Hey, follow me on Instagram! On Walter Benjamin, mass reproduction, and professional ethics in the age of digital overload

“Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.”

Paul Valery, 1928

I have recently decided to kick off an Instagram account. It seems like a useful tool to keep afloat as an orthodontist in a private practice. However, I have several concerns. Would it compromise the professional ethics? Would I be able not to create a skewed image of the specialty in the eyes of the patient? Wouldn’t the images eclipse the message?


I want to give it some thinking. In this blog post, I want to look at the issue of the visual stimuli of social media with some help from a famous 20th-century German philosopher, Walter Benjamin. I am particularly interested in his short essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Given that most of the specialists agree that orthodontics is a mixture of both arts and science, I think this makes a perfect sense…

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935)

I encourage everyone to get acquainted with the original text since it not only helps to understand the modern phenomenon of mass-produced visual images, but creates a broader perspective of how visual patterns were evolving during the history and what were and are the driving forces behind these metamorphoses.

The main message of the essay, as I can elicit it, could be summed up as this: the modern mass-produced visual image is completely ripped out of its context. Benjamin writes: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space”. This unique feature of the mass-produced image gives its user a tempting capability to manipulate it in one’s own interests.

Benjamin points out that previously the production of visual images was mainly associated with ritual and religious purposes, however in the 20th century the main practice that had harnessed the image production turned to be politics. He then shows how the 20th-century fascist and communist regimes were using visual propaganda to deliver their ugly messages to the gullible audience.

In Benjamin’s times, the most powerful media was cinema, a moving image. Today images are moved – as predicted by a French poet, Paul Valery – “at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign” – on social media, probably the most powerful and persuasive media ever invented…

Orthodontic social media’s biases

Despite the fact that political propaganda and social media marketing are two drastically different worlds, I think some similarities are present. The visual messages which both produce are often highly biased, out of context and tend to appeal to the human’s instincts, not to logic or reason.

Unfortunately, many orthodontic social media accounts convey exaggeratedly photoshopped cherrypicked cases to cause a so-called wow-effect or, in another words, to shut down any logic or reason. The most adroit individuals are adding to such posts phrases as “revolutionary technology”, “we are fully booked till next year” or even “our doctors have God-given talents”. The latter is especially popular in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I can’t help feeling that this is somehow tied to the fact that no legit certification mechanisms are present in many of the countries in these regions.

Everything mentioned above is, of course, an ubiquitous phenomenon present in each and every industry today. The market has become the main employer for the image. Dr Lysle Johnston once ironically said: “In orthodontics everything works until it helps you to pay your bills”. The same situation is happening with social media marketing: every image is alright until it brings you a new patient or client.

We all are perfectly aware that a human being is a highly visual creature. As a result, even the most shrewd individuals can sometimes buy into the most obvious gimmicks…

Digital fatigue, professional ethics and a responsible way to run a social media account

I am a big believer in professional ethics. I think patients should not be treated as Pavlov’s dogs, but should be given a chance to exercise their logic and reason prior to make any decision about the upcoming treatment.

It is clear that our patients often become the victims of digital overload trying to choose between the kaleidoscope of various treatment options online – many times erroneous or having hidden agendas. As a result, they often acquire the wrong perception of what is good or bad. We shouldn’t cater to such distorted preferences of our patients. Contrary, we should provide them with a clear explanation of all possible treatment options and potential side-effects.

We also should care about the overall image of our specialty. We should be aware that we are the representation of it. We should not present our methods as unique and our skills as divine. Oppositely, we should provide some context behind our treatment modalities: some historical reference and scientific evidence would help the patient to make a reasonable choice, meanwhile would also create a healthier image around our specialty.

Of course, I am a bit nervous to commence my Instagram account. I work and live in Russia and neither professional ethics nor the idea of board certification is very welcomed here. As a result, I am prepared to receive disparaging or even rude comments. Nevertheless, I will try to run my account in a responsible way. That’s what I mean by this:

  1. I will try to deliver meaning, not a wow effect.
  2. I will respect the specialty of orthodontics and will indicate the context behind what I do.
  3. I will promote the idea of fair play and will promulgate board certification.

Now I have nothing more to tell you rather than… Hey, follow me on Instagram!


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