Collecting the ephemeral social media photograph for the future: Why museums and archives need to embrace new work practices for photography collections

Kajsa Hartig, Västernorrlands museum, Sweden, Bente Jensen, Aalborg City Archives, Denmark, Anni Wallenius, The Finnish Museum of Photography, Finland, Elisabeth Boogh, Stockholm County Museum, Sweden


Vernacular networked digital photographs shared through social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter have now, by far, replaced analog photographs and traditional photo albums. For museums and archives, the change of media implies that receiving physical vernacular photographic objects will soon be a thing of the past. The social media photograph is ephemeral and needs to be collected through an active effort, not long after the creation of the photograph. It is an assemblage of image, text, metadata, and affected by the digital network in which it is shared. This paper will discuss current findings and reflections of the ongoing research project titled "Collecting Social Photo" which is a cooperation between a number of museums, archives, and universities in the Nordic countries. Findings will be illustrated through case studies reflecting social photography from a personal perspective (Social Media Diaries), the production of the image of places (the city of Södertälje, Sweden and Aalborg, Denmark), and as the reaction to sudden events such as the Stockholm terrorist attack in 2017. As the visual representation of the social digital photograph is not sufficient to understand the challenges of the memory institutions when collecting and disseminating contemporary photographic heritage, the project includes studies of metadata and the material practices in which the photograph is produced. This paper will share insight into the complexity of the social digital photograph, which has been studied by (among others) Nancy Van House (2016), Edgar Gómez Cruz, and Asko Lehmuskallio (2016), and regard it from the perspective of memory institutions through the experience of case studies with a focus on audience engagement, work practices, and digital infrastructures for collecting social digital photography.

Keywords: digital humanities, digital collections, collections interfaces, social media, audience engagementDigital humanities, photography collections, digital collections, social media, audience engagement, collecting

Never before have so many people photographed so much of their everyday lives. We post and share billions of photographs online every year, primarily in social media. The ocean of photographs overflows our daily lives, and yet they are not there for future generations. This development presents a significant challenge for museums and archives aiming to preserve history, building heritage collections, and archives.

The Nordic research project Collecting Social Photo (CoSoPho) addresses this challenge through empirical case studies and analysis based on multidisciplinary methods and theories. The project is a cooperation between The Nordic Museum in Stockholm (national), Stockholm County Museum (regional), The Finnish Museum of Photography (national), and Aalborg City Archives (local) in Denmark. The research partner is the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University, and the project also benefits from the inputs of an international reference group. Collecting Social Photo is funded by the Swedish foundation Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (RJ) for three years (2017-2020).

The goal of CoSoPho is to develop methods and recommendations for museums and archives on collecting and disseminating social digital photography. To achieve this goal, a starting point is understanding the impact of social media on photographs and photographic practices, as well as understanding how this in turn influences the work with photography collections in museums and archives. As previous research shows, the social digital photograph challenges current museum and archival practices in many different ways, e.g. the trustworthiness of social digital photography (Bushey, 2015), the presence of non standardized formats (Besser, 2012), and the heritage collections databases’ inability to host complex digital objects (Cameron, 2010).

The introduction of the social digital photograph as a complex object—an assemblage constantly in change (Gómez Cruz, 2016)—is highly relevant to museums and archives aiming at collecting this kind of photography. The photograph exists in an ecosystem of social media services, technologies, individuals, and organizations, and above all, in a vast stream of content in constant change. For museums and archives, this poses the challenge of reaching out and breaking through the stream of content in social media; it implies successful outreach, in order to be able to collect at the very time when the photo is produced and to engage audiences, and to facilitate co-creation of the photographic heritage. The success of these tasks are  highly dependent on strategic communication initiatives (Roued-Cunliffe and Copeland, 2017).

This article introduces the need for bridging academic research with existing museum and archives work practices, around collecting and managing photographic heritage in the 21st Century. It offers an overview of research in the field and presents the observations so far from the ongoing CoSoPho project. Further, it addresses some of the challenges posed by the social digital photographs on museums and archives, and analyzes the preliminary results of four case studies. The article suggests, in the conclusions, some initial recommendations for methods and approaches regarding collecting social digital photography.

Why museums and archives should collect social digital photography

What are the arguments for collecting the vernacular networked digital photographs shared through social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, as records to be saved for the future as part of cultural heritage? Through observations confirmed by a recent survey in Sweden, and interviews performed by the CoSoPho project ( January 13, 2018), few museums and archives collect social media photography due to lack of knowledge, competence, and resources. There even seems to be uncertainty about the relevance of collecting this kind of photography.

