• Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Freedom in the air

SHIFTING IMAGES

The optics of image-making

Milia Ali

We live in a social media world, which offers innumerable opportunities to reinvent ourselves. A world where success is, to a large extent, determined by the image we project and not the real “personality” that lurks behind the image. In fact, “image-making” is now an expansive business with celebrities hiring a phalanx of media advisors, politicians engaging spin masters, entrepreneurs assigning the task to PR firms.

The “image culture” has also permeated into our daily lives. Individuals try to promote themselves through various strategies ranging from subtle innuendos, to slight exaggerations and even blatant half-truths. All it takes is a little guts, a dose of determination, and a Teflon-like ability to ward off criticism. I must admit that despite the rebuffs that one is likely to face, self-promotion is seductive and ends up impressing quite a few people. Often friends and acquaintances get used to hearing superlative praises that people shower on themselves and start believing what they hear. The worst is that, with time, the perpetrators also start believing their self-propaganda.

Image-building for personal or professional aggrandisement is nothing new. One of the oldest masters of image manipulation was King Ramses II of ancient Egypt. He managed to create such an aura of omnipotence that his death provoked widespread panic among his subjects who believed that the world would end. Ramses constructed colossal statues of himself, creating the illusion of a god-like figure vested with divine powers. Like many dictators and clever politicians of the modern age, he recorded his accomplishments by embellishing facts when they did not quite fit what he wished to be preserved in history.

Objectively speaking, not all kinds of self-promotion should be viewed negatively. There are many professions that require a carefully constructed image to achieve success. For celebrities and performers it's important to project a savvy and charismatic persona. Businesses need to remind consumers that they are the best since their success depends on their ability to build a reputation for superior products and expertise. Individuals who work for corporations often trumpet their achievements lest they go unappreciated and unrewarded.

Politicians face a more difficult task -- they must show that they are honest and dedicated to the welfare of the masses. Since these qualities are hard to project superficially they build their images through narratives as well as public actions.

However, once we are in the habit of trumpeting our achievements (real or artificially crafted) it's easy to lose sight of whether our primary focus is on building a business image, a personal brand, or just protecting our turf. The phenomenon has become more complex with the emergence of the social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. Facebook users often compete with each other by using the metric of "friends" and "likes." Some individuals change profile photos (often photo-shopped to overwhelm reality) as often as once a day. This is not all. Accounts of mundane activities, like holiday trips, meals at gourmet restaurants and even a casual dinner at a friend's, are posted with adequate pomp and fanfare to make them look like they are personal feats worthy of adulation. These posts are intended to enhance a person's self image. However, people who constantly share what is happening in their own little worlds need to pause and ask: “Does anyone really care about where I went for lunch yesterday?”

Please don't get me wrong. In many ways I am happy that Facebook has made it possible for ordinary mortals (myself included) to venture forth on their virtual ego trips so that they, too, can live through magical moments of glory. But the problem arises when we are fed with extraneous and exaggerated facts about others' lives. In the hectic pace of today's world our minds are already clogged with the minutiae of our daily grind -- the added pressure of browsing through people's travel itineraries and hourly activity schedules can be taxing! Personally, I would rather enjoy a tete-a-tete with a friend and listen to her passionate description of the Sea of Marmara than see some blurred Facebook photos of her with the sea vaguely visible in the background. I realise that physical distances and time constraints may not always make this possible -- which is why Facebook is wonderful, but only when used judiciously. Since there are no checks and balances on the use of the social media, we need to impose these controls at our own discretion.

Whatever self-promotion mechanism we use, consciously or subconsciously most of us wish to project ourselves as larger than life figures. Consequently we fail to draw the line between sharing relevant personal information and magnifying our mundane activities to give the impression that the world revolves around us. And the risk is that with time the exaggerated virtual images we create are likely to take over our real selves!

The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank. E-mail: shiftingimages@gmail.com

Published: 12:00 am Sunday, August 17, 2014

Last modified: 10:20 pm Saturday, August 16, 2014

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