John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article created Jan 2008


Online Photosharing Communities

Personal Identity and Relationships in Flickr

Images, Words, and Actions
Establishing a Niche and Equilibrium
The Image as an Expression of Self
Photostream: The Sequence of Images
Image Titles, Descriptions, and Tags
Visitors' Comments on Photos
Taking Action: The Fav
Conclusions: The Necessity of Text

photosharing communities

Another version of this article was published as: Suler, J. (2008). Image, action, word: Interpersonal dynamics in a photo-sharing community. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11, 555-560.

Images, Words, and Actions

Since the birth of the Internet, people have been gathering online to form groups and communities in order to share ideas, experiences, and resources. In the past, the primary method of communication in many of these groups was typed text. In fact, typed text via email, chat, instant messaging, discussion boards, social networks, and blogging has evolved into a highly sophisticated and unique form of dialogue.

However, with the increasing availability of high speed Internet connections, people are no longer communicating simply by text. Visual images have become increasing popular as a tool for self-expression, conveying ideas, and sharing experiences. For example, in virtual communities like Second Life, people are creating a complex visual world consisting of houses, streets, towns, and cities, complete with furnishings, landscaping, products, and icons called “avatars” to represent one’s physical body. YouTube has skyrocketed to fame as a place where people share and discuss videos on almost any topic one can imagine. With the boom of digital photography and graphics, people also are sharing their images in social networks and communities devoted specifically to photography, such as Flickr and Webshots.

This shift towards visual communication in cyberspace provides a unique opportunity for psychologists to study interpersonal interactions. At no point in human history has it been easier for people - and for groups of people from around the world - to communicate via visual images. Digital imaging and cyberspace have made imagistic communication easy, flexible, powerful, global, and intercultural because language differences are much less of an obstacle.

Psychological theory has long advocated a basic distinction between visualizations and language as two basic cognitive systems for managing memories, processing information, and self-expression. Whereas the language or verbal system tends to involve thinking that is more linear, conceptual, consciously controlled, and reality-based, the visual or mental imagery system tends to be more holistic, emotional, personal, imaginative, symbolic, and influenced by the unconscious. Most people rely on both the imagery and verbal systems for cognitive functioning, but researchers have postulated that some people may be better “visualizers” while others are better “verbalizers.” This distinction between imagery and verbal functioning, as well as personal preferences and strengths in visual versus verbal thinking, can help explain why people choose online environments that emphasize visual communication, how people express themselves and interact in these environments, and the type of social psychological dynamics that evolve within the community.

A third category of online communication, in addition to image and text, would be an interpersonal action. A person may perform a specific act as an expression of interpersonal meaning, without relying on language or a visual image. While image and text would serve as overt vehicles for communication, the action might function as a more subtle interpersonal behavior.

The purpose of this research was to explore the interpersonal dynamics in a photo-sharing community, focusing on the processes of imagistic communication, as well as how text and action shape and enhance that imagistic communication. The research specifically examined Flickr, currently one of the most popular online photo-sharing communities. Three methods were employed in gathering observations about this community. In the tradition of participant-observation and ethnographic methodologies, I, as a member of Flickr for several years, immersed myself into the community, relying on an epistemological oscillation between an objective observation of social phenomena and my subjective experience of interpersonal dynamics – a methodology that I previously described in my research on the Palace multimedia chat community.  I also conducted in-depth email interviews with volunteers from Flickr, as well as facilitated group discussions among visitors to my pages within Flickr. These discussions took place in reaction to images that I uploaded in order to illustrate ideas about photographs and photo-sharing. Because this research focused on imagistic communication, I felt it was important to use images to convey ideas and stimulate discussion, rather than rely on verbal discussions alone. I organized these images into two collections, also called “sets”: The CyberPsychology of Flickr and Photographic Psychology.

Flickr describes itself as a community for sharing photography. However, not all images in the community are photographs in the strict sense. Some are scans of art originally created in other media, images constructed using computer software of various types, or images constructed digitally from other images. Nevertheless, in this article I will use the terms “image” and “photograph” interchangeably.

Establishing a Cyberpsychological Niche and Equilibrium

Before discussing the specific interpersonal dynamics of image, text, and action in Flickr, one must first appreciate the wider social psychological context of the community that inevitably shapes those dynamics. With millions of members, many millions of images, and thousands of groups devoted to various photography and community topics, Flickr confronts each member with an overwhelming ocean of visual stimulation and possibilities for interpersonal encounters. Although members, at least at first, may find these limitless possibilities exciting, they must at some point develop specific strategies for establishing their presence and identity, and for managing their interpersonal relationships.

