For five weeks Dutch student Zilla van den Born subjected her Facebook friends to the above, claiming to be travelling around South East Asia, when in reality she had never left her home city of Amsterdam. She went to extraordinary lengths to perpetuate the illusion, which was fed to her friends and family alike. The only person who knew the truth was her boyfriend.
During her 42 day ‘break’ she did all the things you would expect of someone in her position.
She posted pictures of herself eating exotic food in Asian restaurants – it was just that the restaurants happened to be in Amsterdam.
She posted pictures of herself sitting next to a Buddhist monk in a temple – it was just that the temple and monk happened to be in Amsterdam.
She posted pictures of herself in turquoise water snorkelling – it was just that the water happened to be the pool at her apartment block in Amsterdam. And superimposing the fish was just a standard Photoshop job.
Zilla even redecorated her own bedroom to make it look like an Oriental hotel room so that she could have Skype conversations with her family – at random times in the night, of course – without raising suspicion.
Bending reality on Facebook is hardly unusual – in fact it’s turning into something of a life skill – but Zilla’s efforts seem to have taken things to a whole new level.
The reasons behind her actions, however, are noble: it was all part of a university project, in which she wanted to show how Facebook activity is not necessarily reflective of real life.
Speaking to media in her home country, she said: “I did this to show people that we filter and manipulate what we show on social media, and that we create an online world which reality can no longer meet.
“My goal was to prove how common and easy it is to distort reality. Everybody knows that pictures of models are manipulated. But we often overlook the fact that we manipulate reality also in our own lives.”
This is. so complicated.
On the one hand, it’s actually a really powerful statement about image, and the commonly created images of The Good Life—particularly for privileged youth—and how uncritical we are both of any images we receive, in general, and specifically of the ones we create ourselves, communally. I’m also sort of interested in the concept of the fidelity of images—like, that fish picture is not such an incredible shop job, but people didn’t question it (we are told). How much of it has to do with image quality and our expectations thereof? How much of it is about simply being accustomed to seeing evidence of photoshop as normal and ignoring it? At the same time, this project is, or could be, a pretty good call-out of Orientalism—that people are so willing and eager to believe in false imagery that the real thing, the place, people, food, etc. become totally unnecessary.
Or rather: that Buddhist monk is a real person, and the food she ate was real food. It’s the exoticism of it all that’s made up and bought into. Such images and experience are by definition not-local, cannot be local, because when they are local they are no longer special (exotic) and therefore desirable, consumable; they are just the Thai joint around the corner or the Buddhist temple you pass on your way to the train, and that’s not the same thing at all from the orientalist gaze.
But the thing is, the whole orientalist-critique aspect of this I’m sort of inclined to believe is purely accidental. I mean, I don’t know the whole story here, just what’s in the article, but nothing suggests she was thinking along those lines. She’s concerned with “our” experience of reality and authenticity without considering the underpinnings of the production of authenticity when it comes to “the Orient” (“Oriental restaurants,” gag me with a spoon). And her casual employment of Thai people and signifiers in pursuit of her statement about “us” (read: the West) without that consciousness kind of turns it around into exploitative behavior again.
I don’t know. I think there’s more here, but I’m tired and feeling uncertain. But there is. a lot happening.