Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Family Album of the Facebook Generation

When I was a kid, my parents had a small camera and, like most parents, they took many pictures of their offspring. As a result, there are a couple of family albums and a shoebox full of family pictures somewhere in the basement. Among those pictures are a couple hundred photographs of me.

Now, fast forward to the present time. I have literally thousands of pictures of my children. Those pictures are easily shared with other family members on flash drives and via Dropbox and often uploaded to Facebook or Flickr. When our children are grown, they will live in a world where their lives are well documented in pictures. Really well.

Yep, I have thousands of pictures of my kids...and those pics last forever!
What’s more, all those pictures will be fairly broadly distributed - our kids will have limited control over where their pictures are used. The pictures will be in many hands - many people will have a copy. Being camera shy just won’t fly.

This development is the result of two major events. First, the advent of digital photography has made taking pictures significantly less expensive - almost free. They are not entirely free as we are paying for the storage and often for the transmission cost. But compared to what pictures used to cost, they are pretty much free today. Back in the days of negatives and prints, each picture had an explicit price. A roll of 35mm film used to cost about $8 and the development plus those 36 prints would cost about $12 - that means each picture came to approximately $0.50. That made even the most avid photographer quite selective about when to squeeze the trigger!

The second event was the convergence of cameras and mobile phones. For years now, most mobile phones and smartphones include a camera and since pretty much everybody has a mobile phone today, everybody is a photographer. There are over 6 billion mobile phones out there and a significant portion of them have a built-in camera (at least 50%). On top of that, millions of digital cameras from the point-and-shoot to the fancy digital SLR cameras are sold every year. In the days of film cameras, there were only very few photographers among any group of people: weddings, group travel, or sports events. Today, everybody is taking pictures at all times. Some events in front of large audiences (i.e. concerts) have been completely transformed by the constant flashes from thousands of cameras.

All of the sudden, photography is free and ubiquitous and the result is predictable. Our lives are being documented like never before. Approximately 250 million pictures are being uploaded onto Facebook every day which is almost 25% of all pictures taken worldwide. In 2011, an estimated 375 billion pictures were taken in the world. That’s over 52 pictures for every single human being each year - at least one picture each week. Given the likelihood that the picture taking is concentrated into a smaller percentage of the world population, the likely number of pictures is much higher. Every one of the 950 million Facebook users uploads almost 100 pictures per year. That’s right, “uploads”, not “takes”. I’m guessing that if one out of every 10 pictures taken ends up on Facebook, the average Facebook user might be taking about 1,000 pictures a year. That’s 18,000 pictures before a child has a chance to hide in college from the parental picture taking.

That’s a pretty big shoe box. Our lives are documented way more than any generation before. And, we need to learn to live with it.


  1. Lubor,

    do you expect those pictures on Facebook or on any other system will be around for as long as the ones your parents took of you when you were young?

    I do not.

    You might say that it may even be a blessing. Not all of those 250,000,000 shots deserve it to be kept.

    The web doens't have a good memory. Many sites disappear after years. Who garantees that the 'Facebook shoebox' will still be around when your kids turn 50, 60 or 75? Your parent's pictures will be there for centuries to come. Will YOUR pictures be accessible in 50 years from now?


    1. Thanks for commenting, Steffen. I agree that it is unlikely that the sites like Facebook or Flickr will be around 50 years from now. But my point is that our children don't have any control over where their pictures are and will be. It doesn't matter whether those pictures will sit on some future Facebook or on somebody's hard drive. They will be all around and there will be many of them.

  2. Another interesting angle to this post is one I read, I believe, in the NY Times a couple of years ago. It was an editorial by a professional photographer. His angle was that due to the ubiquitous ownership and low cost, as you mention, of digital photography, we as a society was losing a record of 'real life moments.' In other words, the candids or by chance photos that inevitably got snapped and were forever burned onto our film and wound up in our packet of prints when we picked them up. Today, because it's so easy and cheap, people just delete a 'bad photo' and take it again. Having just spent some time looking through hundreds of old pictures from my parents I can say I always think twice before deleting those candid captures from any of my digital devices.

    1. That's a great point, Todd. I also have a thought about the exponentially rising volume of really bad pictures in the world and another about how all those free pictures are actually not that free (cost of storage, backup, transmission, etc.). Thanks for chiming in!