As in many large online communities, some members find themselves in an initial stage of progressive immersion, viewing more and more images, establishing more and more relationships, until they discover that they must limit or cut back on the excessive time and energy they are devoting to Flickr. To maintain a rewarding participation in the community, members are challenged to a establish a cyberpsychological niche in which they, both consciously and unconsciously, regulate and define themselves as well as their relationships, with that niche and the corresponding self-definition being expressed in the members’ behaviors regarding image, text, and action. That niche, in order to thrive and avoid stagnation, must reach a stage of ongoing dynamic synergy between experimentation and restraint – a cyberpsychological equilibrium in which new opportunities for image, text, and action are tested, assimilated if successful, and discarded if not.

The niche one establishes is partly determined by the overarching purpose the member assigns to his or her participation in Flickr. People who join Flickr as a way to share, with family and friends, their life experiences via photographs have a predetermined niche. They may not progress any further into the larger Flickr community. However, if they find themselves becoming interested in the art and science of photography and visual design, they may be drawn into the wider culture of members who are photography and visual design students, aficionados,  and professionals – members who are challenged to define the artistic, technical, and social dimensions of their niche. Some members establish their niche by joining groups devoted to topics that match their interests and interpersonal preferences. In more rare cases, members use their pages within Flickr as an online art gallery, without interacting substantially with anyone, resulting in a lowered impact of the community on their niche and a less synergistic equilibrium.

Some members experience a conflict between different views about the purpose of Flickr. Is it a place to express oneself via images, to learn about photography, and/or socialize? Some members approach Flickr as a competitive “game” in which the quality or popularity of an image is determined by how many times it is viewed, how many people indicate it as a “favorite” (fav), its overall “interestingness” as determined by an undisclosed formula designed by the creators of Flickr, and, based on that interestingness rating, whether the image appears on Explore, which is a catalog of the most popular photos in Flickr. A member’s cyberpsychological niche and equilibrium - including how one manages images, text, and actions - can be drastically influenced by one’s commitment to the social, educational, artistic, or gaming activities of the community, and by a complex and sometimes awkward juggling of these various agendas. The fact that the population and culture of the entire community can shift significantly over time – as it did from its early days as a serious photography community to its current status a more social  environment – will also affect a member’s niche and equilibrium.

The Image as an Expression of Self

On its own, without elaboration by text or action, the image can be a powerful vehicle for self-expression. Many members, especially those invested in the artistic aspects of photography, describe how the visual aspects of the world are important to them and how they try to capture it in their photography. The image is a way to store memories of what is important in one’s life, shape personal meaning, and give expression to ideas, experiences, and emotions that may not be easily verbalized. Although everyone does not consciously experience it as such, because people might say that they simply photographed something that was visually appealing to them, the image is an extension of one’s identity, reflecting aspects of one’s personality, relationships, and lifestyle – which is why the theft of one’s image, as sometimes happens, feels like a violation not only of ownership, but of self.  In some cases the image gives expression to the unconscious dimensions of one’s character. It can become a creation, a representation that a person builds of oneself, not the actual self as usually experienced by the individual, but an experiment that gives expression to some underlying anxiety, wish, or ideal.  The person then establishes a relationship to that image as a means to establish a relationship to some emerging aspect of one’s identity. For all of these reasons, a person’s photostream – the sequence of images uploaded to Flickr – acquires a specific visual and thematic style, distinct from those of other members, whether the person consciously intends this or not.

The uploading of the image to Flickr is an act of “going public” with this visual shaping of oneself. It is a process of making the intrapersonal interpersonal. Sharing one’s photography potentially becomes a form of validation in which the person hopes others will find the personal meaning and facets of identity that the photographer created and discovered in the image. Knowing others can see the image gives it more emotional power. It can make it feel more “real.” As in art therapy, the process of creating an image can be a therapeutic in itself – a process of self-insight, emotional catharsis, the working through of conflicts, and the affirmation of identity. Going public with the  image may enhance that process. Flickr groups devoted to specific psychological problems – such  as depression and bipolar disorders – exemplify these therapeutic qualities of image creation and sharing.

