Picturing the Everyday: How Social Media Helps Historians

Post by Erica Fagen

As historians, what can we learn from Flickr? This has been the central question of our article. The photographs of Boeseraltermann, PM Cheung, and Thomas Rassloff were analyzed through the lens of digital humanities tools, performance, and ”vernacular creativity.” (The post on vernacular creativity will be posted at a later date). All these ways of thinking are useful in terms of conceptualizing the photographs, as well as encouraging us to think about how activists use Flickr to voice their opposition against neo-Nazis. As we have also seen, the different photographers are networked to one another and make up a community of activists.[i] With all the innovative research done for this project, this section will show that Flickr is a resource which allows us new insight on protest cultures and online opposition in everyday life. Flickr tells us that activists like Boeseraltermann who document Nazi and anti-Nazi demonstrations are networked, the details of which can be seen in the post “Search, Mine, and Collect: Our Digital Humanities Methodology.” It is a centre of connectivity – a place in which users can share and comment on each other’s photographs. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that Flickr is a centre for creativity, in terms of photo content and photo organization. Flickr is an open forum that allows photographers to share their work with the public at large.

Thomas Poell and Eric Borra, with their study of the “#g20report” hashtag used during the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010, show that Flickr was the least influential of the four social networks examined, which also included Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They write that “Flickr is clearly the most strongly dominated by a relatively small number of users. The 20 percent most active users posted 69 percent of the selected photos.”[ii] Despite this small number, however, Flickr is still a network made up by a variety of users. It is important to look at Flickr through the lens of networking. Networking is worth discussing even further in the context of “networked publics,” as coined by danah boyd. She writes, “networked publics are publics that are reconstructed by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. Networked publics serve many of the same functions as other types of publics – they allow people to gather for social, cultural, and civic purposes, and they help people connect with a world beyond their close friends and family. While networked publics share much in common with other types of publics, the ways in which technology structures them introduces distinct affordances that shape how people engage with these environments. The properties of bits – as distinct from atoms – introduce new possibilities for interaction. As a result, new dynamics emerge that shape participation.”[iii] To think of Boeseraltermann, PM Cheung, and Thomas Rassloff as part of a “networked public” is useful as it helps us conceptualize their presence on social media networks. Where boyd makes her most relevant point is when she discusses interaction – it that factor that differentiates networked publics and regular publics. Her main point of interaction can be taken beyond the understanding of people talking to each other on social media sites – interaction is not limited to that. Interaction can also be “favouriting” one another’s photographs, or using similar hashtags. Scholars such as José Van Dijck agree that social media sites such as Flickr “enable the construction of infinite connections,”[iv] but she does not think that Flickr is a photo exchange site or archive. The following sections will demonstrate that Flickr is indeed a centre of connectivity, but can be thought of as an archive, contrary to Van Dijck’s views. Connectivity is only part of the reason why Flickr is important for historians to consider – creativity is equally important.

As it was emphasizing in the post “Performing Opposition,” Flickr is a centre of creative opposition. The content of photographs ranges from garden gnomes to balloons to silly caricatures of neo-Nazis. To see activism “performed” through photography is reason enough to analyze these photographs. However, creativity extends beyond the content of the photographs; it is useful to think of Flickr users as “creative practioners,” as Jean Burgess writes.[v] Going by Burgess’ definition of a creative practioner, a Flickr user is free to post what they want. Cyron, one of the Flickr users interviewed by Burgess, “understands his continuing development as a ”creative” photographer as a technical, aesthetic and self-educative process that has enriched his everyday experience in particular ways.”[vi] Both these Brisbanite and anti-Nazi amateur activist photographers can be described in this way, that Flickr allows their aesthetic and technical ability to develop. But what is most crucial to consider here is this creative freedom Flickr users have – whether it is taking photographs of the Australian landscapes or anti-Nazi demonstrations – is that it allows researchers to see unique, subjective experiences of the everyday amateur photographer. Flickr, with its capabilities of storing millions of photographs, is a resource for documenting the vernacular, or everyday, photography. Not only is it a resource, but it is an archive as well. However, not all scholars agree on that.

