"And somehow it ends up on the Internet." Agency, trust and risks in photo-sharing among friends and romantic partners
First Monday

'And somehow it ends up on the Internet.' Agency, trust and risks in photo-sharing among friends and romantic partners
by Rebecca Venema and Katharina Lobinger

Photographic practices and photo-sharing have become pervasive routine communicative acts in everyday life. Photo-sharing can be beneficial for maintaining and strengthening social relationships, but it also requires a careful reflections of trustful disclosure, intimacy, privacy and vulnerability. Several scholars have found that conflicts regarding photo-sharing arise when assumptions regarding the “shareability” of pictures and an “appropriate” amount of photo-sharing differ. This demands for further insights into which practices are considered appropriate or inappropriate and for which reasons. The present study explores norms and rules of taking and sharing pictures and examines how these norms are defined in close relationships, more precisely in romantic partnerships and friendships. It is based on 34 repertoire-oriented, semi-structured interviews that are combined with creative visual methods. The analysis shows that trust, confidentiality and consent are the fundamental conditions for photo-sharing in close relationships. However, when it comes to negative causes and consequences of photo-sharing, trust and confidentiality are at the same time considered as unreliable and fragile constructs. Usually, the image-makers are held responsible for unintended sharing and re-sharing. Further responsibility is ascribed to invisible agents and insecure technological structures, while other involved persons are not described as accountable agents. This implies that the fragility of trust in relationships needs to be anticipated in sharing processes. We argue that this necessitates further critical discussions of responsibilities, agency and trust in order to sustain the value and importance of close relationships in current digitally networked societies.


1. Introduction
2. Norms of media use
3. Photo-sharing, networked photography and how they challenge existing norms
4. Photo-sharing in close social relationships
5. Visual self-disclosure: Necessary but risky?
6. Methods and empirical data
7. Findings
8. Conclusion
9. Limitations and outlook



1. Introduction

What can, what ought and what should be done using media? In other words, what are appropriate and acceptable ways of using media in everyday life? These questions arise whenever new media practices emerge and irritate existing social norms and routines.

Bengtsson has shown that “people’s media discourses are a profoundly moral issue” [1]. Usually, normative debates celebrate and acknowledge certain practices while devaluating others. These ambivalences can also be found in current scientific and everyday discourses about vernacular visual communication and the use of visual technologies. In fact, networked visual communication is currently at the centre of highly moral debates that are additionally fuelled by the increasing proliferation and omnipresence of photographic practices and the popularity of photo-sharing (see e.g., Hand, 2012; Rubinstein and Sluis, 2008). Respective debates on norms orbit around issues such as “narcissistic” — or, in contrast, “empowering” selfies (Burns, 2015, 2014; Lobinger, 2016c; Tiidenberg and Gómez Cruz, 2015; Sheehan, 2015; Kapidzic and Herring, 2015; Mendelson and Papacharissi, 2011; Ong, et al., 2011; Stefanone, et al., 2011), “oversharing”, sexting (Albury and Crawford, 2012; Hasinoff, 2014; Karaian, 2012; Weiss and Samenow, 2010; Weisskirch and Delevi, 2011) or acceptable photosituations and commemoration culture (Shapira, 2017).

Whether condemned or celebrated, it is beyond dispute that visual media and communication technologies as well as the respective visual media contents and practices have become increasingly important for creating, maintaining and strengthening social relationships (Hardey, 2004), for self-presentation (Malik, et al., 2016; Van House, et al., 2004) and for creating intimacy (Miguel, 2016).

Still, visual communication practices and photo-sharing within relationships can be considered “risky opportunities” (Livingstone, 2008), in other words practices that require a careful reflections of trustful disclosure, intimacy, privacy and vulnerability (Litt and Hargittai, 2014; Zelizer, 2005). This necessitates a reflection on norms and rules of using visuals and visual technologies within relationships in current digitally networked societies. As Katz and Crocker pointed out, it is essential to reflect on “how these interactions are affecting social understandings of self and others and their positioning in society” [2].

In the present study, we examine evaluations, norms and rules of taking and sharing pictures in close social relationships. We thereby focus on romantic and friendship relationships, two constellations that highly depend on mutual self-disclosure and trust (see e.g., Byers and Demmons, 1999; Misoch, 2015; Petronio, 2013, 2002, 1991). We were interested in how romantic partners and close friends communicate visually in their relationships and in how they decide what to share with whom. We especially sought to explore norms of visual media usage, that is what the participants consider appropriate or inappropriate uses of photographs and visual devices. For this purpose, we conducted qualitative interviews in the tradition of a repertoire-oriented approach (Hasebrink and Popp, 2006; Hasebrink and Hepp, 2017). Visual methods, such as network drawings and visual elicitation techniques were additionally used to facilitate reflections on norms and rules.

