The Collecting Social Photo team presented the project at the conference Museums and the Web in Vancouver, April 20.

Download presentation (Pdf)
Full paper at Museums and the web 2018 website

Script from presentation

Never before have so many people photographed so much of their everyday lives. We post and share billions of photographs online every year, especially in social media. There is an ocean of photographs that overflows our daily lives. And yet these images are not there for future generations. This development presents a significant challenge for museums and archives aiming to preserve history, building heritage collections, and archives. A challenge we want to discuss here today.

But first: One could ask: Why should museums and archives collect social digital photography? Few museums and archives today collect social media photography due to lack of knowledge, competences, and resources. In a recent survey we also identified that the institutions are insecure about the relevance of collecting this kind of photography.

The strongest reasons to collect social digital photography is that these images have now by far replaced the analogue photographs, traditionally collected by museums and archives. In the future there will no shoe boxes with granddad’s old photos or fascinating photo albums brought into the museums or archives. The same notion goes for diaries and personal letters. Today this kind of content is often shared as communication on social media in a mixture of words and images.

A pilot study that lead to the  project – also confirmed that few scholars discuss the memory and history aspect of social media. Further none at all connected the social media photography to archival and museum practices. There is however, a growing awareness regarding social media content, which also regards the  photos as records that should be acquired as a part of public archives. A recent example from 2017 is the creation of former president Obama’s White House social media archives. In the Nordic research project Collecting Social Photography we address this challenge.

The project is a cooperation between The Nordic Museum in Stockholm , Stockholm County Museum , The Finnish Museum of Photography, and Aalborg City Archives in Denmark. The research partner is the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. The project runs for three years  from 2017-2020. So we have just started the second year.

Today we will briefly address some of the challenges posed by the social digital photographs on museums and archives and present the initial results of four case studies. The main goal of the project is to develop methods and recommendations for museums and archives on collecting and disseminating social digital photography. To achieve this goal a starting point is to understand the impact of social media on photographs and photographic practices, as well as to understand how this in turn influences the work with photography collections in museums and archives.

This is work in progress and we look forward to discuss our findings with you.

But how do we define social digital photography? The  project is based on the assumption that the social digital photograph is considerably different from the physical object common in heritage photography collections. Today photography is a part of everyday life, ubiquitous through our ever-present smartphones and ephemeral, stored on private accounts in the cloud or on easily breakable devices.

A major difference from analogue photography is the massive increase in participation and the number of images shared. Further, the networked social digital photograph is dependent of its context, being an assemblage of geodata, motif, text, emojis, likes, shares and networks. Photography today can so to say be regarded as a form of communication, where the visual resembles words and language.

If you look at the traditional work practice in museums and archives, they still mostly revolve around seemingly  stable unique and delimited objects or visual sources, so it is not surprising that institutional infrastructures and policies are  start of quote -“ill-suited to new ways of seeing objects as polysemic entities” according to the researcher Fiona Cameron. The museum and archives sector has for decades been working with digital technologies, still, the need for new infrastructures, processes, decisions, and strategic partners caused by new digital media has often been met with unease.

The project uses case studies as a primary method of data collection. They aim to capture relevant dimensions of social digital photography, from individual to media specific practices and relate them to current museum and archives practices. Focus has so far been on localities and individual practices.

As the project is closely related to collecting institutions in practice – the four case studies reflect work practices of the participating archives and museums. Each museum and archives has designed case studies based on their aims and scope: The local, the regional, and the national.

Social Media Diaries in Helsinki
As we have mentioned, social media services has an impact on  photographic practices, which in turn affect the character of social media photographs. As the social anthropologist Daniel Miller  points out, photographs in social media are also closely linked to ideologies, social norms, and aesthetic preferences and they vary. This observation was an important premise, when The Finnish Museum of Photography launched a case study with clearly defined social media user groups and individuals.

In Social Media Diaries, the aim was to document and collect visual interaction on different platforms on social media such as, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, WhatsApp The two informants were invited to keep a logbook of their use of social media during one day.

The images they shared on social media were collected during two days. One day, they were aware that the museum was collecting and kept a video log of what they were sharing. All images and videos shared on their public accounts were collected by the museum or sent by the informants to the museum later and were complemented with screenshots showing likes and comments.

The informants were also interviewed about their practices through photo elicitation, a type of open-ended interviewing, where discussion is stimulated by images. The process of ‘looking together’ helped the two interviewees bring forward meanings that would have been hard to grasp by only analysing the photographs themselves.

The case study provided interesting results on individual  photographic practices in social media. It became evident that the social networks were far more important to the girls – than the museum project. From the interviews can be concluded that visual social media can offer an alternative to the normativity of the physical world. For the informants, social media has offered a more interesting, open-minded, and wider social platform.

The experience from this case is, that working intensively with informants is time consuming  – and that to balance this with the need to create representative collections is challenging.

#Christmas in Aalborg
Aalborg City Archives initiated digital collection from Instagram launching the project #Christmasinaalborg in December 2012. The archives have now conducted the project for six years latest with hashtag #christmasinaalborg17 (#juliaalborg17) and today it is one the case studies in CoSoPho.

The background of the project is – that in 2012 Aalborg City Archives identified a lack of modern, private Christmas photos in the holdings –  and at the same time the archives wished to experiment with digital curation methods using a #hashtag, as well as to initiate user involvement in the collecting process.

The collecting practice was and is still today adopted from analogue photo collection, only the photo, not captions, is collected with permission from the photographer, which means new insights in the complexity of social media photos as a mixture of image, caption, and platform are not yet incorporated in the practices, which confirms Cameron’s  assumption that work practices in memory institutions are based on stable and delimited units and not easy to change.