Despite the claims by José Van Dijck that Flickr is not archive or photo exchange site, I would argue against that, as would other scholars. Emma Angus, David Stuart and Mike Thelwall demonstrate that Flickr can be beneficial as an “academic image resource”[vii] and “results show that Flickr can be used as a resource for subject-specific images in some subject areas; and that non subject-specific images can also prove to be of value for individual academics.”[viii] They see Flickr as useful for academia because of its tagging functions, and can serve as a database for certain subject areas. They conclude with explaining that because of Flickr”s diversity, it is a far richer resource or archive than traditional databases, archives, or picture libraries. They also highlight the vastness of content of Flickr, one of the oldest social media sites in existence (it was established in 2004). They write that in November 2008, Flickr held three billion images, compared with 70 million for Getty, one of the largest media news repositories in the world.[ix] As of June 2012, Flickr holds 6 billion photographs.[x] More than 3,000 photographs are uploaded on Flickr per day.[xi] The numbers alone speak for themselves – it is crucial for historians to take Flickr seriously as an academic resource.

For all the reasons listed above, which include networking, creativity, and the ability of Flickr to be academic resource due to its tagging functions and sheer numbers – Flickr has become another medium to voice opposition to neo-Nazis. It’s availability and its scope makes it necessary for scholars, including historians, to consider. Flickr, with its potential of creativity and networking, has made it essential to study and discuss. Not only that, but Flickr gives an inside look at the everyday, of vernacular photography. Jean Burgess sums this up quite nicely in her article when she states that “the sheer ubiquitous and ordinary nature of most everyday photography, and its embeddedness within social life, that creates the conditions for Flickr as a platform for vernacular creativity with all its unintended consequences – citizenship, commerce and art.”[xii] Flickr captures the everyday – which in Hate 2.0’s case captures the everyday opposition against neo-Nazis. Flickr is a platform, a view of online protest in everyday life, and this is one of the reasons why it is important for historians to take Flickr seriously as a legitimate source. Flickr is a platform of subjective experiences and a method of visualizing protest on a mass scale. Hopefully more studies on Flickr as a hub of subjective experiences and of visualizing protest will be done in the future.

[i] Erica Fagen, “Search, Mine, and Collect: Our Digital Humanities Methodology,” hate2point0.com, July 6, 2012, accessed July 30, 2012, https://hate2point0.com/2012/07/07/search-mine-and-collect-our-digital-humanities-methodology/.

[ii] Thomas Poell and Erik Borra, “Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr as platforms of alternative journalism: The social media account of the 2010 Toronto G20 protests,” Journalism, 13, no. 8 (2011): 9.
[iii] danah boyd, “Social Networks Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications,” in A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites, edited by Zizi Papacharissi, (New York: Routledge, 2011): 39.
[iv] José Van Dijck, “Flickr and the culture of connectivity: Sharing views, experiences, memories,” Memory Studies, 4, no. 4 (2011): 412
[v] Jean Burgess, “Remediating vernacular creativity: Photography and cultural citizenship in the Flickr photo-sharing network,” in Spaces of Vernacular Creativity: Rethinking the Cultural Economy, edited by Tim Edensor, (New York: Routledge, 2010): 120-121.
[vi] Burgess, “Remediating vernacular creativity,” 121.
[vii] Emma Angus, David Stuart and Mike Thelwall, “Flickr’s potential as an academic image resource: An exploratory study,” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 42, no. 4 (2010): 268.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Angus, Stuart and Thelwall, “Flickr’s potential as an academic image resource,” 270.
[x] Allegra Tepper, “The Rise of Mobile Photography [INFOGRAPHIC],” Mashable, June 14, 2012, accessed July 25, 2012, http://mashable.com/2012/06/14/mobile-photography-infographic/
[xi] Allegra Tepper, “How Much Data Is Created Every Minute? [INFOGRAPHIC],” Mashable, June 22, 2012, accessed July 25, 2012, http://mashable.com/2012/06/22/data-created-every-minute/.
[xii] Burgess, “Remediating vernacular creativity,” 125.

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