We begin the paper by clarifying our social-constructivist understanding of norms as social and contextual concepts of appropriate practices. We then discuss photo-sharing practices, showing how they enable live-communication and connectedness on the one hand, while they can also imply the risk of unintended disclosure to broad audiences on the other hand. This sets the frame for the empirical study in which we used a cross-media and repertoire-oriented research approach to carve out contextualized views on norms regarding appropriate and inappropriate visual media use. In the result section, we particularly discuss the paradoxes between fundamental norms and rules described by the participants and a “responsibility shake-off” when inappropriate visual media practices are judged. Finally, the article draws implications for the future critical discussion of responsibilities, agency and the conditions for creating and maintaining trustful relationships in current digitally networked societies.



2. Norms of media use

In our study we address norms of media use from a texto-material perspective. This means that, as promoted by Siles and Boczkowski (2012), we understand media as well as communication and information technologies (ICTs) as doubly articulated artefacts, as both, material objects that are situated in a specific context and as texts and content that carry symbolic meaning. We are thus interested in norms with respect to both symbolic and material uses of visual media.

In general, norms can be described as principles of (expected) behaviour. They are the fundamental basis of human practices and interactions that serve as frameworks for judging which kind of behaviour is desired or acceptable in a given context. Norms thus determine situational codes of conduct, while values are rather abstract and general normative base frames. Most of the time, these codes of conduct are implicit and intuitive (Aarts and Dijksterhuis, 2003; Cialdini, 2003; McLaughlin and Vitak, 2011), but they come to the fore when they are violated.

Norms are not stable. In a social constructivist understanding, they are considered dynamic social constructs that are continuously negotiated in social and communicative interaction (Bergmann, 1998; Luckmann, 2002). In other words, whether communicative actions are considered “appropriate” or “legitimate” is highly dependent on situational and contextual social arrangements (Gershon, 2008; Nissenbaum, 2011, 2004; Postmes, et al., 2000).

As history has shown, the emergence of new technologies and the new practices they entail challenge established norms for adequately using devices in everyday life and for the symbolic communication with them (Gitelman and Pingree, 2003; Balbi, 2013; Drushel and German, 2011; Briggs and Burke, 2009) [3]. Sometimes these irritations even necessitate the creation of new rules and norms. At the moment, photo-sharing and networked photography can be considered as such irritating developments that trigger negotiations of norms in the sphere of everyday visual communication. This makes them fascinating and timely research objects for examining rules and norms in digitally networked societies.



3. Photo-sharing, networked photography and how they challenge existing norms

The role of visual communication in our communicative repertoires has changed drastically within the last decade. Firstly, photo-sharing has become a pervasive routine communicative act in everyday life. More than 350 million photographs are uploaded per day to Facebook, and thus to one single popular social networking site (SNS) alone (GfK Verein, 2016). Moreover, the notion “networked photography” refers to the fact, that photographs are increasingly taken in order to be shared and exchanged right after capture in what has recently been called “visual conversations” (Katz and Crocker, 2015) with remote others (van Dijck, 2008; Lobinger, 2016a; Villi, 2015; Weilenmann, et al., 2013). Thereby the role of photographs has changed. For example, photo-sharing is nowadays often characterized as a form of visual texting. Bayer, et al. (2016) found that college students do not even consider the ephemeral photo app Snapchat a platform for sharing or viewing photos but rather as “a lightweight channel for sharing spontaneous experiences with trusted others” [4]. In the same vein, Kofoed and Larsen (2016) as well as Vaterlaus and colleagues (2016) detail that adolescents and young adults rather refer to the act of photo-sharing as “sending a message” on Snapchat than as “sending a photo”. They thus describe their interactions as “chatting through pictures”.

There is, however, not the one single use of photographs in interactions. People share photos for various purposes and the photographic object can take quite different forms within these sharing processes. For example, people share photographs 1) to talk about images, using photos as conversational resource, 2) to communicate visually, in other words they want to tell something with the photo, and 3) for phatic communication, just for the sake of visual connectivity (Lobinger, 2016a).

These modes of sharing can be related to different scales of sharing and can involve different publics. In this regard Villi (2013) has differentiated messaging and publishing. And we might include “showing” as further mode of photo-sharing in this systematisation. For example, photographs can be shared, by showing them to close friends on a device, by handing them around, or by sending — or messaging — them with the help of ICTs. Photographs can, however, also be distributed or published (Villi, 2012) and thus shared with broader audiences. Particularly, publishing implies that the potential reach of digital photographs might increase compared to previous forms of analogue visual communication because digital photographs are not reproduced but rather multiplied (Hand, 2012) when they circulate in networked, horizontal, many-to-many communication processes (Castells, 2011), such as those offered by e.g., Facebook or Instagram.

