Monday, November 13, 2006

The Semiotics of eBay Photography

I was flicking through Roland Barthes’ ‘Mythologies’ over the weekend, in which advertising and popular culture are analysed semiotically. Afterwards I browsed for stuff I really don’t need on eBay. This led me to wondering what the philosopher would have made of Internet culture if he hadn’t been run over by a laundry van in 1980.

One particular online phenomenon with its own semiotic nuances is item photography on eBay. I imagine that this would interest Barthes, not only because there are subtle visual codes at work, but also because the codes change over time. There’s collective code creation going on, with customer demand affecting the way things are shown.

What the hell am I talking about? For one thing I think that photography that looks professional is now a sign that the item lacks authenticity. When I first started selling on eBay, I’d try hard to make the photos look at professional as possible. I would put together a white background and arrange the composition artfully. Now I sling the items on the carpet and take snapshots.

Why? Because the codes have evolved.

The rug that the items sit on, or the door on which a suit hangs, are now signs that the seller and the items are genuine. The everyday backdrop now signifies authenticity. The genuine bargain, the unearthed gem, the ethos that is at heart of the eBay user experience.

Amateurish photography equals authenticity

Professional-looking photography actually makes the item look like a fake or creates an anxiety that the seller isn’t in possession of the item. This is particularly true of listings for electronic goods from Hong Kong and China, where the manufacturer’s product shots are used.

If you look at clothes, the reason that authenticity is at such a premium is that eBay is more thoroughly awash with fakes than a street market in Istanbul. If you look through menswear you’ll see a million Paul Smith jeans or D&G tracksuit tops advertised as ‘BNWT’ (Brand New with Tags). The photographic code changes from product to product, with jeans shot from above on the floor, for instance. What will always be the same is the prominently displayed product tag acting as a sign of authenticity. The irony is that the photograph of a tag is now a sign that it is almost certainly a fake.

The display of the 'genuine' tag now equals a fake

The interesting thing is that the label, that other potent brand signifier, is still a sign of genuineness in second-hand clothes photos. Most listings for second-hand designer clothes include a close-up of the label. So the tag means that the item is too good to be true, but the label still means authenticity. It’s all about context; the way meanings slide.

Why do photographic codes get established and change? I suppose the simple answer is that people copy each other. eBay is a marketplace like any other – and ways of selling evolve around what gets the highest price.

So where does this leave us? Well, in the 1950s when Barthes began writing the articles that were collected in ‘Mythologies’, mass media was produced by corporations and government, pushing their own agendas. Now eBay puts the creation of advertising in our hands – and it turns out that we’re just as manipulative and mendacious as the big boys.

1 comment:

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