People’s immediate reactions to the photography of other members reveal the impact of the image in and of itself.  Due to the time restraints many people feel while visiting numerous photostreams, they quickly browse images with an eye open for those that catch their attention. It is a state of awareness and concentration reminiscent of “evenly hovering attention” as described by Freud. Members describe  how some images  instantaneously  “grab” them, what some call the “WOW factor.” They may feel speechless, unable to verbalize why or how  the  image affects them. They immediately sense  a connection  to the photograph, and, at least to some extent, the photographer. The image draws them in, encourages them to spend more time visually exploring it, while other images in the photostream go barely noticed. A powerful image speaks for itself,  although  viewers  also engage in a process of projecting their own personal  meaning into the image, so that it becomes a type of non-verbal transitional space between the viewer  and the photographer, with its meaning partly created by the viewer and partly by the photographer.  Sometimes an image may shock, frighten, or disgust a viewer, causing that person immediately to leave the photostream and avoid it in the future.

The fact that each person develops a unique visual style in the creation of images is a complex topic worthy of study unto itself. An effective system for identifying the various elements of visual style would be valuable in such research, but needs to be versatile and comprehensive. Here I will propose four dimensions for such an identification system:

Traditional categories in photography are useful to classify the basic types of subjects captured in an image, such as people, portraits, nature, landscapes, cityscapes, abstracts, architecture, sports, animals, fashion, and food. People tend to create images that fall within only a few categories, which reflects their lifestyle and personality.

Imaging tools and techniques:
Both the shooting and post-processing of an image, as determined by the equipment and techniques used, have a dramatic impact on visual style. The process of image creation includes camera type (e.g., film, digital, pinholes, “toy” cameras, etc.), lens type (which determines angle of view, perspective, depth of field, close-up capabilities, etc,),  monochrome versus color types, shooting style, and a wide variety of image manipulation programs and techniques. People tend to rely on a specific set of imaging tools and techniques, which may reflect cognitive and perceptual preferences, as well as personality traits associated with those preferences.           

Visual Elements: Imaging tools and techniques result in specific visual characteristics of an image. Such elements can be interpreted according to well-known psychological systems, such as Exner’s principles for interpreting perceptual responses to the Rorschach inkblots, including form, movement, color, shading, texture, reflections, symmetry, vista, and the psychological significance of these elements.

Psychological/Emotional Content:
A specifically psychological dimension for identifying image type might revolve around the fundamental psychological issues portrayed by the image, such as self-concept, interpersonal relationships, childhood, achievement, conflict, spirituality, health and pathology. Of particular value would be the emotions depicted or stimulated by an image, as classified according to the seven basic emotions identified by Paul Ekman: anger, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, contempt, and happiness.  Even images that don’t include human subjects may nevertheless portray psychological and emotional content via symbolism, atmosphere, and anthropomorphic depictions.

Regarding imaging tools and techniques, one issue often discussed and debated in the Flickr community is the degree to which an image has been altered or manipulated using computer software programs such as Photoshop, a process often called “post-processing.” Whereas some people hold the purist view that a true photograph accurately represents a scene by careful shooting techniques with as little post-processing as possible, others liberally modify an image to enhance color, contrast, shapes, and focus,  or to add or delete visual elements, sometimes resulting in surrealistic effects. All images in film and digital photography are processed to some extent and therefore manipulated by the photographer. Nevertheless, the practice of altering a photograph does provide more opportunities to visually express oneself. It provides more opportunities to create rather than simply capture an image, to shape reality according to one’s preferences, needs, and motivations.

Photostream: The Sequence of Images

We tend to think of a photograph as a moment captured and frozen in time in order to record a scene or express an idea, but rarely does anyone take just one photograph. Images, especially in online photo-sharing communities, occur in a sequence that reflects people’s lives and changes in their perceptions, thoughts, and emotions over time.  Members of Flickr can organize their images into sets and collections, which reflects their conscious realization of how to categorize the major subjects and techniques of their photography. While these patterns of organization also reflect the lifestyle and psychological dynamics of the individual, the sequence of images contains information that is more temporal and process-based.

After a shoot of a particular event, location, or subject, the resulting sequence of images reveals significant shifts in the perceptual and psychological preferences that dictated how the photographer approached the situation. What captured the person’s attention, at first, then later? When did the person focus on color, texture, shapes, perspective, people, animals, objects, details, and the big picture? When people change the lens, shutter speed, ISO, color temperature, and aperture settings, or shift to a different viewpoint, what changed in their conceptualization of the scene? Image sequence discloses patterns in the person’s thoughts and feelings about the situation.  What they overlook or forgot to shoot in a situation may reveal as much about their attitude as what they did shoot. The sequence of what and how one shoots – or forgets to shoot – is a reflection of how one’s mind works.

