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13 August 2014

Watching the World

  • The world map of selfies. Part of the research project Selfiecity.net (2014). See more on the project’s web site Selfiecity.net.


Lev Manovich


Lev Manovich. Watching the World, Aperture 214, Spring 2014.


The rise of “social photography,” pioneered by Flickr in 2005, has opened fascinating new possibilities for cultural research. The photo-universe created by hundreds of millions of people might be considered a mega-documentary, without a script or director, but this documentary’s scale requires computational tools—databases, search engines, visualization—in order to be “watched.”

Mining the constituent parts of this “documentary” can teach us about vernacular photography and habits that govern digital-image making. When people photograph one another, do they privilege particular framing styles, à la a professional photographer? Do tourists visiting New York photograph the same subjects; are their choices culturally determined? And when they do photograph the same subject (for example, plants on the High Line Park on Manhattan’s West Side), do they use the same techniques?

To begin answering these questions, we can use computers to analyze the visual attributes and content of millions of photographs and their accompanying descriptions, tags, geographical coordinates, and upload dates and times, and then interpret the results. While this research began only few years ago, there are already a number of interesting projects that point toward future “computational visual sociology” and “computational photo criticism.”