Photography has always influenced and shaped who we are, what we do, the communities we are part of and the world we live in. Today that influence is more profound and pronounced then ever before because almost everybody on the planet is fast becoming both a creator and consumer of imagery in a borderless, global and often immediate way. That has paved the way for the dawn of the newly-coined Imagesphere, characterized by both the volume of digital pictures taken and a shift from purely taking images to sharing them and interacting with them. It is the next wave in the development of the content we create and share online following on from the Blogosphere and the Tweetosphere.
Digital cameras and camera-enabled mobile phones are becoming ubiquitous and the global adoption of social media networks (SMNs) in recent years has created distribution platforms for literally hundreds of billions of photographs to flow from virtually anybody to almost everybody on the planet. We are living in a visually abundant world, where the image may be surpassing the word as the principle unit of communication in many conversations. The act of sharing images online is validating who we are, where we have been and, indeed our very existence in an increasingly socially-networked world. The vast majority of pictures today are made with the express intention of sharing them across social networks of friends, colleagues, associates and complete strangers. And the more images we share, the more information we share about who we are. The proliferation of shared images online has created a paradigm where more is in fact more. As we share more and more, we shift the visual narrative from what we are to who we are.
Historically photography was primarily a means of documenting our life’s experiences. Ironically, the reverse is often true today. We create experiences and engage in activities so we can document them. And we do so because we have immediate audiences to share that content with. That behavior is fuelled by some of the most basic motivations and incentives that drive us as social beings.
From a Language of Words to One of PicturesIn 2011 it was reported that 10% of all photos ever taken were taken in the prior 12 months1, a possible tipping point to anchor the birth of the Imagesphere. By 2013, 350 million photographs were being uploaded to Facebook daily (more than a tenfold increase from the 31 million uploaded per day in 2009), for a total number of pictures on Facebook of over 220 billion2. That growth continues to accelerate. Since Facebook has one billion users, it is fair to conclude that the data points to an undeniable societal shift to an increasingly visual language. Facebook, however, is not alone in this realization. To the extent that we can learn by following the money and from the trends broadly embraced by the business community, it is worth pointing out that the “Internet titans are placing big bets on the three trillion (and growing) online images”3. To put that into context, it equates to over 400 images per person on the planet.
Pinterest has quickly emerged as the third largest social network because of its unique focus on photo curation – collecting, assembling and remixing the photographs taken by others. Twitter launched photo sharing in early 2012 and in early 2013 rolled out photo filters to compete with Instagram. Add to that the launch of Flickr’s photo sharing app in February 2013 and together these strategic moves give us a good sense of big business’s confidence in the opportunities that our increasingly visual means of communication are creating. Another, Vine, was launched by Twitter in January 2013. It is a mobile video-sharing app that allows its users to capture and share short 6 second looping videos. Snapchat is another image-based app, now in its second year and already has over 60 million snaps daily4. It allows users to take photos, record videos, add text and drawings and send them to a controlled list of recipients and specify how long the recipient can view the content for, up to a maximum of 10 seconds, before it is auto-deleted. There is likely to be an accelerating stream of new imaging apps that continue to come online fuelled by investor capital, consumer adoption, the scale and reach of the Imagesphere and the market penetration of camera and video-enabled smartphones.
The two well-documented trends that enabled the recent wave of picture proliferation and birth of the Imagesphere were the development of digital cameras (including camera-enabled phones) and the growth of SMNs that enabled the distribution of digital pictures. Together they have transformed the conventions of taking photographs and expanded the social uses of photography5. In addition to the seismic shifts in technology, or perhaps because of them, we have also seen parallel shifts in cultural rituals. In the analog days, the primary use of personal photographs was to mark and commemorate important events and life’s milestones. They served as an aide memoire when engaging in the cultural ritual of reminiscing while browsing through family albums. Today, photography has fused with our everyday life, magnifying its intensity, from the most banal details to the extremes of non-directed self-disclosure. The personal photograph (or video) has become the social currency that buys us access and relevance in this new social machine, becoming part of an ongoing conversation with meaning attached to its “immediate experiential value”6.
