Can Social Media Kill Our Aesthetic Vision?

Can Social Media Kill Our Aesthetic Vision?

What do good coffee and good images have in common? Our taste and the ability to understand their ingredients need to be trained. But we can also walk into the trap of feckless consumption.

The Promises of a New Era

The internet came along with promising visions about a glorious future for humanity. After a few decades of living with the internet, most of these visions have been toned down. The concept of offering everyone participation in a global network was too good to be true. Of course, the internet made information accessible everywhere, and without it, you would never be able to read articles on Fstoppers, find a variety of professional camera tests and independent recommendations, or online courses and books to improve your skills. Yet, the internet is a rough place as well. Angry comments, threats, hatred, and fake news have split societies all over the planet.

On a more personal level, the internet and especially social media have also influenced the way we consume and communicate. For us, as photographers, probably the most radical change is the meaning of images in today’s world. Estimations vary, but it’s certain that we are exposed to thousands of images a day. Editorials, adverts, self-display, decoration: there is hardly any moment in life where we don’t find an image in our direct environment.

Social media plays its part. Whenever people are lonely, bored, or want to distract themselves, they will take out a small device, almost like a detachable body part, and check out what’s going on elsewhere in the world.

Even in parts of the Indian desert, you will find connection to the internet.

Humans Love Visual Communication

Humans are very visually oriented beings. About 50 percent of our brain is in one way or the other connected to analyzing or reacting to visual stimulation. Although we communicate by using other senses as well, visual sensation always plays an important role. Social media enhanced this focus even more. Instead of writing text messages, we often post images to communicate our feelings, ideas, or transfer other information. Of course, text messages are visual, too. Yet, they are more abstract representations of reality than images are.

The variety of images we see on social media is as broad as it could be. Starting with blurry snapshots of unidentifiable food, it includes selfies with friends, images of our holidays, up to high-end professional photography productions, all brought to you in less than a blink of an eye.

To Feel or Not to Feel

If we only stopped here, there would be no issue with social media. As you might guess, though, there is a downside to all of that, and you probably know what it is: the overflow of images.

Have you ever opened up your social media app and got sucked into the automation of swiping, double-tapping, and moving on? I see many people doing this for many hours a day, always waiting for the next excitement to happen. Later, though, most of the seen will be forgotten. The excitement? Long gone.

Aesthetics and beauty are very abstract concepts that describe the almost irrational appreciation for a work of art. We simply feel the beauty of an image when it’s appealing to us. The word “aesthetic” derives from the Greek word “aesthesis,” which can be translated into “perception” or “sensation.” Aesthetics, as the science of sensation, tries to find out how looking at something becomes a sensual experience of actually perceiving something.

There is another word that derives from the ancient Greek “aesthesis,” and it’s very common in our modern world: “anesthesia” is the science of not perceiving anything.

Numb Consumption

There are many different theories about beauty, taste, and art. One commonality of many theorists is that you have to train your aesthetic vision to enjoy art. While some of it can be enjoyed by everyone, understanding the small and fine nuances has to be learned. I have a friend who can not only taste the different beans in coffee, but also tell you if they have been milled the right way and if the boiling temperature was a little too hot. While most of us simply drink a cup of coffee in the morning as a normal procedure, he focused on the art of coffee-making and enjoys a good coffee far more than others. His knowledge and experience, but most of all his patience and devotion make his life a little more enjoyable each day.

If something is rare, like coffee in the desert, you'll enjoy it even more.

When we compare social media consumption to my friend’s coffee expertise, we can see the same phenomenon. Everyone is able to shoot good pictures today, just like most of us know how to make coffee. On the other hand, we can’t develop our photographic taste and skills when we only consume images in a rush without caring for the composition, nuances, and messages.

If we simply swipe and give every image less than a second of our time, we don’t develop our aesthetic vision, but anesthetically consume the images. We don’t perceive them; we simply look at them and forget them. Images can be like a drug: we need to see more and more to get satisfied.

Because of an undeveloped artistic vision combined with an enormous supply of images, we risk consuming quantity instead of quality. Yet, quantity alone doesn’t help us develop artistic vision and thus doesn’t help us to learn how to enjoy art. Consequently, we consume even faster to get just a little satisfaction out of a mass of images.

What Can We Do About It?

