Saving Face: Distorting my Internet Performance of Gender and Class

Usually, I use social media to project what I perceive to be a sunnier version of my existence. My existence is of course informed by my lived experience with regard to race, gender, and class. I am a light-skinned Mexican-American female graduate student who grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles. In many ways, I have been privileged and continue to be relatively privileged, if not financially then through the accumulation of cultural capital. This is an undeniable part of my story.

Another part of my story is the pervasive mental illness, substance abuse, and legacy of trauma in my family, reflective of generations of poverty and oppression. My parents’ upbringing was very different than mine. In trying to circumvent the circumstances they were born into, my parents consciously and deliberately modeled the choices they saw their college classmates making. Watching my parents observe what middle class people did (drive old Volvos, go camping, watch foreign movies), I learned how to adapt to to new systems of social values.

Recently, I had been thinking about class and gender performativity on social networking. I knew that I spent more time than I would like to think trying to post reasonably and responsibly: moderately, with infrequent selfies and a sort of overall wry tone. I attributed this as both an adherence to the middle-class value of simulating modesty by not drawing attention to one’s self and one born out of my experience as a woman, not wanting to burden people. I was interested in observing how middle class conventions or habits translate between digital and non-digital contexts and seeing what happened if I distorted my own Internet persona.

I decided to use Snapchat and Instagram to disrupt the narrative of my Instagram. My plan was to take selfies using some of the flashier Snapchat filters, like the flower crown or the dog, and then post these photos on Instagram over the course of a day or a week. I wanted to both subvert class expectations and reclaim these filters, sometimes pejoratively referred to as “hoe filters.” I was interested in seeing what, if any, reaction it generated, but even more to reveal the distortion that already existed in my Internet persona. It’s not like I never posted selfies, but they were edited to give the impression of minimal distortion.

How It Played Out

On Wednesday, March 1, I took several selfies using various Snapchat filters. Around 11 AM, I posted the first selfie. It was a short video clip, 4 seconds long, where I used the bunny filter and kind of moved my head around:

I chose a video so I could compare views to likes. Interestingly, the video received about the same number of views as any video I posted that showed me in it; it also received a similar amount of likes to any photo I posted this year that had me in it (around 40). I imagine that has to do with the number of followers I gained in the fall (since I essentially acquired a fully new social ecosystem by moving to a new place and starting grad school). But it also reflects the popularity of Instagram as a platform. Five days later, I posted the same video as a temporary profile picture on Facebook. It received 20 likes/loves and three comments.

After posting, I realized there was a lot of data and many ways to analyze it. Ratio of views to likes? What the comments said? How much participation there was in the comments? My bunny video got more of a response on Instagram than Facebook but it might have been thrown off by the fact that I posted it about 1 week later and there is overlap between my Facebook and Instagram friends/followers, so some people were seeing the video for the second time. Also, I have a private Instagram account and I haven’t keep track of how many followers I’ve had over time. I finally decided to quantitatively analyze the data by comparing Instagram video stats over time (though another way to do it could have been analyzing all of my Instagram selfies over time):

While two video posts may not seem like a lot of data points, looking up the dates, views, likes, and comments of all the videos I have posted on Instagram took more time and work than I expected.

My interpretation ended up being less statistical/quantitative and more qualitative, which was difficult when I couldn’t objectively analyze people and their online behaviors. People definitely noticed and this was reflected less in the likes than the comments I received, both online and IRL. For the first time, people commented to me about my Instagram in IRL or referred to it on other platforms. The comments were invariably supportive, kind, and curious.

Physically, the experience of posting the video was difficult! I felt my skin crawling and wanted to delete it immediately. It felt like exposure therapy. I instantly let go of my plan to post selfies every hour, so I never got to see how the flower crown or dog filter would have been received. I just wanted to take the video down.

What I Learned from the Project (Spoiler Alert: I Learned About My Own Lack of Knowledge)

Filters

When I started this project, I thought there were only a couple of Snapchat filters. Once I was on there, I realized that there were at least 10 and many were swapped out daily. Another disturbing realization was how translucently white some of the filters made me skin look and how they edited my face (reducing the sides of my face to give me a more feminine jawline and making my nose smaller). I hadn’t known exactly how the filters distorted faces before starting the experiment. Shortly after I posted the bunny filter video, Snapchat was criticized for posting a Frida Kahlo filter on International Women’s Day that appeared to make her skin lighter. I should have researched the filters more to get a better understanding before I undertook the project, because “reclaiming” filters that are inherently problematic does not seem possible.

Social Networks

One of the obvious limitations of my distortion was that since the platforms I worked with are private (Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook), I can’t know all the data behind the scenes driving the algorithms of who sees what and why. According to Instagram, views only count if someone watches it for 3 seconds. But it counts your own views, because when I want back to check views, it added 1 to each one I checked. Again, my analysis was constrained by limited access to behind-the-scenes data.

Working with three social media platforms added too many confounding variables. For one thing, people react differently (if at all) the second time they see something. Also, even within the same platform, the possibilities for posting (and metrics for analyzing) change over time. Finally, the popularity of the platform itself fluctuates over time; and, similarly, Internet trends operate quickly, so this experiment would have been more effective a year ago.

Humanities

Like any good project grounded in the humanities, I learned a lot about myself and others. Experimenting was sort of fun, but keeping track of data was less fun. I can see why science is focused on asking answerable questions and how analyzing data in a quantitative way feels more productive and objective, and why there are ethical rules of consent for experiments. I also learned that being a performance artist requires an endless supply of confidence.

Basic Privilege? 👀

My sister mentioned that some of my likes might have been generated by “non-basic privilege”; that because I didn’t seem overtly basic, I could get away with posting a video with an unusual filter. Another friend highlighted this as being an issue as well. I am not especially avant-garde looking or anything, so being in the “uncanny valley” of ambiguous hipness probably had some impact on the data. The composition of my Instagram followers is reflective of different aspects of my life and values, which often seem at odds with one another.

The Ethics of Working with People You Know

Even though virtually all social networking posts are distorted, I felt guilty receiving compliments on posts that weren’t normal for me. It got me thinking about authenticity in virtual reality.

Here some other conclusions and tips for people who want to distort their Internet personae:

  • Panache: If your distortion’s not that different from your normal performance, it won’t register. Were the filters I chose bold enough? I don’t know. It depended on how you literally saw it.
  • Commit: Be consistent in your performance or it loses its impact. I posted one other Snapchat photo a week letter, but I had started posting other photos in the interim.
  • Know exactly what you’re doing and why. 
  • Know how you’re evaluating it. What are you keeping track of? Is it qualitative vs quantitative? Qualitative is harder with people you know.
  • Don’t tell everyone in advance. I told my immediate family and some friends about the project, because I was nervous about it, and it ended up affecting the results.

Tl; dr (because this is Internet writing)

I didn’t expect to turn into a Cindy Sherman wannabe, but that’s exactly what happened in this experiment. People were nice and the filters themselves deserve all the scrutiny they regularly receive in the blogosphere.

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