These principles also hold true for images created over longer stretches of time, over the course of many shoots. When scholars study the periods of great artists, they discover how their artistic style, personality, and life changed over the years, as well as the essential defining aspects of the artists that remain constant. Similarly, regardless of whether they are artists or not, the way a person does photography now may be quite different than how she or he did it years ago. As people change, the images they create change. A photographer’s personality becomes more clear in the sequence of images than in one image alone, or even than in the whole collection of images viewed out of sequence. Any particular image is best understood when viewed in the context of the images that came before and after it. In fact, the meaning of an image might be misunderstood or overlooked when viewed out of its position in the photostream.

A sequence of images resembles a stream of consciousness. It may change direction, pick up speed, slow down, run shallow or deep. But it is ongoing, with each image linked to those before and after it in psychological ways that may or may not be visible in the images themselves. The “spaces” between images are as important signifiers of psychological dynamics as the images themselves, pointing to underlying cognitions and affects that stimulated the transition. The human psyche itself consists of memories, ideas, sensations, and emotions, all linked to each other in complex chains of associations. A series of images in a photographer’s collection is a glimpse into that intrapsychic world. The degree to which people explore different subjects and imaging techniques in their photostream, or the degree to which they explore in-depth a particular subject or technique, reflects the diversity, complexity, and points of focus in their intrapsychic world. Some people explicitly use their photostream as an ongoing visual journal to chronicle their lives, sometimes including many self-portraits or images of their environments and significant others; while other people present photographs of scenes that are visually pleasing to them, without that explicit link to their lives. Nevertheless, in all cases the sequence of images reflects the person’s intrapsychic reality and how it changes over time.

Even though the image and image sequence are richly complex vehicles of communication and self-expression, not all members of Flickr attend to their nuances. Visual design and composition are non-verbal languages that some people understand better than others. An image may have a powerful impact because it masterfully applies the grammar of this language, but some people may not realize the skills involved. In the busy stop-and-go habit of visiting numerous photostreams, some members also may not notice the patterns that surface in the image sequence, nor have a sense of the photographer’s ongoing visual style, the visual ideas being explored, and how these factors reflect the photographer’s artistic sensibilities, personality, and life.

People with artistic ambitions in the Flickr community often lament these kinds of insensitivities among the visitors to their photostream. They may grow disappointed in the fact that their work seems under-appreciated or misunderstood, while some highly popular members draw a great deal of attention because their images very successfully apply the principles of composition to achieve a high visual impact, even though the images lack meaning and inspiration, what some people call “eye-candy.” Disillusioned with the seemingly many members who are preoccupied with  the gaming aspects of attaining Flickr popularity, while showing a sparse understanding of artistic and technical skills, some serious photographers and artists decide to leave the community. Those members who do remain - who do not feel unrecognized, alienated, or frustrated - typically have succeeded in developing at least a small group of contacts who regularly visit their photostream, understand and appreciate their visual style, and, most importantly, have become friends.

Image Titles, Descriptions, and Tags

Photos without titles or any accompanying descriptions encourage viewers to explore the image on their own without forcing any particular interpretation. It tosses the image into their laps and encourages them to project themselves into it, creating their own meaning. The untitled image might appear mysterious. It might tease, frustrate, challenge, or lure the viewer in. It is the presentation of the purely visible with no pretense of words. People might present their photography without any accompanying text as a way to maintain privacy and anonymity. In a strategy of compromise, the image reveals aspects of their identity, while the absence of text protects aspects of their identity.

However, only rarely do people upload images to Flickr without any accompanying text. Usually, at the very least, people create a title for the image. They may also add a description of one or two sentences, or, in some cases, several paragraphs, as well as “tags” that serve as keywords that help people locate the image using search functions.  In a purely pragmatic approach, the person uses a title and tags simply to identity what the shot is - a kind of categorization that, in some cases, is an obvious text correlate of the image, but in other cases might be essential for viewers to understand what the image entails, as in blurry, extreme close-up, or otherwise ambiguous images. The title of an image, even if obvious, also serves as a practical label when referring to and talking about an image, which becomes critical as people view and discuss dozens or hundreds of images each day.           

