Weekly Reading Insights-Week 5

At first, I considered that our readings in Clay Shirky’s book for this week and the suggested outside readings about capitalizing on still photography for online use were unrelated.  The reading topics for each week’s class don’t generally have to be related, but I like to establish some sort of connection amongst the themes if I can. In most aspects and at face value, it initially appeared that this week’s topics are disparate. Shirky takes on the general ideas of “social capital” and “bridging and bonding” in his chapters.   I initially couldn’t see how that could pertain to photography at all.

But after some consideration, I’ve envisioned how best practices of personal internet photography and the concepts of bridging and bonding social capital do intertwine–and in profound ways.

Indeed, the Internet has changed our culture. For illustration, Shirky alludes to Robert Putnam‘s pivotal work entitled Bowling Alone. (Which, by the way, was the most intriguing and enlightening reading for me during Mass Comm Theory last semester.) When Putnam composed his insights, he fingered television for the devolution of society’s tendency toward group interaction. Putnam characterized that trend in 2000Shirky takes a look at it now, and as it pertains to the Internet. And what he sees is dissimilar.

Rather than devolution of group interaction, Shirky suggests that the Internet has promoted societal assembly.  It has made it easier. It’s become cheaper. And thereby, there is more of it. Rooted in what Robert Axelrod has characterized as the general human tendency to be reciprocal and “shadow the future” by doing good things for others on the presumption that they will return that favor,  Shirky and Axelrod allow this concept to apply to social interaction and collective cultural group identity. It’s essentially “paying it forward,” as it were. As Shirky contends, we strive toward the best with our social interaction. And we innately desire it. This urge inevitably increases our investment in social capital. It’s human nature to assemble with others, we do good things to ensure it, and thus it has been a human tendency.

When Putnam considered that television as a technology interrupted that, Shirky illustrates the internet as a champion of it.

Integral to a discussion of social capital investment are the concepts of bridging and bonding, illustrated succinctly in the writings of Pippa Norris. The internet has redefined the ways humanity approaches these concepts.  In bridging, we reach out to others who are unlike us in order to invest in the new or foreign. Bonding, on the other hand, characterizes a tendency to cleave to the familiar.  Society has not previously witnessed as electric an environment on either front as has been viewable with online activity.  Shirky contends, and I concur, that our society is in a new, more intensive and dynamic realm of social interaction on both fronts. Walls for interaction have disappeared, and the resultant increase in group formation and activity is obvious.

Shirky also indicates that this new culture of increased social interaction has its downfalls. Professional roles have been eliminated, in that the human coordination element has been largely removed from the equation. This is particularly obvious in the news business, as mass amateurization has undermined the gatekeeping role of news organizations. Also, what Shirky calls the social bargain is compromised, as the Internet allows people to evade governmental and journalistic limitation. His third perceived downfall is the general danger of communicative and group-based freedom (i.e. for mass activity as well as negative momentums). This concern speaks for itself.

So how does it all this pertain to photography and sharing pictures online?  The implicated advice is clear: be smart and skilled about how you take pictures you intend to post online, and then be very selective about what you follow through with posting. Online endeavor towards investment in social capital is our new way of life, and it is no longer merely a function of written expression. The Internet is now the vehicle for how we coalesce in modern times, but we no longer solely rely on written communication to do it. Words pervade, but we utilize images more profoundly in contemporary online society. Old school still photos in hard copy have a legacy of being worth 1,000 words.  But the audience is now amplified to a global one, with any given set of eyes perusing what we post at any given time. It is incumbent to consider within this new momentum of personal online branding that we use photographs to our benefit. Basic skill at photography is a requirement. And tutorials abound. It is now requisite to pay attention to what we broadcast for our own online image.

But considering how significant and fast-forward online communication is in the realm of social capital investment and how the concepts of bridging and bonding flourish in online interaction, utilizing intuitive and quality photography can either further or inhibit that possibility. We can identify with others across the world without typing a word if we correctly utilize images. And we can simultaneously miss opportunities or ostracize ourselves if we do so recklessly.

Indeed, as our global community waxes and as affiliations rise and amplify at the hand of the Internet, it is paramount to duly equip oneself with at least basic skill and awareness with still photography.  If Shirky is right in his assessment that the concept of community(ies) will only be advanced by the Internet–for better or worse–, the images we post today can either be a death-knell or a proponent to the potentially life-changing and significant social capital scenarios we could navigate tomorrow.

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One thought on “Weekly Reading Insights-Week 5

  1. Carrie Brown says:

    Good connection, Barry, and I agree – photos are one important aspect of that bridging and bonding – in part because we tend to connect emotionally to them.

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