Towards a Method(ology) for Analyzing Picture Practices in Social Media

Towards a Method(ology) for Analyzing Picture Practices in Social Media

This second blog post presents the method(ology) used in the project Pictorial Picture Critique in Social Media: the picture practice analysis. We will exemplarily apply this new method to The Situation Room, in order to get an understanding on how to conduct analysis of social media imagery, such as internet memes, and their specific picture practices. Before doing so, we have to critically evaluate the “practice turn,” and its consequences for visual studies.[1]

The Practice Turn in Visual Studies

In the wake of the “practice turn,” the focus in visual studies has shifted towards studying the production, sharing and viewing of digital photos. The picture itself – what it shows and how it is designed – appears marginalized. Rather than focusing on aesthetic form or semantic content, it is the non-representative properties of pictures that are under scrutiny. In such an approach, pictures should be observed in the context of social practices surrounding them. It is claimed that it is inevitable to take recourse to ethnographic methods, such as interviewing, to reconstruct the overall meaning of the image.

Of course, it would be a mistake to downplay the crucial role that practices play in the construction of pictorial meaning, especially where digital media such as photography, film, video game etc. are concerned: they tend to blend in the raster grid of pixels, but are distinguishable in their actual practices.

It is, however, important to stress that pictures themselves both as the starting point and result of such practices manifest those social practices in their very form. Pictures are therefore ‘readable’ without resorting to interviews with producers and/or users. They can, then, be understood not as representations but as traces of the practices that are inscribed into their form when “human actions are turned into images.

In our project, our methodological interest lies in bringing together practice theory and image analysis by understanding the picture itself as materialized practice. It is important to shift the emphasis from users as persons of interest to their practices, in order to realize that these practices are knowledge, whether or not the users can provide insights into their doings.

Elements of the Picture Practice Analysis

Consequently, we are conceptualizing a method that intervenes in current debates on media and image theory, in order to provide a form-sensitive complement as well as an alternative to sociologically and ethnographically founded approaches to internet research. This method aims at extracting media knowledge, whether explicit and/or tacit, from the picture. Therefore, we are taking a special interest in the analysis of (digital) metapictures,” i.e. pictures that already reflect their own mediality, as it is the case for internet memes and other self-reflexive social media imagery. There are three steps in conducting a picture practice analysis:

  1. The first step consists in asking what the picture explicitly addresses. For example: people, objects, places etc., but also occasionally, in the case of metapictures, other pictures. In such a case, we ponder what kind of knowledge the picture manifests about other pictures. This knowledge is the knowing that of the picture, what it knows in relation to what it represents. The first step of the analysis operates at the level of content and context.

  2. In the second step, we ask how the depicted picture or – in the case of metapictures – the picture within the picture is addressed. It is analyzed in terms of composition, montage, captioning and other picture practices, all operations which imply specific know-how. This knowing how, used to generate and circulate the picture, is now materialized in the picture. The second step of the analysis thus operates at a formal and aesthetic level.

  3. In a concluding third step, we look at how both forms of knowledge relate to each other, how they complement, add up or even counteract. We identify and differentiate the picture practices at play.

These methodic steps will be briefly exemplified on The Situation Room, knowing full well that this analysis cannot go into depth for brevity of this blog post. Rather, we want to initiate a methodological exploration, close to the material, that shows how the picture practice analysis is applied and how it differs from other approaches.

Exemplary Picture Practice Analysis of The Situation Room

The Situation Room is an internet meme that is based on a PR photograph by the White House, originally published on Flickr in 2011. It shows Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking members of the United States National Security Council in the so-called Situation Room during the mission that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

First Step: Analyzing the Knowing That

Internet memes like The Situation Room can be understood as digital metapictures, because they are reflecting their own mediality through other pictures. In order to understand the The Situation Room, we need to be aware of the context and meaning(s) of the initial PR photograph. This is what the first step of the picture practice analysis is pointing out.

In the terms of Elke Grittmann, the PR photograph is a political picture: it depicts Obama’s political-administrative system, in the midst of carrying out a social conflict against Osama bin Laden, one which is politically legitimized through propaganda. The political PR photograph is intended to emotionalize a well-calculated act of war. The latter is recognizable by the worried facial expressions of the persons depicted.

Aglaja Przyborski reconstructs this framing using the documentary method, which is similar to the picture practice analysis but pursues a completely different aim. Inspired by Karl Mannheim and Erwin Panofsky, the documentary method is applied to reconstruct the social sense or – if you will – the content of the picture, as opposed to the non-representational methodologies mentioned above. In contrast, the picture practice analysis aims at the reconstruction of the media knowledge of the picture by analyzing materialized picture practices.

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Second Step: Analyzing the Knowing How

The caption of the PR photograph on Flickr confidently states: “The photograph may not be manipulated in any way.” It is hardly surprising that internet users did not follow this demand, but rather understood it as a challenge. Countless image manipulations followed, of which we have selected one as an example for this analysis.

In order to create a Photoshop meme as shown below, users must first have the appropriate know-how about picture processing programs or meme generators. In the selected Photoshop meme, the original PR photograph is overlaid with so-called Rage Faces, images imbued with specific meanings which cannot be iconographically interpreted as emoticons, but require tacit knowledge of the meme culture to be deciphered.

To declare the Situation Room the “Meme Situation Room” in the caption has semantic as well as pragmatic consequences: the Me Gusta Face is placed on Obama’s face, suggesting a disturbing yet satisfying emotion. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is given a LOL Face, which can be associated with arrogant cheerfulness or even malicious joy.

The mounting of the Rage Faces onto the faces of the politicians inverts the meaning of the original PR photograph on Flickr: if an emotional involvement in the act of war was previously intended, but aroused suspicions of hypocrisy on part of internet users, the Rage Faces express in contrast pleasure and malicious joy. Now, the murderous act of war seems to have happened “for the lulz.”

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Third Step: Comparing Media Knowledge and Identifying Picture Practices

In this example of picture practice analysis, we have identified ‘editing’ and ‘captioning’ as two main picture practices that explicitly and tacitly convey media knowledge. Indeed, the picture practice of editing demonstrates the manipulability of digital images, not as deceptive ‘photoshopping,’ but as an obvious, visible manipulation.

The PR photograph on Flickr particularly seems to call for manipulation by users, precisely because of the explicit, written attempt at preventing it. This underlines the prospective nature of digital images, that makes the PR photograph appear just right as raw material for meme creation. With the appropriate technical know-how, operative signs such as the Rage Faces make it possible to reverse the intended meaning, the knowing that, of the PR photograph with just a few clicks.

The picture practice of captioning locates the picture processing in the meme culture. The creation and decoding of the picture processing are not possible without a special semantic and pragmatic knowledge, which in turn makes it clear that not only technical but also cultural know-how is a prerequisite for meme creation.

Digital metapictures like Photoshop memes and image macros, particularly affine to the method presented, are currently booming in social media. It is therefore hardly surprising that The Situation Room has been updated in the context of Donald Trump, making it worthwhile to continue submitting it to our picture practice analysis, in order to draw new media knowledge from the digital image.


[1] Co-author of this article is Jens Ruchatz. It is a shortened and translated version of an article originally published on the Open Media Studies Blog on July 31, 2020 under the title “Digitale Medien und Methoden: Kevin Pauliks und Jens Ruchatz über die Bildpraxisanalyse als praxeologische Perspektive auf das digitale Bild.


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