A New Urban Image: What Instagram Can Tell About a City
by Shaakira Chohan
Spatial transformations of a city need not only be physical. Sometimes they happen silently, visually, technologically or creatively.
A new transformation in cities happening around the globe is the one captured and explored behind urban images. These images hold information behind them that lends to a new way in which we view and interact with our city.
Photography is the quickest, easiest collection of information. Where before this collection and relay of information was left to professionals, with the introduction of high resolution cameras on smartphones, this has changed. And then there’s social media and particularly, Instagram, which now allows us to access, share and comment on photography on an unprecedented scale. Photography has been democratised, and in so doing, it has changed the way we interact with, engage in, explore, experience and share our cities.
This dynamic, explosive change has melted over Johannesburg too. A flux of people are heading into crevices of the city, to corners, alleys and townships that they would normally not venture into – all in the hope of that perfect #igersjozi image. Multiple, unique points of view are being captured and promoted, breaking through barriers of suburb/city/township and most importantly, constantly keeping the conversation going about the city and encouraging a wider exploration.
Accessibility is crucial and as a city this has been Joburg’s most painful spot. Issues of urban sprawl, crime, and a lack of connectivity has always plagued the city. Now, with platforms like Instagram, not only are spaces being unlocked to new users and explorers, but they are also finding creative ways of viewing – the new culture of climbing onto, into and around, lying across, standing over, squeezed into a niche, reflected off puddles and jumping – a curious culture of peering around corners, staring, wondering, questioning, hashtagging and geotagging that group you into a circle of Johannesburg’s latest marketing executives.
These photographs are a link between an ordinary citizen and their eclectic external world, telling a story – their story, our story. And so a community grows – a community that can reveal certain new bits of information of their social, cultural and geographic context. The city inspires and influences the product and our social circle and neighbourhood endorses, likes and #swoon’s it. The people make the city, as much as the city makes the people.
Phototrails, a collaborative research project between the University of Pittsburgh, the Software Studies Initiative at the California Institute for Telecommunication and Information and The Graduate Centre/City University of New York, uses the information behind this new urban image movement to tell a larger story. Using media visualisation techniques to explore visual patterns, dynamics and structures in user-generated photos, they unpacked the new opportunities that were opened up for sociologists, geographers and artists to reimagine city life through people’s actual flows and rhythms, their collective mental maps of even their sentiments and the urban social media data that was created through this mass of individuals.
They sought to investigate how to visualise millions of photos taken in New York, Bangkok or Tel Aviv in a way that reveals the cultural differences between these cities. What are the urban ‘stories’ documented by these sequences of publicly shared photos? With their collaborative project with Lev Manovich, Jay Chos and Nadav Hochmann they offered possible answers to these questions by analysing millions of Instagram photos from thirteen cities around the world, such as New York, Tokyo, San Francisco and Bangkok. They then created high-resolution visualisations that displayed tens of thousands of these photos, arranged in different ways and aggregated, revealing various particular ‘images’ of the cities. Each data set remarkably revealed something different to the others.
The results are remarkable:
Phototrail’s methods allow them to trace the collective visual ‘signature’ and rhythms of the each city and identifies particular visual routines of individuals in the city – where are photos being taken, what time are photos taken, what activities are involved, how quickly do individuals move across the city? Suddenly social media photos of very subjective experiences become a part of a larger urban narrative, revealing stories of urban practices, trends and ‘hotspots’. Suddenly, there is a new way of exploring the world of everyday and our experiences thereof.
And of course, the visualisations and movement has been no different in Johannesburg.
Recently the ninth World Wide Instameet took place and saw thousands of avid Instagrammers heading to a chosen destination within their city to capture, document and promote an area of their urban playground. ‘Igers Jozi’ took to the ever magical FNB Stadium and asserted itself as the largest meet in the country. Enthusiasm was high, creativity was ripe and the story told was something worth hearing. Four years after it played host to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament, and just as Brazil gets ready to embark on its football adventure, this is the story of the FNB stadium as told by the Instagram Community of Johannesburg.
You can also view a short video about Instagram, what it means to Joburgers and the moments captured through this social media platform in this beautiful video created by Manager of Instagram South Africa, Gareth Pon: