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Notes on the 5th digital ethnography reading (Murray 2008)

November 11, 2015

By Julian Waters-Lynch
PhD candidate
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group

The November session of the Digital Ethnography Reading Group took place on Wed, 11 November, from 12:00 to 13:30 in 013.01.002 (Building 13, Level 1, Room 2), RMIT city campus, Melbourne.

This time discussed Susan Murray’s study of the image hosting/sharing site Flickr:

Murray, S. (2008). Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics. Journal of Visual Culture, 7(2), 147–163. doi:10.1177/1470412908091935

Abstract

In this article, the author argues that the social use of digital photography, as represented on Flickr, signals a shift in the engagement with the everyday image, as it has become less about the special or rarefied moments of domestic living and more about an immediate, rather fleeting, display and collection of one’s discovery and framing of the small and mundane. In this way, photography is no longer just the embalmer of time that André Bazin once spoke of, but rather a more alive, immediate, and often transitory practice/form. In addition, the everyday image becomes something that even the amateur can create and comment on with relative authority and ease, which works to break down the traditional bifurcation of amateur versus professional categories in image-making.

This text was suggested by one of the DERC visiting scholars, Maria Schreiber (University of Vienna), whose PhD research focusses on the smartphone sharing practices of digital photos and the politics of different platforms. 

Our discussion began with an observation on the date of the article – the publication date is officially 2008, which in some disciplinary fields  might be considered a recent article but in the world of digital ethnography it feels like a previous epoch. Participants noted (again) how much has changed in the past 7 years: ‘flickr seems dead now’. However we queried when the actual research began, some suspecting a few years prior to publication, perhaps 2005. This curiosity was stimulated partly by an absence of discussion around other contemporary digital platforms on which content is shared, such as Myspace and Facebook. Flickr seemed to be discussed as a unique case, rather than as part of constellation of sharing platforms.

There was general agreement that Murray’s primary focus was on the background literature and theoretical formulation of the social role of photography in everyday life, especially in light of the significant changes in production and access afforded through the transition form analog to digital photography. The article contained some empirical examples of practices in the form of screen shots to illustrate examples in support of her argument, but there was a noted absence on the voices of flickr uses, the meaning of the photographic practices for participants or how these practices might have changed over time. We asked ourselves how this article could be furnished with a richer ethnographic account. We also acknowledged that this may not have been the purpose of the article, and we might be overlaying an ethnographic expectation on the article that differs from the author’s intention. Perhaps this discrepancy could have been clarified if Murray had outlined the purpose and procedural dimension of her data gathering, and its relationship to her broader argument about photography. We were left wondering for example:

– how long did she observe flickr for?

– whom did she observe and why did she select them?

– did she employ an analytical method (such as coding themes) in examining her data?

– did she participate in photo sharing and commenting or merely observe?

This provoked a brief discussion on different disciplinary expectations around the relationship between empirical data and theoretical claims (cultural studies was noted as an example that accepts theoretical claims with little relationship to empirical evidence). We (appeared to) agree that just like theoretical physics in the natural sciences, pure theoretical construction is a legitimate practice in social sciences, indeed this is largely what the discipline of philosophy is about. However in this article we were a little unclear what relationship the empirical data had in the theoretical formulation, especially considering some of the claims that were made about actors experiences visible in quotes like this:

“Flickr has become a collaborative experience: a shared display of memory, taste, history, signifiers of identity, collection, daily life and judgement through which amateur and professional photographers collectively articulate a novel, digitized (and decentralized) aesthetics of the everyday.” (Murray 2008:149) 

We then discussed how diverse the focus of digital ethnographic research can or should be – for example should researchers focus on the particular affordances within single platforms or the transferability and alteration of practices (such as ‘self-portraits’) across platforms. If we focus on a single platform, we should articulate the particular technical affordances and the cultural norms that users create (which differ from the technical constraints). In fact we noted that in reality ‘platforms’ operate as a dynamic assemblage of the two whose investigation can reveal subtle dynamics of the power structures behind platform design and iteration. On the other hand, if we follow user practices across platforms we may reveal the contextual relationships between these digital environments, and which practices diffuse easily and which are localised and ’sticky’.

Following such ‘practice trails’ may also reveal how the meaning of particular platforms change for participants over time and in the advent of new competitive arrivals. We noted for example how Facebook can cannibalise other platforms and promote its convenience as ‘a one stop shop’ – the single place to share photos, videos and content updates. This strategy appears aggressively pursued by Facebook, visible in the alacrity of its imitation of innovations from other sites (twitter, foursquare etc), even if not all such new updates are widely adopted (such as  ‘location check ins’).

At the same time these population movements where users congregate may strengthen the identities for those that remain on ‘older platforms’ like Flickr. Maria noted that as the growth of Instagram (founded in 2010) absorbed the ‘democratic’ photographic practices of quick snaps and shares and the ‘micro-celebrity’ practices of constructed spontaneity; those loyalist users that remained on Flickr have appeared to strengthen their identities as ‘professional-amateur’ practitioners. They now have a mainstream ‘other’ from which to contrast their own identities.

Perhaps in part to correct any unfair criticism levelled at the article, we noted some strengths, such as how the observation that the ‘disposability’ of digital images affords a kind of post-modern photographic aesthetic:  “It seems to speak to a new aesthetic and function – one dedicated to the exploration of the urban eye and its relation to decay, alienation, kitsch, and its ability to locate beauty in the mundane” (Murray 2008:155). Whilst from the smartphone saturated vantage of 2015 this might appear like yesterday’s news, from the perspective of the mid 2000s this could be considered an insightful observation on contemporary ‘judgements of taste’.

However we did challenge the claim that the deluge of digital images leads to their ephemerality. John noted the collection of these fleeting moments (images and tweets) can all add up to a larger narrative, at least in collective, geographically and historically situated contexts like his research on the politics of Los Indignados in Spain. We wondered how these dynamics might be different for the personalised, biographical constructions of individual narratives through the temporal trail of ‘digital moments’.

Digital photography, especially the (almost) zero marginal cost of their reproduction, were observed to create challenges for the tight link between the photographic object and the context of meaning in which it is situated. The ability for a single image to be reproduced in a hall of mirrors of pastiche and parody was noted to create hermeneutic challenges for researchers. However this point was also acknowledged as (perhaps) an exacerbated rather than novel challenge. In ethnography we have to accept that we can’t capture everything (all data, all contexts) and that sometimes gathering more ‘noise’ in the form of more data might not help distill the ‘signal’ of meaning that we are seeking. (Perhaps this is where the NSA errs in its strategy).

We had some final reflection on when photography is taboo – from the traditional idea that photos steal one’s soul common in many indigenous cultures, to new contemporary sites of theatres, art galleries, music concerts and change rooms. We also noted the well established ethnographic power in revealing the gap between what people say and what people do and how the participant dimension of ethnographic work can help elucidate this gap (such as the experience of becoming an ‘explorer’ on Flickr and the realisation that this is an achievement for which one should feel proud but remain silent)

Our final meeting on Wed 16 December 2015 (venue TBC) will review the Introduction to the new book Pink, S., H. Horst, J. Postill, L. Hjorth, T. Lewis and J. Tacchi. 2015. Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice. London: Sage. Please join us if you’re interested in the field.

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group

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