The public domain that is the Internet means that despite the short life of much newly posted content (the half life of a new photograph online is three days), many images also have a transient quality with the creator (hopefully) recognizing that images can be downloaded, appropriated, manipulated, reused, repurposed and retransmitted, shifting control from creator to user. Sites like Tumblr have image re-blogging capabilities built in at the push of a button. This is fuelling the creative process by making more inputs accessible to more people and giving creators access to an almost infinite amount of imagery as source material, whoever or wherever they may be. In many ways it is reconstituting the way we think about photography as both document and as art. It is feeding the collective creative process and raising group awareness and consciousness on a far-reaching range of social and political topics. There are detractors, although decreasing in voice and number as it becomes evident that this phenomenon is not reversible but has become an integral part of who we are and how we engage. They raise concerns about copyright infringement and warn against the risk of our digital fingerprint following us to the point of personal detriment. While valid, the solution to these challenges lies in education, not in attempting to force the genie back into the bottle or to regulate or curtail online behaviors.
As we move toward a unifying visual language, or more fully integrate it into the new definition of “language”, we are transitioning from a phase where our physical experiences informed our usage of photography and digital behaviors to one where the reverse is taking hold. Increasingly we are creating experiences and undertaking activities with the express purpose of photographing them to share online. We are photographing subjects that we would never have photographed before, purely because we have a platform to share those images across our social graphs. In increasingly frequent ways the “dialogs and social experiences on the Internet can condition photographers’ expectations for their output, for their relationships with the objects to be photographed, and thus for their experiences with the physical places in which they circulate.”7 Today our online behavior and engagement often drives our offline behavior. The fact that we can share and post and that we have an immediate audience whose attention we desire has fundamentally changed taking, framing, showing, compiling and looking at photographs. We are learning to look and see differently, driven by motivations and needs fulfilled in our digital lives that, until recently, fell beyond the frames of reference in our physical worlds.
Motivations and Meanings Of Picture Posting and Sharing
Photography is, and has always been, primarily a social medium driven largely by the need to share one’s experiences with others. That sharing was, until recently, manifested by family and friends gathering to view photos of trips and special occasions. As early as 1965, Pierre Bourdieu wrote in Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, “Photography owes its immense diffusion to its social function…more than any other cultural practices, the practice of photography appears to respond to a natural need.” The power of photography’s “social function” has, of course, been radically accelerated in recent years with the mass global adoption of online SMNs.
Nancy Van House and colleagues, in addition to others, have done extensive research into the reasons we take and share digital photographs. In all instances, the typologies of personal photography motivations are relatively well aligned8. They include constructing personal and group memory, creating and maintaining social relationships, self-expression (giving voice to one’s own view of the world) and self-representation (influencing others’ view of the world), in addition to a range of functional motives (as an alternative to taking notes or writing to communicate information or ideas). Even a few short years ago, it was impossible to predict today’s levels of adoption and ubiquitous use of SMNs. In fact, today it is reasonable to posit that image sharing is the primary motivation for personal photography. As The New York Times art critic Karen Rosenberg wrote, “The act of snapping a picture is no longer enough to confirm reality and enhance experience; only sharing can give us that validation.”9
There are, however, fundamental differences between sharing photos online and sharing them in a physical setting. First, online sharing is asynchronous in that the sharer and viewer are typically not in the same space and usually are not viewing the images at the same time; second, online sharing enables participatory interaction such as liking, tagging or commenting on others’ photos; and third, online photos may be seen by a much larger audience than that intended by the photographer10. These differences fuel the motivations we have seen for the tidal wave of images being created or digitized and then posted online, documenting every facet of our lives and redefining established boundaries between our public and private selves. It is clear that the behavioral motivations must lie beyond the mere “because we can” as enabled by technology innovation. In fact, the reasoning resides deep in the human psyche, as nourishment for some of the core needs and motivations that define our essence as social animals - identity, affiliation, aspiration, sensation, and participation. Chris Schreiber synthesizes his research findings into three categories of factors that drive online sharing11. Not surprisingly, they closely parallel the factors that drive our everyday behavior too. They are:
- Functional Stimuli: Relates to the individuals’ ability to complete the task and the simplicity of the task2
- Rational Stimuli: Involve self-interest and other achievement motives, both professional and educational, including financial incentives and rewards, and accumulation of status and power.
- Emotional Stimuli: Include arousal, altruism, self-identification, empathy, connectedness and passion or evangelism.