Resist. There is only this one thing that we can do to not get sucked into the rabbit hole of social media. While mere consumption is easy, it takes time and practice to develop artistic vision. This also relates to your consumption of likes. You don’t always need to run for the short-term satisfaction. Talking to people about your images and meeting other photographers in person often is much more satisfying and helps you develop.

If you really want to grow your aesthetic vision, you will also find good help in galleries and exhibitions. The photographs might even be the same, like the ones you will find on social media. Yet, the room and setting of a professional exhibition offers a space to devote yourself to the artwork. It’s slow and deep instead of the fast and superficial world of social media.

It Depends on Your Consumer Behavior

I can’t complain too much about the internet, though. It shows me where to find galleries and exhibitions nearby, gives me the opportunity to work on different projects, and helps me find the contact details of customers and clients. On the other hand, I also spent a lot of time wasting energy on anesthetic consumption. But that’s actually my fault, not the internet’s.

It’s still not as bad as it can be. When I look at our Fstoppers community’s images, I take far more time for each image and try to understand what’s going on in the photograph. I’m also about to rediscover Flickr and smaller photography communities at the moment. Nonetheless, especially in such a common field like photography, it’s important to halt and check if we’re just consuming or really learning something.

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Mike Yamin's picture

I think the terms "content" and "content creator" are evidence of this and I'm not a big fan of what they seem to represent. It's like, I'm not a photographer, videographer, or artist, I just make "content" to fill X space. In addition to galleries, I think good art books can slow you down enough to absorb imagery in a more meaningful way.

Deleted Account's picture

A writing teacher friend retired... and picked up a camera. Trouble is she's forgotten the art of editing. 70-100 image posts appear a few times a week. Sure there are some gems amidst the glob, but I stopped looking at any of them.

Over saturation in an image or a person's social media feed is an invitation to unfollow.

David Pavlich's picture

Overly saturating an image doesn't mean it's wrong. Some shots thrive on over saturation. I cite my print sales. I sell a LOT of HDR stuff which are heavy on the tone mapping. A purist will poo poo the shots, but my sales tell me that regular people like it.

I've sold a lot of this particular print which was awarded third place in my first entry into an exhibition.

Deleted Account's picture

I don't mean any offense by this but I think this is an example of the point made by the article. Sales don't mean it's "good" photography either. A fast food chain probably sells more items of food than a 5 star restaurant. Mass appeal is appealing to the lowest common denominator.

But at the end of the day, what is good is ultimately subjective so as long as the creator feels proud of their work, F@#% anyone (myself included) who thinks it's not good enough.

David Pavlich's picture

No offense taken. Anytime I put up a shot like this, I expect negative reactions, especially from the purists among us. Like you said, it's all subjective. Whether it's good or bad is an individual opinion. Hey, someone paid $120K for a banana taped to a wall. All I know is that there's a lot of prints like this hanging in people's homes and offices. :-)

Deleted Account's picture

Which is indirectly or more... part of the dumbing down of the U.S. electorate.
(Yeah... that's right. I said it) 😎

Deleted Account's picture

I believe it fits in with the level of effort each user puts it into it.

Deleted Account's picture

This is my personal view, but I feel like since photography has become exponentially more approachable over the last few decades, we've seen the creative process dumbed down. Technology has now brought us far enough to arrive at computational photography. One of the first things we had to read in a college photography courses was this great piece on photography by Paul Graham, "Photography is Easy, Photography is Difficult." It's thought provoking and I feel is relevant to the article above.

Deleted Account's picture

Important words. Thank you for the share.

Julian Ray's picture

Spot on Nils!

Rhonald Rose's picture

Our eyes are constantly trained to like saturated images and we don't like unsaturated ones anymore. Every digital technology around us push saturation to it's limits and we can't observe regular contents anymore.

I say dump online images for some time, visit local galleries, slow down and start enjoying photographs again.

Easier said then done, isn't it?

Przemek Lodej's picture

I think it already has.

T Van's picture

Just because you own a hammer does not mean you can build a house.
Value is directly related to rarity, or lack there of.
If you spend more time retouching and color grading than you spend shooting, are you a Photographer, or Photoshop artist?

Deleted Account's picture

A good reminder that we should be careful what we practice, because we will eventually get good at it over time. Spending more time shooting will in effect, mean less time needed in editing or the "fix it in post" mentality.

Mutley Dastardly's picture

Thank you to the author for the extra ammunition to shoot on social media (i have a major dislike for those).