Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Do we want norms or do we want Knapster?

I met with Knapster today at the Tate. Tate at the Knapster. Knapster at the Tate. Anyway. Knapster runs a flickr group called "Public Space and its Discontents", so we each had a lot to say about public space, or (in the language I've adopted from Michael Warner via Arendt via Habermas) about publics.

This is how Knapster and his co-admin James_C describe their group:

"This group is interested in how people use, abuse and subvert 'public' spaces. Now that we lead sedentary indoor lives, public spaces are often neglected or strictly controlled and regulated. We are interested in how public spaces can be used for 'unexpected' purposes other than their design...."

Part of what I understand Knapster and James_C to be saying here is that people's experiences of outdoor public space are often either punitive or normative. Punitive in the form of laws and social prohibitions (de jure and de facto prohibitions). Normative in the form of injunctions that tend to standardise and restrict behaviour. There are a few things we can still do in public without fear of any sort of reprisal: we can shop, we can drive, we can read...if we make sure to read only in a place where idleness justifies the reading as passing time rather than, say, "loitering with intent." To say it this way may be to exaggerate the case, but it is probably not wrong.

The internet—well, let's be more conservative and specific—flickr is, of course, also sometimes normative (e.g. the etiquette of adding contacts) and punitive (e.g. flame wars in some groups), but I think that is not people's primary experience of whatever kind of public flickr is, or is becoming. Knapster and others describe the surprise one feels at getting one's first comment. The encouragement, sure, but also the sense of sudden and intimate connection (a funny sort of intimacy, sure, but I'd still want to call it intimate) with someone you not only didn't know, but didn't know you could ever know. But I'm thinking here less about "social networks" or "communities" (although probably much could be said about these kinds of entities). I'm thinking more about how an action in public (e.g. posting a photo to one's flickr home page, making a comment on someone else's photo, joining a flickr group) ramifies in all sorts of unexpected outcomes, which themselves then generate new behaviours and new activities and new uses for photography and etc. and etc. This is how I'm coming to understand the concept "public" in relation to online photography. It could be encapsulated in the question: How do publics act on us?
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