Networked photography has also brought forth new genres and aesthetics of photography, such as selfies (e.g., Barnard, 2016; Burns, 2015; Murray, 2015; Nemer and Freeman, 2015; Tiidenberg and Gómez Cruz, 2015; Warfield, et al., 2016), photographs with digital filters (Caoduro, 2014) or ephemeral photographs (Bayer, et al., 2016; Brown, et al., 2016; Bushey, 2014; Reynolds, et al., 2011; Shein, 2013) that are only relevant for a short period of time. There are photo apps and photo-sharing apps for literally every communication need, from ephemeral photo apps (e.g., Snapchat), to more artistic and semi-professional sharing platforms (e.g., Flickr), to highly aesthetizing photo apps suggesting a certain photo format and filter (e.g., Instagram). Not least, the photo-sharing practices of users have turned the common non-visual centred Social Media platforms into today’s largest image banks (e.g., Facebook), which underscores the value and importance of visuality in digital communication contexts.

As already argued above, these transformations in the field of vernacular visual communication challenge existing norms of e.g. acceptable information sharing, visual styles and conventions. Previous research has identified various conflicts that emerge when people do not share the same assumptions about what content is to be shared or not. Hiniker, et al. (2016), for instance, reveal frustrations and conflicts within families with respect to the photo-sharing practices of parents. In the study, children report that they feel frustrated when their parents publicly share photographs of them without their consent and permission. These visuals that then become an involuntary part of their online self-representation are often considered embarrassing. Lipford and colleagues (2009) have addressed conflicts regarding photo-sharing between friends. The authors suggest that photographs that depict several people should also be seen as shared artefacts. They argue that the depicted persons “may have differing opinions on the content and disclosure of that image, based upon their individual social contexts” [5]. A Pew study illustrates these differing opinions and norms. Around half of the 18- to 29-year-olds in the study report that they have removed another person’s tags or comments from their social network profiles (Madden, 2012). Vaterlaus, et al. (2016) show that annoyances about “incorrect” snapchatting, e.g. sending an excessive amount of snaps or sending random visual data that was not personalized for the conversation, was not only perceived to be annoying but even seen as warranted grounds for blocking and unfriending people. Finally, Hasinoff and Shepherd (2014) illustrate young people’s norms regarding privacy in sexting — and the respective problems and controversies that arise when assumptions about the “shareability” of suggestive pictures clash. These findings call for further insights into which visual communication practices are considered appropriate or inappropriate in which contexts and why.



4. Photo-sharing in close social relationships

As already argued, photo-sharing in its different forms can serve many social functions and uses, such as self-presentation (Malik, et al., 2016; Van House, et al., 2004) as well as maintaining and strengthening social relationships.

Duck (1994) argues that the meaning of a relationship is created through the everyday interactions of partners. Thereby, the content of the talk might sometimes even be less important than the creation of connection itself (Duck, 1994). Photographs are particularly suitable for the establishment of spontaneous connections to absent people. Visual communication can thus play a particular important role in relationships, in particular for long-distance relationships, as the exchange of photographs allows for creating a form of connectedness or even “perpetual contact” (Katz and Aakhus, 2002) between partners in visual form. For example, photographs and visual messages facilitate intimacy at-a-distance (Elliott and Urry, 2010) or “distant closeness” (Van House, 2007). “By keeping in touch via photo messages, users create a shared visual space and a sense of (co-)presence and proximity that is enabled by the photographs’ ‘visual intimacy’” [6]. In these examples, the “live-communication” feature of images that are shared synchronously comes to the fore. A couple or friends might for example exchange photographs with the intent of “seeing together”. In fact, as described by Villi (2010), a distinctive value of photo-sharing is that it enables a “synchronous gaze”, that is the possibility to “experience” the same view almost concurrently (see also Villi and Stocchetti, 2011). But of course, also nowadays photographs are still being taken to capture relevant moments and situations for later commemoration, which has always been an essential use of everyday photography (Gye, 2007). Moreover, due to their associative, simultaneous nature, photographs are more closely related to feelings and emotions. Pictures are experienced more intuitively than verbal texts with their linear logic (Müller, 2003; Pfau, et al., 2006). They thus convey emotions more directly and more authentically, which makes them ideal resources for intimate communication.

