Tag: Social Media

A Life Well Documented

‘Minutiae’ is an app that prompts users to photograph their lives. In the process, it breaks with all conventions of social media and the internet.

Any life is the sum of small moments: Minutes that become hours, hours that become days and years. “Everything is a fearless process of becoming”, writes photography critic John Banville.
Like him, many inventors and documentarians have grappled with the passing of time and the way it accumulates into a human life. American inventor Buckminster Fuller kept a “rigorous record” of his life: He documented each of his days between 1917 to 1982 in the “Dymaxion Chronofile”, a 700 volume diary of his life in 15 minute intervals.
Much of Fuller’s time was undoubtedly consumed by writing his journal, which is why newer generations of so-called lifeloggers rely on technology to construct a record: In the 2000s, Microsoft engineer Gordon Bell began wearing a camera that took a photo every 30 seconds. Meanwhile, designer Nicholas Feltron used an app that had him answer a quick questionnaire about his activity several times a day. At the end of the year, he assembled the data into “Yearly Reports”, breaking life down into beautiful graphs.
In recent years, the notion of lifelogging (or flogging, its rather unfortunate abbreviation) has become rather commonplace: It’s something many now voluntarily do on social media, building a record of their days through incremental status updates or Instagram posts. And as technology becomes so pervasive that it starts disappearing, it’s easier than ever to live a life well documented: Phones already seamlessly track such diverse data as location, physical activity, or even health.
Artists Martin Adolfsson and Daniel J. Wilson have taken on lifelogging from a completely different angle: They argue that it’s the unremarkable, random moments that are worth documenting – and have built an app to do just that. I sat down with them to talk about how their app Minutiae does it, and how they broke with all conventions of social media in the process.

My dictionary defines the word ‘minutiae’ as “the small, precise, or trivial details of something”. What’s so fascinating about triviality?
Daniel: We began this project through the New Museum, which had a theme called ‘The Invisible City’. Part of that was a focus on big data, which was on the rise in New York City. We realized that big data always means you lose the small details: The outliers, the round edges. When we created the app, we wanted a name that hinted at recapturing moments that would otherwise disappear. Moments that seem like they don’t have an impact, even though they do.
What do you mean?
Daniel: We won’t know what the impact is until the experiment has run its course in four years. But studies have shown that an old photo triggers memories. We don’t want to show you something you remember, like the birthday from four years ago. We want to show you something like the sink you used to wash dishes in four years ago. Chances are you won’t remember that – but now that you got it documented, it’s going to bring back a bunch of other memories. The photo is a memory trigger.

A photo taken with Minutiae.

Another photo from Minutiae. The kitchen sink you might remember in a few years.

Social media networks like Instagram work by showing life as a succession of exceptional moments. You are suggesting that’s an illusion.
Martin: We can all just look at daily life around us. Every now and then there are highlights, but most of our daily lives are made up of routine moments, repeated day after day. Over time, we tend to not think of these moments as significant, even if at some point they might have been. When you first move into an apartment, everything feels new and exceptional. But over time, it becomes routine, just like everything else. Minutiae helps us document those moments we wouldn’t consider important when we experience then, but over time become more and more valuable.
The unexpected ones
Look at what happens on Instagram: People share highlights, but I believe that ordinary moments are more valuable in helping us gain an understanding of a person’s life that unique highlights do – just because they’re more relatable.

Since you mentioned the word ‘routine’: Your app relies on routine as well. Once a day, it prompts users to capture and upload whatever they’re doing. Walk me through that.
Martin: Once a day, all participants receive an alert, regardless of time zone. This means all participants take part in a routine, or rather a ritual. You have a window of one minute to respond to the notification. Once you open it, you have five seconds to actually take a picture…
…to prevent artful composing?
Martin: …and to make people more spontaneous. The more time you have, the more you can overthink your photo. We want you to document what’s in front of you with all honesty.
What happens with the picture?
Martin: Slowly but surely, you build a own timeline consisting of 1440 pictures. Each represent a minute, and all those minutes add up to one day. Since you only get an alert a day, it takes you 1440 days to collect all the minutes. When you access the app outside of the alert, you just see a screen, a grid of 1440 squares. If you miss an alert, you just get a black square and a new alert the next day. Each square represents a day of your life, so if you’re asleep for one third of the day, one third of your squares are going to be black.

