Usually, we share what we are not ashamed of. The purpose of this review article is to undertake a meta-analysis of articles which have explored and sought to clarify ways in which mobile image sharing occurs. Firstly, I provide an outline and introductory contextualization. Secondly, I reintroduce a corpus of 13 key articles from the prehistory of smartphones (2002–2008). These papers are early conceptualizations and taxonomies that theorize on the sharing of mobile photos. They are analyzed relative to Lasswell’s (1948) communication model. In this context, this model provides theoretical cues in a more recent context to questions such as: when, how, and why do people share their mobile photos and what happens when they do so. The relevance of revising early conceptualizations not only helps understanding how mobile sharing practices can be theorized and understood, but also contributes and strengthens an analysis of shame and share.
What do you see from your window?
Do you share your mobile pix?
Rationale and methodology
A meta-analysis of mobile image-sharing (2002–2008)
“Sharing, whether with our parents, children, siblings, life partners, friends, coworkers, or neighbors, goes hand in hand with trust and bonding.” 
In May 2019 the Ordinary Sociology (Sociología Ordinaria) team (Dr. Lasén and Dr. García) invited me to give a talk in their monthly seminar. They had asked me to talk about shame. As I had never done research on that subject, I did not know how to grasp the topic initially. In search of theory, I decided to reread my doctoral thesis, and see if, after many years, I could find intellectual cues. I realized that many practices, experiences and concepts; such as intimacy, privacy, mobile image  sharing and social networking — all topics I had studied; could also be (re)viewed using a shame and shaming lens. I realized that shame could be grasped as another side of sharing — one of the keys that I had employed while studying many mobile photo sharing practices. Diverse image sharing conceptualizations could be analyzed antagonistically relative to shame and shaming. Therefore, I decided to contribute to a shame and shaming reflection discussion through what I understand as its complementary action: sharing. Usually, we share what we are not ashamed of.
This text is a more formal iteration of the presentation that I gave in July 2019 at the MediaLab Madrid.
What do you see from your window?
The entire planet Earth is living a Corona virus pandemic. Hand in hand with its breakout came lockdown measures. These measures made it more difficult or even impossible for people to utilize public areas, to go out and enjoy being outdoors as usual. Consequently, many inactive Internet users returned to social networks and rediscovered, or even discovered, a sharing and communicating space. For example, in a Facebook group called “What do you see from your window” (with around 291,000 members by 19 April, 560,978 by 17 October, and even 575,100 by 13 December), one of the users posted a photo of what she saw from her window. Part of the caption of the screenshot reads (Figure 1): “... I didn’t post because I didn’t think it was post worthy ☺ but you know what, I work really hard for this place I call home. <3.”
Figure 1: G. David, (19 April 2020) Facebook feed, Screenshot, Personal collection. Photo link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/707296003356488/permalink/745084112911010.
A few observations result from looking at this image and reading the post. Firstly, the author contextualizes the photo and is proud of her home. Secondly, she excuses herself for not having posted the photo earlier. Thirdly, she explains her inaction: she had thought it was not post worthy (my emphasis). Finally, she concludes by explaining why she finally decided to post the image.
Today, this photo of a backyard generated a considerable number of reactions, more than 4,300 comments and 21,000 likes; and as can be read in Figure 2, they include: “There is no such a thing as a post worthy home”, “thanks for sharing” and “Love the privacy”. These comments typify the notion that the worthiness of an image — the feelings of empowerment (later developed in this work), and the concept of privacy — frequently relates to, either peer validation or reassurance that a sharing space is safe to share, thus demonstrating that there is no need, and no place, for shame (David, 2015b).
Figure 2: G. David, (19 April 2020), Facebook feed, Screenshot, Personal collection.
During confinement, through public online sharing, the private sphere of the home and its related photos — in this case a backyard — became public. The relationship between what leaves the private sphere and becomes public, changed once again. Household images became more visible and online.
This example echoes how Brené Brown defines shame. In Brownh’s presentation The power of vulnerability, the author developed the idea that a fear of disconnection was related to how each person defines their worth, related to self-esteem and empathy.
