The serendipitous and fleeting nature of the interactions we explored in the previous section also poses some significant methodological challenges. How can we study the opportunistic and fluid nature of visual expressions on social media image-sharing platforms in relation to place and place-specific narratives? What constitutes an appropriate data set? What data collection and analysis approaches have the capacity to prioritise the place-specific over the personal and what are their implications?
Designing the Data Collection Strategy
Because of our interest in the interplay between official and unofficial narratives in the mediation of public spaces through user-generated photography, our study prioritised the collection of user-generated images on freely available image-sharing platform such as Flickr. The scope of the images was shaped by both our research interests in European heritage(s), identit(y/ies), and place(s), and more particularly the acknowledgment of the role of public spaces, such as urban squares, in shaping the cultural identity of an area (Giddings et al. 2011: 203). Within this context, our study-aggregated images geotagged in three European squares: Loreto Square
(Milan, Italy), Old Eldon Square (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK), and Kotzia Square (Athens, Greece). These sites are characterised by layered histories and mixed uses, including connections to antiquity, the Second World War and war memorials, markets, and commercial activities alongside administrative functions, such as the hosting of municipal buildings.
The aggregation of images was achieved through the appropriation of a commercial data mining tool, Geostream (Lamprianidis and Pfoser 2014), with the capacity to gather online images with a selected geolocation.Footnote 4 Although the Geostream aggregator tool was originally developed to gather data from several different social media platforms, only some of these were image-based—the main image-sharing platform aggregated by Geostream was Flickr.Footnote 5
The entire data set comprises 15,061 images uploaded between 2003 and 2016, divided as follows:
Old Eldon Square: 9498 images (5 from Wikimapia, the rest from Flickr)
: 3373 images (4 from Wikimapia, 1 from Eventful, the rest from Flickr)
Kotzia Square: 2190 images (2125 from Flickr, 30 from Wikimapia, 33 from Eventful)
The images were accompanied by textual metadata, partially automatically generated (by the providers or the cameras), partially created by the users, and including title, tags, comments, geolocation, and dates (of picture taken and/or uploaded). The metadata was not integrated as a mere corollary element in our analysis. Indeed, it is customary in photo-sharing practices online to present images and texts as an inseparable aggregate. The metadata contributed to confirm or clarify the subject matter of the picture and provide cues and details to support the interpretative, and sometimes speculative, work of the researcher. By speculative, we mean that our analysis was often based on suppositions, conjectures, articulations of meanings grounded only in the visible cues, without actually interviewing the users, for instance.
Although the Geostream aggregator tool provided easy access to user-generated images on Flickr, this choice came with a set of challenges and limitations. First, the Geostream data provides no background information on the users, thus removing a layer of contextualisation that would enable the interpretation of each image in association with the ongoing posting behaviours of its creator. Additionally, Geostream only aggregates photographs for which users have enabled both download and geolocative features. The fact that such features can either be consciously selected case by case or automatically enabled by users, complicated our capacity to speculate about the specificities of our data set when compared to other Flickr images of the same location, which were not part of the data set because users had elected to make them not downloadable. These limitations all together, however, helped us in maintaining a strong focus on place and its representation.
