What a Social Scientist Thinks of Taylor Swift’s Family Portrait

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Photo: taylorswift/Instagram

On Sunday night, Taylor Swift posted an Instagram photo of herself surrounded by a whole gaggle of friends, captioned “family portrait.” The photo is weirdly captivating, and not just for the obvious reason, which is that it’s fun to see famous people hanging out like regular folk. But Swift’s photo — and similar ones, like her road-trip adventure with Karlie Kloss — also helps to nicely illustrate something that I’ve been thinking about lately: the idea of friendship as performance art, with Instagram or Facebook serving as medium. 

The way online communication affects real-life connection is something that Sherry Turkle, the MIT social scientist and author of the 2012 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other, spends a lot of time thinking about. She explained in an email to Science of Us what we’re silently saying through the images we post on social media:  

In a world whose sensibility I've described as, "I share therefore I am," I've interviewed people who describe their friendships as commodities — after all, the first thing that Facebook taught us is that more is better. 

But quantity is not the only metric. You show quality of friendship by posting pictures of you and your friends doing quality things, and you post yourself having quality friends. In all of this, you fight against what the philosopher Alain de Botton called status anxiety by sharing, quite literally, who your friends are. In the same way that we post where we take our vacations and what restaurants we dine at, we market ourselves — and sometimes we define ourselves to ourselves — as who affiliates with us. As who is willing to be "posted" with us.

The social dynamics of defining oneself through group affiliation is not new. What is novel is our ability to turn ourselves into product and therefore reassure ourselves, to create our own news cycle. 

Friendship as commodity! There’s a cynical thought.