But photo-sharing also involves critical considerations of self-disclosure, privacy management as well as consent and responsibility. This is not a new risk that comes with networked visual communication. In general terms, the concept of self-disclosure in social relationships refers to the necessity of exposing personal information to the other person. In a narrower sense, self-disclosure refers to the process of revealing private, intimate or sensitive information that are intended to be solely shared with a certain group of people (Duck and McMahan, 2015). Self-disclosure is and has always been an integral part of human communication and a necessary condition for personal relationships, especially those with close ties (e.g., Altman and Taylor, 1973; Derlega, et al., 1993). In fact, the degrees and the intensity of self-disclosure vary among different social relationships and situational contexts. People constantly define and negotiate their desired degree and balance of privacy depending on the given situation and the specific nature of the social, personal or intimate relationship with their interactional partners (e.g., Petronio, 2013; 1991). As Joinson and colleagues highlight, “it is not just the environment that dictates social norms and expectancies of self-disclosure, but also the nature of the relationship between interaction partners” [7]. In the following we will focus on the advantages and risks of visual self-disclosure in close social relationships.



5. Visual self-disclosure: Necessary but risky?

Lambert (2013) drew on Berger (1995) to argue that sharing photographs can represent a kind of emotional disclosure. When photographs are of private character, photo-sharing becomes a practice that needs to carefully balance disclosure and privacy (Litt and Hargittai, 2014). Photo-sharing then is an investment or a “risky opportunity” (Livingstone, 2008) that implies vulnerability (Zelizer, 2005). We want to highlight this using the example of sexting. Sexting is the exchange of explicit messages (called sexts), which can either be images, videos, texts or multimodal combinations. Often sexts consist of intimate or erotic self-produced photographs. These visual sexts are mostly exchanged via instant messaging (IM) tools (Chalfen, 2009; Döring, 2014; Drouin, et al., 2013; Hasinoff, 2014; Henry and Powell, 2014; Karaian, 2012; Weisskirch and Delevi, 2011). As a consensual practice, sexting can contribute to creating and maintaining intimacy in a relationship, whereas the re-use and re-sharing of intimate digital content that was privately exchanged can also lead to harmful, unintended consequences. One example is non-consensual pornography that has recently become famous with the term “revenge porn” (Albury and Crawford, 2012; Döring, 2014; Hasinoff, 2014; Henry and Powell, 2014). In non-consensual pornography, sexually explicit photographs that were exchanged in a trustful communicative space are made public or are shared without the permission of the depicted individual; with harmful consequences. This example highlights a risk of intimate photo-sharing and addresses issues of responsibility and consent in processes of producing and (re)circulating images.

Many studies (see e.g., Albury and Crawford, 2012; Hasinoff and Shepherd, 2014; Tallon, et al., 2012) indicate that the unauthorized, non-consensual distribution of an explicit personal picture is widely seen as a serious violation of privacy. However, peers and even media pedagogics tend to stigmatize the victims of the non-consensual dissemination of sexts, especially girls and women. They are blamed for being stupid or even deviant because of having taken these pictures (e.g., Döring, 2014; Albury, et al., 2013; Hasinoff, 2015; Hasinoff and Shepherd, 2014). The role of those people who expose a picture that was initially shared in a trusted space to wider publics or of those who contribute to the dissemination, in turn, is mostly disregarded.

The rather drastic example of non-consensual pornography highlights the need for further examiniations of norms and rules of visual everyday communication, of the respective responsibilities and of how they are negotiated in close relationships. This is the scope of the empirical study presented in the following.



6. Methods and empirical data

In the present study we explore the routine practices, norms and rules of taking and sharing pictures in romantic partnerships and friendships. Particular emphasis is put on the respondents’ normative views on appropriate or inappropriate visual communication practices.

We address the following research questions: How do the respondents decide what pictures are to be shared with whom? Are there explicit rules of photo-sharing that guide these decisions? How are these rules established? What do the participants deem appropriate and inappropriate uses of visual media?

The present research project draws on 34 semi-structured qualitative interviews, of which eight were pair and 26 were individual interviews [8]. The interviews were conducted between April and June 2015 in a mid-size city in northern Germany. In order to include different forms of close social relationships in our study, we interviewed couples and respondents in friend relationships. We followed a purposive sampling approach. We included couples of different age, education, profession and different kinds of relationships with respect to sexual orientation, duration and phase of the relationship, as well as regarding whether they lived together or not and had children or not. The age of the participants varied from 20 years (the youngest female participant) to 59 years (the oldest male participant). Regarding the friend relationships, we interviewed a heterogeneous sample of 12 participants (seven male, five female), aged between 18 and 51 years. Six of them were purposively sampled in order to include different age, gender and degrees of formal education. The overall sample includes e.g., a young woman without a school-leaving qualification, trainees, employees, students and a freelancing illustrator.