“‘I’m not good enough’, or ‘I’m not important enough for someone to connect with me. But, to connect you have to allow yourself to be seen, and that involves vulnerability. And, if empathy is the antidote to shame, if so, to understand shame we must be empathetic.” 
However, in the field of ethics, and especially in moral psychology, the debate is still open as to whether shame is a heteronomous emotion, governed by external, social and non-autonomous codes. Kant and his followers claimed that shame was heteronomous, while others, such as Bernard Williams (1993), argued that it was autonomous.
Do you share your mobile pix?
“Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life” (Facebook), “Share live video from your phone!” (Qik — a video sharing company, acquired by Skype in 2011), and many other slogans of online enterprises were some of the many patronizing mottos trying to convince users to share, not feeling ashamed in doing so.
Figure 3: G. David, (6 December 2008), Qik home page detail, Screenshot.
In sync with these tag lines, John’s (2012) article “Sharing and Web 2.0: The emergence of a keyword”, laid the groundwork for studies on the notion of sharing and a constitutive activity of the Web 2.0. Written in 2012, John’s paper traced — in line with Laswell — when, where and what ‘sharing’ and its rhetorical forces meant nearly a decade ago. Sharing became a key descriptor in those early years, probably the term used to describe the activities that constituted participation in the Web 2.0.
John (2012) argues that a new meaning of sharing emerged thanks to three main features: “fuzzy objects of sharing; the use of the word ‘share’ with no object at all; and presenting in terms of sharing functions of social network sites that used not to be so described.”  Indeed, what John calls “no objects” could also be understood as phatic uses of mobile image sharing (Prieto Blanco, 2010).
In mobile and online environments, there are many steps involved in sharing and shaming. One example is sending a text message with irrevocable mistakes: having shared (or not) intimate photos (sexting) (cf., Pasonnen and Sunden’s paper in this special issue), or video. Another is creating a profile on a dating or hook-up app and using a photo with an ex-partner as a profile photo, even though the app is supposed to enable users meet and date new people. The list could go on and on! Over all forms of these vulnerabilities, emphasis should be made that some users do not understand protocols and make mistakes while communicating online. The lack of knowing that there is netiquette may be an eventual cause of shame. Among all of the diverse and many digital literacies skills, mastering proper netiquette has become important.
Self-regulation or self-censorship, that is to share or not share images, is not based solely on aesthetics (Sarvas and Frohlich, 2011). Self-legitimization regulates the posting of personal content online (David, 2015a). Sharing, or not sharing, is linked to fear, shame in missing out, or that what I shared was too ugly, too banal, or not enough.
Rationale and methodology
Sharing intimate, private or personal mobile images depends on many factors. I follow Lasswell’s (1948) communication model, and more specifically ask: who, what, to whom, in which channel, and with what effect? In order to provide theoretical tools to answer these questions, the purpose of this review is to reintroduce into academic debate, a small but cutting-edge corpus of research from the prehistory of smartphones (2002–2008), related to conceptualizing mobile image sharing. I believe it is highly relevant to return to this corpus to create a meta-analysis (Borenstein, et al., 2009) of conditions that cannot be elucidated with current literature. Each of the articles provides different and complementary analytical frameworks on mobile image sharing.
Why this corpus of articles?
One of the goals of this analysis is to identify how the questioning of mobile image sharing had already been addressed, and which questions remain to be answered. All of the cited works seek to outline typologies or taxonomies on sharing mobile photos. Because I limited my corpus to those articles that I utilized in my doctoral thesis, it is not exhaustive.
Why this time frame?
Firstly, the years prior to the smartphone boom are intrinsically linked to fundamental conceptualizations of socialization processes which in turn influence mobile image exchange. Secondly — due to an increase in the use of cameraphones for everyday image sharing — it was during those years that mobile images became a novelty, and gave rise to foundational scholastic discussions about mobile media.
The corpus of chosen articles is anchored in disciplines that are intrinsically linked to mobile studies, sociology, visual culture and media studies. Analyzing these taxonomies helps reflect on how these practices could be understood. Consequently, this analysis constitutes a meta-analysis of these typologies. In a post-structuralist approach, by studying these 13 taxonomies — which deal with sharing of vernacular mobile images — I understand how these narratives were built over time.