Beyond serving this simple identifying function, an image title can be a creative component of the communication process. Text and image interact synergistically in a variety of ways to establish nuances and supplements of meaning. The title can add a layer of meaning that is not immediately obvious in the photo. It can be playful or provocative by contradicting the qualities of the image. If people want to convey a particular idea, especially if they prefer one of a variety of different possible interpretations of the image, they create a title that steers viewers in that direction. They might be attempting to prevent viewers from getting the “wrong” impression, even though the image could be interpreted that way.  In some cases, the title elevates a technically poor or average photo to a higher level of psychological impact. It can be more powerful than the image itself, as when the photographer personalizes the image with emotional self-disclosures as titles. The effect of an outstanding image might be dampened by a bland, uninspired title. Titles containing questions – as in those that challenge viewers to solve some puzzle about the photo –  are quite effective in drawing people into the image. Many Flickr members believe that a title “makes or breaks” an image.

For the photographer, creating a title can be a process of discovering new meanings in the image via an internalized dialogue with imagined viewers. “What do I want you, the viewer, to see in this image?” and “What does this image mean to me?” are questions that go hand-in-hand. When photographers know what they want to say and how they want others to react, a title may pop immediately into mind.  In other cases, they may give careful thought to their titles. They know that they like a photo but not be sure why. Searching for a title might clarify this. It might help them uncover the subconscious feelings, memories, and fantasies that they associate with the image, and how (or whether) they wish viewers to react to these things. In a reciprocal interaction, determining a good title can provide the photographer with new ideas about how to post-process the image in order to enhance its ability to express the meaning discovered in the title. Both the photographer and the viewer remember effective titles, even after long periods of time have passed, because they are a powerful wedding of textual and imagistic meaning.

These processes of using text to identify, explain, and enrich the meaning of images also occur via the descriptions that people write to accompany their photos, as well as in the keyword tags that they create. Being more visible on the page that contains the image, the title tends to have a more immediate and influential impact. However, descriptions, especially detailed and well-written ones, can be quite powerful in providing more in-depth information about the image, often serving as a narrative about an event in one’s life or an explanation of one’s point of view on some subject, for which the image serves as an illustration. Tags, which are displayed in a rather inconspicuous sidebar on the photo page, are sometimes used not simply as keywords to categorize an image, but as an opportunity for the photographer to present a kind of subvocal metacomment on the image - a parenthetical thought, whisper, aside, digression, or even a “mumbling to oneself” that can provide additional insight, humor, emotion, and self-disclosure. Effective titles, descriptions, and tags entice the viewer into the image, and in some cases might even upstage the image.

Although images, in and of themselves, can have a powerful impact on people, it is the combination of the image with text descriptors that launches the potential for a relationship between photographers and their visitors. Photographers become more “real” as people via the accompanying text they offer. They use text to give visitors more information to work with when commenting on images. Text invites them to spend more time considering the image and show more commitment in understanding it and the photographer. For this reason, photographers feel a strong interpersonal disconnection from visitors who obviously have paid no attention to text descriptors, as when a viewer offers the comment “Beautiful Sunset!” on a photo entitled “Sunrise.”  The viewer’s neglect in understanding the image, and the photographer, might even come across as callous or toxic when they offer comments indicating that they obviously overlooked the photographer’s personal self-disclosures in the text descriptors. As in many types of online environments, communication and the relationships that develop from it tend to be more powerful when that communication encompasses a variety of modalities, such as text along with images.

Visitors' Comments on Photos

Beneath each photo, visitors to the photostream can comment on the image, as well as engage the photographer, and each other, in conversation. These dialogues form the basis for a deeper immersion into a collective appreciation and understanding of the image, and for the development of interpersonal relationships. Obviously, a person’s skill and motivation for writing, as well the ability to communicate in languages other than one’s own, will determine the person’s participation in these conversations. Because Flickr is a photo-sharing community, some people, especially those who are primarily visual in their cognitive style, may be more invested in the imagistic experience than verbal dialogue. No doubt, the experience of Flickr is quite different for those who actively participate in the exchange of comments as compared to those who do not, especially because text communication plays such an important role in the development of relationships.

In developing their cyberpsychological equilibrium, members face the challenge of managing the amount of time spent in commenting on other people’s photos.  Comments longer than a few sentences often indicate a strong positive or negative reaction to the photo, an ongoing relationship between the viewer and the photographer, or motivation to establish a relationship. People appreciate the time and effort others put into a detailed, thoughtful, or insightful comment.  In fact,  such comments are regarded as a precious commodity. They are reserved for friends, family and other important contacts; or they can become a form of social barter in which a person leaves one with the hope or expectation of getting one. Some members lament this  “tit for tat” system of exchange, although most people will not continue commenting on someone else’s photos if that person rarely or never reciprocates. To endure as a member of Flickr, many people form a thick skin to what could be perceived as a rejection, to the very likely possibility that their leaving a “good” comment in the hopes of developing a relationship, or at least reciprocity, results in no response from the other member.