The qualitative research design was adapted to the respective form of relationships. We conducted pair interviews with eight couples, which were followed by individual open-ended interviews with each of the partners. As one couple split up and preferred not to further take part in the study, only 14 further individual interviews were conducted. For the interviews with friend dyads we asked the purposively sampled six respondents to choose and recruit one of their friends or close acquaintances for the further interview, which resulted in an overall number of 12 interviews.

We used an in-depth qualitative approach and the overall research design is characterized by a cross-media approach based on the concepts of “polymedia” (Madianou and Miller, 2013) and of repertoire-oriented media and communication research (see Bjur, et al., 2014; Hasebrink and Domeyer, 2012). We were thus not interested in the use of a single media technology (e.g., the smartphone) or in the use of a single communication application for sharing (e.g., WhatsApp) but rather in the interplay of a certain set of media used within the communicative repertoires of our respondents. This approach enables us to gain insights into the “media manifolds” (Couldry, 2011; Madianou and Miller, 2013) of friends and couples. Moreover, it allows for a contextualisation of their visual communication practices and respective normative views in the context of the entirety of different media they use.

The verbal interviews were combined with creative visual methods (Schönhuth and Gamper, 2013; Lobinger, 2016b). To facilitate the complex task of describing the often unconsciously applied routines in everyday communication and media use, the open-ended interviews started with a participatory drawing-based exercise for the interviewees (two completed drawings are provided in Appendix 1 and Appendix 2). The network drawings were used as “material anchor points” in the interviews facilitating respondents’ explanations of the entire repertoire of photographic practices, in other words, they provided an overview of which pictures they share, how and with whom they share them.

To reduce interview effects of social desirability, particularly regarding taking and (re)sharing photographs with intimate contents, we included indirect questioning techniques. Printed exemplary statements for practices and attitudes were used as “prompts” [9]. These statements were introduced as examples of “what other people have said about this topic”. Thereby, for example, behaviour that is usually stigmatized in the mainstream discourse (e.g., sexting) was presented in different statements as either positive or negative in order to provide a plurality of perspectives for further discussion. Furthermore, we asked the couples to send us around five photographs that they considered typical for their relationship. These photographs served as an additional conversational resource for visual elicitation (see e.g., Harper, 2002).

The pair interviews ranged in length from one to two hours. The individual interviews took about one hour on average, ranging in length from 30 minutes up to two hours. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim whereby all names and places were changed to protect the privacy of participants. We then analysed the interviews using HyperRESEARCH software to structure and code the data (see, e.g., Schreier, 2014). For the analysis, we applied the approach of thematic coding (Kuckartz, 2014). The participants’ statements were attributed to main thematic categories deductively derived from the research questions, such as criteria for sharing own pictures and pictures of others, rules of photo-sharing and evaluations of appropriate and inappropriate practices. These thematic categories were then inductively specified and complemented.



7. Findings

Overall, the participants talked extensively about the important social uses and functions of visual communication within their communication repertoire. They described photo-sharing as very emotional, playful and enriching elements in their communication repertoire. In the following, however, corresponding to our research aim to explore norms, rules and evaluations, we mostly focus on what our respondents consider inappropriate uses of media in everyday life in general and regarding visual practices in particular. This is owed to the fact that in the interviews the respondents often referred to critical aspects in greater detail while considering appropriate uses and actions as natural and taken for granted. This illustrates that norms and rules usually become visible when they are violated. When speaking about inappropriate practices, the interviewees mostly refer to specific negative experiences and conflictual situations or they discuss the inappropriate behaviour of others.

7.1. General views on inappropriate media uses in everyday life

The respondents in our study express highly normative views with respect to inappropriate ways of using visual media in everyday life. In particular, the participants refer to inappropriate situations and inappropriate amounts of visual communication. When trying to explain their views, the participants mostly criticize or disapprove sharing practices of either absent others or stereotypical adolescents. Fewer participants, like e.g., Tim or Nadia, also identify “inappropriate” practices within their own media use. They then, however, rather frame them as specific current “challenges” — not as problems — that need to be consciously reflected and overcome.

Media devices are often described as disturbing or distracting elements and are believed to inhibit the full experience of certain moments. And this also holds true for vernacular photography. For example, Carsten (34) describes media devices, and in particular photo cameras, as filters of situations that disturb the unmitigated in situ experience of “real-live” moments. According to him, it is not possible to fully live the moment when being busy handling a camera for the documentation of the moment itself.

