Public Space and Its Discontents

In addition to a lot of predictable Banksy spottings, there are some interesting images in this Flickr group, including this one:

Group description:

This group is interested in how people use, abuse and subvert ‘public’ spaces. Now that we lead sedentary indoor lives, public spaces are often neglected or strictly controlled and regulated.
We are interested in how public spaces can be used for ‘unexpected’ purposes other than their design or how that are ‘supposed’ to.

What is Flickr Video For?

So Flickr finally ended the years of rumour-mongering and actually rolled out video. I was interested to see the way the official announcement carefully positioned the purposes of video on Flickr within the company’s (tasteful, cosmopolitan, playfully grown-up) brand identity, and its focus on self-created content:

we thought long and hard about how video would complement the flickrverse. If you’ve memorized the Community Guidelines, you know that Flickr is all about sharing photos that you yourself have taken. Video will be no different and so what quickly bubbled up was the idea of “long photos,” of capturing slices of life to share. [emphasis added, which possibly comes across as me being a bit pedantic]

They even give a carefully diverse range of quotidian examples–covering cats, places, events and people, of course.

There’s some really interesting protest going on within the sections of the Flickr community who are really invested in capital-P Photography, including this well-populated anti-video group, with some surprisingly hostile comments about the company. A lot of people seem to be worried that somehow the introduction of video will directly cause a ‘flood’ of banal, crass, and unlovely content, and will turn a photography-oriented community into ‘just another YouTube’. The controversy is tremendously interesting to me in its own right, of course–there’s technological determinism combined with symbolic boundary work and a fair amount of amnesia about Flickr’s mundane origins–at least as far as I remember there was a lot more emphasis on lifelogging using the (then) newly available camera phone than there was on digital camera arms races, fine art techniques, and so on.

So, controversy aside, how is it turning out? What do you really get when you start with a mature online social network with social and cultural norms increasingly organised around ‘quality’ content, introduce the ability to upload very short video clips (but only to Pro members), presented within the often carefully cultivated ‘photo streams’ of individual users, combined with a way of accounting for value that takes into account far more than the number of people who been tempted (or tricked) into viewing a particular piece of content?

I’m sure there will be some silliness, and unlike the Fotografrs who are protesting the move, I also really hope there will be some very cute cat videos.

But there will also be lovely slideshows designed to curate and exhibit small sets of photographic images, like this beautiful video–which is much more than a slideshow–by Timo Arnall [thanks anne, again]

And, I will bet, increasingly elegant innovations on observational and personal photography like what Photojojo is calling the ‘long portrait’:

The thing about the best portraits is how they capture the essence of a person.

Maybe the wrinkles on their hands, or the expression in their eyes, tell you about the life they’ve had.

So what if you had 30 seconds to capture that person, instead of a nanosecond shutter-click? And what if the person could talk? Whoa. Crazy, we know. We call it a long portrait.

Which sounds a lot like a micro digital story: a focus on the personal and first-person, within elegant aesthetic constraints, done with attention to detail and respect for the co-creator. Photojojo even links to the interviewing guide on the StoryCorps website to assist newbie micro-documentarists in learning the art of capturing these snapshots of individual human lives.

I really think the idea of the ‘long portrait’ is quite brilliant.

Aside from that, the collective shaping of the meanings and uses of video within Flickr’s existing community of practice is going to be extremely interesting to watch.

further to the myspace/facebook class debate

further to the myspace/facebook class debate

Ah, the La Boite Theatre (which by the way has a kind of populist/grass-roots brand image but is situated in the hyper-modernist, rational and shiny Creative Industries Precinct here at QUT). Perhaps we should applaud them for doing their bit to keep MySpace bourgeios.

But then again, first an iPod on the cover of their 2007 season brochure, and now this – which may create some tensions, because are they really like a Mac (seamlessly, transparently usable, white, and fun, but with “no user-seviceable parts inside”)? or are they more like a home-built PC (ubiquitous, kludgy, hackable, and dripping with DIY authenticity)? Of course my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, because I think to the La Boite folks, as for most people, the ipod and myspace signify roughly the same thing – something like “the digital generation”. And to most people, the differences between MySpace and Facebook are about as big as the differences between, say, emo and goth to my grandma.

Quite seriously, I am very glad to see discussions of the ways in which cultural “tastes”, and constructions of what counts as usability (which has serious implications for what counts as literacy), being discussed in relation to social networks.

