Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’s smartphone

How old are you?

Yes, I realise that’s a rude question to ask. I wanted to anchor your age in your mind, as I want to show you how the generation you’re from influences what you perceive to be beautiful in the world around you. Specifically, I would like to look at this in the context of the way people use information and social media technology, shortened in this article to simply ‘Technology’.

The extent to which age is a good proxy for the way people interact with Technology devices might be debatable. However, it is probably safe to assume that, on average, age correlates with interaction with Technology, and the way it is embedded in everyday life.

My hypothesis is that, compared with older generations, Millennials more closely combine physical and virtual interactions with the world. This simultaneous interaction, in turn, influences the way they perceive their surroundings and the way they experience the beauty around them.

The background

I am from Malta: a tiny island in the Mediterranean, promoted as a tourist destination for its sun and sea. I recently went home, and visited one of the hot spots for tourists with a sense of adventure; an area of inland sea surrounded by large, natural blocks of rocks. The most beautiful area is a challenge to get to, but once there, you can swim safely in a nook with a view of the open sea just in front of you. The surrounding rocks are also ideal for diving.

I remember going there when I was younger. Everyone would be swimming peacefully, or diving adventurously; the common factor being that we were all enjoying being present in the moment, away from everything and everyone else, and appreciating the natural beauty around us.

This time, however, I got the sense that things were different. People were still commenting about the beauty of their surroundings, but they did so while consulting each other about which Instagram filter they should use to enhance this beauty. I observed people pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone to dive off higher and higher spots – even though they were clearly terrified. The reason? As one Millennial explained while climbing a particularly steep rock, they wanted the Snapchat video being filmed to be worth sharing with their friends.
The value for these Millennials seemed to be much about how that physical experience could enhance their online lives. The scene was only as beautiful as their smartphones could make it.

The ‘aha’-moment

Then it hit me: younger generations were born into a world full of Technology, and this has not only shaped the way they interact with their world, but it also influences the way they perceive beauty. Let’s look back at how this has been evolving.

Early in the rise of social media people started sharing important moments in their lives (as well as the less important, but equally entertaining, information about what breakfast they were having, or what time they were going to bed). A few years back, an increasing number of people on holiday started taking photos on their digital cameras or phones, then uploading albums full of these photos when they got back home. First, they would share the albums via email, later via social media.

Today, that is not good enough. Younger generations get the most value from sharing events through photos or videos just as soon as the event is happening. You can’t blame them; there are so many people ready to share information, that prioritisation must take place. Real-time shares take priority over information shared later. Services like Twitter have laid the foundations for the success of software apps, like Snapchat, which are all about immediate and short-lived access. Data service providers have fuelled this trend and capitalised on the opportunity for on-the-spot data sharing by offering well-priced roaming bundles.

Hardware has also been developed to satisfy these needs. For example, with the evolution of GoPro cameras, even cage diving with sharks in the depths of the ocean, or jumping off a plane and gliding through the air is not an excuse to delay that essential photo-share. In fact, these kinds of activities (and perhaps, slightly less extreme, yet highly adventurous, ones) that are associated with with a YOLO (“you only live once”) culture are gaining popularity because they are no longer just about self-fulfilment, they now also contribute to social status and popularity.

The implications

Swipe to find the best photo, apply the right filter to enhance beauty, and upload to Facebook in one quick step. This is the reality for Millennials, and it is rapidly progressing – for example, even the recently announced Snapchat Spectacles have the potential to further blur the line between virtual and physical perception, as they allow users to capture and share virtual moments as they see them, when they see them.

This discussion raises all sorts of further questions. Can we predict how sophisticated virtual and augmented reality devices will shape the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of the next generation? This shift has already started with applications like Pokémon Go, which has been successful at blending the physical and virtual worlds. Are the most successful technologies ones that shift behaviour paradigms or those that neatly fit in with existing ones? Now that social media technology has started to shift the way we perceive beauty, in the future, can this also redefine society’s ideals of beauty? Perhaps these questions deserve a blog of their own.

The ending

Generational gaps have existed for as long as populations have been evolving. At the start, I promised that I will show you how your age influences the way you perceive the beauty of your surroundings:
If you were born before the ’90s, then although you are very likely to use social media technology (perhaps just as much as younger generations), I believe that your interpretation of the world around you depends on how your brain decodes beauty as soon as your eyes can detect it.
If you are a Millennial, then you were probably wondering what caption you will use when linking to this blog on your social media profiles. (And yes, that’s my best attempt at asking you to share it!)

WRITTEN BY: Kora Muscat

I have a background in commerce, marketing and classical economics. I was always the annoying student in economics classes, asking why we care about GDP and growth if people aren’t happy. Or why we kept modeling rational behaviour when people are so clearly irrational. That led me to an MSc in Behavioural & Economic Science at the University of Warwick and I’ve since been working as a consultant in behavioural science. I love cooking but I never manage to cook for less than a small army, so I offer people food all the time. Someday, I will be able to say that I’ve travelled the world.