In this first blog post, we want to give an overview on the different picture practices, which we are observing in course of our project Pictorial Picture Critique in Social Media. So far, we have identified five basic critical practices that are widely used on social media. These social media practices hold knowledge about the digital image. We want to extract this knowledge, which is articulated explicitly as knowing that and tacitly as knowing how, by analyzing empirical evidence that can be found on platforms like 4chan, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr etc. The vernacular theory that these pictures enunciate will be used to formulate a practice theory of social media imagery from the perspective of these digital images themselves. Exemplary analyses of this endeavor will be undertaken and published routinely on this blog. For now, we want to share some relevant examples, which illustrate the picture practices described below.
Editing is a practice, which is typically considered as the quintessence of digital imagery. Nowadays, almost everybody can manipulate pictures with digital tools like Photoshop or Paint. Consequently, the trustworthiness of pictorial media like photography is contested more than it used to be. In response, internet users are reappropriating editing practices to show to what extent and how easily digital pictures may be manipulated. Therefore, the critique usually aims at the manipulability of the digital image. This is the case with reaction Photoshops, which re-manipulate supposedly manipulated or staged photographs like The Tourist Guy or The Situation Room. In the same vein, in Yolocaust tourists of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial get photoshopped into historic photographs of the concentration camps in order to demonstrate how inappropriate it is to take selfies on this site. Another form of critical editing are Photoshop requests, which parody Photoshop practices. On his twitter account, James Fridman is playfully answering Photoshop requests by other users with intentional ‘bad’ and absurd Photoshops in order to – jointly – question the status of the ‘perfect’ digital image that makes the manipulation of photographs a rule.
Imitating is the key concept of the “meme” and an important part of digital culture. Likewise, imitation lies at the core of imaging itself, since imaging something means to imitate it in a pictorial space. Clearly, pictures cannot just imitate something else, but also themselves, not just in case of plagiarism but in an interpictorial dialog. Such imitation practices are utilized on social media platforms like Instagram to reveal the attention economy of digital images. For example, Celeste Barber is mocking celebrity photographs on Instagram by juxtapositioning them with mimetic versions in which she takes the place of the celebrities quite like Burr Martin is re-enacting the “sexy selfies” of his daughter “instead of telling her to stop”. These pictorial imitation practices are used critically for holding up a mirror to social media picture practices.
Captioning is a major practice in giving pictures meaning. In digital culture, image macros are superimposing pictures with text to change or specify their meaning. This captioning practice can be put into use in a critical vein, from deconstructing stereotypes manifested in stock photography to ridiculing medieval art. This critical practice is highlighting the iconic difference of the digital image. For example, Medieval Reactions show how text is applied to critique pictures. Nevertheless, it is important to examine, which role the image plays in the critical process. Conversely, Fake History is a phenomenon, where the picture becomes the critical tool, instead of the text, by contrasting historic captions with pictures of the popular (digital) culture to question the textual truth claim.
Tagging is the practice of managing and indexing digital pictures on the social web by equipping them with keywords. Usually, tags are applied to increase the visibility of pictures in search engines, but they can also be appropriated for critical use. Tagging is combining both the iconic difference and the ubiquity as critical knowledge about the digital image. This is the case with hashtags like #instagramvsreality and #bodypositive, which gather pictures that are contrasting the artificiality of Instagram with reality, especially in terms of beauty ideals. Another example is #antiselfie, which is critiquing selfie practice. It is crucial to acknowledge that the actual critique is offered by the pictures and not the tags. Tagging is just the practice to explicate the implicit critique that these pictures are tacitly holding.
Curating refers to the practice of collecting and organizing pictures. While this practice is usually located in museums and art galleries it can be appropriated in social media, too. By freely copying pictures to the users’ own accounts, in social media everybody can become a curator, which is why this practice is so commonly used on the internet. However, this does not mean that this practice is less critical. In social media, curating is a critical practice that addresses the ubiquity of the digital image. For example, the Instagram account Insta Repeat is assembling a mass of pictures from Instagram to demonstrate how similar they look. On Tumblr the blog Worst of Chefkoch is gathering screenshots of the German cooking community chefkoch.de, not only to make fun of odd recipes but even more so of bad food photography that accompanies them. In similar vein, the Tumblr blog Terrible real estate agent photographs is curating poorly-taken real estate photographs by emphasizing that “out of these low standards can come great art”. By putting them into a new, curated context, these curations transform the pictures into maybe not great but at least critical art. This digital curation practice is drawing attention to the mass of pictures that become culturally meaningful only in their collective form. This is also the case with photo fads, collectives of photographs taken in a specific unnatural pose to criticize the pose itself.
These practices are not isolated from each other, but do work together. One phenomenon can involve more than one of these critical practices. Pictures can be edited, have a caption, and be curated in an album with tags at the same time. In case of stocking, a subcategory of photo fads, the practice of curating as well as the practice of imitating is involved. These metapictures ridicule single stock photographs by mimicking them. Additionally, they are collected and presented under labels like “Stocking is the new planking” to critically reflect on the curation practices of stock photography in general. Nonetheless, each of these picture practices involves a particular usage that we want to analyze separately. For the research project this means to find out, how digital imagery is produced on social media by studying the theorizing that is carried out by digital media practices themselves.