If you haven’t already, see danah boyd’s piece and the AoIR and iDC lists for the actual discussion about Facebook, MySpace, and class (in the Bourdieu-ian sense).

And I was especially impressed with this post to the AoIR list by (soon-to-be colleague) Jason Wilson:

One of the central arguments in the work is that “taste” and cultural preferences mediate class distinctions, that taste is one of the primary ways in which class distance and membership are asserted. This informs my belief that design, “usability” and the contexts of social networking are never neutral, and are always inflected by issues around class (among others). I guess that for me, the problematic assumption would be that social networking, and the selection of an SNS, could take place in a way that somehow evaded, or was innocent of all of this.

Why would I think of this specifically in relation to MySpace vs. Facebook? Well, to amplify on an earlier example, I think that the ways in which the two services can be personalised appeal to different taste formations. The often-“gaudy” nature of MySpace personalisation, arising from users’ ability to insert large amounts of HTML into their profiles to create background images etc. presents a contrast with the essentially “modular” personalisation available with Facebook profiles, where users select from a range of options which do not disturb the given, “clean” colour schemes and layouts of Facebook profiles. The Facebook interface strikes me as very “designerly” – it is reminiscent to me in its look and feel of an OSX application, with all that connotes in terms of “funky”/creative professions, the blurring of work and/in play, and discernment (think of the Mac vs. PC ad campaigns). The use of whitespace, drop-down menus and a very “Web 2.0” set of icons allow it to be read as uncluttered, fresh and efficient. Personalisation for many Facebook users takes place by way of deferring to the expert knowledges of application designers. By contrast, MySpace personalisations often seem inexpert, distracting, ungainly – in short amateur, even where the “pimping” is outsourced. Coincidentally, both Danah Boyd and I (me in my blog post on the 22nd) are drawn to the metaphor of/comparison with Swedish furniture stores and their emphasis on modularity and design in thinking about Facebook. There are visual rhetorics in Facebook’s presentation that connote a restrained minimalism which is not avant-garde but rational and “tasteful”. This observation chimes with the excitement of those marketing high-end consumer goods about getting access Facebook’s “elite” user base. Facebook’s aesthetic of personalisation appeals to a certain kind of networked, linked-in, design-aware, educated, “mature” (non-emo 🙂 ) subject, in part because of the “distancing” it offers from messy old MySpace, which begins, by contrast, to resemble the chaos of a teenager’s bedroom wall. In this sense, I think we can talk about class in relation to the design interface.

There’s also an earlier blog post by Jason where he quite provocatively talks about the migration to Facebook as a kind of aspirational, rather than defensive, “white flight”.

If I could throw something else into the mix, all of this discussion about the link between aesthetic norms, constructions of usability (and ‘hackability’), and so on brings to mind the differences between Flickr and YouTube. Apples and oranges, certainly, but perhaps no more so than the MySpace/Facebook comparison. Like Facebook, Flickr’s interface is white, “usable” and vaguely mac-like, and like Facebook, its norms of participation, design and community behaviour were established by a fairly elite subculture early on, but unlike Facebook, Flickr has held onto a reasonably coherent demographic and a reasonably stable “culture”, as far as I can tell. On the other hand, like MySpace, YouTube looks like a chaotic, “tasteless” free-for-all to an eye schooled in middle-class mores and tastes, not to mention the dominant construction of usability that structures the discourses of the “digerati“. But it is also genuinely popular in all senses of that rich and problematic term, and is emerging as a genuine “mass” medium where vernacular creativity and “big media” swim around in the same mix. What’s in YouTube’s immediate and distant future as far as that all goes is another matter entirely.

I wrote about this (sort of) in my AoIR paper on Flickr last year. There’s a lot more of it in my thesis, organised around the dynamics of “usability”, “hackability” and “playability”. I’ll post a copy of that online eventually, but email me if you’re keen to see it earlier.

Localisation, YouTube and Flickr

Via BigMouth Media – well, actually via late-night YouTube browsing, followed by the now-familiar exclamation “Oh, look, YouTube’s changed something (in the middle of the night) again!”:

YouTube has released localised versions of its video sharing website in nine countries around the world. The countries that are getting the special treatment are Brazil, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the UK.

The sites are fully translated into the home country’s major language and offer content more specific to the user’s locale. The specific sites also return search results that are deemed more relevant to the user based on where they are in the world. According to YouTube’s official blog, users will also be able to look forward to country-specific video rankings and comments in the future.