Moreover, the interviewees make quantitative estimations of appropriate — or, in turn — problematic extents of media usage. In general, the conscious use of media and a temporary abstention, in other words a certain situational and temporary media asceticism or media diet, are considered desirable ideals. By contrast, a continuous usage, especially of the smartphone, and being “always on” is considered inappropriate and disturbing. Accordingly, Benjamin rarely uses his mobile phone when he spends time with his girlfriend or his family and friends. And he directly self-assesses his behaviour as being clever, as actually being a “cool move”.

In the views of our participants it is imperative to protect oneself against the temptation and excessive power of technology and to focus one’s resources of attention on the right and important things, such as face-to-face conversations. Especially smartphones are characterized as competitors for direct interactions which are described as the ideal way to interact. By contrast, inappropriate ways of using media tend to separate a co-present person from a shared communicative space while creating connections to trans-local communication spheres that are not accessible to the co-present interactional partners.

These normative perspectives and the references to media as filters or competitors echo somehow “classic” elements of mainstream discourses and media criticism, which cannot be explored in detail within the scope of the present study. However, these insights provide valuable contexts for examining the norms and rules of photo-sharing which the respondents establish.

7.2. Conditions and rules of photo-sharing: Trust, confidentiality and consent

When it comes to photo-sharing, our interviewees strongly emphasize trustful relationships as a fundamental condition for sharing processes. Trust is in fact one of the main criteria for decisions regarding what kinds of pictures are to be shared with whom. The respondents mainly share their own pictures in close ties and with people they consider to be trustworthy. This also implies that there is no need for additional verbalized rules regarding the use and re-use of their images by their partners and friends. The participants generally assume that the trusted conversation partner will assuredly act in the right way. Axel (18) describes: “One simply knows each other (...) he won’t do it. One simply knows that.” And Charlotte (26) states: “I could and can rather send them everything and I know that I would never have to add ‘Please do not re-share it’ because they themselves, (...) realize what is important and what is just unimportant.”

When asked about their principles regarding how to handle received photographs of friends and partners, the respondents refer to confidentiality and consent as their central principles of conduct. They aim to justify the confidence placed in them and seek to protect the shared communicative space as a trustful entity. The three main rules than can be derived from our interviews are: 1) personal photos received by others are not to be re-shared, 2) intimate photos are only exchanged within intimate relationships, and 3) the publication and wider circulation of photographs always requires explicit consent.

These rules for handling received photographs of friends or partners, however, are usually not clearly verbalized or negotiated. Instead, the respondents rather rely on situational assumptions or personal evaluations regarding the trustworthiness of the conversational partner, the aesthetics of a picture and its character as being personal, embarrassing or unproblematic and thus being “sharable” content or not. “It’s just my common sense (laughing)” — this is how Manuel, aged 18, explains his criterion for deciding which pictures can be re-shared — and which can’t. And his friend Axel similarly explains that due to this common sense, explicit verbalized guidelines and rules for handling pictures are not needed in his trustful circle of friends. Anna (25) puts greater emphasis on shared — but still implicit — rules when she refers to the existence of “unspoken rules” and a jointly developed and constructed “self-conception”. However, she also adds: “Actually we never directly talked about it in any way”.

These rather intuitive concepts of handling the photographs of others reach their limits when it comes to uploading pictures and thus to “publishing” (Villi, 2012) them on a SNS like Facebook. Participants then stress the requirement of explicit permission of the depicted person(s). Even though the need for situational agreements and explicit consent for publishing the photographs of others is stressed, the respondents refer back to their own ideas of desirable conduct (“because I would wish to be asked for consent”) or rather unspecific, general social rules of thumb. For example, Axel explains: “It’s not allowed. When the person depicted doesn’t know, then you’re simply not allowed to do [publish] it”.

However, when it comes to inappropriate or improper ways of acting in and with media, the respondents’ narratives take on a quite different perspective. While trust and confidentiality are highlighted as important conditions and basics norms of visual everyday communication, they are at the same time considered as highly unreliable constructs with respect to the consequences and responsibilities of re-sharing. As will be shown in the following, this is a highly problematic observation as social relationships are generally based on trust and self-disclosure (as discussed earlier in section 4).

7.3. Consequences of photo-sharing: The fragile nature of trust and the role of invisible structures and agents

The trustworthiness of the conversational partner and the trustful entity of the social relationship were found to be important preconditions for sharing personal or intimate pictures. However, when it comes to potential undesired consequences of photo-sharing, especially of intimate photographs, the responsibility is usually solely assigned to the image-maker, or to external and invisible structures or agents that threaten the relationship from outside.

