Have you ever scrolled through your Facebook or Instagram feed and thought that those pictures were almost too good to be true? Well, your gut feeling might actually be not that far off. When Zilla van den Born shook up the Internet last year with her project on manipulating online portrayal of one's life, it was clear that it calls for a deeper analysis of the notion. You've probably heard about Zilla: a then-student of Graphic Design from Amsterdam, she fabricated a trip to Southeast Asia by posting fake pictures on a social network as part of her final university project aimed at reality deception through social media. She used real photographs which were processed in a way to make it look like she’s walking on the beach, snorkelling, visiting temples, and so on.

Zilla's skillful use of editing software was put into use to, as she explained in an interview with the Washington Post, "to prove how easy it is to believe in a distorted reality, […] to make people more aware that the images we see are manipulated, and that it’s not only the models in the magazines, but also our friends on social media who contribute to this fake reality.” The idea was executed so well that no one except her accomplice boyfriend knew what was going on while she was sharing pictures of her photoshopped holiday and skyping parents from her own home. Her observation of how reality and mediated information intertwine in social media and other platforms had been tested in Australia, where she researched the so-called “tourist gaze”. Zilla was interested in particularly how tourists look at an environment in a completely different way than locals, "experiencing their trip through the lens of their camera, which blocks them from reality”. “Looking for those picture-perfect moments,” she says, “is why we filter what we show on social media and even put filters over them to make them look more beautiful. Together we create some sort of ideal world online which reality can no longer meet.” She did go to Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand - the countries she “used” as a background for the pictures - after graduation and said the project eventually served as the perfect holiday preparation thanks to the thorough research.

Van den Born’s study isn’t the first one to examine the deceptive quality of pictures shared on social networking websites. Keisuke Jinushi, a freelance photographer in Japan, was the first one to coin the term “hitori date”, which stands for a one-man date, back in 2013. Jinishi became Internet-famous after a series of photos, in which it would appear he was having a good time with his girlfriend - here is she feeding him fries, and here squeezing his face affectionally. In reality, each photograph is an elaborate selfie that is staged to imply he is with a woman.

The series, however, was not an experiment of any kind. Keisuke started it because "Sometimes I go to cafes on my own, just to kill time. When I look around, I see couples spoon-feeding each other. I then have a strong feeling — I want this too,” he explains. “Photos [one takes] while traveling alone may make one feel lonely and sad when you look at them. So I recommend the 'hitori date photo' technique. Looking at these photos makes me feel blissful.” After he launched his photoblog he found out that this dysphoria - amplified by flashy content shared on Facebook and the like - speaks to a big community. Since then, he has been blogging about how to create fake couples photos, giving tips on the best angles, tools, and other tricks. "Taking a picture on your own may be embarrassing, but think about all the jealousy you'll get after uploading it on SNS -- for that sake, just bear the embarrassment,” mr. Jinushi told CNN.

It is not breaking news that visual content often gives a distorted view of the person posting the photo, of what is in the photo and lacks clues as for what else is happening around the image. For example, a vacationing couple could be sharing pictures of a tropical paradise while fighting the whole time, but how would their friends followers know it? Both van den Born and Jinushi show how visual culture in general and social networking sites in particular affect the way we perceive others and ourselves. Social scientists are also turning to this phenomenon: a recent research conducted by two German universities showed that “passive following” on Facebook triggers states of envy and resentment in many users, holiday photos being a prime trigger. Catalina Toma of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin–Madison relates this findings with respect to Instagram, pointing out that since this platform is photo-based, it creates a purer reality-distortion field. “You spend so much time creating flattering, idealized images of yourself, sorting through hundreds of images for that one perfect picture, but you don’t necessarily grasp that everybody else is spending a lot of time doing the same thing,” she says. Selfies, in turn, comprise a special category, as they provide a sense of feeling connected, feeling in control, and feeling virtuous, new study shows. "Then, after spending lots of time carefully curating and filtering your images, you spend even more time staring at other people’s carefully curated and filtered images that you assume they didn’t spend much time on. And the more you do that,” Toma says, “the more distorted your perception is that their lives are happier and more meaningful than yours.”

Social platforms, in a way, encourage a rather flamboyant behaviour. While van den Born’s experiment received mixed feedback from utter anger to utter enthusiasm, some commenters agreed it was spot-on: “Whenever I watched Times Square on TV during New Year’s eve I always envied the people who seemed to be having a terrific time. And then one year I went. We had to get there no later than 5 pm, the police corralled us into standing room only pens, we couldn’t bring drinks, we couldn’t leave to go the bathroom, and it was freezing. No one was happy. BUT, every 30 min or so the loudspeaker would tell us the TV is coming in for a close up and everyone would perk up and cheer, which quickly died down once the cameras were off. And it occurred to me, this is what I was seeing on TV all those years. The reality was everyone was tired, hungry, cold and sober, but in TV-land we seemed to be partying all night long.” Zilla’s project shows exactly that: what an image really shows is not the situation as it actually was, but what it represents.

Check out Ms. van den Born’s website for more pictures of the “fake trip” and her other works here.

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