The CoSoPho project argues that one of the strongest reasons to collect social digital photography is because this type of photographhas replaced the analogue photographs commonly collected by museums and archives. A similar observation can be made for traditional private archives such as diaries and collections of personal letters. Today this content is often shared as communication on social media in a mixture of words and images. Another reason is that this vast tangible imprint of everyday life, a result of more photos being produced than ever, has already become important historical documentation. Furthermore, a yet unexplored potential of social digital photography is the communicative aspect, which offers new possibilities for museums and archives to integrate collecting and collections into the museum/archival outreach efforts and dialogue with audiences and users. This situation could indicate a new value of photography collections to museums and archives as contributors in two Nordic anthologies: Bilder för Framtiden (Pictures for the Future), (Boogh, 2011) and #Snapshot (Lehmuskallio, 2013) as well as Jensen (2013, 2014) have suggested this. They simultaneously represent a point of departure for the CoSoPho project.

Previous research

As Richard Chalfen notes in the foreword of Photography and Everyday Life, there is a lack of empirically based studies keeping pace with the rapid changes of emerging camera technology (Chalfen, 2016). A pilot study (CoSoPho, 2016) leading to the CoSoPho project also confirmed that few scholars discuss the memory aspect of social media specifically connected to photography and to archival and museum practices. There is, however, a growing awareness regarding social media content, including photos, as records that should be acquired as a part of public archives. A recent innovative example from 2017 is the President Obama White House social media archives (

Other work of importance has been done by Jessica Bushey, who has discussed the validity of social media records and problems connected to them (Bushey, 2015), and by Haidy Geismar, who in her text Instant Archives? reflects on Instagram as an archive itself—a way of making sense of the complexity of the service alongside analyzing user-generated content (Geismar, 2017).

Extensive research of importance to photography and museums has been performed in the field of Visual Anthropology by Elizabeth Edwards, who even argues for the fundamental role of photography collections to the operation of the museum (Edwards, 2015). The work of Lev Manovich is also of interest as his studies push the boundaries for social media photography as visual and non-visual big data, the latter presented in his research project Visual Earth ( ). Manovich also has inspired the project through his study The Exceptional and the Everyday: 144 Hours in Kiev (Manovich 2014), where place and changes were analyzed through Instagram photos. The “extraordinary” has furthermore been researched by Howard Besser, who in his study of the “Occupy” movement touches upon participatory issues as well as the entire process of selecting, capturing, and preserving media shared online (Besser, 2012).

The archives theoretician Terry Cook (2013) characterizes the present era as a “identity paradigm”, which involves cooperation. In addition, researchers like Eveleigh (2015) and Huvela (2015) identify the need of participatory methods, which in some ways could have resemblances with citizen journalism. Especially Eveleigh is inspired by Nina Simon’s legendary book, The Participatory Museum (2010).

The impact of social digital on photographs, practices, and collection management

Museums and archives have collected photographs for multiple reasons (e.g. aesthetic, economic, scientific and cultural) and the status of collected photographs varies significantly. In archives, photos usually are appraised for documentation. Elizabeth Edwards and Sigrid Lien (2014) argue that despite photographs’ central role in memory institutions, their complex ecosystems and effects have often remained unnoticed and their status (outside the realm of fine art and rare prints) often vague—traditionally, photographs have been both a self evident and underplayed part of the collections of heritage institutions. As Kajsa Hartig (2014) notes, the museum sector has for decades been working with digital technologies—still, the need for new infrastructures, processes, decisions, and strategic partners caused by new digital media has often been met with unease. She claims that the purpose and status of photographic collections has never been unambiguous, and the digital has only complicated the matter.

The CoSoPho project is based on the assumption that the social digital photograph is considerably different from the physical object common in heritage photography collections. Today photography is part of everyday life, ubiquitous through our ever-present smartphones, and also ephemeral; stored on private accounts in the cloud or on easily breakable devices. A major difference from analog photography is a massive increase in participation, and the number of images shared (Van House, 2016). Further, the networked social digital photograph is dependent on its context, being an assemblage of geodata, motif, text, emojis, likes, shares, and networks. Photography today can be regarded as primarily a form of communication, a new kind of vernacular, where the visual resembles words and language.