Despite the aforementioned rule that intimate photos are only exchanged within intimate relationships, the need to anticipate non-consensual sharing, and thus the acknowledgment of the fragility of trustful relationships, is characterised as a central element of appropriate visual media practice. Our participants describe non-consensual sharing as an unavoidable risk or even an inevitable outcome of for example recording a sexually suggestive image. This implies that trust and self-disclosure — the very bases of close relationships — become risky concepts in times where social relationships increasingly rely on media. On the one hand, the respondents argue that it is a sign of trust and mutual confidence when private or intimate pictures and exchanged. Images then are valuable elements of maintaining and deepening close social relationships. On the other hand, the respondents likewise refer to the disclosure of private and intimate details and sharing visuals as “dumb”, “naïve”, “stupid” or “thoughtless”. This indicates that respondents may not differentiate between cases of consensual and non-consensual sharing or re-sharing or even leaking.

Many respondents stress that it is the individual’s own fault when images become public. Already the moment of image capture is considered problematic because eventual consequences of an even unwilling publication need to be reflected: “Why did she pose for a nude photo in the first place? One has to take into account that images appear somewhere on the Internet. It’s her own fault.” (Max, 25) Non-consensual photo-sharing is thus not discussed as a breach of trust or a violation of privacy but rather as an “inevitable” outcome of recording certain pictures. Here we can witness a broader mechanism that is also found in media discourses: The respondents engage in victim blaming, as was discussed above.

Moreover, with respect to responsibilities of sharing, the interviewees put forward a popular argument for judging inappropriate visual practices: They criticize peoples’ poor reflections regarding privacy or further “invisible” audiences (boyd, 2008) when publishing private pictures on a SNS like Facebook. Those who do not reflect on their sharing practices also need to withstand embarrassments and the undesirable consequences of the disclosure of private details — for example, when these details are accessible for their own kids: “If they feel like posting this picture, then it’s their problem. But they shall not wonder when somebody brings it up in a certain way or kids will ask: ‘Mom, what did you do there?’” (Sandra, 54). Appropriate visual practices, then, necessitate a careful and comprehensive reflection on the possible reach of visuals, their audiences and the effects of pictures shared and published by the person depicted.

Finally, the way how respondents underscore the risks of photo-sharing is remarkable. According to them, major risks regard the lack of data security, the persistence and accessibility of data and the possibility of non-consensual and uncontrollable sharing. When respondents mention the risk of unintended re-sharing, for example, they refer to the fact that pictures can “be re-shared so easily” and “become public very fast” in an incontrollable way. In most cases, however, they do not mention a discrete, discernable agent that could be made responsible for this unintended multiplication process. Rather, the interviewees are concerned that “it somehow gets public, ends up on the internet.” The role of people who share photographs without consent and thus handle information in an irresponsible way, is even made invisible, either by the description of photographs as quasi-autonomous actors (e.g., “they spread”) or by the use of passive voice (e.g., “they become public very fast”, “they are re-shared so easily”). When being asked how this “spreading” happens, the respondents mostly refer to untrustworthy structures of the Internet or technologies and to hackers that intrude the trustworthy communicative space of the relationship from outside. Their friends and partners and the respondents themselves, in other words agents within the relationship, are not discussed as responsible agents in undesired sharing processes. Responsibility is shifted to thoughtless image-makers or invisible agents and structures.



8. Conclusion

With this study, we explored how respondents decide about sharing pictures with their friends and partners and how they thereby describe and establish norms and rules of photo-sharing and appropriate or inappropriate uses of visual media. In line with the findings of previous studies (see e.g., Lampinen, et al., 2011; Okabe and Ito, 2006), we found that trust, confidentiality and consent are the fundamental conditions for photo-sharing. Photographs are mostly shared in close and trusted ties, with people who are expected to act in the right way. The respondents thus anticipate a high degree of privacy when sharing photographs. At the same time, we found tensions and paradoxes in these normative discourses with respect to negative causes and consequences of photo-sharing. We detected a kind of “responsibility shake-off” when photographs are involuntarily shared beyond the trustful communicative sphere. Once this has happened, responsibility is exclusively assigned to the image-maker — not to all individuals that are part of the sharing process, or the chain of sharing. Our findings thus add on to previous findings in the context of involuntary and non-consensual sharing. Although the respondents rarely indicated to share nudes themselves, they often refer to sexting as a prototypical example for illustrating the risks and possible consequences of photo-sharing, in particular with respect to “inappropriate pictures”. These highly normative views on inappropriate pictures reflect larger critical discourses. Similarly, as several authors have discussed, women who share erotic selfies are considered responsible for their own stigmatization (Burns, 2015; Hasinoff, 2015; Hasinoff and Shepherd, 2014; Lasén, 2015; Tanenbaum, 2015). This means that trust is on the one hand highlighted as an essential basis of relationships, as a necessity for communication and for the development of close social bonds; on the other hand, trust is characterised as something very fragile and unreliable. We think that this paradox necessitates further discussions on how to create and maintain trustful relationships and trust in current digitally networked societies and on how to develop the necessary rules for photo-sharing. Otherwise only an avoidance mechanism in the sense of “better not trust anybody” can prevent information from circulating involuntarily. However, at the same time, this way of thinking is likely to erode social relationships as they increasingly rely on mediated forms of communication.