Like Foucault, I follow a scheme where signs (words) build statements, and those statements construct discourses. In a larger scope, these discourses become narratives and these narratives histories, which (con)form academic knowledge construction and scholarly culture. Therefore, in a subtle Bourdieusian manner, this article reviews academic discourses written in the early, adoptive, years of sharing processes within digital mobile societies. I also posit that understanding online embarrassment may be related to a proliferation and sharing of mobile images. Thus, the mapping of these conceptualizations could later be approached from an affective and emotional point of view — more precisely, from the point of view of dyad shame-share.
The 13 articles were all written between 2002 and 2008, and thus before the smartphone boom of 2010. Those were the years when the cameraphone gained its importance as a commodity of desire, starting to move beyond innovators and early influencers; then finally engineered its penetration among wider populations. Between 2007 and 2010, most cellphones (at least those available on the French market) were just starting to have point-and-shoot embedded cameras. The device passed from being a cellphone to being interchangeably referred as cameraphone or camphone. Some devices could be connected to the Web, but rarely were: bundled offers largely were not available. The mobile Web — the possibility of having access to the World Wide Web from hand-held mobile devices such as smartphones connected to a mobile network — when available, was expensive. Image sharing was done either through networked computers, mainly via e-mail, or through photo sharing sites such as Picassa or Flickr.
For all of these points, I now review how the sharing of user-generated mobile images had previously been theorized. This perspective will foster an awareness of digital sharing skills, encouraging reflectivity. The symbolic violence (Bourdieu), of these power and counter-power relations of understanding, needs to be discussed. Moreover, the many affective, economic and even celebrity reasons behind sharing of personal digital content, needs to be examined as well.
A meta-analysis of mobile image-sharing (2002–2008)
If family, school or friends help us learn how and when to share objects and moments (Belk, 2010), the skill of sharing digital visual content is usually an autodidactic learning skill. In democracies, this digital (visual) literacy is generally acquired in non-institutional, almost self-taught, conditions. This autodidactic process later encourages a desire to become more public and more exposed, to encourage feedback. One has only to watch young TikTokers perform to understand how aware that they are about sharing their know-how.
The following meta-analysis of mobile image-sharing, through an analysis of 13 taxonomies from the early cameraphone years (2002–2008), intends to provide theoretical cues to a variety of questions such as: when, how, and why do people share their mobile images?
Primarily, at the beginning of the 2000, concepts such as ‘here and there’, and ‘now and later’ became ways of understanding what people did with their images. The two main dimensions, time and space, were proposed by Frohlich, et al. (2002). According to Frohlich, et al., depending on interlocutors’ relationships, four categories of how we share were generated: “co-present sharing”, “remote sharing”, “sending” and “archiving”. The first is physical and temporal copresence. For example, this happens when two individuals are in the same space, a photo is taken, and they see it in real time on a device. The second one would be with physical absence but temporary co-presence. Thanks to technologies such as Skype, FaceTime, Whatsapp and Zoom, this logic became widely used. It means that even though interlocutors are physically apart, they see and share the same images at the same time. The third one refers to physical co-presence but there is a time delay. A photo or video is taken, but a recipient sees it later. Finally, the fourth category involves sending something originally archived: it relates to sharing something belonged to the past. These four category types govern mediated communication and therefore are tools for sharing.
Esko Kurvinen (2003) observed and theorized that mobile images “are images that help maintain conversations” , where we must analyze interactions and not just the images themselves. Ilpo Koskinen (2007) developed these concepts in Mobile multimedia in action. The images of the first mobile generations fluctuated between having a more or less playful sense, and being provocative and teasing. In other words, images enable a performance of our lives, a performative life. Mobile images can be intimate and informal at the same time, and are usually transformed into media that generates conversations, emotions and intersubjective experiences.
Okabe and Ito (2003) observed that, due to multiple mobile image uses, the notion of an “image worth sharing” has radically changed. This coincided with a time when users were beginning to give more importance to sharing images of everyday life, not just photos of birthdays, weddings, vacations or remarkable events, as most photos were in the history of amateur pre-digital photography. It indicated not only an increase in mobile photography versus digital (non-connected) photography, but also demonstrated how people were in negotiation, as social acceptance protocols were changing and renegotiated.