There’s also a social component.
Martin: Once you’ve taken the photo, you can peek into someone else’s timeline for 60 seconds: To see someone else’s photo taken at the same time as yours, and to scroll back and forth in their timeline to build a short narrative about that person’s life. After 60 seconds, the app shuts you out, and the next time you take a picture, you’ll be matched with someone else.
You play with the assertion that this is an unsocial network, which departs from everything we think of as a social one. Why add the social component at all?
Daniel: It is social, but also not social. You get to peek into someone’s life but there’s no way to connect with them whatsoever. It is more of a voyeuristic experience.
To see how normal their lives are?
Martin: That’s the point. You take a step away from the curated self, from the highlights, and actually peek into a mundane, everyday moment. I’ve been using the app for three, four months now and it’s remarkable how similar everyone’s life is, regardless of whether you get matched with someone in South Africa, Israel, Egypt, or Sweden. Everyone shares a similar routine.

Normal life, randomly captured.

In the early 2000s, Gordon Bell experimented with lifelogging, wearing a camera around his neck that took a photo every 30 seconds. He stopped his experiment after eight years, saying that the activity “wasn’t bringing a lot of value to my life.”
Daniel: There’s no guarantee of value, but what we find interesting is both our own experience and the results of the Harvard report. Nobody denies that a photo album or taking photo has a value to it – it’s good to document your highlights. But we already have multiple ways of remembering highlights already: Camera, Facebook, Instagram, and our memories.
None of those mediums captures the mundane moments.
Martin: Exactly. The Harvard study found that people who were instructed took both ‘highlights’ and ‘boring’ photos. After just six months, they were asked what they wanted to see – which was the boring moments. Because they don’t remember them. That’s what the Minutiae project is trying to experiment with. It is an art project, an experiment, after all. For some people it might be more meaningful than for others.
Isn’t €16,99 a bit high of a price for confronting me with how unremarkable my life is?
Daniel: A lot of the ideas in Minutiae go against what is the dominating business model of apps: Trying to maximize the amount of users, trying to maximize the amount of time spent with the app, and trying to sell as much user data as possible. Our app is not free, we’re paying for bandwidth and server cost. What you get for that is never getting advertised to and never having your data sold. I like that some people are upset about the price. It reminds us that when something is free, you are the product.
Martin: It’s actually $14.99 in the U.S. But Apple charges more money in other countries and unfortunately we are unable to change it. But we’re not a start-up and out business model isn’t that – this is an art project and art costs money.
You’re getting a lot of attention because you’re so radically departing from what we consider an app should do: Users aren’t pushed towards perfection, they barely even have agency.
Daniel: The most common rating we get on the App Store is five stars. The second most common one is two stars. You either love it or hate it. Some people think an app should be free, on their own terms, trying to make their lives more interesting. But Minutiae doesn’t fall into any of those traditional categories. Some people find it ridiculous, others love it. This isn’t Facebook, we’re not trying to get everyone on the planet on board. This is a project for people who are into it and actually go through with it will have an interesting experience, something meaningful in the end.
Martin: Everyone is participating in the same ritual at the very same time, regardless of nationality, religion, or gender. I think that’s pretty unique, and that makes it fairly unique. And to make it more democratic: The Android version is in the works.
Check out the artists’ website or download Minutiae on the App Store.

"We are surrounded by the lonely all the time"

Her experience of being alone in New York City inspired writer and artist Olivia Laing to explore the notion of loneliness and its intersection with art. In her book “The Lonely City”, she unravels the past of several artists and the impact isolation had on their work.

Reading your book “The Lonely City”, I couldn’t help but think that loneliness is hard to pin down in a specific place…
Loneliness is not bound to a specific place, that’s true. And it isn’t at all the same thing as solitude. Solitude means you are physically alone while loneliness is a longing for more intimacy than you have. That’s why it can happen just as easily in a crowd, among friends, or even in a relationship.
You have described loneliness as something that emerges in all kinds of conditions: Being an outcast, being stigmatized – or even someone unable to overcome a language barrier. Is the city just a canvas for loneliness, then?
You can be lonely anywhere and under any kind of circumstance. But urban environments can intensify loneliness. When you are in a city, you are surrounded by other people. But you also have an experience of being physically separated from them while seeing them all around you. That is especially true in cities like New York, where the population is so dense and so many people live in apartments.

