Foucault, in his fascinating, and beautiful, essay on Magritte’s famous painting, tells us that, the trap of the “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” paint is that the letters are not letters but calligraphies, which means that they are not naming anything but just happened to be there set in a position that we, as viewers, understand as a contradiction between the drawing and the meaning of the statement. Foucault’s thoughts are extremely tempting to follow but I’ll resist (this time). My point today is something else. A few days ago, in the AoIR list, Mayo Fuster, a colleague from Berkeley, asked about people doing research on flickr. My name popped out (thanks Ismael, or should I say: Dr. Peña?) and this made me think about my own work.
Flashback from the field I
I’m sitting in a bar with ten or twelve photographers. I’m in a bar because they decided to get together here and drink a few beers after a day at work (and, as an ethnographer, well, you know, I have to do what they do). None of them are carrying cameras and this could be a “regular” group of people, just one of several groups in this busy night at the bar (Barcelona is just like that). Nonetheless, here are some of the core members of the group I’ve been participating with for several months. There’s no trace or discussion in flickr about this “getting together”, it is a casual thing: I got a phone call, some other people were contacted by email and, another couple were luckily enough to found each other with someone at some local store and decided to join him. Discussions are multiple and, although they tend to be photography-centred, some of them range, from the last sports results, to gossips about other people in the group. Probably this will not be important at all except for one thing. They decide, at the end of the night, to organize a photowalk that, as soon as later in the night, will become a post in the group. That post would take, eventually, to several pictures taken, the integration of new members to the group, more beers and, definitely, a sense of belonging and identity.
Flashback from the field II
I’m in the house of one of my informants, three big computer screens are flashing in a “Matrix” alike, scene. He’s very proud about his equipment and he takes his time to explain all the connections between cables, external hard disks, the server and the wireless system he has installed all by himself. He has several “tabs” in his firefox browser: one is an “always on connection” to the group in flickr (he is a moderator), and the rest are facebook, another flickr window, google and so on. Besides that, he has the skype and gtalk open. In one specific moment, at the same time, he’s in a phone call with some other member who is in the street, in a call with other (using skype), and three more chat windows with conversations. All are discussing related to an event organization (and surprisely organized itselves) and all will impact directly in the group’ success (and therefore in flickr success). Nonetheless, the chat is from google, the mirror group is on facebook, the cellphone is Telefonica’s, etc., etc.
Ok, let’s be honest, like Magritte (according to Foucault), I just performed a magic trick. I did this because my ethnography is not focus in the use of flickr but in digital photography practices in everyday life (which happens to be close related to a group I found in flickr). But, flickr was just my starting point; I have crossed on many platforms: blogs, chats, facebook, photoblogs, fotolog.com, bars, restaurants and phone calls. In some other place (and along with some colleagues), we have proposed that probably it’s time to move forward what he have called the platform studies, that, personally, I think is a (bad) heritage from the “virtual communities” ethos (which I already critique in a book I published last year). Internet, along with cellphones and other technologies, are already embedded in everyday life, probably we could just accept this as a fact and try to do research on the things that this socio-technical cocktail shape, like photography practices. One last thing, I’m not saying that those platform studies are not interesting or relevant, what I’m trying to say is that probably, for some questions, the answer lies more in a bar and less online.