Additionally, this phenomenon is intrinsically related to what Bren&eeacute; Brown (2010) suggests in relation to the “I am worthy” or the “I am worth being connected” feelings. Thanks to their low cost and ease-of-use, anything became significant and worthy to share, leading mobile images to multiply exponentially. Therefore, mobile users became less concerned over visual aesthetics, no longer focused their sharing of something understood as a worthy event.
The very legitimization of mobile images had an intrinsic relationship, not only with these quantitative production practices, but also in those practices that moved valuation and taste cursors. With a blur of amateur and professional photographers, more photographs fell into a category of “competitive photography” . This category refers to photos that strive for recognition on social networking sites as well as visual sharing platforms such as Instagram.
In Webcams, TV shows and mobile phones empowering exhibitionism, Hile Koskela (2004) argued:
”[...] by revealing their intimate lives, people are freed from shame and the need to hide, which will lead to ‘empowering exhibitionism’. [...] It would be through that empowerment that one would gain power and personal control of daily life. By rebelling against the shame embedded in social conceptions of what is private, people refuse to be humble. [...] But even so, one can gain power. But in any case, the control of others is not gained, but rather blurs, and it is then that those lines of control mix. By playing with the images, they can function as a form of resistance. Sometimes it’s more radical to reveal than to hide.” 
In 2014, I reconfirmed Koskela’s assertion when I interviewed two focus groups of teenagers in order to understand their use of Snapchat. Some members from the female group clearly told me that Snapchat was a place to play and not to censor, not photos, comments or anything else. Those were just stupid moments that they wanted to share — almost always just to laugh and feel good. Moreover, this practice was enabled, and thus enhanced, by the ephemerality of the platform itself, which allowed sharing images only for a limited period of time between 1 and 10 seconds. In 2019 Snapchat changed, and it was possible to save images.
In reference to ephemerality, Murray (2008) foresaw its importance well before Snapchat. According to Murray, ephemera “seems to speak to a new aesthetic and function — one dedicated to the exploration of the urban eye and its relation to decay, alienation, kitsch, and its ability to locate beauty in the mundane” . Murray claimed that ephemera was a new category of photography.
Even today, many users are unaware of legal rights behind sharing digital content. Others were aware of the difficulty of delimiting with whom and where to share, but as they did not master, or simply did not know, how to set up privacy parameters, perhaps later feeling ashamed over results. That is precisely what can cause future problems, making them feel embarrassed, nervous, or uneasy about having shared something improperly, as can be read throughout the diverse chapters in this special issue. Users may then become reluctant to share images and content in general, in some cases completely avoiding sharing. For instance, anecdotally I have perceived that among my Facebook friends, the majority of those who are parents have realized that posting their children’s photos online was not a good idea. Children become adults, feeling ashamed of seeing themselves as babies online.
Understanding why and how we share needs to be considered differently. Kindberg, et al. (2005) created another taxonomy, described as a) affective and emotional; b) functional and practical; c) social; and d) individual.
Continuing their third proposition (the social) Van House, et al. (2005) used a similar classification, introducing the key concept of “networked digital image”  to mobile studies. This concept was subsequently developed by digital media and Internet studies scholars (cf., Rubinstein and Sluis, 2008). Van House outlined the social uses of mobile images as a set of purposeful social uses for mobile photography: creating and maintaining social relationships, ranging from constructing personal and group memory to self-presentation and self-expression. In the case of the mobile phone, private mobile image sharing was challenged by tools used, because communication was embedded in the image itself, in its DNA, so to speak. In a later study, Van House and Davis (2005) classified the mobile as “a memory capture device, a communicational device, and an expressive device”  — a statement which is still completely valid.
In a more gendered approach, studying the use of mobile images and their correspondence with topics such as uneasiness and shame can also be reflected upon when we study how women used their mobile phones. Dong-Hoo Lee (2005) exposed the porosity between what is public and private, and the nuances of semi-public and semi-private realms as well as female empowerment through the use of mobile phones. Lee proposed that, if young women can be producers within their own culture, they would generate new subjectivities. This not only empowered producers, but also acted to an extent where cultural practices subverted common anchored beliefs — such as women’s ineptitude towards new technologies and the media — and different social functions of women in Korea earlier.
