Analysis Crisis Twitter — Jean Burgess, 6 March 2011

In a previous post, I explained how to extract links to known image-hosting services from an archive of tweets, and promised to follow up with a substantial post on image-sharing in the Queensland Floods – this is that post. It’s pretty long, but it does have pictures. Here are the main points:

  1. During the Queensland Floods, we shared and retweeted a lot of images: more than one in every 5 shared links was to an image hosted on one of several image-sharing services.
  2. We overwhelmingly depended on Twitpic and other Twitter-centric image-sharing services to upload and distribute the photographs we took on our smartphones and digital cameras.
  3. The patterns of image-sharing over time seem to match the overall patterns in Twitter activity on the same hashtag, with sharp peaks in both uploading and retweeting early on, followed by a significant drop-off.
  4. Going beyond Twitter, a side excursion to the ‘other’ image-sharing site, Flickr, raises some questions about the role of such services in public memory – for one thing, we might like to rethink our reliance on the mobile snap-and-upload mode of image sharing.

How many images did we share, and how did we share them?

Over the period 08 Jan-23 Jan 2011, the total number of links to known image-sharing services is 3374 (a whopping 1983 of which were contained in retweets); compared with an overall total of 15674 links included in the #qldfloods archive we’re working with (and please remember, as we’ve previously noted, the dataset is unlikely to be complete). So, roughly one in every 5 links tweeted (or retweeted) was a link to an image hosted on one of these services.

I also stripped the links back to the domain or subdomain name (as explained at the bottom of this earlier post) to find out which image sharing or hosting platforms were most popular. Twitpic dominates massively over the others, with close competitor yfrog.com coming second, and a number of other Twitter-centric services included (click to view full version).

Update: Just to be sure, I ran this count again with (old-style) retweets removed, and things do look very slightly less dramatic (click for full version):

[The explanation for Twitpic’s slightly decreased dominance in the second chart is that tweets pointing to twitpic-hosted images received a slightly higher rate of retweets on average than those on other platforms. The explanation for that will take some looking into – it may have something to do with the affordances of different platforms and user interfaces, or it may simply be something to do with the images themselves.]

This dominance of social media-centric services is perhaps not so surprising: Twitpic (and/or yfrog) are the default image sharing services in many Twitter clients. Certainly this seems to be true in most of the iPhone platforms I have used personally (I think Twitpic might be very popular with the many Twitter users who still rely on Twitter’s web version, too?). You may be shocked to see how low-ranked Facebook is given its overall dominance as a platform and the popularity of Facebook photos – the reason for this is that with the script I was using, I was only able to identify photo links hosted on Facebook if they used the Facebook Photos URL variant (or were directly linked to Facebook’s image server).

As a community, how are we collecting, archiving and making sense of all these images – especially considering that Twitpic doesn’t even have an export function? More on that later on in the post…but for now, note Flickr’s especially poor showing in these results.

Patterns over time
The patterns of activity seem to more or less match those for Twitter activity overall (see Axel’s first #qldfloods post on that), with strong peaks during the Australian daytime and a drop-off at night, and with the highest peaks of activity on the days the the floodwaters began to affect Ipswich, and then Brisbane in earnest – if anything, image-sharing appears to drop even even more dramatically after the 12th of January than tweeting overall did (click to view full version).

By the way, this chart (and everything I say below) is based on a dataset that includes retweets. To get a sense of whether the overall numbers of images being uploaded during this period were more evenly distributed than this, I repeated the exercise with tweets beginning “RT @[username]” removed, and although as we would expected the overall numbers are lower, the patterns over time look similar. This tells me that overall, many more images were being both uploaded and tweeted about during the peak emergency period than over the following few days, as we gradually swung into recovery and cleanup mode.

A few of the most retweeted #qldfloods images

Here’s the raw list of the 50 most-tweeted image links overall (use the drop-down box to expand):

[table id=8 /]

It has been fascinating (and a bit unsettling) trawling through these images, but here are some highlights from the list of images that were most linked-to on particular days.

10 Jan 2011

This image of the aftermath of Toowoomba’s flash flood was captioned “Showrooms of furniture floating into the street”

Showrooms of furniture floating into the street. #Toowoomba #... on Twitpic

11 Jan 2011

This was the day that saw the highest peaks in image sharing as users came to the realisation that Brisbane was about to get hit, and scrambled to share information and images about the rising river.

