PRINT October 2003


Steven Shaviro on moblogs

Moblog photographs from,, and

WHEN MOBILE-PHONE MANUFACTURERS started adding built-in digital cameras to their phones a year or so ago, they had little idea what such hybrid units would be good for. There was the usual industry hype—about Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) replacing Short Messaging Service (SMS, or text messaging on mobile phones, enormously popular in Europe and Asia, though less so in the US)—but in fact, the first camera phones were just novelty items, developed simply to keep people buying in a saturated mobile-phone market.

Inevitably, however, “the street finds its own uses for things,” to borrow a phrase from science-fiction writer William Gibson. Camera phones are now being used for a purpose the manufacturers never anticipated: less for person-to-person messaging than for posting instant photos on the Web. Websites like TextAmerica (, Buzznet (, and Fotolog ( make it easy (and free) for people to set up their own photoblogs or moblogs (mobile blogs). You can take a picture with your camera phone and immediately upload it with a single click, for everyone to see.

To be sure, the images on moblogs are generally of poor quality. Camera phones produce low-resolution shots, with fixed focus, no zoom, and no flash. Everything is sacrificed to the goal of making the camera tiny enough to fit comfortably within a palm-sized device. But these deficiencies are outweighed by instant gratification. You don’t need to carry a separate camera around; you can take a photo without any fuss and with hardly anyone noticing; you don’t need any additional hardware or software to transfer and publish the photos; and you can do all this in real time.

And as it turns out, the “low fidelity” of moblog images is precisely their point. These small, blurry, underlit pictures should be viewed in the same spirit as they are shot. They are made not for careful contemplation but for quick perusal, and their form fits their content. If I check out random pages on TextAmerica, I am likely to see faces of people I don’t know; close-ups of hands, feet, or bits of food; scenes in restaurants, bars, cafés, or shopping malls; shots of the street, of buildings or billboards or store signs, of parked cars or passing traffic; or even images of text or of Web pages. Moblogs do not bear witness to epiphanies or significant memories. Rather, they are entrenched in the ebb and flow of everyday life, in our routines, in the little incidents that we notice for a moment and then forget. These pictures are, in their very essence, inessential. They do not strive to perpetuate the fleeting present so much as they underscore its very ephemerality. Even the (increasingly frequent) moblogging of events like political rallies and demonstrations, conferences, and conventions seems incidental and beside the point; it is more “local color” than it is testimony or reportage. Cheap, so easy to produce, and so publicly and promiscuously displayed, moblog photography tends toward anonymity and impersonality rather than toward the singularity of the punctum—the “wound,” or “imperious sign of my future death”—that was for Roland Barthes the essence of the (predigital) photograph.

How much of this ephemerality is due to the underdeveloped state of the technology? Most likely, camera phones will be greatly improved in the years to come; the images will get larger and better, even as the devices get smaller and easier to use. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the aesthetic of camera-phone images will change. Forty years ago, Marshall McLuhan based his analysis of television as a “cool” medium on the small-screen, grainy, black-and-white images that were state-of-the-art at the time. But today, even with large-screen color TVs and with high-definition television supposedly just around the corner, McLuhan’s analysis still seems basically right: TV invites our distracted participation by being small-scale and intimate, by focusing on the everyday instead of the extraordinary, by reducing abstract ideas to questions of personality, and by leaving enough out that we are provoked, or seduced, into filling in the gaps ourselves. Perhaps a similar dynamic is at work with camera phones and moblogs: Technical improvement alone will not change their basic traits of immediacy and disposability.

As a new sort of “cool” medium, camera phones and moblogs compel us to reassess the two basic oppositions that have defined photography since its invention more than 150 years ago: between photographs as works of art and photos (or snapshots) as souvenirs that cannot be evaluated by aesthetic criteria; and between the way that photographs are indexical or referential—offering evidence of something’s actually having existed—and the way that they are fictive and constructed. Camera-phone images cut across both of these distinctions. Moblogs contain casual snapshots rather than art photographs, but like art photographs, and unlike personal snapshots, moblog images appeal to the disinterested glance of strangers. At the same time, in contrast to other digital photographs, moblogs restore photography’s claim to providing indexical evidence. Their instantaneous publication short-circuits the usual tricks of digital manipulation. Yet the immediacy and “reality” of camera-phone photographs is less a consequence of their claim to provide “true” representations of the world than it is because they are additional, electronically relayed images in a world that is already largely composed of images and electronic relays. Moblogs do not distill and clarify the visible world, nor do they even really comment on it. Rather, they add to its hustle-bustle and confusion. They give us more, and always more, in a time when too much is never enough.

Steven Shaviro is professor of cinema studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.