Analytical Approach: Accounting for Place in the Data
Scholars have identified a shift in the evolution of locative media from an initial phase aimed at encouraging agency in the physical space, to recent practices of performing presence and building personal identities (Drakopoulou 2017). We argue however that this performative process of identity building through geolocative features on social media also inevitably contributes to place-making
through personal narratives even though this might not be the main aim for the users. If we assume that geotagged images contribute to the ongoing formation of personal digital archives of the recent past (Drakopoulou 2017), then a question about the specificities of the geotag as an organisational logic must follow. Indeed, our investigation was also guided by the hypothesis that retrieval possibilities anchored to specific locations could play differently than other components of the metadata. Some commentators address the organisational logic of the database to suggest caution in establishing the relationship between online photo-sharing and memory work. Pointing at the agency of the algorithm in determining the results of query-based search, Van Dijck (2011) and Schwartz (2014) emphasise how new orderings are performed every time, generating unique and ever-changing groupings of images that invalidate conceptualisations of social media as archives. As opposed to archival order and structure, social media content responds to the logic of flow, remix (Wilson 2009), or disordered ‘miscellaneity’ (Weinberger 2007). The use of tags, in particular, demonstrates users’ awareness of the variable possibilities of distribution for their images, so that their presencing can be multiplied and extended to ‘potentially unknown streams of unrelated images’ (Hand 2016). In contrast, we argue that the geotag behaves differently from more ephemeral tags. The link to one place could provide more stability in the ordering or aggregating principle for photo-sharing content, one that can be especially suitable to be associated with memory practice and place-making
Our qualitative investigation of the data set involved keyword-based searches; annotation and thematic categorisation of images; and, subsequently, a focused analysis of selected images considered particularly emblematic of specific behaviours or tendencies. In the first stage of the study, the visual inspection of the images was combined to keyword-led searches associated to conventional heritage and memory terminology (for instance: culture, cultural, monument, statue, memorial, heritage, memory, identity
, tourism, place, public) as well as terms more specific to the heritage and historical character of each square. This process led to a set of categorisations and to the identification of recurrent themes and users’ stated attitudes. More specifically, some images reflect a mobilisation of local heritage narratives and historical events to trigger debate on current socio-political affairs or to express a political stance. Other images contribute to a transformation of the cultural significance of the place, the way it is remembered, by associating it with contemporary collective events such as manifestations and activist campaigns. The following sections present some initial examples to illustrate how the research team engaged with the analysis of specific images. For this chapter, we will be focusing only on images geotagged in Loreto square
Introducing the Case Studies
The main character of Loreto Square in Milan
, today, is that of a busy traffic junction and metro interchange, mostly inaccessible to pedestrians, who can only move around its perimeter or through subway underpasses. Since the mid-twentieth century, it has marked an implicit boundary between the core of the city and its peripheries, which are now heavily multicultural. Despite the lack of remarkable signs of the past or historical buildings, the square is a relevant site for public memory. In fact, it was theatre of two infamous events during the Second World War. The massacre of 15 anti-fascist Partisans by a Fascist division in 1944 is an event now memorialised through a plaque and a sculpture in a nearby street. Moreover, on the 29th of April 1945, Loreto Square
hosted the public display of the corpses of Benito Mussolini, his mistress Claretta Petacci and 18 high-ranking fascists, who were hung upside-down from the roof of an Esso petrol station. The absence of any interpretative sign or memorial to mark this event is commonly associated with a general difficulty of Italian institutions to deal with a fascist heritage
(Mitterhofer 2013), which is still a catalyst of tensions and a strong reference for current political realities. While our keyword-led search demonstrated a limited use of heritage and memory vocabulary in the metadata
(Arrigoni et al. 2017: 13–17), a deeper exploration of the images showed that the historical identity of the square was often implicitly addressed as a reference to comment on current socio-political affairs. A broadly recognised ‘self-representational’ mode of using photo-sharing platforms implies that users selectively curate the range of places and experiences they decided to associate with their profile, to present an ideal version of themselves (Malinen 2010: 381–383). In this context, the processes of identity building and identity presentation can be performed by taking a political stance or expressing a view on current issues.
Our first case study is exemplary of this behaviour, and it is introduced to illustrate how historical memory is used in everyday life beyond any heritage specific framework. Most of the empirical studies on the relationship between heritage and photo-sharing platforms address groups and communities dedicated to documenting and sharing images of sites or landmarks that are explicitly framed as significant carriers of cultural or heritage value (see for instance Garduño Freeman 2010; Terras 2011). Even if these practices can be described as bottom-up, participatory and unofficial, they still adopt conceptual frameworks, definitions and vocabulary typical of institutional and professional discourse; this issue has been addressed for instance by Taylor and Gibson (2017) in reference to the democratising barriers implicit in digital heritage initiatives. The particular filtering allowed by the geotag in our methodology, by contrast, allowed the exploration of a defined place without focusing only on thematic groups or pages already dedicated to the significance of such place. Our data set, indeed, aggregated images from dedicated pages too, but alongside occasional ones, capturing our chosen location as part of behaviour not intentionally framed as heritage or memory-related. Our first case study then demonstrated that historical references emerge in mundane
, everyday processes of communication that cannot be defined as intentional bottom-up memory or heritage work, but in which heritage and memory, somehow, filter through.
The second case study complemented the first one by illustrating a different opportunity offered by our geotag-oriented methodology. Here we can see how working with this kind of data set enabled a dynamic approach to the investigation of the memory and cultural significance of a place. One common approach would have been to concentrate our effort in the identification of signs and references to a specific historical event that constituted the dominating factor in the historical significance of a place (in the case of Loreto square
obviously we refer to the events of the Second World War). Once again, working with the Geostream data set enabled a different perspective and a more dynamic and layered exploration of the place. In fact, we were able to detect the evolving nature of the historical characterisation of the square, constantly responding to new events and collective experiences.