Olivia Laing is the author of "To the River", "Echo Spring" and, most recently, "The Lonely City". She lives in the U.K. (Photo by Mike Sim)

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River”, “Echo Spring” and, most recently, “The Lonely City”. She lives in the U.K. (Photo by Mike Sim)

They are close but out of grasp.
At the same time, you are subject to a lot of peoples’ gazes, you are visible to them. I think that really intensifies the experience of loneliness: feeling hyper-exposed, and feeling shame around the social taboo that is loneliness. Urban environments intensify loneliness in quite a particular and interesting way.
Is that what you mean when you write: “The possibilities of connection are defeated by the dehumanizing apparatus of urban life”?
Yes, but I’m also referring to the internet and social media. Just because there’s a density of people, doesn’t mean it necessarily facilitates connections between them.
Because everyone on the internet posts the best things that happen to them, making everyone else feel like they are missing out?
I feel like there is a sort of pressure to perform these perfect lives, to show very tightly curated images – “my wonderful brunch with my friends” or “the great thing I went to last night”. Social media becomes a highly pressured, highly competitive space. And if you are feeling like you are failing socially, that can be very intimidating and make you feel worse.
In your book, you describe how Andy Warhol, who was socially awkward around people, discovered that he could use machines as an intermediary. Especially his tape recorder, with which he filled the space between him and others. Do you recognize that logic in our online behavior?
Absolutely. Warhol was such a precursor of the internet age: in many ways the avatar of the 21st century. I began reading about him, and how he was using tape recorders and Polaroid cameras to both draw people to him and to keep them away. And then I looked up from my research, looked around me, and everybody was holding on to their charismatic little machines. Today, people sit on the subway, swiping through Tinder without talking, or looking at the people around them.
I wonder, then, if the behavior we all elicit is something that came about in the 21st century or whether those machines are just pandering to the neuroses we all have anyway.
I don’t know! But I wonder whether the reason that this aspect of Warhol’s behavior hasn’t been written about so much is because it has only really become clear to us in the 21st century what he was doing – because now we are doing it too, and so it is recognizable to us.
He had a particular kind of loneliness: He was famous and at the same time, people didn’t quite get him…
He made a wonderfully rich life around himself – working and social life – but he always seemed removed from it. And he talked about himself as one removed from it. Even though he clearly had friends, clearly had people he was close to. But there was an emotional space around him that felt familiar. I think a lot of people experience that kind of alienation without really knowing quite how to fulfill it.

“Isolation is often political rather than habitual.”

