Culture Vulture

Arms race of curating one's life

Enjoy life instead of living and documenting it in a social-media bubble

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to Facebook/Instagram/ tweet it, did it happen?

My rather facetious take on the famous philosophical riddle was sparked by two rather disparate events recently.

One was my rediscovery of the business of scrapbooking. Given that I'm a paper nerd, I'm rather surprised myself that it took me so long to cotton on to the hobby. But I wandered into a scrapbooking supply shop recently and promptly spent enough to qualify for membership.

In the past two weeks, I have been popping into other shops and what I saw in these outlets made me think about experiences and how we document them.

Of course, I made simple scrapbooks as a kid, for projects and for fun. It was a laborious process as I would have to scrimp and scavenge for pictures from magazines and newspapers as well as craft supplies from Bras Basah Complex.

Nowadays, the hobby is so wellestablished that there are ready-made kits which promise a professional-looking scrapbook in an hour (all you do is plonk in pictures), pre-printed journal cards, themed stickers and a whole array of expensive gadgets. You know it's big when America's domestic doyenne Martha Stewart gets a whole block of shelves to display her branded wares.

But as I hunted for materials specific to a theme I have in mind, I also realised that the impression of variety in the shops is an illusion. Browse the goods and particular themes emerge time and time again. They are weddings, births, family and travel. Try scrapbooking about topics such as cooking and books, and good luck finding materials to suit your theme.

This got me thinking about how people document experiences and how the process of documentation has changed thanks to the ubiquity of social media.

When I was a kid, scrapbooking was basic, a memory kit and a modest tribute to the small things I loved - images of art that moved me and newspaper articles I enjoyed and wanted to keep. It took effort and will to create a comprehensive scrapbook.

Nowadays, I look at the complicated commercial examples of scrapbooks and I cannot help thinking it has become something of an arms race in "life curation": I live a life worth documenting not just in digital media, but also in increasingly complex, paper-based constructions.

The craft of scrapbooking has digital media to thank for driving interest in this very analogue form of documentation. After all, social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have turned everyone with a smartphone into a careful curator and presenter of his/her life. Every encounter, every meal and every thought becomes a status update, a photo and a tweet to be shared publicly, creating a public social-media persona that can be shaped to reflect a particular image of oneself to friends and acquaintances online.

Scrapbooking, it can be argued, benefits from that now-familiar digital habit of curating and shaping. And thanks to its very analogue nature, compared with the digital ephemera of invisible binary data, scrapbooking appears on first glance to be a more "authentic" form of documentation. There are physical artefacts - photographs, paper, an album - involved, which contribute to the idea that it is more "real" and thus "truer".

But as I look at stickers proclaiming "Best dad ever" and "Moments to remember", the cynic in me cringes at the pre-programmed nature of these statements. Of course, this is unavoidable whenever there is mass production - think Hallmark cards, mugs and souvenirs that have to cater to a broad range of consumers. Inevitably, sentiments are canned, reduced to the lowest common denominator of expression, a cliche.

The process of documentation is heavily shaped by social pressures, especially so in the digital world, where everyone is watching everyone else and a thoughtless tweet or Facebook post could go viral and upend your life in a flash.

This brings me to the second event which triggered my musings on the perils of self-documentation: author Jeanette Winterson's recent run-in with social media. The prize-winning author inspired a Twitter firestorm recently when she posted a photo of a half-skinned rabbit on a chopping block, a sharp knife resting next to it and a cooking pot placed strategically in the background. Her accompanying text: "Rabbit ate my parsley. I am eating the rabbit."

I thought there was a certain poetry and dry wit to her tweet. But of course, a few of her 33,000 followers went ballistic, accusing her of being cruel and condemning her actions in killing a little rabbit. I could not help but wonder if there would have been as much furore had it been a limp trout or an ungainly chicken on the chopping block instead of a rather adorable bunny, which people associate with Flopsy, Mopsy and all things cutesy.

But as Winterson pointed out, rather commonsensically, in the countryside where she lives, rabbits are pests and have to be culled as such.

Her bluntness and directness struck me as utterly refreshing and honest. Especially in this social media-saturated age, when most people have become more aware of public presentation and representation. Living life in a social media bubble also means one has to be more politically correct to shave off the sharp edges of real life or the bubble might burst.

As Winterson experienced, that bursting can be a nasty process. Yet was there really a need for that particular storm in a Twitter teacup? Her actions were far from deplorable and actually rather laudable - she skinned and ate a pest that was decimating her garden. As she pointed out, the rabbit provided food not just for her but also for her cat (which got the innards). It was a zero carbon footprint meal.

To me, it was a good reminder that nature is bloody and ruthless, that urbanites have a habit of romanticising the rural and are often squeamish about the dirty details of life.

Her post reminded me, too, that it takes courage to be honest in this softfocus age, to tread that fine line between self-curation and self-censorship. And that while we are all so busy documenting our experiences in assorted media, one of the hardest things to do is to be true to oneself and one's experiences.

And to return to the analogy that opened this column, even if you do not document it, life will still happen. Just remember to enjoy it even as you reach for your smartphone or scrapbook.