Another key notion to bear in mind when analyzing sharing and uses of mobile images, is the notion of “citizen journalism”, which subsequently, coupled with social networks, became known as social media. The online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines social media as “the forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos)” . Robinson and Robinson (2006) studied the public roles that mobile images played in the construction of news. It was only some years ago that very few mobile images were published in the traditional press or aired in open television channels. These images appeared because in some cases they were the only images available, or for editorial reasons (the images avoided censorship or were leaks).
With the development of citizen journalism, those unpublished mobile vernacular images that did not have major problems, were published on social networks and then relayed to a broader public by traditional journalists and channels. Thanks to a polyphony of voices and countless times these mobile images had been shared and circulated on other mobile devices, some social networks transformed into social media channels, with as much impact, if not more, than classic media channels. Some examples of citizen journalism include the Saddam Hussein assassination leaked video in 2006, or numerous mobile videos of demonstrations and civil uprisings of the Arab Spring (2010–2013).
For this review paper, I would also like to add a key event that occurred in 2007 and that must also be taken into account: The launch of the iPhone. Symbol of an affective capitalistic turn, this device became a composite cultural object, representing an important moment, not only in the history of mobile media and photography, but also in the history of communication and thus in the history of digital image sharing. With its mainstream penetration and use, notions of identity, individualism, reflexivity, lifestyle and sociality, required re-articulation. Moreover, coupled with broadband developments, the iPhone has become almost a synonym of immediacy and globalization. Joining a flourishing digital environment of image-making tools, the iPhone, and smartphones in general, became key cultural devices in a digital ecology.
Miller and Edwards (2007) wondered how the shift to Internet photo-sharing practices affected other digital and social practices relative to privacy. When images are shared with strangers, what role or type of roles do mobile photos play in creating new styles of socialization? Miller and Edwards concluded that the issue of privacy was a very important parameter in a decision to share. Today, as many users are still not aware of how to deal with privacy parameters, image sharing does not take place. Do we not share because it is private or is it private because we do not share it? Accordingly, in 2019, Matt Cagle noted: “Privacy is really about being able to define for ourselves who we are for the world and on our own terms.”  Similarly, the grounding article “A life more photographic: Mapping the networked image” conceptualizes what the networked image is, and conceptualize why people might share their images. According to the authors “the networking of the snapshot provides something which vernacular photographers have always lacked: a broad audience”  (stress is mine). One might ask: Could not Rubinstein and Sluis’ “networked image” be interpreted as the digital visual materializations of the concept of sharing?
The last study in this corpus came to the conclusion that mobile photos and their dissimilar uses acquired innumerable meanings for users through their own interpretations, by the means of production and distribution of these images. These were usually generated through comparisons and connections with other forms of photography and communication (Rantavuo, 2008).
It is we, the users, who — by sharing and making meanings of both images in particular and of varied user created content in general — try to reverse potential symbolic violence that rules and governs many beauty canons and aesthetic standards. It is we, who in a post truth era, militate and teach for more information transparency, for an end to fake news, becoming more reflective about sharing and shaming.
The articles that constitute the core of my corpus were written when the mobile phone was not the device it is today, and that consequently its early and incipient uses were very embryonic, and very different to those we have today. Moreover, the innovation under analysis usually changes during analysis, and therefore cannot be studied as if it were the same (Von Pape, 2007). Likewise, it may sound old-fashioned to rely on taxonomies observed entirely in other periods or circumstances.
But if I re-read these grounding research articles with a present-day perspective, it is primarily because I believe that, despite the fact that some of them were written more than 15 years ago, they were cutting-edge reflections on how we can still understand and analyze visual mobile practices and behaviors, and this can help us compare them to current ones. Secondarily, because it is through their scrutiny that we can question how the relationships and practices towards the sharing of banal images of everyday life has evolved. Closely echoing Haddon and Vincent (2008), I noted for instance, that “even the making and sharing of ‘embarrassing’ and mobile snapshots, which are considered funny, stupid, or those that are erotic, has become ubiquitous; and what counts as embarrassing for some can count as amusing for others and vice versa.” .