Like the sequence of images that a person uploads to Flickr, the series of comments from visitors help shape the unique atmosphere of one’s photostream. When a photostream thrives as a social entity - which does not happen in all cases because some photographers receive few comments – stability is attained in the people who visit and the kinds of comments they leave. By selectively responding to and therefore reinforcing certain types of comments, and, in some cases, by deleting comments that seem inappropriate, the photographer contributes to this molding of the distinctive character of his or her photostream.  Comments tend to fall into these categories:

Terse Praise:
A very large number of comments are brief compliments about the photo, such as “Great capture” and “Beautiful colors.” While photographers generally appreciate any type of comment, these brief remarks tend to be generic and in some ways unsatisfying, especially if the photographer put a great deal of work into the image and hopes those specific efforts will be noticed. Visitors may offer terse praise because they feel speechless about how much a powerful image has affected them, or they may lack the ability to verbalize what they like about photos. Usually, however, the preponderance of brief comments is the result of many people feeling that they don’t have the time or energy to say more as they make their rounds in visiting many photostreams. Short, positive comments tend to be the norm. It’s what most people do, and others follow suit. Social status in Flickr, the “interestingness” ratings for one’s images, and a personal sense of worth  revolve around how many comments one receives, so these brief compliments become a form of social currency. In the bartering system, one gives a terse compliment when one receives one.

The large number of complimentary comments does create an overall positive atmosphere within Flickr, considerably more so than in other online communities where disagreements, debates, and flame wars are common occurrences. This positive atmosphere might reflect a mutual, tacit agreement among members that photo-sharing should be respected as an activity that places people in a socially vulnerable position.  Images are a form of self-disclosure, a way to present one’s self and life to the community. Negative comments might be perceived as an inappropriately antagonistic attack on that vulnerability. For photographers with creative ambitions, a negative comment could be perceived as a criticism of one’s “baby.” For people who consciously or unconsciously offer an image as a representation of their identity, a negative comment is akin to criticizing the way someone looks or dresses. An implicit “Do Unto Others” creed contributes to the generally positive atmosphere in the community.

Critiques and Technical Remarks:
Members seeking to improve their photography may welcome critiques and other comments on the technical aspects of their shooting, post-processing, and composition. Some join groups where this kind of feedback is the stated agenda. Of course, the spirit behind such comments - where they fall on the range from empathic and constructive criticism to tactless negativity – determines whether the photographer appreciates them or not. Serious photographers usually value comments that indicate a recognition of their deliberate technical and artistic efforts, as well as comments that reveal something about the image that they did not consciously realize. They usually appreciate honesty, rather than terse generic praise, as long as that feedback helps them improve their skills, or, at least, gives them a better understanding of how people vary in their photography tastes. However, they typically do not enjoy criticisms or advice presented as objective truth rather than as a reflection of differences in style and taste, especially regarding the artistic design of the image. Receiving technical comments and critiques, even those that seem inappropriate, can help the photographer better understand his or her cyberpsychological niche in the community. People from radically different niches may not understand or appreciate each other’s work.

Other members, particularly those who are not necessarily interested in improving their photography or who simply wish to “do their own thing” without interference, may not appreciate critiques or advice from their visitors. They may view such comments as an intrusion on their wish to simply share photos with family and friends. Some people also believe that if you don’t have something positive to say, don’t say anything. The self-disclosures that occur in images and text, as well as the occasional inappropriately hostile comments, are evidence supporting the well-known online disinhibition effect; 9 however, the distinctly pleasant atmosphere in Flickr created by positive comments is a notable exception to the negative aspects of that disinhibition effect.

Personal Reactions:
Viewers often comment on what they personally like about an image, such as the colors, shapes, textures, the people or subjects in the shot, and the idea, feeling, or sensation that the image creates. They engage in a process of free association by describing what the image reminds them of, including events and people from their own lives. They may personalize the photo and project their own meaning into it by describing how it relates to themselves, or what it means to them on an emotional, social, or philosophical level. Some viewers may only leave a comment if they make such an emotional connection to the image. Rather than intended as an objective evaluation of the photograph, such comments serve more as an interpersonal bridge between the viewer and the photographer. If the image expresses unconscious meanings for the photographer, then the viewers’ spontaneous expressions of how the image affects them may reflect their own unconscious connection to those meanings, which can lead to empathic attachment between the photographer and the viewer.

