In 2013, Sarah Elizabeth Meyler filmed people at a club in Dublin under the pretense she was taking their photos instead. The resulting two minute video is entirely comprised of titivating and facial embellishments and the result, underscored by a jarring piano sonata, seems to derogate rather than celebrate this self-conscious tendency to preen for a camera. Their behaviour in the video–the strange contortions of the facial muscles, the calculated slide through expressions, and that uncanny stillness in an otherwise bustling nightclub–stylizes and hypermediates these people. Each participant in the video seems to don an avatar, one that distorts or exaggerates his or her identity.
In their article “Virtually Me”, Smith and Watson address, if only briefly, the issue of using avatars for self-presentation and suggest that a useful question to ask when addressing this feature is “What social boundaries are crossed or transgressed through self-presentation as an avatar?” (79). In the context with this video, its viral dissemination and the virulent responses online to its subjects, provide some clue that a social boundary has been breached. The language used to describe the video on popular blog sites points to this rupture; many sites describe the video as awkward and cringe-inducing, and many took to calling the subjects in the video “hipsters” (perhaps intentionally, this designation was not given by the creators of the video on YouTube).
In some sense, I wonder if these reproaches might be prompted from the uncanny disruption of sincerity in the video. If so, then the behaviour is cringe-inducing for others to watch not simply because it seems so silly, but because it points to an almost nihilistic inability to be sincere for a photograph. The mugging for the camera might be read as an anarchistic inversion of the photograph’s ability to document authenticity. Instead of capturing anything authentic about these people’s identities, it captures only their calibrated spontaneity. But can this ostensible inauthenticity also be authentic? Are these subjects experimenting with versions of self, or merely mugging it for entertainment? Both? Smith and Watson raise this same dilemma of authenticity, and suggest that “virtual environments only make clearer the critique made by poststructural theorists that all self-presentation is performative, that authenticity is an effect, not an essence” (75). Smith and Watson conclude, that “if authenticity can be ‘manufactured’, if it is an effect of features of self-performance, then credibility, veracity, and sincerity acquire slipperiness that can prompt suspicious readings” (75)–or disparagement.