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Right now, algorithms are scouring vast data sets to determine the news you’ll be exposed to today on social media, the advertisements that will appear alongside your search results and what you’ll end up being charged for your next car ride. But can algorithms be used to address more urgent social and individual problems, like how to build trust or provide effective care? Can algorithms be used to increase the love and kindness in the world?
These are the sort of questions that the people at the Crisis Text Line — a nonprofit organization that provides crisis intervention 24 hours a day via text messaging to the number 741741 — have been focusing on for four years. Their goal is to improve their own crisis counseling, shed light on the pain and suffering that Americans are experiencing every day and show how we can all find ways to respond better. Given the alarming rates of anxiety, loneliness, suicidal ideation, depression and substance abuse nationwide, this work warrants major attention.
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It remains an essential paradox of the city—that a place with so many people living so close together can also be so isolating. This is one of the phenomena that the photographer Peter Garritano hoped to explore in “Seeking,” a series of portraits of New Yorkers who have posted advertisements in the Strictly Platonic personals section of Craigslist. The world has acclimated to the fact that people might go online to find a mate, but there are fewer formal avenues through which to find friends, perhaps because friendship is not always acknowledged as something that people have to go out in search of. “We already know everyone’s looking for love,” Garritano told me in an e-mail. “I’m more concerned with our social requirements beyond romance.”
Garritano contacted his subjects through their ads (he got no response to “90 or 95%” of the messages he sent, he told me) then arranged the sittings, where he would come up with the mood for the shots more or less on the spot, based on the subjects’ personalities and his interactions with them. “Seeking” presents each portrait alongside the subject’s Craigslist ad, which, taken together, convey a dizzying range of interests, personalities, desires, projects, anxieties. Many of the people posting are new to town, hoping to get a foothold in New York life. “I’m not sure exactly how to approach the city,” a young man writes, adding that he figures that his chiselled looks could earn him some fast cash working in adult entertainment, if only he had a friend to advise him. Others are veteran New Yorkers in need of a change of pace.
Why We Post is “a global anthropological research project on the uses and consequences of social media” full of fascinating insights and myth-busting surprises. Check out the study website here, or read a commentary on the study in The Economist (link to the article); here is an excerpt:
These fly-on-the-wall perspectives refute much received wisdom. One of the sceptics’ biggest bêtes noires is the “selfie”—which is often blamed for fostering self-regard and an undue focus on attractiveness. “Why We Post”, however, reveals that the selfie itself has many faces. In Italy girls were indeed seen to take dozens of pictures of themselves before settling on one to post. In Brazil many selfies posted by men were taken at the gym. But at the British site, Dr Miller found, schoolchildren posted five times as many “groupies” (images of the picture-taker with friends) as they did selfies. Britons have also created a category called “uglies”, wherein the purpose is to take as unflattering a self-portrait as possible. And in Chile another unique genre has developed: the “footie”. This is a shot taken of the user’s propped-up feet, a sign of relaxation.
The often-humorous, marked-up images known as memes have also come in for criticism… Yet in all cases Dr Miller sees meme-passing not as limiting what social-media users think and say, but as enabling discourse. Many users happily forward memes laced with strong ideological messages about which they would not dare to comment individually.
“Why We Post” thus challenges the idea that the adoption of social media follows a single and predictable trajectory… The study also refutes the idea that social media are making humans any less human. Users are, in Dr Miller’s words, “merely attaining something that was latent in human beings”.
Thanks to Huw and Paul for the links!
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A popular hashtag in China #WhatIsYourLoneliestPhoto is raising that very question [of what loneliness looks like] on the popular social media platform Weibo. Thousands of people have responded by posting images which they think capture loneliness in everyday life.
Although it is unknown what exactly is happening, or has happened, in many of these photos, just by posting them alongside the hashtag #WhatIsYourLoneliestPhoto has reignited the debate about loneliness in China, and especially as experienced by older people.
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Nobody warned me that my early 30s would be ushered in with the crack of an invisible starting gun; that all around me the women I spent years eating, dressing, dancing and making an exhibition of myself with would get busy. Proper jobs, babies, deposits, older parents, relationships, actual hobbies and hour-long commutes were a kick in the nads to our social life. Suddenly, if you wanted to hang out, you had to “pencil it in”, even though none of us have owned pencils since Year 9 maths. Which means, more often than anyone admits, you find yourself all gussied up with no one to see.
Step forward Hey! VINA. Hey VINA! is a new app that, in their own sphincter-crunching words, “empowers women to tap into the power of their extended network to make new connections in the real world”. This, for those of you who don’t speak fluent social media, basically means using your phone to pluck real life friends out of the muddy puddle we call People On The Internet. It would be too easy to sneer at such an idea – to throw our smart claws up in the air in horror at the sheer crassness of it all. But, there but for the grace of circumstance go us all.
I first heard about the writer Jamie Keiles and her Instagram quest “to photograph something that’s usually invisible” on the excellent podcast Reply All. Here is an excerpt from her article on Medium:
The Instagram economy trades heavily in FOMO and YOLO. Instagram is a platform for people who, if not actively happy, are at least moderately invested in aggregating the happier moments of life. It is not an intuitive place for depressed people — people like me who had long accepted missing out, and instead were just hoping to die.
This mismatch didn’t stop me from gramming, multiple times a day. While my broader feed depicted friends livin’ deep and suckin’ the marrow from life, my own photos focused more on me sucking at life itself. If Instagram proper has certain conventions (aerial shots of artisanal food, latte art posed beside print media, selfies depicting compulsive leisure), then depressiongrams too have tropes: the medication tableau, the bed selfie, eerie photographs of screens that reflect too much time spent alone on the internet at night.
…On Instagram, I found a corner of the net where I was safe to shit out images of my terrible life in live time, without any imperative to express what I needed or interpret what it meant.
Photo: Loulou d’Aki
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Some Japanese men are wooing girlfriends who don’t exist. While they can only interact with their partner through a pre-written script, these virtual beauties — Rinko, Manaka or Nene — offer a kind of instant emotional connection at the tap of a stylus. The girls can kiss, “hold” a player’s hand, exchange flirtatious text messages and even snap out in anger if the player leaves a conversation. It’s one of Japan’s biggest gaming phenomenons called Love Plus – available on the Nintendo portable consoles and the iPhone.
“There is no friction in these relationships, obviously,” says Loulou d’Aki, a Swedish photographer who documented a number of Japanese players earlier this year. “The girls behave very sweetly with the guys in what they say, how they respond to them, and with big eyes and heart-shaped faces—who wouldn’t want that?”
D’Aki teamed up with Swiss science writer Roland Fischer and together, they sought to go beyond the existing online conversation. “When you Google ‘Japan’ and ‘love’, you find all these articles about lonely people who never get married,” she says. “I didn’t want to reduce it to that. I wanted to show the human aspect, the individual stories behind those who use these applications.”
Her images reveal the secret lives of thirty-somethings who have accepted living alone instead of looking for love. They share a common yearning for connection and found it on a touch screen. Many see it as just a game and can easily distinguish between the computerized and reality, while others are perpetually stuck in a love loop, desperately waiting for the next update of the game.