I only noticed because the top right-hand corner of my YouTube page appeared to have suddenly sprouted a little US flag. Naturally my first instinct was to race with all possible speed for the drop-down box to get rid of it and replace it with something else. Because the US flag as the symbol for “I speak English” is one of my pet peeves. Of course, unless I want to finally get around to learning French, Polish or Japanese, my only other option for now is to pretend to be British.

More seriously, I’m ecstatic there are non-English language options, but concerned about what the impacts of Google-style ‘localisation’ of search results might be on the development of an open, cosmopolitan and networked public sphere.

First, it’s entirely possible that too much personalisation and customisation and localisation is actually a bad thing for the development of cosmopolitan cultural citizenship and for cultural innovation. Culturally-relevant content for citizens of countries outside the US is one thing. But to look at it the other way round, the last thing anyone should want is for US-centric content to dominate the YouTube experience of US residents even more than is the case already. We’ll see how it plays out, I suppose.

Second, YouTube’s twitchy behaviour and tenuous relationships with local governments has a slighly chilling effect on the warm, neighbourly glow that ‘localisation’ is meant to provoke.

From Wired-in Terrence Russell:

Even with the new sites, international users will still have access to the original site, as well as all the others. “It is not that we want to limit content by geography,” YouTube’s International Manager, Sakina Arsiwala told Reuters. “Right now, the content will be available to everyone, unless the (media) partner specifies otherwise.”

Well, maybe.

Which brings to mind the tangles and heartache caused by the localisation of Yahoo! and the subsequent filtering of Flickr content viewed from Germany, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. The policies are being almost hysterically condemned as ‘censorship’ by some Flickr users. Interestingly, most of the protest seems to be focused around the impacts on German users. I haven’t been as immersed in the issue as I would have been a few months back, but it doesn’t take long to see it’s clearly a complicated and fraught issue. And it’s not going to go away. I wonder how a YouTube localised for Germany will look?

[update] From the horse’s mouth via the YouTube blog:

As these sites evolve, so will your localized YouTube experience, including country-specific video rankings, comments and browse pages – all while being just one click away from the worldwide view.


We’re extremely excited to be offering YouTube in the languages of so many of our users, since it allows people to express themselves and unite around interesting, relevant videos. We’re looking forward to seeing communities develop between people in their local communities as well as among people around the world. We can’t wait to experience more original content and interesting genres of content in different languages on the site.

Clearly, the language options are a very good thing. But I still don’t see why country-specific content is any more an aid to the development of communities of interest than are keywords, groups and so on. An aid to targeted advertising and content filtering though, certainly.

Slides from my MIT5 paper ‘Vernacular Photography 2.0’

Jill posted slides of her presentation just now – which is such a good idea that I thought I’d steal it 😉

I worked from a script, but the full paper still has to be written into existence. When it’s done I’ll upload it to the MIT5 website. In the meantime, please enjoy the Flickr-ness of the slides that went with the talk.

Dumpr Museumr: textual poaching in reverse

Museumr is a new 3rd party flickr toy that lets you stick your own photo in a frame at your choice of museum. More museumr photos.

It’s weird that I came across this via my Flickr contacts this morning, while writing a proposal for a paper I hope to give at MIT5 on Flickr, social aesthetics, and the reconfiguration of the relations between everyday life, ‘professional’ photography and artworlds.

Please observe my protruding right cheek here, but…

To play with Henry Jenkins’classic terminology for fandom, this latest Flickr fad is textual poaching in reverse because instead of pilfering the materials for creativity from the landlord, it’s all about sneaking your own creations into the master’s house. But it’s still a form of fandom in my view.

And I love the fact that a large number of the images in the biggest frames are utterly paradigmatic of vernacular photography: photos of babies, garden gnomes, cats and dogs. The effect is so much wittier than in the ones where people have used their best ‘arty’ photos. My dog wants to know when he’s going to be featured on a wall at MOMA.

post-conference highs

Last week was super-intense, what with presenting the paper on Everyday Creativity as Civic Engagement, which I co-authored with Marcus Foth and Helen Klaebe at the Communications Policy and Research Forum in Sydney, then zooming back to Brisbane to get my AoIR paper happening and throwing myself into conference mode for the rest of the week. I had organized a panel with Mel Gregg, Christina Spurgeon and Sal Humphreys called Creativity and Its Discontents.