The most frequently linked-to image that day (73 mentions) is no longer available on the twitpic service, for whatever reason – a look at the tweets tells me it was the famous “photo of a man with a boatload of kangaroos”; in the same vein as the frog-hitching-a-ride-on-a-snake and crocodile-washes-up-at-Gympie images that were floating around.

Linked to 60 times and more effectively capturing the zeitgeist of Brisbane and Ipswich at that moment was this image of scenes repeated across Brisbane – people stocking up (or, less charitably, panic buying) at the local supermarket. As the uploader @SammehMcSpam says, “People are starting to freak out man”:

People are starting to freak out man #qldfloods #brisbane on Twitpic

12 Jan 2011

This image of the flooded Suncorp Stadium (captioned “Footy field or swimming pool?”) gave locals and observers further afield some sense of the scale of the flooding:

Footy field or Swimming pool? Picture of Suncorp Stadium in B... on Twitpic

13 Jan 2011

As did this “before and after” shot of someone’s backyard:

Swimming pool area - before and after #qldfloods on Twitpic

From then on, things slowed down quite a bit, as we mostly got on with things – a message the team behind Premier Anna Bligh wanted to get through to us:

Gold Coast Bucket gang helping at Rocklea #qldfloods Prem_Team on Twitpic

Meanwhile, back at Flickr…

Of course, Twitter (and twitpic) isn’t everything, so it’s worth adding a few notes and thoughts about the ‘other’ image-hosting platform, one that is still fairly popular among Australian users. Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly as easy to cross-post between Flickr and Twitter as it should or could be, and this could be an explanation for its poor showing in the data discussed above.

Flickr did introduce some explicit Twitter functionality to the API and website (including a URL shortener) in 2009, but it doesn’t have much of a presence in the more popular Twitter clients, and on the website there is no post to Twitter button – you have to drill down through the “share this” menu, to “blog this”, be logged into Flickr, and have your Twitter account set up with Flickr. Not exactly user-friendly, especially in high-stress, low-bandwidth situations like being in the middle of a natural disaster.

Early on, Flickr was built around real-time, especially mobile image-sharing; with the rise of Twitter and image-sharing services designed to work with it, Flickr seems to have lost much of that ground. Certainly the earlier expansive rhetoric around “Flickr as the eyes of the world” seems more than a little quaint right now, given the trouble parent company Yahoo! seems to be in, the rise and rise of Facebook photos, and the increasing integration of specialist image sharing services with Twitter.

But Flickr continues to play an important role in witnessing and archiving significant events – in public, as distinct from however we might define Facebook in relation to publicity and privacy. There is crossover between Flickr and other social media spaces in other ways, too, with the #qldfloods hashtag used extensively as a tag for Flickr images (there were 3362 Flickr images tagged #qldfloods by the end of January 2011).

Beyond the archiving function, the social activity in the Flickr community is another powerful communicative resource. In some of the most interesting images tagged with qldfloods, the comments space is used for sharing reactions, feelings, experiences, memories and information in relation to the floods themselves. For example, see the comments on this shot of a man standing on a bridge in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, or this one of the flash flooding.

Various dedicated Flickr groups were set up to collect images of the floods, like the Brisbane Flood January 2011 group (which contained 1935 images as of today); and the flood-related activity at the pre-existing Brisbanites group provides an interesting an example of how existing communities of interest – in this case, connected by an interest in photography and a common geographic location – provide platforms not only for image-sharing (and there are plenty of flood images there too), but also for communication around much larger issues.

And at least for now, Flickr is the most complete, open and reusable archive of images documenting the flood’s impacts and our human responses to it. As wonderful as cultural institutions like the National Library of Australia and State Library of Queensland are at curating and making available our visual heritage through initiatives like Picture Australia, they can’t collect everything – although across various projects they do collect and aggregate images based on tags, creative commons licensing and various dedicated Flickr groups. (See for example Picture Australia’s Flickr group, where quite a few flood images have been added now).

Considering Twitpic doesn’t offer a way to export your uploaded images (although perhaps competing services do?), and there are massive ethical, legal and technical problems with harvesting and republishing other people’s personal images en masse without explicit permission, then perhaps we ought to start an archive your Twitpic images to Flickr campaign…or at least try to remember to cross-post them when uploading. And then we’d better figure out what to do if (god forbid) Flickr Yahoo! goes bust, merges with Facebook, loses our data, or whatever other nightmare scenario you can come up with.

About the Author

Jean Burgess is a Professor of Digital Media and Director of the Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC) at Queensland University of Technology. She is @jeanburgess on Twitter.

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