Many observers have commented on the sheer quantity of deeply personal pictures posted online or pictures containing problematic or incriminating content revealing facets of life or insights into people’s personal lives that we did not have a window into prior to the widespread adoption of SMNs12. The definitions of what constitutes provocative or personal imagery in the new normal are influenced by a set of subjective and cultural values held by both the sharer and the viewer. Boyd and Ellison define it as content or imagery that discloses personal information that can cause damage to one’s reputation, or bring about the risk of physical or emotional harm13. That definition too is somewhat nebulous. However, whatever one’s personal definition of provocative content is, there is a plethora of content online that falls at the extremes of provocation, and so the question of what motivates people to post such content remains valid, irrespective of one’s subjective values. Gulotta14 et. al., emphasize that the value of sharing such information lies in its criticality to the understanding of how we manage personal aspects of our identity. They reiterate a key reason for photo-sharing from the work of Van House et. al., who wrote that people share photos to define and record their identity, maintain relationships, curate and cultivate their self-representation and express themselves by sharing their work15. Digital photo-sharing is particularly important to self-expression (in contrast to types of analog photo sharing) because of the freedom and opportunities for connectedness enabled by SMNs.
It is no coincidence that a dominant genre of imagery posted or streamed on the web is self-portraiture, giving rise to the colloquial term selfie. Not long ago the self-portrait was the domain primarily of art photographers. This reflects a major social change in embodiment processes and the shaping of self-perception. Guy Stricherz, author of Americans in Kodachrome, 1945-65 (Twin Palms 2002), says he reviewed 100,000 pictures from 500 families over 17 years in compiling his book and found fewer than 100 self-portraits (approximately one-tenth of a percent)16. Today, even a brief scan of a few Facebook pages will yield orders of magnitude more self-portraits, relative to the total universe of images posted online. While technology may explain some of that increase, there is clearly something else at play. While in the 1960s, such behavior would have been thought of as too self-aggrandizing, today it is considered an integral part of identity development, offering the promise of impact, relevance, connectedness and meaning. If you are not seen, you are not there. This representation of the self, often sexual in nature, has blurred the already fuzzy line between public and private. These self-portraits (still or moving) are often made in the “privacy” of the bedroom or bathroom, but then posted or live-streamed onto one or more of thousands of public access websites, the equivalent of a global Main Street. The once private home domain has now become a stage for webcam performances.
Some thinly veiled false perception of privacy may remain when we engage in mediated intimate exchanges from behind our computer screens, perhaps because of available tools to control audiences. It may be naiveté which enables the self-rationale for broadcasting our most intimate and vulnerable moments into the most public of domains, however, the more likely explanation is that the motivations and rewards that drive the new behavioral paradigm of online sharing trump all prior concerns about privacy and perceived risk.
From Demographics to Psychographics: The New Picture Proliferation Changes Everything
The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words”17 has been in our vernacular since the early 20th century. As a society we largely subscribed to it in disciplines ranging from journalism to advertising, in the arts and entertainment, and in our personal lives as we capture moments for the family album. So if a single picture is worth a thousand words, the three trillion photographs online are priceless in terms of the collective data they impart about the world and its inhabitants, about who we are and what we do, the places where most of us live and the places on the planet that are largely uninhabited. David Crandall shows how the images we share are generating vast repositories of online data about the state of the world and the behavior of its people. In his research he used geo-tagged Flickr photographs to identify the most photographed places on Earth and to infer the names and visual representations of those places. He also was able to build 3D models of highly localized scenes by combining the information from thousands of 2D photographs taken by different people from different vantage points, creating an accurate rendering of something the viewer may never have seen18.
The examples of how online imagery has contributed to the transformation of politics and wars, toppled dictators and started revolutions have been well documented. In recent years we have witnessed major events with global ramifications that were substantially influenced by imagery shared across social media, including the tortures at Abu Ghraib (2004), the Arab Spring (2011) and the attacks on the US mission at Benghazi (2012). In countless smaller ways, seemingly much more trivial but touching the lives of individuals in personal and profound ways are Facebook examples like A Million Likes For a Kidney for Matthew where a 7 year old is trying to get a kidney transplant so he can live or Two Girls and a Puppy where the girls’ parents agreed to let them adopt a puppy if they got one million “likes,” and they did. Indeed it does change everything, from what we eat to what we wear, from where we go and who we go with, to our thoughts and feelings and the issues we advocate for and those that we oppose. It enables dreams and aspirations for things that may never have seemed possible before.
Historically photographs existed in the sphere of the demographic. They told us what we are, as defined by quantifiable statistics like gender, age, ethnicity, occupation and location. They have now transitioned to the domain of the psychographic. Collectively they tell us more about who we are, shedding light on the personalities, values, attributes, interests and lifestyles of those that share them and those that engage with them through liking, tagging, commenting, and re-posting. This transformation and the accompanying abundance of valuable data to mine is directly attributable to the hundreds of billions of images that people share online every year; images that depict every facet of life and corner of the planet. This collective data is giving us access to a more verifiable psychological understanding of behavior types and patterns than ever before.
The relationship between content sharing and risk are at the route of the ongoing debate about what is acceptable to share online. The news media increasingly cover stories about the repercussions people face when sharing sensitive information online, but these are clearly an infinitesimally small number relative to the volume and ubiquity of sensitive picture sharing online. Angela Paradise suggests from her research into college students’ experiences on Facebook, that they are fully aware of the risks and yet continue to post depictions of alcohol use, drug use and sexual promiscuity without experiencing any serious negative consequences19. Gulotta et. al. in their research observe conflicting motivations for posting provocative pictures online between the desire to explore and expand one’s personal sense of identity and/or that of their group, versus the desire to protect one’s identity (or that of others) from possible harm20. In many ways, however, the debate about the pros and cons or risks and rewards is a moot one. Whether we are in favor or against, this behavior has become our new normal. It is here to stay and is already embedded into our cultural and normative behaviors. The more relevant issues therefore relate to what to do with this imagery, how to use it and how to manage it, both as sharer and viewer.
The motivation for sharing imagery online that documents every facet of our lives parallels our most basic needs as social beings, but importantly the virtual world has also evolved as our personal laboratory. It is there that we are creating, shaping and redefining our identities and transforming our most intimate spaces and actions into public spectacle. We are creating new personas, trying them on to see what fits, becoming the people we always wanted to be or those that we think others want us to be. We are exposing ourselves on a global stage and forging new mediated intimate relationships, both realized and fantasized. In the process, we are redefining our sense of public and private spaces and challenging our own definitions and perceptions of reality and fiction, and of fact and fantasy.
The sharing of images across SMNs has become a significant driver of the growth in digital photography. SMNs are not only providing the distribution platform, but also a communication context around photo sharing with embedded tools for liking, commenting, and reposting images. By so doing, they have become the new creative interlocutors and in the process have transformed personal photography into an independent medium for personal communication. Increasingly we go about our activities in the physical world in order to create the content that enables us to be better recognized and validated in the virtual world. This begs the question about what constitutes true “reality.” It is no longer that which purely exists in the physical world, but in large part is also comprised of the lives we have created for ourselves in the digital world, which are often more complex, fantastical and revealing than our physical lives. We are now at a crossroads that necessitates a redefinition of reality. Our new reality is comprised in part by our physical experiences and in part by our digital experiences. They inform one another, are iterative and deeply interconnected. Together they define the new real. At its root photography means “writing and drawing with light…it is about an attempt to communicate”21 yet photography education is dominated and constrained by instruction in tools and mechanics, instead of fostering “as much freedom as the spirit is capable of.”22 While photography education focuses on its rich heritage and the masters that preceded us, it is critical to remember that they are our predecessors. It is not enough to do what they did (albeit with different tools). At this juncture the possibilities and challenges are much greater than at any other point since photography’s earliest beginning. There is, arguably, little more to contribute to the photographic discourse or to the world by going out and taking more photographs. As a short exercise, I attempted to re-curate Robert Frank’s The Americans, only using photographs I found on Flickr taken over the last decade. Many of the images I included directly referenced those in The Americans, however, with more thorough scrutiny of pictures posted on SMNs, I am certain I could have found many more direct references to The Americans (or any other subject of interest) that would have been indistinguishable from those taken by Frank to all but the most well-trained eye. That short exercise was disconcerting in a way. It highlighted a new and still uncomfortable truth for today’s photographers. The picture you are after has almost certainly already been taken and is there to be appropriated, curated, reworked, reignited and redistributed. What we do with the more than three trillion photographs online (growing at a rate of 350 million per day on Facebook alone23) will likely do more to determine the future of our medium than any individual body of newly shot pictures.
