Pics or it didn't happen: Our obsession with permanence | TiltMN

Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Our Obsession with Permanence

Something happens. Something memorable, or kinda cool, or not really that interesting at all. But we take thirteen pics of it anyway. We have to take pictures, record it, share and show the world – for posterity’s sake.

That we were there. That we are here, now.

This is really nothing new. And this is nothing we would put on the shoulders of the Millennials (Gen Y) and Pivotals (Gen Z) who have had the luxury of social media basically since day one (and therefore the normality, and subsequent pressures, of performing online).

It’s just the latest form/different version of the photo books mom/grandmom pull out every time you start dating someone new. It’s just the logical next step for a species that started in the dirt, moved on to cave paintings, invented the camera in 1888, and now has a tool to share who they are with the entire world in the blink of an eye.

This is just progress.

But why is it something so rooted into our DNA, or just our sense of identity? Why do we feel the need to capture everything and look at it over and over again? And for other people to do the same? Why, ultimately, do we feel like something isn’t really real, something didn’t really happen, something isn’t worth remembering, unless we have the physical photo of it to look back on and share with others?


There are countless studies (for example: False memories in highly superior autobiographical memory individuals) that will tell you that many (most) of our organic memories are junk, and can be created from scratch with just a little coaxing from an outside source. That we can be swayed into remembering things that didn’t really happen with just a few semantic nudges. That the way we remember things isn’t necessarily the way that they happened.

If this is true, is something like a picture the necessary (or only) antidote? The only cure for bad memory syndrome? Is that why we are so worried that we will forget, or remember wrong, or simply not be able appreciate something truly, unless we can actually stare it in the face?

Or is it bigger than that?

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter (less prevalent), and Instagram (more prevalent), the social media OG forefathers like MySpace, and those pre-internet photo albums, are designed for us to capture who we are, and more importantly, how we want to show ourselves to the world.

It has become a sort of cultural currency.

The question then becomes, what are we without them? Or – are we without them?

If we can’t quantify our existence with a whole array of pictures; is it a human equivalent of “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it…?” i.e., if we did (insert activity here), or if we went to (insert exotic place here), and there aren’t pictures of it did it really happen? Especially as many of our memories are distorted, or distort-able, rather. Did we make a sound?

Pics or it didn't happen: Our obsession with permanence | TiltMN

Pics, pics, pics

We’re collecting *ourselves* the same way people can’t throw away keepsakes, clay sculptures from 3rd grade, old love letters, things they feel hold some meaning to their lives; that represent them, holding some key to their identity. We’ve become hoarders of our own pasts and experiences in these ever-growing collections of pictures.

Will there, someday soon, be a reality-TV show about the worst selfie hoarders, and their insane photo collections? Will we pay professionals go through your Instagram with you, or your cloud, to get rid of the the pictures you don’t need, that are just taking up space in your life?


But we are still going to have to deal with the fact that our entire histories are, and will continue to be, online for the world to see. Even as we grow and change, and it can be cringe-worthy to look at old photos from high school or college or before. Facebook is the scrapbook that can’t be burned after you’ve died.

(Actually, here is what they’re doing about the profiles of the deceased: What will happen to my Facebook account if I pass away?) These platforms have been around long enough now that solutions have become increasingly necessary.)

And even then, you’re never truly gone. The things you post, even once they’ve been deleted, can still be found again. The internet is forever. Thank you, cached files.

So what about something like Snapchat?

The popular social media platform that takes a slightly more Buddhist approach to pictures; Snapchat changed the (social media) game. Only a few seconds to enjoy – a fleeting glimpse of someone/somewhere/something that hits its mark and then disappears.

We started taking different kinds of pictures. Quicker, goofier, less important pictures. Pictures as a moment as opposed to a memory. Something only relevant to those few seconds not meant to last any longer. And the excitement in that – waiting for the next one; unconcerned with the permanence of one pic, instead looking forward to the next.

But even Snapchat ended up introducing a way for you to save your pictures, your entire story, and everything you’ve ever received (and thank you, screenshots).

We have trouble letting go, even of something that was intended to be temporary.

But today is most important

But that is less important that what we’re doing right now. Divided into two camps: Those who stare and those who are stared at. Like everything else we’ve ever created, there is a hierarchy. The difference is, you don’t have to be Marilyn Monroe. You can be someone (anyone) in your pics that you aren’t in “real” life. You can present yourself in new and interesting ways daily that maybe don’t represent you who are on the street, or in the office.

(It’s important to note the dangers that occur when we conflate the two. Like in this story from Shelby Davis-Cooper: My Instagram’s Perfect, My Real Life Is Not. It still remains true that if you can’t back up the person you are in those pictures, you might still end up with nothing.)

But it’s getting to the point where it doesn’t really matter if you’re successful, fun, beautiful, rich, whatever unless you have the pictures to prove it.

You only meet around 3 new people a day on average in the city (learn about your impact here: Why We Live – Counting The People Your Life Impacts), but with Instagram (etc), a number that grows exponentially larger than that can know how interesting your life is, how dope you are, simply with the right hashtag. And then follow you. And then every little thing you do has been quantified.

The pinnacle that we are struggling to achieve is to live the life that is picture-worthy on its own. To be interesting enough that everyone pays attention. No need for filters. No need for Photoshop. To be, in a word, special.

And so the pictures are increasingly important: If you met the Dalai Lama, if you dived off of a cliff in New Zealand, or swam with sharks in the Bahamas (#OMG #socrazy) you had better have pics. Because everybody else certainly does. Because that’s what makes it real.

Because if you don’t, whatever it is that you did, didn’t really happen.

Read this next: Ageism in America: What’s the point of living if no one wants to f*ck you?

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Pics or It Didn't Happen: Our Obsession with Permanence