EXPLORING DIGITAL INTIMACY: Inside The ‘Netflix AND Chill’ Photobook

Welcome to this edition. Today, we uncover the layers of ‘Netflix and Chill,’ by @now.a.magpie (published by Informationflood). We’d love to read your comments below about these insights and ideas behind the artist’s work.

My first thought upon looking at ‘Netflix and Chill’ by Informationflood was, ‘Well, this is different.’ In this sea of photography books that flood the market every year, I am always very happy to see something that stands out. The book is quite small, described as being the size of an iPhone (not a regular one, but an iPhone 4!).

‘Netflix and Chill’ is a small photobook, the size of an iPhone 4, with 264 pages. It explores the relationship between online dating culture and photography in today’s hyper-connected digital society. This work presents the online experience of Sarah, 23, through a unique archive of Tinder moments sent her way. Sarah is fictional. The result is a portrait of a society experiencing and exploring new and evolving complexities in how one can represent—or misrepresent—one’s self online.” – Author

It started as an experiment with his friend, a fascinating social project. I mean, it’s hard to be surprised nowadays, yet when I am actually confronted with reality “the barrage of graphic and sexualized content being sent” I always wonder if this might be just a “one-off” or if it is a standard of the online environment we are living in. Is this the result of “loneliness and a need for human connection?”

“Netflix and Chill” offers an insightful glimpse into the integration of photography, dating culture, and technology as integral parts of communication today. Transitioning to an online environment permits a level of anonymity and an ability to explore and express multiple identities. The images presented in @now.a.magpie’s book form part of a unique archive that explores the liberation new technology has permitted, crafting a portrait of a society experiencing and exploring a new and evolving complexity with which one can represent—or misrepresent—one’s self online.

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Conceptual Genesis: What inspired you to create “Netflix and Chill,” and how did the idea of using Tinder Moments to explore online dating culture come to you?

I remember well sitting on a sofa with a good friend. It was 2014 and she opened her Tinder; we swiped, she shared some of the messages and photos she was receiving, I could not believe it. Not just the nature of the content, but the frequency with which it was occuring. I was struck by how photography was being used within this (fairly) new context and the differences in our experiences of Tinder.

This was the instigating moment of Netflix and Chill, although I did not know it at the time. Previously I had explored the relationship between technology, photography and the liberation of expression that comes with moving from the real world to the virtual, so this seemed like a natural progression. Although there was no particular outcome or resolution to the project envisioned at the time.

Sarah’s Online Experience: Sarah, although fictional, represents many real experiences on Tinder. Could you discuss the process of creating her story and the selection of moments to include in the book?

I didn’t want to elicit any particular messages or Tinder Moments from Sarah’s matches, or sway people’s behaviour one way or another. So with this in mind, the profile had minimal personality – no bio, only a few pictures that didn’t show a face, photos that were non-suggestive… So in terms of creating her story, there deliberately wasn’t an elaborate one.

I printed out all of the Tinder moments to work with physically. In this process various diptychs, triptychs and sequences emerged, which formed the basis for sequencing the book.

Photography and Identity Online: Your work examines how digital platforms allow for multiple identities and expressions. How do you see photography’s role evolving in the context of online dating and social media?

I am not sure I feel particularly qualified to comment right now, but with the online world being such a visual place, it is inevitable photography (or digital images, rather) will play an important part. There are several elements to be ironed out to allow this to be an authentic role, such as the sincerity of images, in particular regarding developments in AI technology, bias of algorithms and data sets used to train generative AI, the sheer number of accounts operated by bots rather than people (and resulting machine to machine communication…)

Challenges and Surprises: During your project, what were the most challenging aspects of capturing the essence of online dating culture, and were there any surprising discoveries along the way?

When starting this project, I was totally shocked by the barrage of graphic and sexualised nature of content being sent, and I expected this to be the main focus of the work. As Netflix and Chill developed however, there were two strands emerging, both equally strong. One as anticipated, but also another of longing, loneliness and a need for human connection. I hope both strands are presented equally in the book.

I was also surprised by various series that emerged, as unconnected people would send incredibly similar images, portraying the same contradictions. For example, a short series in the book presents obstructed gym selfies. On the one hand the senders are presenting a confidence in showcasing a toned body, on the other hand, they show an insecurity through obscuring their face, either by overlaying emojis or digitally scribbling with a coloured pen tool. (These emojis, drawing tools available, camera quality, and even the 3G symbol in the corner all tie the imagery to this unique moment in time.)

Audience Reaction and Interpretation: Since the release of “Netflix and Chill,” how have readers and viewers responded to the portrayal of online dating culture? Any feedback that particularly stood out?

The reaction varies a lot depending on the demographic engaging with the work, and it has mostly been very positive. People who pick up the book often spend a long time with it, which I am pleased about. 

To younger people it doesn’t stir much surprise, although I think seeing the content gathered and presented in one place, it can still be shocking. It tends to be a bit of an eye opener for people of an older generation.

Ethical Considerations: Given the personal nature of Tinder Moments and online interactions, how did you navigate ethical considerations in creating and presenting this work?

The ethics is something I long grappled with, from first making Sarah’s profile, through the process of collecting screenshots, to producing the end publication. I was careful never to engage with anyone directly and none of the Tinder Moments were elicited. (No images were sent to Sarah directly, each of the Moments were blanket broadcast to all of the sender’s matches.) On several occasions I had come close to putting the whole thing in a drawer and forgetting about it. I actually did do that a few times and it lay dormant for several years while I contemplated the ethics.

I suppose as the years passed and the world moved on from Tinder Moments, I felt the work became a snapshot of a past time and that I could begin to look at doing something with it… (Due to a rise in Snapchat and a newly formed partnership between Tinder and Instagram, Tinder Moments were removed from the app in November 2015.) This also seemed to make Netflix and Chill a unique archive, which I felt could warrant revisiting the work.

There were several decisions made during the book design and production to keep those who feature in the work anonymous. For example, each person’s name has been changed, there is an orange bar placed over each person’s eyes to obscure their identity; the print run was deliberately small (only 300 copies) to limit the physical books and not many images have been shared online, again with the idea of keeping it a low key document.

The Role of Anonymity: Anonymity plays a significant role in online interactions. How do you believe anonymity influences the way individuals present themselves on dating platforms like Tinder?

The role and impact of anonymity can vary depending on local customs and contexts. But an element that seems to be universal is that it allows people to explore and express aspects of themselves they either don’t have the confidence to in real life, or may be not culturally safe or appropriate to.

In the essay in the back of the book, photographic artist, curator and educator Joan Fontcuberta details how the anonymity results in layers of authenticity, performance and multiple identities masking each other, each with various degrees of sincerity. 

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