War On Flickr: Nationalism and Localism At Odds With The Global Imaginary

by Teymour Sursock

The Internet plays a pivotal role in the expanding recognition of a global imaginary. Its social networks and interactive websites have contributed to the general public’s realization that they aren’t simply citizens of a nation but also members of an interactive global community. Flickr can be considered a worthy example of the influence the media exerts on our rising global imaginary. It is a free online picture and video hosting website used by a global community of photographers, artists and bloggers. Its members embed and share their personal images and videos. Whilst one is required to be a registered member in order to upload, to share, and to comment on the website’s contents, its digital resources are largely accessible to the general public worldwide. One can find a wide variety of subjects exposed on Flickr but for the purposes of this journal issue, I’ve focused this essay on the represented tension between the local and national imaginary and the global imaginary framed within the search topic of war.

The very nature of war conflicts with an important aspect of the global imaginary. Manfred B. Steger describes this aspect to which I am referring as “the weakening of the national imaginary” (10). War does the exact opposite: war boosts the sense of a national identity. This fact is also true for the two World Wars, despite the global dimension of the battlefield and its cross-cultural alliances. History shows us repeatedly that this sense of identity can be amplified through the implementation of an effective propaganda program and manipulative fear-mongering. On Flickr, however, this nature of war does not hold the same sway over national identity. Like Steger, I do not imply by this statement that “national and local communal frameworks have lost their power to provide people with a meaningful sense of home and identity” (10). Far from the thought: I would argue instead that there is an ongoing tug of war between two opposing forces, which influence our sense of identity and our understanding of war.

Identity on Flickr begins with the obligatory set up of a member’s account and the completion of the user’s profile. Without it the Flickr user remains invisible and non-existent to the community. In essence, Flickr requests that budding members begin by giving a sense of self: both local (a description of self and the buddy icon) and national (mother tongue and hometown) identity. This identity can then be reinforced and built upon with the testimonials from the member’s contacts. Lastly, and probably most importantly, the local and national identity is completed by the member’s uploaded content. Not only does the image or video complete the member’s local and national identity by demonstrating a genre or style, a thematic interest and a cultural perspective, but it also serves as an introduction to the Flickr community. The image or video along with the author’s website name are the first things users see after a search. The image or video is like a calling card.

Up to this point the individualism of a local and national identity on Flickr remains unchallenged by the concept of a global imaginary. This individualism changes, however, when a member either forms or joins a group. Individual identity becomes a group identity determined by the group’s interest and depending on the type of access (open, invitation only, and private) determined by the group’s administrator, the topic of interest can attract outside members from all over the world. Thus the notion of the global imaginary on Flickr is bolstered by the formation of groups whose members share a common thematic interest. Flickr describes this service as “a fabulous way to share content and conversation, either privately or with the world.” Group members upload, admire, comment and appraise each other’s images. It is also common practice for members to seek and borrow material that is outside of their group. The page of an image or video displays the different groups in which it appears. A popular image or video can be circulated through an indeterminate number of groups. For instance, the photo entitled war against peace, an anti-war stencil by the artist -icy-'s, appears in 63 groups. Not only does the group listing demonstrate the image’s popularity, but it also underlines the notion that this particular image is a connecting point between groups with similar and different interests in the image. Again, this by no means suggests a weakening local and national imaginary nor does this imply that a group’s interest can’t be representative of a collective local or national identity. Within the context of war there is plenty of evidence pointing to the contrary. For instance the Helicopter War Museum, Atlanta natives, and MaineMilitia.com are groups that are representative of a collective local identity whilst American Patriotism & Pride, USMC, and USSR - CCCP are just some of the groups on Flickr that are representative of a collective national identity. Whilst groups portraying patriotism and a pro-military stance generally represent the local and national imaginary, within the context of war and identity, the global imaginary is generally representative, within the same context, by groups portraying an anti-war stance. When researching for groups on the topic of war Flickr’s search engine yielded 11,284 groups.