Another impact of technologies and digital ecosystems on vernacular (everyday life) photography is that photographs are  “increasingly becoming algorithmic and a source of metadata” (Gómez Cruz, 2016, 229). Simultaneously, they are complex sociotechnical assemblages, an intricate mix of technology, practices, and services, which is not stable or fixed, nor might it ever be (Lehmuskallio and & Gómez Cruz, 2016, 8). Looking at traditional work practice in museums and archives that still mostly revolve around (seemingly) stable, unique, and delimited objects or visual sources, it is not surprising that institutional infrastructures and policies are “ill-suited to new ways of seeing objects as polysemic entities” (Cameron, 2010, 84).

Presentation of case studies

Building on previous research and experience, the project uses case studies as a primary method of data collection. These case studies aim to capture relevant dimensions of social digital photography, from individual to media-specific practices, and relate them to current museum and archival practices. Data collection is carried out through a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, including participant observation, interviews, photo-elicitation, and online surveys. Focus in the initial case studies has been on localities and individual practices to ensure representativity. The time dimension extends from everyday life to the extraordinary (events), terms inspired by Manovich (2014). To pursue the relation between changes in media practices and possible collection and user involvement, CoSoPho has also initiated an ongoing Nordic survey on the platform in order to obtain new concrete insight in the patterns of practice. (

As CoSoPho is closely related to collecting institutions in practice, the four case studies presented next reflect the field of work of the participating archives and museums. Each participating museum and archive has designed case studies based on their particular aims and scope: the local, the regional, and the national, which also ensures representativity. The process of collecting social media photography in heritage institutions is a new field of work practice that has only been sparsely tested and researched before CoSoPho.

Case study: Social media diaries

As mentioned above, social media services impact photographic practices, which in turn affect the character of social media photographs. Still, as Daniel Miller (2015) points out, photographs in social media are also closely linked to ideologies, social norms, and aesthetic preferences that vary significantly between populations. This was an important premise when The Finnish Museum of Photography launched a case study with clearly defined social media user groups and individuals.

In Social Media Diaries, the aim was to document and collect visual interaction on social media by two informants. Karin Becker (2016) suggests in order better to understand the complex ecosystem of visual social media, one would benefit from asking who connects, where, and in what ways. In the study, the goal was to gain insight into how the informants self-reflected their own practices, networks, interaction, and choices of platforms. The informants were invited to keep a logbook of their use of social media during one day. The images they shared on social media were collected during two days in August 2017. One of the days, they were aware that the museum was collecting, and kept a video log of what they were sharing. All images and videos shared on their public accounts were collected by the museum or sent by the informants to the museum later, and were complemented with screenshots showing likes and comments.

Figure 1: example from the Social Media Diaries case study: Discussion on Snapchat between one informant and her boyfriend





















The informants were also interviewed about their practices through photo elicitation, a type of open-ended interviewing, where discussion is stimulated by images. Lapenta sees photo elicitation as a useful method for exploring complex subjects. The photographs used to elicit discussion can trigger meanings and interpretations the interviewer could not have anticipated (Lapenta, 2011). The process of “looking together” helped the two interviewees bring forward meanings that would have been hard to grasp by only analyzing the photographs themselves. For example, both of the informants often used visual sarcasm in their social media postings. They were aware of the different discursive practices of social media platforms, and all their public postings were visually commenting on these practices either with acceptance or irony.

The case study provided interesting results on individual photographic practices and in retrospect, there was no need to have a separate day of collecting, when the informants were unaware of the museum observing them. It became evident that the social networks to which the informants’ visual interaction on social media was linked were far more important to them than the museum project. Villi (2016) uses the expression of “visual chit-chat” for describing the everyday visual communication, a concept that also fits well with the informants’ postings. Still, there is more to the photographs than meets the eye. From the interviews, it can be concluded that visual social media can offer an alternative to the normativity of the physical world the informants live in. For them, social media has offered a more interesting, open-minded, and wider social platform, granted that they are fluent in navigating in the “networks of power and creativity,” as described by Becker (2016).

Working intensively with informants is time consuming, and balancing this with the need to create representative collections is challenging. As a small, but still balanced collection, this case study should in the future be complemented by working with other pairs of informants representing different demographic groups.

