Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Social production, cut and paste – what are kids doing with ‘your’ images?

August 31st, 2007 by Seb Chan

It has been one of the worst kept secrets of web statistics – deep linked image traffic. While this has been going on for years, since the beginning of the WWW actually, it has increased enormously in the past few years. On some cultural sector sites such traffic can be very substantial – a quick test is to look at exactly how much of your traffic is ‘referred’ from MySpace. It is also one of the main reasons why Photobucket has traditionally reported traffic so much higher than Flickr is – its deep linking and cut and paste engagement with MySpace. With the move away from log file analysis to page tagging in web analytics, some, but not all of this deep linking traffic is fortunately being expunged from analytics reporting.

Two Powerhouse examples include a Chinese news/comment portal that deep linked a Mao suit image (from an educational resource on our site), sending us 51,000 visits in under 24 hours in August 2005, and an A-grade Singaporean blogger who deep linked an image of Golum (from our archived Lord of the Rings exhibition pages) to use to describe an ugly celebrity which generated over 180,000 visits over 8 days In January 2007. (In both of these examples the visits were removed from the figures reported to management and funders.)

What is going on here sociologically?

At the recent ICA2007 event in San Francisco danah boyd and Dan Perkel presented an interesting look at the subcultural behaviours that are, in part, producing this effect. Although they look specifically at MySpace there are threads that can be drawn across many social sites from forums to blogs. Drawing on the work of many cultural theorists, they argue that on MySpace what is going on is a form of ‘code remix’. That is, young people’s MySpace pages are essentially ‘remixes’ of other content – but unlike a more traditional remix in audio and video cultures, these code remixes occur through the simple cut and paste of HTML snippets. By ‘producing’ both their MySpace pages as well as their online cultural identity in this way, they are reshaping concepts of ‘writing’ and digital literacy. They are also, importantly, not in control of the content they are remixing – a deep linked image can easily be changed, replaced or removed by the originating site.

There are plenty of examples – boyd and Perkel give a few – where the content owner changes the linked image to disrupt the deep linker. In the case of our Singaporean blogger we renamed the linked image to prevent it from appearing on her site (and in our statistics).

Revealingly, Perkel’s research is showing that many MySpace users have little, if any, knowledge or interest in website production – that is CSS and HTML. Instead, what has formed is a technically simple but sociologically complex ‘cut and paste’ culture. This is what drives the ‘easy embedding’ features found on almost any content provider site like YouTube etc – it is in the content providers’ interest to allow as much re-use of their content (or the content they host) because it allows for the insertion of advertising and branding including persistent watermarking. Of course, the museum sector is not geared up for this – instead our content is being cut and pasted often without anyone outside the web team having a deep understanding of what is actually going on. There are usually two reactions – one is negative (“those kids are ‘stealing’ our content”) and the other overly positive (“those kids are using our content therefore they must be engaging with it”). Certainly Perkel and others research deeply probelmatises any notion that these activities are in large part about technical upskilling – they aren’t – instead those involved are learning and mastering new communication skills, and emerging ways of networked life.

One approach that some in the sector have advocated is the widget approach – create museum content widgets for embedding – to make repurposing of content (and code snippets) easier. There have been recent calls for museum Facebook apps for example. But I’m not sure that this is going to be successful because a great deal of embeds are of the LOLcats variety – perhaps trivial, superficial, but highly viral and jammed full of flexible and changing semiotic meaning. Whereas our content tends to be the opposite – deep, complex and relatively fixed.

Tags: 4 Comments

  • Angelina

    Hey Seb
    Very interesting piece. Why does the museum remove the visitor statistics in these instances?

  • Seb Chan

    We removed the Mao and Gollum deeplinks from the reported visitation figures because it was clear there was neither ‘intention’ or ‘awareness’ of the users/visitors ‘using a museum resource’.

    The 50K visits from the Mao image were simply visiting a Chinese website which was, in turn, pulling an image from our site which registers a visit to our site (if you are still basing your stats on logfile analysis). Likewise the Singaporean blogger.

    What makes it even more important to NOT report these visits is that in the Chinese and Singaporean examples, even the authors of these websites were not ‘choosing’ to use our images ‘beacuse they were authoratative’ and ‘from a museum’, but simply because they were easy to find with a Google Image search. Their original context (ours) was completely irrelevant to their final usage.

    I would argue that this happens frequently and artifically inflates a lot of reported figures.

  • Thanks Seb
    It does make me wonder though about visitor statistic and intention. We make a lot of ‘intended use’ with digital cultural content because, as you rightly say, we assume that content is repurposed because it is easy to access. Yet we don’t necessarily apply the same rigour or critisim to our physical visitors. Is being in the museum the same as engaging with the museum? the If you pulled aside every young person who is taken to a museum ‘against their will’ – that is, DreamWorld wasn’t offer that day – what proportion would be there to engage in a cultural exchange? Is a young person in a museum because it was raining that day and the folks wanted somewhere warm, dry and with convenient facilities to get the kids out of the house? Did they end up there unintentionally, and once there, did they engage with content in ways that were meaningful to them? Do we dismiss young people interacting in the museum on their own terms just because the interactives are there? What do you think? What’s the difference?

  • Seb Chan

    The difference is that in the case of the person ‘in the museum’ they have an awareness that they are there – even if they don’t want to be. That’s while they might say afterwards ‘oh that visit to the museum wasn’t so bad’ or, alternatively, ‘i’m never going back to a museum!’.

    On the web with a deep linked image – there is no awareness.