Visual literacy, while increasingly critical to life in our complex information age, continues to be underdeveloped in almost everybody, relative to our linguistic literacy because of our cultural and educational emphasis on writing. Given the abundance of imagery being created and shared and the information it contains, it is perhaps fitting to close with a warning from Grau and Veigl that we “cannot progress without new technologies of image collection management, new forms of distribution within a global community, and new forms of analysis.”24 In fact, while visual literacy is still in its infancy, it is already time to move beyond that into the domain of virtual literacy, a skill that needs to become as elemental in our education system as instruction in the three Rs, of reading, writing and arithmetic.
List of References
1Jonathan Good, 1000 Memories Blog, September 15, 2011, URL: http://blog.1000memories.com/94-number-of-photos-ever-taken-digital-and-analog-in-shoebox
2Rich Miller, Facebook Builds Exabyte Data Centers for Cold Storage, Data Center Knowledge, URL: http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2013/01/18/facebook-builds-new-data-centers-for-cold-storage
3Chas Edwards, Voice: Moving Pictures – Can Companies Create Engagement for the Exploding Imagesphere Online?, Adweek
4Billy Gallagher, Snapchat rasies $13.5M Series A Led By Benchmark, Now Sees 60M Snaps Sent Per Day, TechCrunch. URL: http://techcrunch.com/2013/02/08/snapchat-raises-13-5m-series-a-led-by-benchmark-now-sees-60m-snaps-sent-per-day/
5Dong-Hoo Lee, Digital Cameras, Personal Photography and the Reconfiguration of Spatial Experiences, Information Society, July/August 2010, Vol. 26, Issue 4, p266-275.
6Connie Malamed, Social Media and the New Meaning of Photographs, Understanding Graphics. URL: http://understandinggraphics.com/brainy/social-media-and-the-new-meaning-of-photographs/
7DH Lee, op. cit., p.268
8Van House, N., Davis, M., Ames, M., Finn, M., & Viswanathan, V. (2005). The Uses of Personal Networked Digital Imaging: An Empirical Study of Cameraphone Photos and Sharing (p. 1856). Presented at the CHI’05 extended abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM.
9Karen Rosenberg, Everyone’s Lives, in Pictures, The New York Times, April 21, 2012
10Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch and S. Shyam Sundar, Online Photo Sharing As Mediated Communication, Paper presented to the Communication and Technology Division at the 60th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, Singapore, June 22-26, 2010
11Chris Schreiber interviewed by Grant Crowell, What Motivates Us to Share Videos? The Psychology Behind Social Video, ReelSEO, URL: http://www.reelseo.com/social-video-psychology/
12Angela Paradise, Picture Perfect? College Student’s Experiences and Attitudes Regarding Their Photo-Related Behaviors in Facebook, Chapter 13, Misbehavior in Online Higher Education, Cutting Edge Technologies in Higher Education, Volume 5, 261-292
13Boyd, D.M., & Ellison, N.B. (2007), Social Network Sites: Definition, History and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13(1): 210-230
14Rebecca Gullota, Haakon Faste and Jennifer Mankoff, Curation, Provocation and Digital Identity: Risks and Motivations For Sharing Provocative Images Online, CHI 2012, May 5-10, 2012, Austin, TX, USA., p1
15Nancy Van House , Marc Davis , Yuri Takhteyev , Nathan Good , Anita Wilhelm , Megan Finn, From “What” to “Why”: The Social Uses of Personal Photos, CSCW’04, November 6–10, 2004, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
16Alex Williams, Here I am Taking My Own Picture, New York Times, February 19, 2006.
17One of the first documented uses was "Use a picture. It's worth a thousand words." appears in a 1911 newspaper article quoting newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane discussing journalism and publicity. "Speakers Give Sound Advice". Syracuse Post Standard (page 18). March 28, 1911.
18David Crandall, Networks of Photos of Landmarks, and People, Leonardo, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp 240-243, 2011
19Angela Paradise, op. cit.
20Gullota et. al., op. cit., p3
21Brian Palmer, Interview with Fred Ritchin, Fred Ritchin Awakening the Digital, FOAM, Winter 2009.
23Rich Miller, op. cit.
24Oliver Gau and Thomas Veigl, Imagery in the 21st Century, MIT Press, 2011, p. 15