Social photography – the rise of the amateurs: No scarcity, no masters


(dieser Text auf deutsch)

No scarcity, no masters

Just a few thoughts. The NSA has involuntarily given us the credo of our time: “Collect it all!” We snap away, freeze moments into pictures, store countless photos and videos on our hard drives and smartphones, we add to endlessly growing archives of pictures on other people’s hard drives (clouds and social platforms). Cheap storage, digital cameras on the same phone on which you have free social sharing apps, affordable mobile connections in many countries – this has changed and still is changing the cultural meaning and function of photography deeply. One point is that it has turned documentation into something we have lost all sense of scarcity for. The Wired editor Joe Brown even pledges for that ethos: “I made a pact with myself: I don’t delete photos anymore. I got the largest-capacity iPhone, upgraded my Dropbox account, and uploaded every pic I could find.” His goal? An “honest record of my life”. The single photo in its function as representation for something bigger is no longer enough. For someone like Joe Brown the single photo is like one in a million frames that could make up a film of his life.

Endless desire for human interactions breeds endless archives of our lives

I share the opinion that we are on the verge from archives to ephemerality if it comes to our “socially” shared media as they have become more about communication as about documentation. Some even are about participation, take the #sleepingsquad kids who livestream themselves to each other on YouNow while they are sleeping. As so many other owners of social platforms who don’t get their products YouNow’s maker explains #sleepingsquad with internet and social media addiction, but Katie Notopoulos nails it in her text about that phenomenon: “The aching desire to cut through the tedium of daily life with human interaction is the driving force of everything on the internet.” Or as Nathan Jurgenson doesn’t get tired to explain: We are not addicted to smartphones, we are addicted to each other. And to be honest, if I was a teen these days I totally would powerlivestream with my friends 24/7, too. I remember very well how I wanted to be constantly connected with my friends. The old cliche of the teens who after having just finished chatting on their way home from school, first thing when they came home called each other on the phone to chat on? Me, every single day.

But right now, of the big public social platforms not even those with a more oral feel, like Twitter, are ephemeral. Right now our archives grow. Our endless desire for human interaction breeds endless archives of our lives. If we were constantly aware of what we have posted years ago and that it is still visible online, that anyone can find it via search or per infinite-scrolling their way into our pasts – it would drive us mad and we’d feel the instant need to explain how we were different back then. We would long to give a context, explain how we changed. The faux ephemerality of the timeline stream on social networks are a way of not letting these archives overwhelm you. You post a photo, some people react to it or not, the photo disappears out of our sight when the next things get posted, the photo gets forgotten. Your focus is (glass half full:) on the human interactions it inspires / (glass half empty:) on the metric gratification that makes you come back for more – yeah, 5 new likes or favs! Your focus gets nudged away from what you have documented, from the archive you build. Even photography platforms like Flickr or Google Photos have chosen the infinite-scroll stream and more and more “social” elements (sharing, commenting, liking) to showcase our content.

There is a dissonance: A lot of today’s documentation of everyday lives results from the wish for short-term social interaction but grows into huge archives. Searchable archives. Archives, that have become not only searchable by tags of your choice: “Intelligent”, learning search functions also help you find pictures by recognizing faces. You can search for photos of someone by uploading a picture of their face. You can type “cat” and it will show you pictures of cats. (Okay: and of things that are vaguely shaped like cats, as it doesn’t work that well yet. The more input they get the better they will become though and we feed them just as well as our cats.) Even mapping is possible: the search thing is supposed to recognize places, even from pictures that are not geo-tagged. These huge archives of amateur photography have become wonderful and fascinating galleries and an important source of photography. Even if they might not have been made for a lasting documentation purpose a lot of these pictures get used for it. And this mosaic of a billion pictures gives a far deeper impression of our everyday lives as street photographers ever could capture.

When blogging was the democratisation of publishing, social media has brought us secularisation

When years ago blogging became a thing, many people first reacted as if it was blasphemy that people simply put their opinions, knowledge or everyday experiences out there. Even last year I still got a comment on my blog that was like “What qualifies you to publish this?” trying to cut down my voice. When social networks reached the mainstream you heard similar voices calling out the banality of the content that people shared: How dare you document things as banal as your meal publicly? What does your blurred photo of a sunset add to the already existing millions of pictures of sunsets out there? Do you think you’re so special that someone wants to see your selfie? “Banality” misses the point though. Publicly publishing photos has become about something new: Not to universalise the object of a picture, not to document something of importance for posterity, not as a work of art, no, while all of that might be true too, the most important factor for shared photography is social value. Communication, and often: communication of emotion. What is a boring photo of a meal to one person, to another might be a loving glimpse into how a friend feels about it. The photo of a freshly cooked meal is not just about the meal, it communicates the happy feeling of having succeeded in preparing it, it’s a way of sharing the pleasant anticipation of eating it. #feelings. One lesson the social web taught us is: Just because something is not important to you doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant to someone else for reasons you don’t know.

When blogging was the democratisation of publishing, social media has brought us secularisation, and photos are a major example for this. The aura of photography has been ruffled hard by its heavy use on social platforms. The hierarchy of gatekeepers who decide whose pictures deserve getting publicity, which pictures are of value, it has been shaken. Big parts of the press still wonder about why sometimes a cat picture is more important than their well-crafted latest piece of serious news. Other parts of the press and of course marketing profits from the knowledge that emotionally agitating content “works”. Their pictures have to compete with people’s personal content on social platforms, so they do not hesitate to exploit what “works”. (I’ll have to come to an end with this blog post now as I’m running out of “””s.) The idea that only pictures that have an objectifiable value should be published has withered. The whole idea of objectifiable value has withered.

When a professional documenter isn’t a special snowflake artist anymore because everyone documents everything anyway, when we have endless archives of everyone’s photos that get increasingly better searchable – are drifting towards a new understanding of documentation? Hive documentation? I wonder in which ways social platforms change how we see photography in documentation, and art, and street photography which is a bit of both. As I still have a few days off, this wild theorising will hopefully be continued tomorrow. If I’m not too hangover. Recommendation if you’re in Nuremberg tonight: Beat Thang has invited DJ Slow.