The concept of the global imaginary is also actively furthered by the website’s projects, such as the World Map webpage and The Places project. Flickr’s World Map page allows users to search for photos that have been geotagged to the website’s own interactive map of the world. On the map a horizontal scroll bar displays a predetermined selection of geotagged images. The user selects each photo individually for viewing and a pink dot highlights the origin of the image on the map. A geotag is the technological equivalent of “‘glocalization’ – a complex interaction of global and local characterized by cultural borrowing” (Steger, 77). In this case, the cultural borrowing takes the abstract form of a snapshot or video that is taken and geographically labeled. The layout, geotagging application and service offered on Flickr’s World Map are a manifestation of what Steger describes as, “the compression of the world into a single place [that] increasingly makes global the frame of reference for human thought and action” (15). Though Flickr’s The Places project functions differently to the World Map, Steger’s aforementioned statement also resonates here. The project proposes to its users the option of browsing for all sorts of images and video within a specific location whether the user is familiar with the place or not. The selected Place displays an interactive map (with similar functions to the World Map), an image taken in the location, a menu of preselected images, a list of members and groups and the most popular tags assigned the location. For example, the search term ‘Hiroshima’ yields images and video that are tagged with the popular terms: “japan; hiroshima; torii; miyajima; shrine; sunset; gate; Itsukushima; water; reflection; night; dome; 日本; landscape; shinto; sea; abomb (sic); abombdome (sic); orange, [and] temple.” Flickr describes the project as a global effort to create “a page on Flickr for every place in the world” and claims that “[as members] stick more and more photos and video on to the world, these Places will become richer and much more interesting.”

While examining how both projects encourage the expansion of the global imaginary it gradually became evident that language was creating resistance to the concept within the World Map. Local and national identity are closely linked to language. Whilst language is both a communication tool and a carrier of cultural and historical identity on Flickr it is also a key determinant to a recognition program. Flickr’s digital resources are organized and accessed by users thanks to the site’s search engine, which uses a ‘tag’ recognition software. Photo submitters are asked to organize images using tags that are either nouns or adjectives. This crucial step enables the software to recognize images labeled with a particular tag. An image or video can be tagged in any language chosen by the member; therefore individuals dictate the terms of the search. For instance, the search term ‘war’ yielded 4,460,746 results on Flickr’s principle search engine. In French, the same search term yielded 93,351 results. Italian, Portuguese and Spanish share the same search term ‘guerra’ and it yielded 327,437 results. Initially, the reasons for such diverging search results between the languages were unclear and unimportant with regards to the tension between the local and national imaginary and the global imaginary. However, upon closer inspection of the results it became clear that there was a language barrier that was directly affecting the perception of war. For instance, when researching for the topic of war on the World Map the subjects of the first 25 photos (out of 874,292 results) were: the Siegessäule in Berlin; Delta Squad; a Lego X-wing; the mountain Zlatibor; a girl under a bridge; an Indian elephant; the Velenje lake; a lego jet fighter; Nuremberg; a fisherman; the fog; a whinnying horse; Lego Jedi archive’s; Plau am See in Germany; a Cambodian sunrise; golden fields; a sunflower; stone steps; a Lego Bonaparte; a canon shot; Château Fontenac; a boat dock; a Porta Nigra girl; the Manila American Cemetery, and a boarding gate at the Hamburg airport. None of these images are a direct representation of war but they are somehow grouped in the search for war on Flickr. The answer to this conundrum lies in the use of the word. Language is cluttering the search results and in fact creating a fog of war.

Four influential factors came to light. Firstly, more than one language was directly affecting the English search result. The German and English languages share the word ‘war’ even though the nature and meanings of each word differ. What makes this particularly problematic is the fact that the German ‘war’ is the past tense of ‘to be’ or ‘was’, which is an extremely popular word. Secondly, an important Star Wars fan base was affecting the numbers (759,432 results). The international and pop-cultural phenomenon created by George Lucas had managed to find its way onto Flickr in a variety of forms from posters, to comic strips, Lego sets, and cosplay. It also became evident that other products of pop culture such as video games (God of War), films (Lord of War) and TV series (Band of Brothers) were cluttering the results. Thirdly, the search engine’s scope went beyond the recognition of tags: it included posted commentaries in its search. Lastly and tying in with the third factor, the search engine’s program included in its search words that contained the three letters of ‘war’, such as warmth, warning and warped. As a result, images unrelated to the actual topic of ‘war’ begin to clutter Flickr’s page, thereby effectively clouding the perception of ‘war’.

Flickr harbors the conflicting concepts of the imaginary. Despite its endeavors to promote the global imaginary through its projects and services, it is its members who bring both concepts to a head creating a tension between the identity and understanding of both imaginaries. There is no denying the reality of the expanding global imaginary but as I have demonstrated the concept of the local and national imaginary is firmly embedded in the identity and understanding of Flickr members and by all accounts the concept has not loosened it hold nor shown any sign of losing ground in this tug of war.