5 Explanations for the Spike in Social Photo Sharing

Am I the only person in America not madly snapping photos and posting them to Facebook? Is there something about pictures and images in our limbic brains that compel us to spend hours and hours deep in social media voyeurism?

Apparently Facebook has lapped photo sharing sites like Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, Shutterfly and Ofoto. Boasting 60 billion photos uploaded by the end of 2010 with projections of 6 billion more per month according to Pixable, a Facebook photo app developer, Facebook could host 100 billion images by Summer.

Everyone has a digital camera in their pocket not to mention a miniature SLR stashed in a back pack. Instagram has made iPhone photography part sport and part art by enabling photo manipulation and colorization attracting 175 million users uploading 290,000 photos a day in just 120 days.

Massive image-making and photo publishing is going on all around me. The average Facebook user has posted 280 pictures. Women post twice as many as men and are tagged twice as frequently. But both men and women like photos of women best.

Most photos are uploaded on the weekends. Second place is the Monday or Friday weekend cusps. Given how easy it is to upload photos to Facebook by mobile phone, speculation is that it’s become a major weekend activity.

Everyone tags photos. Adults 20-35 do the most but as the oldsters (45+) get the hang of it their rate of tagging spiked 281 percent. Conquest Research’s Chatter Project found that 82 percent of teenage Facebook users (16-19) look at pictures, 71% upload their own and 64% comment on their photos or their friend’s photos.

So what does all this photo taking, manipulating and sharing mean?  Consider a few hypotheses:

We are Lonely. We communicate digitally. Our lives are meta tags of  real life. We live thru the digital lens and we dangle the by-products out online and on Facebook in hope of connecting, drawing tags and provoking comments. We yearn to feel like we have some kind of life and we re desperate to connect ourselves, but without too much commitment or messy face-to-face contact, with others like us. Knowing that our photos are part of Facebook’s 100 billion images somehow connects us to a life force and makes what we are shooting seem important and linked to a common/communal experience.

We Live Out Loud. Everything we do has an audience. Absent uploading, the tree never falls in the woods. We validate our lives by documenting them and posting them for others to see, tag and appreciate. Baked in is a smidgeon of personal CRM so Grandma can see the kids and their activities and Uncle Mike can comment on the dog’s Frisbee prowess. But it doesn’t count if someone’s not watching, commenting or scoring.

We Crave Control. Our world and our lives are subject to so many uncontrollable, countervailing and random forces that the only thing we can compose is a photo. Making pictures allows us to cast, frame, pose, posture, color and select the life we want to have or want to show. Simultaneously fantasy and fabrication, our Facebook photos leave the realm of the mundane and take on new dimension and meaning. They become a statement of who we are or who we want to be.

We Can’t Help Ourselves. Hardwired into our fight-or-flight gyroscope, is the need to see other humans. We are compelled to look at images of other humans; to scan, to assess, to be amused and to comment. Photography is a biological imperative. Facebook and photo sharing sites have simply replaced zillions of homemade photo albums with a better way to store, organize, sort and remember the drawers full of pictures that everyone’s parents had. It’s a utility serving an unconscious need.

We Document. Conscious of the fleeting nature of human life, we document our likes and our lives to defy the inevitable. Our photos capture the size, shape, color, texture, places and relationships in our lives and store them as individual and collective memories. They are proof we were here; evidence that it wasn’t a passing dream or a cosmic anomaly. Online they will never be lost, crinkle, fade or tear. They will survive us and our children to inform future generations and historians.

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