- The Qualified Self: Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life by Lee Humphreys
MIT Press, 2018, 200 pp. ISBN 9780262037853, $30.00 hardcover.
Much of the rapidly expanding research into the relationship between life writing and digital media has emphasized technological transformation and a corresponding epochal shift in how the self is constructed in different media over time. By contrast, one of the key arguments made by this timely book is that the public representations of selfhood that we associate with platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube are direct descendants of vernacular diary keeping, letter writing, and journaling in earlier periods. Anna Poletti and Julie Rak's Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online (2014) is a collection of essays that brings together life writing and new media studies with a largely contemporary focus. Taking a complementary approach, Humphreys in The Qualified Self looks in two directions at once: both back at the kinds of life writing that emerged as a result of earlier technological forms, and forward into the varieties of self-representation made possible by social media in the present. For this reason, the book usefully supplements other accounts that overly fetishize the transformative potential of new technologies, and it has immediately become an essential addition to the existing critical literature on digital life writing.
The Qualified Self: Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life starts off by defining three key terms: account, accounting, and accountability. Humphreys prefers the term account to other concepts that have previously dominated the field such as narrative, testimony, or bearing witness because she suggests that an account is inherently tied to identity in a way that mediates between online and offline performances of selfhood, and between individual and collective affiliation. An account, in other words, implies a subject in process. In keeping with her overall emphasis on how the traces of selfhood expressed in contemporary social media correspond to earlier media practices of which they are in fact the descendants, she suggests that the writing of names and addresses in diaries, scrapbooks, and photograph albums in an earlier period were tantamount to the creation of particular forms of account that now exist in digital form. Accounting is then the name for the process of compiling lots of different media accounts, and by doing so documenting, chronicling, and cataloguing diverse kinds of experience. Accountability is the term she uses to inject a degree of ethical consideration into the process, since when we use social media we are "accountable to others for the traces we create . . . for the traces created about us by others" and "to others for the traces they create about themselves" (14).
Chapter 2 examines the means by which everyday experiences are rendered normalizing and normative through sharing, which also has the effect of rendering them meaningful and hence imbues them with value and importance both for the person sharing and the community among whom the experience is shared. It situates social media accounting in the context of media rituals and routines more [End Page 477] broadly, concepts which are more anthropological in nature than the chapter overtly declares.
Chapter 3 expands existing media research in the area of identity performance by arguing that the visual presentation of the self is a form of social interaction. This argument is situated in the context of technological change over the long term, and makes an explicit comparison between early Kodak photography and Instagram. Such an approach has the useful effect of debunking the myth that social media have created fundamentally new ways of performing identity by giving those media a substantial evolutionary prehistory.
Chapter 4 is devoted to what Humphreys calls "remembrancing." In arguing that this is a practice employed by people to create media traces of momentous events, she suggests that creating accounts of such events can be seen as a means by which the process of remembering itself is highly mediated. Her discussion is again rooted in earlier forms of technology such as the hand-written diary or travel journal, and these are again usefully compared to more recent...