Guguletu and social media

I had lunch a couple of weeks ago with Richard Chalfen, an anthropologist from the Centre on Media and Child Health at Harvard. He has written some wonderful books about families’ collections of snapshots, or the ways in which ordinary people use photography in their lives. Chatting to him  inspired me to take another look at some data I collected a couple of months ago. It’s two sets of photographs from social media sites which shows up the contrast between the collections of images on the mobile social networks which are becoming popular in developing countries, and the photos posted to image sharing sites in the north, which tend to record the global excursions of wealthier northern tourists.

For the sake of the comparison, I chose Flickr, a well-established image-sharing site for digital photography, much loved by the digerati, and The Grid, a South African mobile social network with locative features which allows users to upload text, photographs, and video. Both Flickr and The Grid have a locative dimension, since Flickr users can geotag their images, and all content in The Grid is displayed on a map. I thought it would be interesting to look at what users are making of this spatial co-ordinate metadata. In South Africa’s recent history, apartheid’s racial policies of ‘separate development’ meant that space was destiny. Sadly this has not really changed much since then, so much so that even a technical term such as ‘location based service’ is unavoidably tainted by our past. The word echoes ‘location’, the term used for the under-serviced suburbs where black people had to live, and which still lives on in ekasi or township. I decided to look at images of Guguletu (one of the older townships in Cape Town) on both sites. Gugs is definitely off the beaten track for many tourists, but is on the route taken by some ‘township tours’ which take tourists away from their plush hotels and game farms and give them a smidgeon of social history, and a glimpse of the lives of ordinary South Africans.

I started the visualisations with social network analysis tool UCINET, but then switched to NodeXL when I realised how nicely this MS-Excel-based tool could handle images as data in visualisations of social networks.

Guguletu on Flickr - visualisation of geotagged images
Guguletu on Flickr - geotagged images

This is a collection of Flickr images that were geo-tagged and pinned on Flickr’s world map in the region of Guguletu. The process of geotagging images shot with digital cameras is a manual process for most photographers. A couple of the shots were definitely not taken in Gugs, while some of those which do depict Gugs are tagged and titled rather vaguely or inaccurately (e.g. ‘Khayelitsha’ or ‘South Africa’), depending on how serious the tourist was about tagging the photographs individually, (or perhaps whether they even  noticed details such as the name of the place they were visiting!)

As I’m not focusing on tourists’ use of social network sites, I coded the pictures and then grouped them roughly according to their theme. There’s a set of Driemanskap’s promotional pictures (they are a local Hip Hop crew), one lonely baby pic, a  documentary about Elections 2009 and an orphanage for HIV/AIDS orphans, several other pictures of children playing in the street, and the rest are pretty standard township tour shots by tourists and some visiting photographers. The visitors seem fascinated by South Africa’s housing problems and have definitely had a great time eating meat and drinking at Mzoli’s (some are travellers from abroad, while other travellers are from suburban South Africa).

I am interested in how South Africans are using social networks to share media, and so I coded the photos from The Grid differently to the ones from Flickr. For each picture I collected the comments that were posted in response to it, how many views each picture received, and what ratings they received from other users.

Guguletu on The Grid - mobile locative social network
Guguletu on Flickr - geotagged images

The visualisation above depicts a set of images posted to The Grid (where they are called ‘blips’) . (These images are all publically available via the mobile app or via The Grid’s website). The Grid uses mobile phone network data to work out where users are located  (more or less), and all user generated content is automatically geotagged on The Grid.I chose a set of images which were posted from Guguletu (and environs – the locative features do not necessarily respect suburban boundaries), and also captured the comment networks that sprang up around them. The size of the images  shows which ones were viewed most often, while the network indicates how many comments each picture received.

The contrast between the two collections is a result of many factors, which I’m exploring in a paper that I’m writing. Here are just some of them:

Most Flickr users were posting photographs taken with digital cameras, while The Grid users tend to post pictures taken on their phones.

Flickr has been around for ages, while The Grid is still only home to a small group of early adopters. Flickr users have been uploading large numbers of pictures over a long period of time, while on The Grid, many users only seem to try uploading a pic once or twice and then they often decide to return to their usual pastures on MXit.

Wealthier northern photographers with digital cameras have oodles of storage and cheap bandwidth to store and upload many shots, while in the south, mobile phone users tend to delete pictures as they run out of space, and can’t always afford the bandwidth for uploading and downloading lots of images from the web.

Social context is a key factor – what are people doing here? How does this shape the place they are representing? Is their physical location even important to what they are doing? In other words, what audience is addressed by the pictures, what kinds of conversations are taking place around and through the photographs on the two platforms. How does the architecture of each system influence the range and nature of social interactions that take place?

It struck me that Flickr geotaggers are operating in the third person. They are using these pictures to tell a (somewhat predictable) story about an exotic place.  The only exception to this are the promotional pictures for Driemanskap (where a professional photographer took the pictures in the Guguletu setting). In many cases, photographers are not depicted in the shot, but their friends and family feature, particularly in the party shots taken at Mzoli’s.

The Grid users are almost all posting self-portraits, with a few family portraits or peer portraits (‘me and my frendz’).  Although every image is geotagged there are very few references to the spatial environment in what the users choose to represent – only about two or three images represent a place rather than a person.

The Grid encourages users to rate one another’s pictures, which means that most comments centre on the them of ‘hot or not’, and they can almost all be characterised as insults or compliments.  The architecture encourages exhibitionism (at the moment I don’t think it is possible to share images with just one or two friends). As a result there’s a marked  intimacy and individuality to the pictures, collecting the photographs felt like overhearing snatches of conversations between friends.  This visual eavesdropping is another popular activity on The Grid. The social network looks cohesive, with many commenters commenting on more than one image from Guguletu. On closer inspection, these links between the separate cliques are in almost all cases ‘haters’ (or ‘trolls’)  – users who specialise in going from image to image ‘rating’ and flaming others.