Cameraphones as Personal Storytelling Media
By Howard Rheingold, Thu Mar 03 10:45:00 EET 2005

The cameraphone exists at this moment in that ephemeral, potent and confusing phase of its adoption cycle where people are still deciding what kind of social medium it is.


This happened to previous generations with the camera, the phone and the Internet. If recent observations from Keio University researcher Daisuke Okabe can be used to forecast future trends, we will find that the social role of the cameraphone is distinctly different from both the camera and the phone. And although these devices transmit images through the Internet, they are also turning out, rather unexpectedly, to be face-to-face media. It looks like this newly ubiquitous device could be more about flows of moments than stocks of images, more about sharing presence than transporting messages, and ultimately, more about personal narrative than factual communication.

"Cameraphones enable an expanded field for chronicling and displaying self and viewpoint to others in a new kind of everyday visual storytelling," wrote Okabe, in a paper delivered at a conference in Korea at the end of 2004. Okabe's findings make a case that cameraphones represent a new opportunity to tell the story of our lives to ourselves as well as to others, and to share a sense of continuous, multisensory, social presence with people who are geographically distant. Tokyo youth have added a visual element to the flow of phone calls and text-messages among small groups of intimates that Okabe and colleagues have come to call "distributed co-presence."

The first cameraphone handset was introduced to what Okabe describes as a skeptical Japanese population in October 2000. In less than five years, cameraphones grew to comprise more than 60% of all mobile phones in use in Japan. Surveys in 2003 indicated that 90% of the people who responded viewed their cameraphone pictures on their handsets, 60% used them as wallpaper for the phone screens, over 50% e-mailed them to family and friends, and only 35% uploaded them to a PC. Okabe, who has been working with Mizuko Ito, another noted observer of youth media practices, asked high school students, college students, housewives and young professionals to keep diaries and records of their cameraphone use; in addition to analyzing the diaries and records, Okabe interviewed the subjects about the way they used their cameraphones.

Ito and Okabe's previous observations of Japanese mobile phone users led them to adopt a conceptual framework of "technosocial situations" in which people "assemble social situations as a hybrid of virtual and physically co-present relations and encounters." For example, the people they observed used streams of text messages to "inscribe a space of shared awareness of one another" -- an explanation for the preponderance of messages that conveyed no information other than what the sender was doing at the moment: "I'm sitting on the bus," or "I'm bored" or "I'm walking up the hill." The cameraphone study extends this framework by revealing how people's choices of images to share enables intimate social networks to share ambient information; but, "on the other hand, we are finding that users tend not to e-mail messages to one another, and prefer to share images by showing pictures on a handset screen." Hence, the communication device that used to transmit messages across distances is now also used to capture a flow of experience in order to add a visual element to face-to-face story-telling. (Hmmm... What do McLuhan's "Laws of Media" tell us here?)

The observed subjects did send images to one another, but that was only part of a suite of uses that have emerged -- all of them everyday, personal, informal slices of life. Okabe noted a number of different uses included "personal archiving" (saving images for one's own use, as a memory of a day or special moment, a "self-authoring practice"), "intimate sharing" (showing a mini-slideshow of one's day or one's hour in person to a friend), peer-to-peer news and online picture sharing. Whether their subjects snapped images of books they wanted to obtain later, a mundane picture of a street or nature scene while walking alone or with a friend or special-occasion photo like a graduation that is used as a good luck amulet, these actions are all about point of view. "These are not random photos," Okabe concludes, "but rather are highly personal viewpoints on everyday life that are archived on the small screen." Remember what designer Scott Jenson had to say about that?

Okabe also noticed an additional use to the capture of mundane images: material for conversation. In Japanese, the material people collect to share conversationally with friends is called "neta": "a new store seen on the way to work; a cousin who just dropped out of high school...an odd statue sited in town." Cameraphones "provide a new tool for making these everyday neta not just verbally but also visually shareable." In contrast to the traditional camera, "cameraphones capture the more fleeting and unexpected moments of surprise, beauty and adoration in the everyday...Users are still working out the social protocols for appropriate visual sharing, but seem to take pleasure in the adding of visual information to the stream of friendly and intimate exchange of opinions and news."

The "heightened sense of visual awareness" that Okabe detects in her subjects' mundane communications might well be the early indicators of a new dimension to social sensibility, the kind of media-enabled sensory shift that McLuhan wrote about, the kind that changes not only the way we make small talk with friends, but the very fabric of social relations, in ways that are not possible to predict when they first surface. Perhaps we can't predict. But research like Okabe's and Ito's can sensitize us to what people are really doing with their latest doodads.