Quite unexpectedly, our session ended up being totally packed out – we almost, but did not quite, achieve the distinction of having an actual mosh pit type situation happening, but we did have people sitting on the floor. Rock stars or not, I felt it went very well, and we had some good feedback. But then again, the impression of it going well could just be a result of my excellent mood. I’ve uploaded my own paper (well, the script for my presentation) Vernacular Creativity, Cultural Participation and New Media Literacy: Photography and the Flickr Network as a pdf. It was the first time I got to rehearse my interpretation of the idea of a tension between ‘usability and hackability’ in the socio-technical construction of vernacular creativity, kind of comparing the ‘Kodak moment’ with the ‘Web 2.0’ one.

Somehow I avoided conference fatigue, enjoying most of the papers, having an awesome time at the dinner and the inevitable after-dinner drinks, feeling very excited about converting blog friends into real friends. And easing out of conference mode by watching the AFL Grand Final at the pub with a hybrid crowd of friends and loved ones, new conference acquaintances and complete strangers (i.e. the ubiquitous old-men-perched-on-bar-stools, with whom I always seem to strike up interesting conversations) at the Royal Exchange Hotel. But after finally allowing myself to get emotionally invested in the footy, was quite gutted to see the Swans lose by one lousy point.

Technorati tag:
Flickr photos are/should be tagged with: aoir2006

flickr & relational aesthetics

First decent new sentence I’ve added to my PhD draft for a couple of weeks:

Flickr can be viewed as the site of a vernacular ‘relational aesthetics’ (Bourriaud, 2002), where the object of the aesthetic is no longer the image itself, but the ‘modes of social connection’ (McQuire, 2006, pp. 263) that are both made possible by and flow through the image.


Bourriaud, Nicolas. (2002) Relational Aesthetics. English ed. Dijon, Les presses du reel.

McQuire, Scott (2006) ‘Technology.’ Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3): 253-263.

fieldwork finished

Tonight I wrapped up my Flickr interviews, which were the last bits of fieldwork for my PhD. I could have kept talking to people forever, because the whole process has been so rich and productive and interesting, and, well, fun, but you have to stop somewhere. I’m going to be saying this many more times in the coming months, but thank you so much to:

Mr. Magoo ICU








I now am officially in thesis hell, to the extent that I have almost completely cleared my schedule between now and December and declined a whole bunch of other projects that I really, really wanted to do, and writing this post feels like a luxuriant waste of time. Let’s call it a birthday present, because I started creativity/machine around about three years ago, while in the very early stages of thinking through ideas for a PhD project on amateur creativity (and procrastinating about finishing my MPhil). Maybe it’s time to start planning a postdoc. (Only joking)

on flickr as a game environment

I have a section in my chapter on Flickr about the structure of the network as an ‘architecture of participation’, where I go through the various levels of engagement that are possible or invited (from exploring to uploading to commenting to participating in group ‘tasks’ and learning communities, and so on). I know I’m not the first person to have the idea of user-generated content communities as MMOGs, and I am very far from being an expert on game studies, but I’ve found it really productive to think about these issues of structure (or perhaps structuration) through a game design model, which also gets us thinking about participation in the network in terms of multiple forms of play. Here’s a bit of the draft to that effect:

Many computer games, at least at the most obvious level, are a specific, structured form of play that has a clear and final result: they define a win and (sometimes) a loss. At the same time not all play, even within game environments, is ‘ludic’ in precisely this way, instead being characterised by more free-form and player-centred practices that are complementary or parallel to the success imperative. This approach can also be applied to ‘architectures of participation’ like user-generated content communities and, in this case Flickr, on the basis that participation in these environments, as in games, can be viewed as a form of play that occurs in a constrained environment and that offers both individual and social rewards which can be attributed to the actions of the participants. Accordingly, it is appropriate to view Flickr as an open and configurable, but at the same time deeply structured, game environment where a variety of forms of massively multiplayer online play are possible. The second feature of play that makes it a useful tool for the analysis of cultural participation in Flickr is that it is, as Kücklich demonstrates, an appropriate model for the structure-agency problem in new media contexts.

Update: Stewart Butterfield on Game Neverending:

The secret is, even though it’s called Game Neverending, it’s not really a game at all. It’s a social space designed to facilitate and enable play. The game-elements are there to provide both the constraints and the building blocks of interaction – since the thing you’ll notice about the kind of play I’m talking about above is that it is the kind of thing that goes on between people. Ludicorp was started because we imagine all kinds of social computing applications that we’d love to use and participate in, and no one else seems to be building them.

Something there about the pervasiveness of the original design philosophy, I think.