Friday, January 21, 2011


Botgirl had a recent brief blogpost about Flickr Streams which made me bristle. It made me bristle because it, in all honesty, applied to me. My flickr is, barring some group shots, almost entirely comprised of me in some sort of outfit in a place in Second Life.

The combination of the title: "Gracie Kendal 1000 Avatar Project as the Antithesis of Avatar Photo Narcissism" and "I see it as the antidote for the type of virtual identity narcissism that's reflected in many avatar photostreams on Flickr." easily combine to castigate those of us who focus on self-reflection in Flickr, which the implication that ones Flickr Stream serves as commentary on One's Intrinsic Nature.

And One's Intrinsic Nature is Narcissistic. And Narcissistic is bad.


It's interesting that the term used, and the Myth called up, is that of Narcissus - who was male and who literally did nothing but look at his reflections, thus wasting away to nothing (a similar obsessiveness is shown in Echo, who followed Narcissus everywhere and wasted away repeating only what he said - I leave the details of gender analysis of Obsession in this Myth as an exercise for the reader).

In this context, it's interesting to note that, as far as I know, the vast majority of people snapping pictures of themselves on Flickr are, like myself, female. In other words - we're supposed to be Echo in the Myth, not Narcissus; obsessed with the other, not with the self.

It's also interesting that this is said in the context of a blog about someone examining who they are if they were a female virtual avatar, without an offline representation, which has since become a fascinating exercise in recursion applied to recursion - meta of the meta of identity where identity is experienced reflective in both the self and others.

This clearly is a case of the textual-and-comic self-reflector calling the image self-reflector a narcissist.

Or, at least, that's the snippy response in line with "I'm rubber, you're glue" and "your mom."

Up and Out

While I was ruminating on this, I had a very pleasant person respond to my first Color Challenge Flickr set asking why it was so dark, and kindly letting me know I could alter the scene gamma, if I wanted, to make my pictures lighter. As the picture above shows, there is very little contrast in most of those pictures, and where there is contrast it tends to not be on the face, which is where people focus, but on other features. In "Up and Out" above, I was primarily interested in the light reflected on the hair (which is very unlike my usual style), the curve of the upward lifted arm down to the breast, and the calf. I used wearable light sources tinted gray and black to achieve the quality of light, and it took me rather a while. Indeed, I lost a few pictures because the area I was photographing myself in fell apart (The Spencer Museum of Art is an automated, moving sim) while I was trying to get the lighting right.

So place yourself where I was. On the one hand, accused of being a Narcissist; on the other hand instructed on how to make my avatar show up better in my pictures.

Northern Light Intoxication

Women get accused of being vain a lot. It's one of those "let me regurgitate hundreds of years of stereotypes to show how edgy I am" comedian schticks, usually cast in the light of "women take HOURS to get ready" and "all those shoes - who needs them? I have one pair that I bought ten years ago!" Women's obsession with appearance is treated both as comic and as universal.

Women are usually referenced in conjunction with their appearance, from Republicans claiming they were better because their women were hotter to female programmers being rated on their hotness as soon as a picture surfaces. Across the internet, women's photographs are often requested as soon as they assert their gender, and a common way of dismissing the points of women in debate is to dismiss her appearance, even if there's no way of knowing what she looks like. A website of male lawyers stalked and photographed female lawyers and rated them, all without the consent of the women being photographed.

The importance of a woman's appearance to determine her worth is a frequent assumption and topic of conversation, both in terms of actually rating women by their appearance instead of any skill or ability we might have, to insulting women because women spend time and money on our appearance. In this context, both complements and insults perpetuate the sexism - focusing on the appearance of a politician or programmer instead of her abilities as a politician or programmer, even if the language is "Wow, she's hot; I'd so do her." is inherently insulting because it takes a multifaceted person and flattens her to an object who can't even refuse your sexual advances.

Starry Rest

So with this context in mind - "women are obsessed with their appearance and this is a bad thing, but women who don't conform to narrow dictates of appearance are not worthy of being seen/heard" - lets return to Botgirl's original statement, summed up in: "I see it as the antidote for the type of virtual identity narcissism that's reflected in many avatar photostreams on Flickr."

In the original Myth about Obsession, there are prescribed gender roles - men are obsessed with themselves and women are obsessed with men. A female narcissist flies in the face of the Myth itself, and the unspoken assumption that women should not be seen to be focusing on our appearance. The very act of a woman focusing on her appearance, and on variations of it, is inherently threatening to the Myth of Obsession with Prescribed Gender Roles (with this in mind, consider how often men are given a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and women are given a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder).

The antidote Botgirl prescribed to this narcissism is a project (which seems lovely) of a thousand+ avatars photographed on a plain gray background, thus placing the individuality of one avatar into the context of many avatars. In other words, the antidote is removing the focus from the self through an exploration of identity through clothing, background, and poses and putting the self into the context of it's relationship with other people.

In other words, women - stop looking at yourself; look at everyone else like you're supposed to. Why do you need all those pictures/shoes/clothes/cosmetics, anyway? Ah, women; they're from a hot, gaseous planet and not understandable to we Real People.


I do think an exploration of what purpose extended flickr streams of images of a person serves, especially in terms of Art and Identity - but if the context of the exploration is that Self-Reflection can only be Narcissistic, then we've lost any chance of anything worthwhile before we've even begun.

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