Interpretations of the Photographer:
Some viewers use the image as a vehicle for commenting on the mood, personality, or life of the photographer.  The more the photographer deliberately creates and presents the image as an expression of self – most notably in self-portraits - the more likely visitors will make such comments. When self-disclosures embedded in the image are intended, photographers usually will appreciate accurate interpretations, while feeling misunderstood when the interpretations seem wrong. However, viewers sometimes interpret the image in ways the photographer did not consciously intend when creating it. Depending on the accuracy and intent of the interpretation, photographers might feel misunderstood, attacked, or delighted to discover something new about the image and themselves.  People who design their photostream for the specific purpose of self-disclosing about their personality and life will typically appreciate, or at least take interest, in almost all of their visitors’ interpretations because their photography serves the purpose of a “looking glass self” in which the process of self discovery relies on feedback from others. For some of these photographers, images become an ongoing stream of idealized, desired, feared, or realistic portrayals of their identity. To experiment with and develop their identity, they establish a relationship to these images as transformational objects that are partly self, not self, and potential self. Comments from their visitors assist them in this process of discovering what they are, what they are not, what they wish to be.

Topical Comments:
Images can stimulate comments about a wide range of political, philosophical, and intellectual topics. The conversations that emerge resemble the group dynamics of blogs and traditional discussion boards, with the image serving as a centerpiece or stabilizing reference point for the dialogue. When these conversations among visitors and the photographer become lengthy, especially when flame wars fuel and prolong the debates, the image may become incidental to the discussion that takes on a life of its own.

Rather than offering a statement or opinion about an image, viewers might instead ask a question about its technical, artistic, or personal qualities. Unlike terse praise or other comments aimed specifically at the image, questions invite a dialogue and possibly a relationship between the viewer and the photographer. How or if photographers reply will depend on how many comments they receive, how much time and effort they are willing to put into their responses, and their motivation to discuss the technical and personal aspects of the image with particular visitors.  Many photographers, especially those who receive a limited number of visitors, appreciate the interest implied by asking a question as well as the opportunity to discuss themselves and their photos.

Although members report that the combination of words and images can be especially powerful in the formation of relationships, they note that it is difficult to imagine a relationship developing without comments. Personally and in their photography, people may be significantly influenced by another person’s images, and that influence may in some cases be reciprocal, yet without text communication their relationship exists in a purely preverbal, experiential realm that each of them may find difficult or ambiguous to confirm as a “relationship.” Instead, in most cases, images serve as the starting point for the relationship, which then evolves via exchanged comments on photos and later perhaps via email, phone, and face-to-face contact. For some people, the socializing and social networking aspect of Flickr is as important, if not more important, than photo-sharing. Images serve as conversation pieces, as convenient vehicles for people to talk to each other about themselves and their lives.

Taking Action: The Fav

Behaviors that involve little if any text or imagistic communication also play an important role in interpersonal dynamics. Any given online environment might provide a variety of such actions that members use to develop their identity and participation in the community. In Flickr one such behavior is the “fav” -  a button beneath a photo that visitors can click to indicate that they consider it one of their favorite images.  Statistics that appear with an image include the number of times that image was viewed by visitors, how many comments were made on it, and how many favs it received. A list of the images that a person “fav’ed” also is available in his or her home area within Flickr and can be viewed by visitors.  Even though the fav seems to be relatively simple type of action, it has acquired a variety of psychological and social functions, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle:

Personal Impact:
People may fav an image when it has a strong emotional impact on them. That effect might arise from the meaning and/or the visual qualities of the image, although the meaning tends to be the more influential factor, rather than simply captivating visual qualities that result in “eye candy” images.  Members describe such favs in terms of their immediate reaction to the image, its “Wow” factor,  how beautiful and inspiring it is, how it made them laugh, its fascinating perplexities, how it speaks to them, resonates with them, or touched them on a deep level.  These types of favs may help visitors express their appreciation of the photo when they feel its impact but are not sure why, or cannot adequately verbalize why. Members who only fav an image when it has a powerful effect on them tend to reserve such favs for special occasions, when photographers “earn” them.

Technical or Artistic Merit:
Viewers may offer a fav as an acknowledgment of the technical or artistic skill demonstrated in the photo. They might fav images that demonstrate excellent examples of their own style of photography, reveal technical and artistic ideas that are new to them, or illustrate admirable skills even though the image itself does not match the visitor’s preferred tastes. They might be looking for affirmation of their own photography in others’ images, or new ways of doing photography. When visitors wish to offer helpful feedback, the fav may not indicate that the photo is actually a favorite for them, but rather that this particular image is the photographer’s best effort, in the eyes of the visitor.  In some cases a process of social conformity emerges in which people give favs to an image because many other people have already given it favs.

