a (very) short history of social media taglines

Lawson Fletcher has written a very insightful post about a funny little Twitter exchange I had with various people last night, prompted by some observations I made about the way social media taglines have changed over the past 5 years or so. Go over there to see how it all started.

While it was mostly a lot of fun (largely thanks to Kate’s lightning-fast wit and #soylentgreen references) it seems it was also interesting to people, so here’s some thoughts on what is behind my interest in the evolution of social media, via the taglines.

As I said at the time, I think taglines (think YouTube’s ‘broadcast yourself’) are interesting and important: they’re the ‘slogans’ that tell us what the platform owners want us to think platforms are ‘for’; and decisions to change them prompt us to notice what else has changed – the layout of homepages, the weight and usability given to various affordances, and indeed the business models themselves. I’ve been paying attention to these things for a while, beginning with Flickr (in my own PhD), more recently Twitter, and of course YouTube (even more so now that Josh and I are working on a second edition of our book).

My summing-up tweet was:

social media taglines over the past 5 years: from infantile self expression, to narcissistic cosmopolitanism, to networked consumption.

I’ve written about these shifts in the representation of the ‘ideal’ user in relation to the self, to the social network and to ‘the world’ in an as-yet incomplete and unpublished paper, and I’ve pasted an excerpt at the bottom of this post so you can get a sense of my most pointy-headed angle on it.

This afternoon I’ve dug up a few more snapshots of the Twitter homepage using the wayback machine, and here they are. (And by the way, the Wayback Machine is a godsend and an essential resource for tracking the history of the web platforms we use daily and that tend to change incrementally but unnoticed right in front of us.)

September 2006
The tagline (in the page header) was “A Whole World in Your Hands”; and then

“Twitter is for staying in touch and keeping up with friends no matter where you are or what you’re doing.”

September 2007
Tagline: “What are you Doing”; and then

“A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? Answer on your phone, IM, or right here on the web!”

I haven’t been 100% thorough, but it seems that “What are you doing?” persisted until sometime in 2009, when the landing page looked like this [click to enlarge]:

And now, suddenly:

For those interested, here’s the promised chunk from the unpublished paper that will now have to be completely revised because I think the latest shifts make what I’ve said pretty anachronistic:

In early 2006, co-founder and then-CEO of the Flickr photosharing service Stewart Butterfield outlined the new corporate vision of the website in an official blog entry. He introduces the post with some self-deprecating asides about what it’s like to work in “big companies”, referring to Yahoo! as Flickr’s “ever-loving parent”, gently mocking the burdens corporate culture places on creatives. He evokes the “powerpoint ‘decks’, spreadsheets, long meetings” and other “crazy processes” – like being asked to come up with mission statements – that infest it. Butterfield writes that the process of coming up with a mission statement was something he initially saw as an imposition on time that could be better spent “fixing stuff” or adding “needed features”, but then quickly shifts into manifesto mode, declaring that “after thinking about it for a while, the vision was obvious”: “The Eyes of the World.” The elaboration that Butterfield goes on to provide is as neat an encapsulation as any of the ways in which ordinary or everyday life, creativity and the cosmopolitan come together in the discourses around social media:

That can manifest itself as art, or using photos as a means of keeping in touch with friends and family, “personal publishing” or intimate, small group sharing. It includes “memory preservation” (the de facto understanding of what drives the photo industry), but it also includes the ephemera that keeps people related to each other: do you like my new haircut? should I buy these shoes? holy smokes – look what I saw on the way to work! It let’s you know who’s gone where with whom, what the vacation was like, how much the baby grew today, all as it’s happening.

And most dramatically, Flickr gives you a window into things that you might otherwise never see, from the perspective of people that you might otherwise never encounter.

In what has since become a recognisable pattern of curatorship on the official Flickr weblog, Butterfield goes on to provide a number of carefully selected examples of Flickr images that bear out this vision: images of the 2006 Paris riots snapped and uploaded in real time (as an example of ‘citizen journalism’); photographs of vernacular architecture, mundane details of the urban environment; and of course some visually appealing photographs featuring the dominant subjects of contemporary vernacular photography: babies, kittens, flowers and sunsets.

The metaphor ‘the eyes of the world’ works in two distinct ways. First, the publication of personal photographs on the Flickr website preserves and publicly remediates those aspects of ordinary life that a large number of citizens see and choose to capture (the eyes of the self, as it were). Second, and as a consequence of this, the Flickr website also functions as a window on the worlds of others. There is a complicated notion of the ‘global’ underlying this idea of the ‘eyes of the world’; one which connects with various points along what Ong (2009) has called the ‘cosmopolitan continuum’: the ideal user of Flickr is invited to connect with both intimates and strangers on the basis of the mundane; and is further invited to engage with the world of the global ‘other’ on the basis of spectacular events, visual aesthetics, and the cultural distinctiveness of everyday life.

This moment in the development and growth of Flickr also marks a distinct moment in the evolution of digital culture and the discourse around it more broadly, precisely because it brought together within one media platform both of these modes of making and experiencing media. On the one hand, participation in Flickr is constructed as involving self-expression and the documentation of one’s own experience (the eyes of the self) and, on the other, participants are invited to experience social connection and global awareness (a window on the world).

This moment foreshadowed a much more extensive trend, now also represented by the near-ubiquity of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. At the time of the ‘eyes of the world’ statement, Flickr was at the height of its early fame in the technology media as one of the darlings of the ‘Web 2.0’ moment. Much of the industry rhetoric around Web 2.0 was focused on the new development of web-based platforms that not only allowed individual users to upload their own content, but also provided the means for the user community to organise and evaluate that content collectively, via the now quaint-sounding principle of the “folksonomy” (O’Reilly 2005). But with the exception of blogging, even in the most enthusiastic accounts of these developments in the technology press, there was little indication that social media might come to play as significant a role in media culture more broadly – that is, beyond ‘web culture’ – as is now increasingly the case. In the years since, it has become clear that social media are not only enabling individuals to more conveniently access publishing technologies, but that they are also playing a significant role in global public communication; in some cases at a scale that far exceeds the original intentions of the founders of the platforms concerned.

As a demonstration of this shift, Flickr’s slogan in 2004 was rather modest and primarily focused around its technical affordances for individual web users: potential participants were invited simply to “Share pictures in real time!”. Now the tagline on the home page much more ambitiously reads: “Share your photos. Watch the world.” This shift in social media from personal technology to public communication is also borne out by the similar evolution and widespread popularity of the short-message sharing social network site Twitter.com. Twitter recently changed its tagline (the short slogan which acts both as invitation to users and an evocation of the platform’s overall purpose) from the ‘me-centred’ “Twitter is for staying in touch and keeping up with friends no matter where you are or what you’re doing” – which users could do by answering the question “What are you doing right now?” in 140 characters or less – to something more akin to a global mission statement built around real-time events: “Share and discover what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world.”

These examples demonstrate that there is a shift occurring in the way that the role of everyday communication and personal media use are thought to figure in public discourse; and this shift has accompanied the widespread (but by no means universal) uptake and usage of social media platforms, alongside the increasingly global ambitions of the businesses that provide these services. Via user-created content networks and social network sites, the everyday lives of individuals are being remediated into new contexts of social visibility and connection – through Facebook and Twitter status updates, videos uploaded to YouTube, and photos contributed to Flickr. [etc]

Oh, and something else I tweeted later in the evening:

SCORE! on Flickr’s current homepage (without logging in): “Community. Flickr is made of people.” #soylentmedia

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