The option to be a part of history was accepted positively by the Instagramers and regarded as recognition from the beginning. However, the experience is that people do not spontaneously share images with the archives by themselves, as we shall see in the following cases. In 2017, the archives found it getting harder to involve people, perhaps because of changes in the use of the media. Instagram is not associated with the same hipster factor as in 2012. At that time, being an early adopter was one of the reasons for participation.

Today growing numbers have private accounts on Instagram  and use one to one media as Snapchat. Instagram is now used planned and for commercial reason to a higher degree.

A conclusion is also that long term time studies make it possible to identify changes in user behaviours. We see changes in  user behavior, changes in motifs and it provides a deeper knowledge on how these changes influences the collection of archives and museums.

One of the first case studies we performed in the project was Södertälje, where we decided to open-endedly, investigate and learn how a small town is depicted through Instagram using both qualitative and quantitative methods, and to explore new methods to increase motivation for co-creating photographic heritage. The town of Södertälje has a large number of inhabitants born outside Sweden, many of which are not familiar with our museums.

The goal of the case study was, besides understanding how a place is depicted through Instagram, also to understand how museums could reach out to interact with communities through social media photography on Instagram in order to eventually document a place and engage people to participate and to co-create photographic heritage.

We started looking at hashtag #södertälje. There are today almost 108 000 images posted on Instagram with this hashtag. However we decided that we would get a more personal and diverse view of the town by looking at geotags instead, as the hashtag proved to be used more for commercial purposes, which were not in the scope of the project. In order to engage people to contribute with photos from the town we tried series of outreach initiatives, from contacting people directly through email and through comments and direct messages on Instagram, to sponsored posts and a competition. Neither of these efforts proved very efficient, which in turn gave us insight into the importance of strategic outreach in connection to collecting initiatives.

A conclusion from this case study is that approaching a place through Instagram is helpful when identifying communities and topics of interest. Further it has enabled the project to start concretizing the process of collecting, by mapping efforts to existing work practices, identifying specific challenges, and discussing purpose and methods. And perhaps the most important conclusion is that we have identified  the need to strategically build capacity for successful outreach, in order to collect, which includes for example working with local communities.

The terrorist attack in Stockholm
In the project we have been looking at the production of social digital photography in different situations. At the onset of the project, the use of networked photographs during sudden events was already identified as a relevant topic to explore. So when in April last year a terrorist attack took place in Stockholm, even though we were only three months into the project, we quickly launched two collecting initiatives, one at the Stockholm County Museum and one at the Nordic Museum, as social media photography was widely used, and shared with the hashtag #openstockholm during the event.

In the two initiatives we performed slightly different ways of outreach, one a press release aimed at traditional media and the other through sponsored post in social media. Secondly we used two different websites for collecting, both that were already established and online. And thirdly we asked slightly different questions.

Our aim with collecting was to understand how can we reach out to the public and engage them to share photos from the event, how the websites would work with large new audiences and what kind of photographs we would be able to collect. In total we collected almost 500 photos. In addition we also collected metadata from approximately 7 000 images posted on Instagram to compare.

An important observation was that during the days after the event more than 10 000 images were shared on Instagram with hashtag #openstockholm. As you can see the posting takes place during a very short period of time.

Compared to our 500 photos, we were obviously not able to collect more than a fragment of all photos that were shared. However, in contrast to the case study Södertälje, here it is possible to perform outreach through simple and quick efforts like sponsored posts and reach a good result.

A follow up survey indicates that even a year later people seem to keep images in their mobile phones from such a traumatizing event. However it is it is significantly more difficult to reach out, and at this point even though using cloud storage is common, many still don’t. Above all a conclusion is that having a stable infrastructure for collecting is central, as well as capacity for relevant outreach in existing social media and media channels.

Wrapping up the first 1.5 years
So when wrapping up the first 1.5 years of the project the results are still work in progress, but we have drawn some conclusions that make up a solid foundation for our next steps.

The archives and museums in the project have in the case studies placed themselves in the mediation junction between communication, self-presentation, and memory, in a field where research and practice around photography collections are closely connected.

One of the most important learnings so far is that we can’t regard the photograph as a single object anymore. It’s not just that the digital photograph can be replicated numerous times, it consists of more than just a motif. It is inseparable from its context,  that is the caption, the hashtags, the comments, the likes, the shares and the network in which it is distributed. This will have consequences for museum databases, as well as description practices, that build on analog photography.

Further we have seen that in order to collect social digital photography we need to use multidisciplinary methods, performed over a longer period of time. Collecting has to be performed through qualitative methods; such as curated collecting, surveys and interviews combined with quantitative methods in order to capture patterns not visible through smaller selections. This autumn we will therefore also look at how to incorporate machine learning and computer assisted image recognition in order to manage larger amounts of data.

One of the great challenges when collecting social digital photography is to perform successful outreach including facilitating co-creation of photographic archives. This implies that museums and archives need to allocate resources and build capacity for such initiatives. Participatory methods are a prerequisite for collecting in real time, meaning the time the social photo is produced, in order to engage audiences and to capture metadata and context, and even to ensure that the photos are not lost or deleted.

By concretizing the entire process of collecting, from outreach to acquisition, appraisal, and dissemination, through the case studies, we have initiated thoughts on the complexity of the social digital photograph. To offer history and eternity to the volatile photo practices we will need to adapt current work practices around collecting, and we might even consider regarding social digital photography as a significant new form of source material. Not a continuation of the analogue photography collections. This intriguing idea will be brought into the second half of the project.