The future of social photography

This month, I attended the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, a gathering place to share information and ideas about web-development trends. I’ll recap information from SXSW in a series of blog posts and invite comments and brainstorming for each topic. So please join in!

When is a picture more than just a picture? When it has information embedded in it the way a bar code stores data about merchandise on a store shelf, an image becomes a multidimensional object that can be used various ways across the digital universe.

Today’s cameras, especially the ones that come with our smartphones, already add location to images automatically, a process called geotagging. This latitude and longitude data makes it easy to map images on photo-sharing sites, other social networks and more.

For instance, searching Flickr for geotagged photos for The Post’s ZIP code, 33405, shows us a rainbow of West Palm Beach-y snapshots (click on the image above to view larger). By the way, it also tells us that most Flickr users who upload geotagged images in our neighborhood are zoo visitors.

And of course, most of us are very familiar with another increasingly popular chunk of info embedded into images: the photo tag.

While the phenomenon of metadata embedded into digital images isn’t new, the explosion of social media use and mobile devices is expanding the way we think about photography, industry watchers say.

Some contend that quality photography is becoming less important. Sam Odio (@sodio), Facebook’s product manager for photos and video, made that claim during a SXSW session on “Focusing In On the Future of Social Photography.”

Odio says the social context behind photos is more important, at least to Facebook users, than image quality.

He likened photo uploads to “dopamine releases” for the millions of users addicted to the site to keep up with their friends and show off their own lives. Facebook has the largest collection of photos of any website, with 6 billion photos uploaded each month (more fun facts about Facebook photos here.)

I don’t buy the notion that the web has made photo quality irrelevant – just look at the popularity of sites like The Boston Globe‘s The Big Picture. The Palm Beach Post has our own multimedia showcase at the CLIK/HEAR blog.

Even on Facebook, readers appreciate professional, high-quality photos. The overwhelming response to Gary Coronado’s and Lannis Waters’ supermoon photos, displayed as a gallery on The Post’s Facebook wall, can attest to that.

ici et ailleurs / flickr

But it is obvious that the ease of instantaneously sharing images has revived a Polaroid-like culture of thinking about photography in which the focus is on fun and instant gratification.

It’s a Polaroid culture repackaged for digital, with an emphasis on people, places and real-time sharing.

Here are some points to ponder:

  • User studies show that people prefer to click on faces, which is certainly nothing new to social networks. At, we’ve seen for years that readers click on images of faces far more often than they do other pictures.
  • Instagram, the iPhone app released last fall that lets users enhance photos with special filters (especially retro effects, like the toy-camera styled image below) before sharing them on social networks, is so popular it’s become a phenomenon.

Veronica Belmont / flickr

Others are vying to elbow in on this space, like smartphone app Color, which “lets users post photos tagged with a location, browse the latest pics of people around them, and form ad-hoc groups to bundle together shots from a group of friends in the same place.”

  • News organizations’ use of “citizen journalist” photos – whether published on Twitter or sent via another means – is so common it’s not even noteworthy anymore. Again, the emphasis is on sharing and immediacy.

Whether embedded in a text message, uploaded as part of a location-based social network checkin, displayed in an interactive map, or used in some other web or mobile app, a photograph is now fair game as a small chunk of data to blend with others in endless digital mashups.


1 Comment

Filed under Cool tools, Social media

One response to “The future of social photography

  1. Pingback: Quick hits from SXSW | Web Up the Newsroom

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