In your book, you quote the psychologist Robert Weiss: “Loneliness cannot be overcome by willpower alone”. Maybe all these people are trying to do something about their loneliness, working against it as much as they can, but the real tragedy is that they cannot get out of it, no matter how hard they try.
It is also a question of what that gap around you provokes: how it stimulates creativity and the production of art. That the sort of sense of longing to communicate, and knowing that nobody understands you or speaks your language drives the production of art.
Because it is a way to pop the bubble?
Yes. It’s a way to make something like a communication device, especially if you worry that your own words, or your own body won’t be found attractive. You make new objects and put them into the world, objects that are attractive or desirable or that resolve things you are struggling with in your own emotional life.
You often talk about loneliness being a vicious circle, something that is hard to get out of. And while these artists didn’t break free from it, they still did manage to create something.
Absolutely. In the beginning of the book, I have another quote from Robert Weiss “Loneliness is a disease wholly without redeeming features.” I didn’t believe that a state that pretty much all humans can and most humans have experienced at some point in their lives can be without redeeming features. To me, one of the things that was redeeming is the way in which loneliness intersects with and drives creativity.
It lead you on the journey of researching artists and eventually writing this book. You fell into the rabbit hole…
As soon as I started to begin the research, I became so captivated by and interested in the topic. It unlocked the potential of loneliness. It was also very healing, starting to understand the different ways in which people become isolated and the way it is so often political rather than habitual. It was very connecting.
In the book, you talk a lot about the artist David Wojnarowicz. He and the gay community he was a part of used their sexuality as an outlet for loneliness, a shortcut to intimacy.
We’re often fed a story about monogamous romance, about how love is the cure for loneliness – which I think is bullshit. So I was interested in people who were having fairly anonymous, fairly adventurous sex in public places and how much that touched them, how much meeting a stranger could be a cure for loneliness. I wanted to open up as many possibilities as I could about different ways that loneliness can be meaningful, or can be handled.
You write “the dream of sex is to be liberated from the prison of the body by the body itself”. I recognize that by the behavior we see today, where a myriad of hook-up apps has enabled city dwellers to have fairly anonymous sex.
But it is different because today it is mediated by a machine. I don’t think I am that nostalgic in the book, but perhaps I do have some nostalgia for the idea of cruising, of being able to go to one of these places where people met to have sex… There, you are deep in the fabric of the city itself, rather than the city of the internet – which is not as satisfying a place.
Back then, men could go cruising in abandoned docks in New York City…
It was a remarkable space. But when AIDS appeared those places just closed down. The people who were writing in the 1970s about the possibilities of connections through anonymous sex were really silenced in the 1980s – for understandable reasons – but as David Wojnarowicz rightfully said: “It isn’t having sex with a lot of people that causes AIDS, it’s not having safe sex.”
In an article in the New Yorker, you have talked about a very different aspect of sexuality, namely that a woman can never be alone like a man, since she will always be objectified.
It’s really hard to be as anonymous in a city as Wojnarowicz was: prowling around and being the person who is doing the looking. As a woman, you are always aware of yourself being looked at, whether that’s as an appealing sexual object, or as a failed sexual object. That pressure is always there – and I found that very frustrating and difficult at the time.
Thinking it through to the end, men and women must have a very different experience of loneliness.
I think they do, and it was hard for me to wrestle with. I have complicated feelings about my own gender anyway, but the experience that woman characters have in the book, like Jo Hopper (the wife of artist Edward Hopper) or Valerie Solanas (the activist and writer, who is remembered as being the woman who attempted to assassinate Andy Warhol), the loneliness they are experiencing is that they are artists who never find audiences, never find anyone interested in their work. For me, as a woman artist, that is a very live terror.
Edward Hopper used his wife as the model for every female character in his paintings, but then changed them into something she wasn’t – long-legged blondes. She was enough to be his model but only if he transformed her in the painting.
…and at the same time stopping her from painting. She is trapped in the paint of his canvasses, and the more I think about it, the more disturbing it becomes.
Interestingly, in this musing on loneliness, you cite many characters who have gone through horrifying personal experiences. Is that something you picked out, or does abuse necessarily entail loneliness?
I think that people who come from a background of trauma often have that as a source of loneliness in their lives. That’s true of me and that’s probably why I am drawn to this kind of subject. And why Wojnarowicz is so central in the book. My childhood didn’t have the violence that he experienced, but there was a lot of emotional chaos that I recognized. It’s funny, you’re drawn to subjects without necessarily knowing all the details of their biographies. And as it emerges, you see why you’re so drawn to them.

“Loneliness teaches us solidarity.”

The more I think about it, the more I see that the experience of being lonely is a very general experience, even if we think the people in the building across from us are living perfect lives. But there are so many people who carry a great burden of loneliness because of their background or identity, because they are being stigmatized or excluded in some way.
In the book I focus on the stigma of AIDS as a source of loneliness, but of course stigma is something that happens to so many people. The homeless, for example, sitting on the sidewalk, watching people walk by evading their eyes, hour after hour, day after day. What must that experience be like? An enormous, paralyzing loneliness. That no one will acknowledge your humanity is incredibly isolating. So I think we are surrounded by the lonely all the time, and we are not aware of them. We put them to the peripheries of our vision and it is so important that we don’t.
Because we are exacerbating the loneliness they are feeling?
Loneliness isn’t something an individual person can resolve. It is something we are all responsible for and we all need to think about the ways we are causing the loneliness of others, as well as working on our own loneliness.
That being particularly the fact that we tend to cast the misfits out or stigmatize them?
We just casually stigmatize and dehumanize people, even by small things like a lack of willingness to make eye contact with people who we think are different, or less than us. It creates loneliness in our cities and it creates loneliness in our cultures.
What you are saying is that this being a subconscious activity, we need to consciously counteract it?
If loneliness teaches us anything, it teaches us that kindness and solidarity with others matters far more than trying to pursue individual happiness, which is transient anyway. We make a better world if we use our own loneliness to think about the many, many other lonely people around us.
You do mention that loneliness has an unexpected upside: A clarity of vision that comes with a heightened sense of self-awareness.
There is a kind of openness that comes when you strip away the shame, which is the most painful and damaging aspect of loneliness. Once that’s gone, you see that loneliness is a kind of longing , an intense but not necessarily a bad feeling. For me, once I became more comfortable with it, once I stopped being so ashamed, I found that loneliness made me very receptive. I became very open to art, very open to seeing the city life around me. That kind of acuity of vision was powerful.