As a mobile studies researcher, I am aware that my reflections not only echo socio-cultural changes, but also shape them through prioritizations and explanations. Also, that the language used to describe mobile image uses, practices and its cultural connotations affect how mobile culture is perceived in society. As a media scholar, I try to study, analyze, publish and teach, how making meaning is constructed (semiotics). Sometimes sharing opportunities and risks can be attached to terms like visual culture, mobile images and selfies.
For instance, in another research paper, speaking about the selfie, I had proposed that “All what we send is selfie” (David, 2015a), and suggested that “[t]he selfie [share/non-share] dynamic provokes strong attachment between individuals, and transforms personal photos and videos into social currency with affective value. The origin of this dynamic lies partially in its existence as a series of endless symbolic interactions” , to which shame and mixed feelings could apply.
Consequently, to understand countless answers these examinations could have, a comparative transcultural, global study could be designed; research using diverse and transversal methodologies: ethnographic, sociological, artistic, gender, legal, psychological, economic; where each of those potential analyses and answers would represent a particular situation — location, time and approach. In response to such a query, no generalization is possible, and therefore, there are multiple answers and reasons to the questions of how, where, when, what and why people share and shame — or not. This research, and the review of these 13 ‘prehistoric’ articles can provide some clarification, theoretical frames and possible points for analysis.
Mobile images have become an increasingly important and powerful analytical tool for scholars in fields like education, sociology, media studies, tourism and art — to name just a few. In this paper, I conducted a critical review meta-analysis over a five-year span in mobile image research as a heuristic tool to examine how the use and sharing of mobile images was conceptualized in its early years. Even though the articles may come from diverse theoretical frameworks, the corpus helps understand some of the reasons and paradoxes related to visual and mobile private sharing practices. The analysis does not attempt to generalize these schemes or to find the best, but to map and re-expose some of the ways in which these 13 typologies/articles reveal the various motives for, and the interaction involved in, exchange of mobile content.
This article reviewed how the sharing of mobile images certainly affected both users in physical space, relating them with the here and there, and questioning synchronicity and asynchronicity. These sharing practices can also generate conversations, speed up the ways of obtaining information, and spread news (Robinson and Robinson, 2006). Moreover, they can generate and transmit ludic, provocative or performative content and other types of communication. Additionally, users’ emotions and experiences should also be taken into account, since they are the ones that intensify participation and create complicity among audiences. Visual practices may contribute and increase the construction of self-esteem, also empower exhibitionism or even contrarily shame and shaming. These uses spawned both a new ubiquitous aesthetics of the mundane, and at the same time a cult of the ephemeral as well as an interest in archival records.
Mobile images have modified numerous social practices and became an increasingly important and powerful analytical tool for scholars in fields like education, sociology, media studies, tourism and art. Mobile photo and video sharing platforms have made a substantial impact on the market. The visual and cultural analysis of mobile images sharing practices requires repeated study and analysis.
Exploring how combining, mixing, using, and/or extrapolating some of the conceptualizations articulated in the analyzed taxonomies helps to reflect on sharing and shaming ethics. If what we study is not only technology, but behaviors, these early cameraphone studies demonstrate that notions of sharing and embarrassment have not altered greatly over time.
I hope that the grounding conceptualizations reviewed and mobilized encourages n appreciation of research generated prior to the smartphone era and, at the same time, illuminate new perspectives for the future research related to these broad and compelling mobile images sharing practices.
About the author
Dr. Gaby David is a visual sociologist, fellow researcher at the Institut de Recherche sur le Cinéma et l’Audiovisuel (IRCAV) at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, and an associate member at the research lab Transferts Critiques anglophones (TransCrit) at the University Paris 8. She is an executive board member of the International Visual Sociology Association and teaches both undergraduate and graduate levels in Parisian universities.
E-mail: championnet4 [at] yahoo [dot] fr
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency, in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors. The author wishes to thank the ‘Sociologia Ordinaria’ team for their invitation to participate in their seminar, triggering the idea of this special issue, to the anonymous proofreaders and to Adrian Jordan for his copyediting services, who all helped to sharpen this paper.
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Received 25 February 2021; accepted 3 March 2021.
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
A meta-analysis review of mobile image sharing
by Gaby David.
First Monday, Volume 26, Number 4 - 5 April 2021