Social Support:
A visitor might offer a fav to support and encourage other members when they are new at doing photography, attempting something different in their work, or taking a risk of some kind. As a type of  non-verbal behavior, this type of fav serves as an acknowledging smile, a nod of the head, a pat on the back, or applause. Beginners appreciate such favs as a gesture of mentoring from more experienced photographers. While people who fav as an indication of personal impact and technical/artistic merit tend to do so selectively, those who offer favs for social support tend to be more liberal.  Some members who start out in Flickr being very “stingy” about favs eventually use them more freely, most likely in the spirit of encouraging social support.

The fav can be a gesture of friendship. People give them to friends, or in hopes of establishing an amiable relationship. As a type of social grooming, offering a fav shows enthusiasm about a friend’s performance, mostly because it is the friendship that is important and not necessarily the image. Some members feel more inclined to fav the photos of friends than those of acquaintances and strangers, probably because they think of the fav as a sign of intimacy and camaraderie.

Social Barter:
Similar to comments, favs can function as an item for bartering.  When one receives a fav from a visitor, one gives a fav in return; or one may give a fav with the hope or expectation that the other member will reciprocate. The value of the fav rests not only in its being a sign of appreciation, but also in the fact that the number of favs for an image boosts its “interestingness” rating, the possibility that it might appear in Explore (the catalog of the most popular images in Flickr), and hence the status of the member in the community.

Efficient Communication:
The fav can serve as a substitute for leaving a comment on a photo when people can’t find the words to describe why they liked it, when they don’t have time to leave a comment, or when they lack facility in the photographer’s language.  It’s a non-verbal way to indicate one’s presence in the photographer’s photostream and an appreciation of a particular image. In some cases people consider it rude when visitors leave a fav without an accompanying comment, especially when that visitor is regarded as a friend. However, other members are more apt to fav rather than comment if they view photography in terms of experiential or “gut” reactions rather than verbal analysis.

Although some members rarely look at the images that are stored in their fav collection, others do return to these photos. Using these favs as reminders of the types of images they enjoyed, they may discover patterns in their preferences that lead to insights about the technical, artistic, and personal dimensions of their photography.  They may wish to recapture some mood, idea, or inspiration that the image initially triggered, as in photos that cheered them up when they were depressed. As components of one’s social network, stored favs also include links back to the image and the photostreams of those photographers, thereby serving not just as souvenirs or reminders of those people, but also as implicit interpersonal connections to them.  In online communities that are large, complex, and potentially overwhelming, vehicles for remembering and reconnecting, such as the fav, are important interpersonal tools.

Conclusions: The Necessity of Text

Images can function as a powerful medium for personal expression and interpersonal relationships, especially in cyberspace where people can easily create, manipulate, and share them, and especially for people with cognitive styles that favor imagistic rather than verbal processes. For the viewer, an image may trigger an emotional resonance with the photographer that might motivate an attempt to establish a relationship.   Images and text communication can then become a powerful synergistic combination in the development of that relationship.

However, despite the rich psychological meanings embedded in images and the compelling impact they have on other people, interpersonal relationships rarely form and develop by images alone.  In photo-sharing communities, a member presents the image to everyone in the community, or to a group of people, as an expression of self. Only rarely is the image intended for someone in particular.  Instead, it is exchange of words between members that establishes their mutually recognized presence to each other.  It is the exchange of words that is critical in launching their relationship and in the joint understanding of shared meanings that advances the relationship. Images provide an undercurrent of emotion and ideas that enrich interpersonal dynamics, often on a level that is not fully conscious or capable of being verbalized; but text communication between two particular people provide the more deliberate social efforts to advance that particular relationship.

Actions that do not rely on detailed text communication or images add a supplemental level of complexity to this interpersonal behavior. This article explored the psychological dynamics of the fav, but other actions as well influence the Flickr member’s experience of the community – for example, the simple act of looking at an image, which increases its view count, thereby letting photographers estimate the level of visitors’ presence in their photostream as well as their level of presence in the community. The success of many contemporary online communities often rests on whether the design of the environment includes image, words, and actions, how well members can control them, and the degree to which these dimensions of interpersonal behavior are integrated with each other.

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

Psychology of avatars and graphical space
Cyberspace as dream world

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