Niki Cheong is blogging

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Nikon, Burberry and a Beckham: Photography and Social Media as Performance

If you’re on Facebook, chances are you might have seen the beautiful image of a set of staircase leading straight into the sky just as an aeroplane flies by (the picture above taken from the Nikon Facebook page by user @yuuuuuuwei).

This picture was posted on the Nikon Facebook page (since removed) having won a amateur photography competition. The prize, I believe, is just a camera bag).

Those of us who don’t think too much of what flows through our timelines might just gasp in awe, and then move on. But if you read further, you’ll learn that there was much more to the picture than meets the eye.

I came across the image on Facebook first, and was lured into reading more about it through captions asking me (and other friends, I assume) to check out the comments to the post.

So, I did exactly as I was told. In the comments, I saw many variations of that image; Internet users had taken it upon themselves to “meme-fy” that original photo, putting such characters as Godzilla, Ultraman and James Bond, among others in place of the aeroplane.

Image source: Glenn Guan

It was at that point that I realised that this was a response to a much bigger issue and not just the casual birth of a new meme. These posts alluded to the fact that the aeroplane in the winning picture was not actually in the original shot.

The post has since gone ‘viral’ – for lack of a better term – including over 4,000 comments, almost 33,000 likes and almost 24,000 shares when this post was first written. The winner has taken to Instagram to apologise for what he called a joke entry, and Nikon has responded officially as well, including the decision to remove the picture from its page.

Personally, I was much less interested in the ethics of submitting a manipulated image for a “casual photo contest” (in Nikon’s words), or the standards of judging by a camera company.

Instead, I was rather fascinated with all the people responding to the incident and original post on the Nikon Facebook page asking others to “Look at the comments”.

This has made me think about commenting as a form of performance – do we post to respond, or do we post to perform?

I ask this because the meme-fication of the original post allude to the latter. Add to this a couple of posts I saw – one friend who had created one of the memes boasting about the number of likes his comment got, another chose to link to the that meme comment instead of the original post – which seemed to be calling for an audience.

Indeed, unlike many of the memes were are familiar with on the Internet – some we consume, some we create and some with modifications – these ones shared on the Facebook post is not anonymous and therefore, brings attention to oneself as much as the content of the meme.

It would appear that social media can then be a platform for performance. This reminds me of an article in The Guardian recently reporting on the backlash Burberry seems to be facing from professional photographers for hiring Brooklyn – the eldest son of David and Victoria Beckham – to shoot one of its campaigns.

Never mind that Brooklyn is a teenager; what he is not is a professional photographer. But the job is his, and social media is where it will all happen – audiences have been told to check out the #THISISBRIT hashtag on Instagram and Snapchat to follow the shoot live.

By tapping into huge audience – 5.9million Instagram users – and live-“Gramming” and “Snapping” the occasion, this comes across as a digital performance of sorts.

Add to that the suggestion in the The Guardian article by photographer Jon Gorrigan that it was likely that the whole shoot would be set up for Brooklyn to just click the shutter button, then it is even more of a performance if true.

In the case with Burberry and Beckham, this is clearly a strategy. I can imagine how both the two B’s will benefit from this experience solely on numbers – both will have access to each other’s over-5mil Instagram followers. Being associated with a luxury brand like Burberry (Brooklyn’s younger brother Romeo once modelled for them) would no doubt add value to Beckham’s profile, while Brooklyn will introduce Burberry to a younger fan base.

This has made me think about the Nikon incident and what that can teach us about strategy.

The meme-fication of the original post seems to have been done quite organically by photographers and fan of photography to mock the original picture. It would appear that the memes – in becoming memes in the first place – has distracted from the main issue at hand.

Many people are more entertained by the funny memes that have emerged from the incident more than being upset that a young amateur photographer had cheated to win a camera bag.

At the rate it’s going, I don’t think Nikon has lost much in this situation – in fact, if they wanted to be more manipulative, they’d continue feeding the meme-madness.

Already, I have seen posts of clever and witty replies by the Nikon account to the meme pictures in the comments section of that post (although, with the picture being removed, I cannot verify if those in itself is a meme or if they are authentic).

I am seeing posts on my Timeline featuring only the meme (either just the steps or the aeroplane) without a reference to Nikon. Then, Canon in Canada has jumped in on the bandwagon as well.

Up in the air! This week, share your best airplane photos with us. Extra points for creative use of photo editing software to put planes in surprising places.

Posted by Canon Canada on Monday, February 1, 2016

It would appear that this issue has taken a life of its own and moved in a very different direction.

In fact, this method of distraction as a strategy is not an uncommon practice. In an interview famed artist Ai Weiwei conducted with a member of China’s 50 Cent Party, the latter mentioned that the role of an “Internet commentator” isn’t always about manipulating information, spreading disinformation or fighting back with people who are criticising the Government.

Sometimes, he said, his role is just to do enough to distract from the issue at hand – including being so obnoxious that the whole conversation becomes an attack on him. It’s not nice having people spew hate at you, but his job is done.

This invokes the kind of behaviour we have come to expect from online trolls and flamers on various Internet sites – blogs, news sites, forums and social media.

Maybe they are all just performances after all. What motivates the performances, however, is more telling about how insidious this manipulation can be on the Internet and something we must all consider in our every day use of these platforms.

11.47pm Malaysian time (+8 GMT)

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