Place-Memory and Contemporary Political Debate
As mentioned above, Loreto square
was theatre to the hanging of Mussolini and his entourage in 1945. This event is explicitly addressed by several images in the data set, demonstrating its relevance within the Italian contemporary political landscape. A first case we would like to bring into consideration portrays the UPIM department store which was formerly to be found in the square (https://www.flickr.com/photos/32921850@N00/2628288621/in/album-72157606205026818/). The picture in question was taken before its replacement by the Chinese chain Aumai in 2015 and comes with a set of tags directly referencing both Mussolini and the Italian Social Republic (the last stage of the Fascist regime during the Second World War): ‘milan grande milano departmentstore lombardia benito mussolini rsi lombardy upim emporio ilduce piazzaleloreto nokia6070 repubblicasocialeitaliana grandemagazzino clarapetacci’.Footnote 6 These tags, and the scarcely aesthetic, extremely mundane style and subject of the image, suggest that the picture was not taken to capture a personally significant moment for the user. Rather, it seems to demand an intrinsically public and documentary reading. As many historical photographs of the hanging show an UPIM store in the background, this image could be interpreted as an intentional citation of well-known documents and a way of re-inscribing the historical memory of the place in its current location. Particularly, such process of re-inscription is significant insofar it highlights today’s invisibility of this specific past
Despite the lack of visible official reminders of the Second World War events, passers-by/users might be able to locate contemporary markers referencing and re-mediating representations of the historical past. Two identical pictures in the data set depict the shutters of a garage featuring a graffiti writing including the symbol of a gallows and the sentence: ‘Berlusconi a Loreto’ (Italian for: Berlusconi in Loreto) (https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5474/9587497335_ac35da0294.jpg). Clearly, the graffiti establishes a comparison and continuity between Mussolini and Berlusconi (the controversial ex-Prime Minister and founder of the centre-right party Forza Italia). It is impossible to determine whether one of the users uploading this image was also the author of the graffiti. However, both titles express approval, sympathy, or support for its message: ‘Someone Buy Him a Oneway Ticket’ and ‘Spontaneity of Gate’. Additionally, because the image only depicts the shutters, it is not possible to ascertain whether the graffiti is actually located in the proximity of Loreto square
, or if the geotag was applied to connect the location of the garage with the location of the hanging, therefore reinforcing the link to this historical reference. The fact that there are two images depicting this image and both are geotagged in Loreto corroborates the idea that this is also the real location of the graffiti. One of the things that attracted our attention to this example was the role of the geotag in reinforcing and maintaining the connection between the symbol of the gallows and Loreto square
Without the locative data, the connection between the historical events referenced by the graffiti and its place would be lost and perhaps ignored by most viewers retrieving the image through other, variable queries (Fig. 8.1).
These examples show how an awareness of wartime events that took place in Loreto square
feeding into claims about the heritage value of the place itself, but rather were embedded into mundane political commentaries and processes of identity building and identity performance. Indeed, by sharing and commenting on the gallows graffiti, the users proffer a political stance by making clear to their audience their disapproval of Berlusconi. Significantly, this example demonstrated how current struggles and political divisions in Italy are contextualised in relation to a not fully digested past. The symbol of the gallows in Loreto square
mobilised as a living, generative, and highly malleable memory object
. The users were not simply making a comparison between two political leaders, nor were they warning a contemporary audience to avoid the mistakes of the past (a frequent approach to mobilise historical memories in the present). Rather, they were suggesting an uninterrupted continuity with a perceived right-wing, authoritative and manipulative approach to political leadership.
