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The Sociocultural Forms of Mobile Personal Photographs in a Cross-Media Ecology: Reflections Starting from the Young Italian Experience


Increasingly, snapshots taken with mobile phone are ever more involved in intense processes of circulation and cross-media mobility. While camera phones are a well-established means for the production and display of pictures in contexts of physical copresence, the archival and exchange functions appear to have been absorbed by online communicative and social practices. This research studies three main issues: (a) the effects of the new Internet/photography merge (particularly, the new opportunities for transmission and sharing) on the social uses of personal photographs; (b) the changes in the status of mobile photography and of its audience due to the online relocation of image collections; and (c) the implications for mobile communication studies. Drawing on empirical qualitative data, I will first give an overall picture of these practices in the context of young Italians’ digital cross-media consumptions. My discussion is then contextualized in light of other recent contributions on the topic. I argue that the social uses and meanings of personal mobile photographs were already well established in the “pre-Web 2.0” Italian camera phone culture. I interpret this as underscoring both the intrinsically relational nature of these practices and their basic orientation towards microcommunity maintenance.

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  1. The first research project focused on the new cross-media diets of Italian young people (n = 40, aged 14–24 years) with access to ICTs (broadband, digital TV, 3G mobile devices). It examined the relationship between the subjects and the various platforms: their integration in the domestic and extradomestic contexts, and the influence of daily lives and individual biographies on their shape. The study has followed a multisited approach to the object of the study with the adoption of different techniques of investigation: 40 in-depth interviews in domestic context built upon the intersection of two main variables (age and typology of the platforms owned and used by the subject) and equally distributed by gender in the metropolitan area (Milan); three sessions of participant observation in extradomestic spaces of media consumption with the support of visual sociology; an exploration of Italian online discussion areas. The second study (n = 36, aged 14–24 years) focused on three kinds of practices: (a) mediated interpersonal communication, (b) production and exchange of contents by means of mobile phone, and (c) instant messaging. This study also employed a plurality of tools, both offline (group and individual in-depth interviews, consumption diaries, and according to the visual sociology approach, the production of photographic materials by the subjects) and online (daily conversations through IM session between subjects and researchers and the creation of a blog as a place for exchange, reflexivity, and productivity around the object of study).

  2. Wireless exchange (also among other mobile platforms) is becoming an increasingly established practice among young users who ever so often recur to the exchange not only of pictures, but also of various digital media materials as a support for grounding into and belonging to the peer group. The reasons for sharing vary consistently in relation to content typology (mostly “short” formats requiring quick transfer times, easily spent in daily interstices an waiting times: examples are individual songs, funny videos, pictures, logos, ringtones, games, as well as personal photographs), to the exchange partner, and to the exchange finality. In this last sense, some exchanges have exclusively phatic/ludic value (such as the suggestion of funny videos, often through a viral modality and destined to an highly volatile consumption), others have a strong connotation of sharing, intimacy, and reciprocity (such as the exchange of personal photographs), others have function in identity expression (such as the exchange of music), and yet others work as forms of word-of-mouth (ringtones, logos, etc.) or as acts of reciprocity.

  3. Six years after their introduction in the Italian market, MMS is still uncommon, and MMS messages marked as exceptional (“I often use the phone to take pictures… maybe once in a while you happen to see a funny thing, and so you send it [via MMS]… I mean it must be something really special to send it, otherwise I use it as a [standard] camera… [that is] I take pictures to keep them” M22). The recourse to MMS is justified by the effective distance and from the special nature of the situation one wants to share (“When you are on vacation, you know, maybe there’s something, you get the itch to take a pictures and show it to somebody home” M23; “Since it is not free, you pick and send only very important moments you want to share with others… often you take the picture but keep it. In truth, you send out immediately only few pictures” F23), or by ludic contexts associated with moments of sociability (“maybe we were at dinner with friends, you drink and laugh and joke, then maybe you got one of those faces, a little destroyed… you take a picture, I sent it out and we all laughed, things like that” M24), never assuming the commonplace character typical of text messages or of regular snapshots. Moreover, multimedia messages are sent when other options are unavailable, compensating other technological options (“Messages with images, such as MMSs, [I use] rarely. Maybe, yeah, my mom, I send her like that. To my friends I send via email, but my mom, she hasn’t got a computer” M25).

  4. 1.0 and 2.0 indicate here two phases of the relatively rapid evolution (from 2002 to 2008) of the communicative potentialities of multimedia-enabled mobile phones, boosted also by “community-based sharing through the Web” (Koskinen 2008).

  5. The sample has been assembled on the basis of the possession of particular technologies (see footnote 1) and not of their belonging to specific socioeconomic classes.

  6. At the end of January 2009, Italian users of Facebook account to over six million subscribers, accounting for over 12% of Italian residents above 13 years of age and for 48% of the population between 19 and 24 years of age (Source: Facebook, elaboration on ISTAT data, quoted by Fabio Giglietto in


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The author thanks Fausto Colombo and Piermarco Aroldi, director and vice director of Osscom, Francesca Pasquali and Nicoletta Vittadini, main coordinators of the two researchers, Anna Sfardini, Matteo Stefanelli, Giovanna Mascheroni, and all the junior team of researchers (Simone Carlo, Maria Francesca Murru, Daniele Milesi, Matteo Vergani, Marco Tommasini, and Claudia Giocondo) for their contribution in the empirical and analytic work. Special thanks to Matteo Tarantino for the English translation.

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Scifo, B. The Sociocultural Forms of Mobile Personal Photographs in a Cross-Media Ecology: Reflections Starting from the Young Italian Experience. Know Techn Pol 22, 185–194 (2009).

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  • Personal photography
  • Camera phone
  • Web 2.0
  • Cross-media consumption
  • Teenagers
  • Youth