Photo-overload: Everyone’s taking pics, but is anyone really looking?

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Last year, one billion mobile phones with cameras were sold around the world; it’s estimated that more than one-third of the earth’s population owns a digital camera.


In New York City, fear grew of a rising epidemic: a stalker who wandered the streets invading the privacy of upstanding citizens, scrutinizing their ordinary steps, and creating a scandalizing record of everyday life. It was 1884 and George Eastman, of eventual Kodak fame, had invented a process to mass-produce dry plates for photographs; the day was arriving when any aspiring shutterbug could take a picture.


The “camera lunatics,” as their unwitting subjects dubbed them in panicked letters to the editor, were endangering the public sphere. A New York Times story declared them responsible for the overcrowding of “lunatic asylums.” The article’s advice for repelling them is not unlike a Hollywood celebrity’s tactic in 2012: Take a brick and smash the camera.

These days, that would require a lot of bricks. Last year, one billion mobile phones with cameras were sold around the world; it’s estimated that more than one-third of the earth’s population owns a digital camera. Every two minutes, they snap as many photos as the whole of humanity took in the 1800s, according to calculations by the photo storing site 1000memories. All the pictures ever taken add up to about 3.5 trillion shots, endless digital slideshows of cooing babies and fluffy kittens, to say nothing of the cute top someone saw at Forever 21 and wanted to get their Facebook friends’ opinions about.

And that math was done way back in September, 2011, which might as well be 1884 in internet years. Facebook’s own most recent stats say that 300 million photos were uploaded per day to the social-media site in the three months ending on March 31, even before June’s prime picture season of proms, dance recitals, graduation ceremonies (kindergarten to university), post-exam parties and weddings. (Also, the tech analyst company, Infotrends, estimates that the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations would produce an additional 1.3 billion photos.)

That’s not counting the many billions of images hosted by Flickr or tweeted on Twitter, with the unspoken understanding that a picture of three human beings in stock pose (heads together, arms looped, smiles synchronized) will bounce from one digital space to another, until its context fades like an old print in a shoebox. But not for long: Facebook this week announced the purchase of facial-recognition software. Soon no goofy grin shall go unnamed.

So if the good people of 1884 New York thought they had a camera epidemic on their hands, the modern world has shown them – and ourselves, in pixelized glory – a billion times over. Even the concerns about how shutterbugging affects mental health persist: These days we fret particularly about anxiety – produced from not being in enough pictures or being in the wrong ones – and narcissism, the inevitable byproduct of a culture that insatiably records every moment as if it’s Oscar-worthy.



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About @mediamentor
Information Curation, Communication & Media / Cure d'information, communication et medias

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