Instagram Helps Researchers Map People and Places

Categories: Tech

This is San Francisco in a nutshell
Instagram's vast palette of filters gives users ample room to express themselves individually -- San Francisco photographers might use a sepia-toned "Early Bird" filter to romanticize the Golden Gate Bridge towers, or add glamour to the hand-drawn leaf on top of an espresso drink.

Photographers in Tokyo might deploy the X-Pro II filter to brighten the contours of buildings and give them a hyper-modern, Blade Runner sheen.

But the billions of photos exchanged each month also speak volumes about us collectively. So say the researchers behind Phototrails, a new project that employs "big visual data" to trace cultural and social patterns throughout the world.

By analyzing software details and geo-location data on millions of photos, they were able to devise unique digital footprints for 13 different cities. They also found that many Instagram users share preferences, sentiments, and behaviors no matter where they reside.

Interestingly -- but perhaps not surprisingly -- people in New York were the least likely to care about filters, says Professor Lev Manovich of the Graduate Center at CUNY, who helped steer the project. They tended to just snap and slap photos on the web without altering the color or texture. People in Tel Aviv were much more attentive to composition, and more apt to use Instagram's color palette to convey emotional meaning.

What most struck researchers, though, was how Instagram users deployed their smartphone cameras during dramatic events.

Brooklyn saw a precipitous uptick in the number of photos taken and posted after Hurricane Sandy, and users seemed more inclined to filter those photos. But that's not true for every disaster and/or day of reflection. User activity stagnated during Holocaust Memorial Day in Tel Aviv, and declined during a left-wing ceremony for Soldiers Memorial Day, just a week later. But it ballooned for the center-right-wing Memorial Ceremony held in another part of the city.

Clearly, Instagram is a huge departure from old-school photography -- the kind that fascinated Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag -- in that it's more automated and less subjective.

The 10 billion photographs swapped over Facebook each month say more about human patterns than about individual aesthetes, especially since each bears a "software signature" with its exact time and date. It's easy to cluster them and draw empirical conclusions. Whereas traditional photos were impressions frozen in time; Instagram photos are fragments of some larger cultural movement.

Researchers at Phototrails want to explore that further, using their software to track our behavior on social networks. For some, it might seem like an unsettling corollary to the old saying that art digests life. Now art and life are grist for the data mill.

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