Taking up these distinct perspectives on responsibility in sharing processes, we particularly aim to underline the necessity of highlighting agency in sharing and re-sharing processes. In order to spread or even to “go” viral, photographs need to be shared by many people and on many platforms. This implies that not only one single sender but the many people that engage in sharing and re-sharing contribute to spreading the content. These individuals should also be aware of their responsibility for the dissemination of content. As our respondent Benjamin, 22, perfectly put it: “This is why an awareness needs to be created for this, for every single person, regarding what one is allowed to share or not. Many, many people simply don’t know that.”



9. Limitations and outlook

Certainly, our study has some limitations that need to be reflected with respect to the findings presented. First of all, it is based on a regional sample and is thus restricted to a specific geographical area. What is more, we did not include teenagers under 18 due to the sensitive topic of sexting that was addressed in a part of the study. To further study concepts of appropriate visual media usage and norms and rules of photo-sharing it is important to also investigate adolescents’ views and explanations, particularly because their media usage and sharing practices are often generally disapproved as inappropriate behaviour in the mainstream discourse. At the same time, our respondents referred to media usage and concepts of appropriate practices as “a generation thing”. This again underlines the dynamic process in which norms of media usage are discussed, established and irritated. Particularly comparative, longitudinal studies are thus encouraged. Despite the limitations, the present study has shed first light on how specific rules and norms of visual media usage, and of photo-sharing in particular, are defined within close social relationships. Against the backdrop of our findings it is essential to further critically analyse and discuss these normative views, especially with regard to responsibility and trust in current digitally networked societies. End of article


About the authors

Rebecca Venema is a Ph.D. student at the Institute for Communication Technologies, USI — Università della Svizzera italiana, Switzerland.
E-mail: rebecca [dot] venema [at] usi [dot] ch

Katharina Lobinger is Assistant Professor for Online Communication at the Institute for Communication Technologies, USI — Università della Svizzera italiana, Switzerland.
E-mail: katharina [dot] lobinger [at] usi [dot] ch



This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.



1. Bengtsson, 2012, p. 181.

2. Katz and Crocker, 2015, p. 1,871.

3. Gomez and colleagues (2015), for example, give interesting insights into how the constant use of information and communication technology is criticised with online images.

4. Bayer, et al., 2016, p. 956.

5. Lipford, et al., 2009, p. 988.

6. Gye, 2007, p. 285.

7. Joinson, et al., 2011, p. 36.

8. Several students in two research seminars assisted us in recruiting respondents, conducting interviews and producing transcriptions. We are very grateful for their valuable contributions and precise work.

9. Yeo, et al., 2014, p. 196.



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Appendix 1


Communication universe of a couple, both partners aged 26

Figure 1: “Communication universe” of a couple, both partners aged 26. The names of the interviewees are removed as well as the description of the drawing task in German language, originally located above the “universe”. The network drawing is reproduced with permission.

We provided them with the scheme and then asked the participants to draw and locate the devices, platforms, apps and contents they use within their “universe of partner communication”.



Appendix 2


Communication universe of a young woman, aged 25

Figure 2: “Communication universe” of a young woman, aged 25. The description of the drawing task in German language, originally located at the top of the sheet of paper, is removed. The friends’ names are changed. The network drawing is reproduced with permission.

The interviewees were asked to freely draw their communication network with their friends according to their own ideas. We therefore provided them with a large sheet of paper without any template except for a cross (X) to mark their own position. Their task, then, was to locate their friends in the map and to describe their different (communicative) relationships, e.g., when they typically communicate with each other, which devices, platforms, apps, and contents they use, and which role face-to-face communication plays.



Editorial history

Received 25 April 2017; revised 30 May 2017; accepted 1 June 2017.

Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

“And somehow it ends up on the Internet.” Agency, trust and risks in photo-sharing among friends and romantic partners
by Rebecca Venema and Katharina Lobinger.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 7 - 3 July 2017
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i17.7860

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