Another picture (https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3101/2590890638_b6b9ec3489.jpg) in the data set established a quasi-implicit reference to the hanging of Mussolini dated back to 2008 and depicted two posters put up by Alleanza Nazionale (a neo-fascist political party dissolved in 2009) in Loreto square
. The posters advertised a ceremony in the San Fedele Church in Milan to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Giorgio Almirante, founder and leader of the Italian Social Movement, which was essentially the previous incarnation of Alleanza Nazionale. The tags featured a mix of languages (Italian and English) and terms addressing geographical information, words extrapolated from the posters, and a rich and detailed vocabulary connected to the past and recent history of Italian fascism:
italy milan church grande nokia san italia milano 1988 almirante moustache romano chiesa tribute movimento piazza secretary mass 2008 homage comrade piazzale lombardia loreto romancatholic italiano msi lombardy fedele catolico tributo nazionale messa alleanzanazionale destra sociale camerata 6070 sanfedele piazzaleloreto omaggio esempio alleanza seguire segretario nokia6070 giorgioalmirante movimentosocialeitaliano nuevadestra.Footnote 7
Such a detailed tagging, together with the mundane composition of the picture itself, led us to speculate on the dialogic intentions of the user. Indeed, the picture seemed to highlight the fact that fascism is still celebrated by a portion of the Italian population and that this is, according to the user, surprising, unsettling, or at least a matter of debate. Rather than being posted to capture and share a special moment, or an aesthetically interesting view of the city, we interpreted the reasons for uploading this picture in relation with the intention of stimulating comments, probably trying to find out if others too feel the same way about the persistence of fascism in Italy. This hypothesis is naturally corroborated when considered in connection with Loreto’s square’s history. Thus, the photo itself is only incidentally becoming an object of memory
, as its main function, for its author, is in the present: an instigator of political debate on the current political landscape. Nevertheless, the locative attribution of the picture suggested how the historical memory of Loreto square
becomes mobilised to enrich the discussion and reinforce the perception of the continuity between the fascist regime and its contemporary manifestations. Ultimately, this reflection hints at the idea that one of the implicit meanings of the picture is that despite what happened in Loreto square
, fascism itself is not dead.
Activist Assemblies and the Living Memory of Place
To complement the contributions offered by the first case study, the second case study focused on more recent events but equally showed the potential to be considered of historical, or at least collective, relevance. In 2011, about 500 Egyptian residents in Milan gathered in Loreto Square
to march in solidarity with their compatriots fighting against President Mubarak. In our exploration of the data set, we analysed pictures of this event within a broader category of images, including a variety of collective, political, and activist
assemblies characterised by temporary and visually striking occupations of the public space. Some of these, such as in the case of the pro-Egypt protest, were local instantiations of transnational movements, signalling the role of social media not just in coordinating and facilitating the organisation of the initiative, but also in providing a transnational dimension to its documentation and its potential to shape public discourse. In our speculations around the reasons for sharing and geotagging pictures of protests and activist
interventions, we identified the desire to extend the reach of public action to an online audience, therefore generating civic awareness and encouraging further mobilisation around the issues at stake. Indeed, social media contribute to provide a legacy to otherwise ephemeral events, simultaneously affecting the perception of place. Additionally, the presence of the geotag can suggest how users wanted to demonstrate their physical presence in the protest, and therefore reinforce their association with determined beliefs and values, enhancing the civic dimension of their public profile (Fig. 8.2).
Often these assemblies do not have any specific relationship with the history or historical significance of the location at stake, which is chosen mostly because of its central position in the city. Loreto Square
in particular was chosen as the starting point for this protest because of its proximity to the Egyptian Consulate. Our study, then, allowed us to explore how places constantly gain new collective meanings, as Loreto Square
and the surrounding area become remembered for a growing community as well as the site of the pro-Egypt protest. This process of constituting and layering the cultural and historical significance of place is always inevitably mediated. However, what is specific to the role of social media in providing a channel for such process is their immediacy. It is then possible to talk about a form of accelerated historicisation and heritagisation, which is nevertheless the by-product of practices that, in the users’ intentions, are primarily about promoting their activist cause and presenting their own politically engaged identities to their followers.
This research evidenced how conducting memory research on photo-sharing platforms meant embracing the idea of memory-in-the-making, working with a constant unfolding of meanings, traces
, and appropriations. The role of camera phones in documenting extraordinary, publicly relevant events and generating participatory networked archives has recently received significant scholarly attention
(Caswell 2009; Hoskins 2011; Andén-Papadopoulos 2013). In this context, the almost complete contiguity between the action and its online ‘archiving’, observed in our study, is an emerging feature of current digital culture that is also becoming increasingly relevant to institutions of memory (see, for instance, the Rapid-Response collecting initiative at the V&A Museum in London (Millard 2017)). In our examples, Loreto Square
becomes remembered as a lived place, with the geotag performing a key task in sustaining (and making visible) the complex ramifications of this place-making