A brief history of sharing images

By Mark Turrell on May 31st, 2012

When people claim the world is changing, they often do not take the time to think about how even the simplest thing, like taking and sharing a photo, has changed so dramatically so quickly. Shared photos and videos allowed us in 2011 to feel part of the Egyptian revolution, document the atrocities in Syria, capture electoral fraud in Russia, all as it was happening.

Our personal collections of photos, taken by ourselves or by our friends, provide a flow of memory-jogging images that feed into our social media streams, bringing back happy memories – or perhaps prompting a quick “remove tag” and a “please delete” e-mail.

Just think. Given the rate of change we are seeing, who is to know what we will be doing with shared images and videos in the next five years? The world has changed, and the change is accelerating.

100,000 – 150 years ago

No photography. Even thinking about making a “photo” would count as witchcraft and have you burnt at the stake.

150 – 20 years ago

The film-camera allows people to take a photo, and record the photo on film. A “roll” of film usually had a number of “shots”, 24 or 36. You would usually keep taking shots until you had finished the roll. There was no way to review your shot until the film had been “developed”.

Developing films usually meant visiting a store, dropping off the roll, and waiting a few days to collect the “prints”, physical copies of your photographs. You would normally get a single copy of each photo, plus the “negatives” of the film roll, which were needed if you wanted to make extra copies at a later date.

You then went through the prints, groaning when you realised a photo had not come out properly. If you showed the prints to someone else and they liked them, you would have to go back to the store with the negatives, select the shot, and come back in a few days to pick up your extra prints.

You then had to arrange to meet the person, or put the print in an envelope, add their address and a stamp, and go to a post box.

20 – 10 years ago

The digital camera allowed people to take photos electronically. Digital cameras were sold as separate devices, or integrated into mobile phones. The photos could be reviewed immediately, thus allowing you to retake the picture if you did not like how it looked. Every once in a while, you would connect your digital camera to a computer and download the photos.

Sometimes you would print the photos using your colour printer. This would often leave you disappointed, and you’d promise yourself not to make any more print-outs (until you forgot how bad the experience was, or bought new printer cartridges).

Sometimes you would take a storage device (usually a CD-ROM or SD card) to a store to download selected photos and have them printed out. Every once in a while you might create an e-mail to send to one or more friends including attached photo files.

Initially, your friends complained that the file size was too large for their e-mail programs, or blocked by their company firewall. Photo quality was alright, not perfect, but the convenience of digital photography meant that it became popular. Sharing was still tough.

10 – 5 years ago

More people started taking photos with their mobile phones. The quality was not very good, due to the low resolution of the phone cameras. The photos could be shared almost immediately, either as a multimedia message (MMS) or as an attachment to an e-mail, originating directly from the phone.

Digital photos that were uploaded to a computer could be digitally altered, removing red eye and adjusting colour or exposure. This improved the yield of photos from a given event, as previously photos too dark, or with scary eyes, had to be discarded.

A few fanatics started photo-sharing on the Internet, putting photos onto public web sites like Flickr. This confused many skeptics, some of whom complained that no one wanted to see pictures of drunken parties, boring holiday snaps, or blurry pictures of bugs.

5 years ago – Now

You walk into a grocery store and see a sign that Kashi, a breakfast cereal brand owned by Kellogg’s, has been taken from the shelves. You take a photo, and immediately upload it to your Facebook and Twitter stream. Within a few days, Kellogg’s PR team has responded with a classic “crisis PR” YouTube video, which triggers a torrent of negative public opinion, leading to a public policy change to dramatically reduce the use of GMO foods in their products.

On the day you take that photo, another 250 million photos are also uploaded and shared on the Internet. Some are shared privately to just a few people. Some are intended to be shared privately, but mistakes are made and accidentally you might share a photo of yourself flexing your muscles to the Internet, and later pretend that someone “hacked your Twitter account”. You get fired for that.

You graduate quickly from photos to video. More data storage, more bandwidth, more free Wifi access, more places to share videos.

You start streaming live videos of things you find interesting using Ustream and other free services.

You feel part of events. You stop by an Occupy rally and decline to join in, but record the experience. You share your experiences with others who are your Facebook friends, or follow you on Twitter. They feel more connected to events. Your eyes somehow become their eyes.