity was gaining momentum on the internet, I was getting less attached to my romantic partner, precisely because of the internet. I also wanted to stay away from “mainstream” platforms like Facebook, because I just didn’t want to share my thoughts with everyone on my network. My Instagram used to be quite random: subway shots, street signs, a house with the warmest shades of red brick I’d ever seen, cats looking lazy, food I’d just learned how to make, some angle of a musical instrument. Suddenly, a couple picture. That changed a lot. After the breakup, I didn’t find myself taking a lot of pictures of my face (I never liked my own appearance, being honest with myself; I learned to accept it). But I saw other people showing themselves — not like that, but maybe trying to feel seen. Eventually, I came across a whole different trend (thanks a lot, Tumblr): most of the girls I’d met never shared their contact info, but now everyone was using Instagram to show not just the face, but the tongue too. Mind you, that was before TikTok. Why? I never cared enough to know. But then I just tried to put the pieces together: showing off their bodies wasn’t acceptable; showing off their faces was. Having explicit conversations wasn’t acceptable; making implicit suggestions was. Yes, that’s exactly what you’re thinking: people were associating sex with faces. And I mean, fine. Who’s to judge? Like I mentioned, the “niches” you’ll come across are many. But how often were they doing that?

That makes me think of how the whole thing started. My first internet adventure wasn’t exactly an adventure, it was quite close to a relationship and quite close to an affair. I had to choose — literally. But the details aren’t the point, and it was such a long time ago that I wonder if that’s even true: having assimilated that relationships are built with the basic notion that you’re supposed to disclose most of what you’re doing to a counterpart, I struggle with the definition, and also to accept certain kinds of “relationships” I got into, later in my life. What I want to come back to is that, whether it was an adventure, an incitement, a fling, or a series of situations that “felt like an ONS” (but left both sides crying about it), there wasn’t much of an obsession with facial features. She was very into fashion. Her Tumblr was not easily digestible (most would cringe), but she dressed impeccably. And there you have it: instead of focusing on this aspect of yourself that you don’t want others to scrutinize, you direct them to something else. But it’s not something that started yesterday: artists have started fashion campaigns, advertising products like perfume or clothing, for many years; in fact, the world of advertising has invited in various sorts of public figures, and they obviously were “known faces”; but more than that, they became associated with something else, and that could be anything from a gambling website to a brand of dairy products. In the midst of our routine, we don’t have so much time, as it turns out, to scroll over pretty faces that we like, literally or cabalistically; we do what we have to do. Then, eventually, we’ll need some kind of relief, and that certain “niche” will turn into “fetish”.

You’ve probably seen girls selling “feet packs”. You’ve probably scrolled through “gym” videos. And you’re not required to say what other categories you’ve deliberately searched for — unless you’re reading this from a specific legal point of view. It matters to say that, in terms of laws, data is private and communications are slowly becoming more encrypted; it also matters to say that not everything that is said in private communications is welcome in our private lives, in real life — not just on the internet. It’s a very thin line, but people are too different for anyone to say where to draw the split. What we have to worry about is that not just our faces are being evaluated, to use a raw term. Whether you’re aware or not, everyone has a personal branding hustle and every action counts, so if we’re living more online than offline, the remote worker will be worried about a mistyped phone number on an Excel sheet while the internet influencer will apologize for mispronouncing someone’s name. Is that a good representation of what’s happening on the internet (phone numbers and pronunciation)? Not really. But coming back to Facebook and finally telling the end of the joke, making our profiles look appealing enough has become a skill on demand, while a lot of people who have mastered it can’t seem to understand what a narrative is made of: if those 3% of people who take over 26 selfies a day post every day, they'll collect thousands of face samples a month from one single person, but curiously enough, we can’t tell who can read them or if they’ll be devoted to the habit of reading at all. So less books, cause that’s boring; more faces, cause that’s hot — but can you read them? The joke is that, as of December 2022, Lady Gaga has 55 million followers on Facebook, but most young people have never heard about her. Would you bet on a pair of fives?

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