Case study: Södertälje–place related photography

The purpose of the case study, carried out by the Nordic Museum and the Stockholm County Museum, was to “open-endedly” investigate and learn how a place,—the town of Södertälje—is depicted through Instagram using both qualitative and quantitative methods, and to explore new methods to increase motivation for co-creating photographic heritage. The approach builds on research in visual anthropology (Miller, 2016; Edwards, 2014) and placemaking in urban areas (Anselin and Williams, 2015). The goal was also to understand how museums could reach out to interact with communities through social media photography on Instagram in order to eventually document a place and collect photography—initiatives that need strategic planning and dedicated resources as Roued-Cunliffe and Copeland point out (2017).

The entry point for the study was hashtag #södertälje. As it was observed that a majority of these photos appeared to be posted for commercial reasons, the research was next directed towards geotags. Through a series of initiatives of outreach, observation, interviews, collecting efforts, and analysis, issues emerged directly related to the initial assumptions of the project; for example, difficulties in outreach and engagement, but also around facilitating online collecting through purpose-made websites.  

Figure 2: cityscape of Södertälje posted on Instagram. Photo: Stefan Christophs

There are other issues that occur when approaching a place through Instagram photography. Despite the fact that everyone has access to exactly the same functions (adding hashtags, optional geotagging, etc.) and the same user interface, the result is diverse, as Miller argues (2016). At the same time, there are gaps of information—as not everyone uses Instagram, not all parts of a town are depicted through Instagram; a fraction of all photos are geotagged; and in addition, the service itself is decreasing diversity by highlighting popular images and by framing the photos in certain aspects (Manovich, 2017). Reaching through this complex and elusive flow of images, the fragmented ocean of information, as well as Instagram’s own universe, is therefore of greatest importance when approaching a place through Instagram, both for collecting and outreach purposes.

The Södertälje case study has enabled the project to start concretizing the process of collecting, by mapping efforts to existing work practices, identifying specific challenges, and discussing purpose and methods. This has provided a first step towards establishing new recommendations for collecting social media photography, and to developing participatory methods for co-creating the photographic heritage.

Case study: The terrorist attack in Stockholm 

On April 7, 2017, a terrorist attack took place in Stockholm city center. As observed in similar cases, such as the Boston Marathon Bombings (Männistö, 2016), social media was used for communication among the public during the event and in the followings days. Social media photography was widely used, and shared with the hashtag #openstockholm.

At the onset of the CoSoPho project, the use of networked photographs during events was already identified as a relevant topic to explore. Even though a traumatic event was not anticipated, the framework of the project allowed us to initiate a rapid collecting initiative shortly after the attack, and only three months into the project. This case study has emphasized the need for adequate infrastructures and collecting interfaces, successful outreach, and the need to better understand the social digital photograph as big data and its relevance for museums and archives.

Figure 3: flowers left at the memorial site next to the place of the attack in Stockholm, to commemorate the deceased and injured. Photo: Jorge Collado Vellisco

Shortly after the attack, the Nordic Museum and the Stockholm County Museum introduced two collecting initiatives: #openstockholm at Minnen ( and Dokumentation 14:53 at Samtidsbild ( using two digital collecting websites, each with a slightly different focus. Outreach initiatives were performed mainly through media and social media. A third method of collecting was done by downloading metadata through a third party service from 7,100 of the approximately 10,000 images posted on Instagram.

A total of 389 images were uploaded to Minnen, and 105 to Samtidsbild. Through categorization, a method used for non-text documents to assign a denotation based on visual analysis (Rasmussen Pennington, 2017), three categories emerged: the attack and events directly related to it; the memorial sites and gatherings; and feelings and reflections.

The collected photographs show that different contexts (Web interfaces, questions asked, outreach, and even the scope of the collecting organization) provide different affordances. Minnen targeted a hashtag #openstockholm. A majority of these images depict the aftermath of the attack and the memorial site established where the attack took place. On Samtidsbil, there is an element of citizen journalism, where people on the street photographed the attack, the heavily armed police officers securing the streets, and the people walking home. To be at the right spot at the right time turns an amateur into a photojournalist, which becomes particularly valuable for news media; the photos are from the perspective of a participant in the event, rather than a detached observer, such as a professional photojournalist. (Rubinstein and Sluis, 2008).

One significant conclusion from the case study is the importance of collecting in real-time, and how this is dependent on successful outreach. Despite the vast amount of photographs produced and circulated online, there is a rapid decline only shortly after the event, as illustrated in Figure 4.

Figure 4: the amount of photos posted on Instagram with hashtag #openstockholm after the attack on April 7, 2017

Another conclusion is that especially in cases of events, collection of metadata is important, as discussed by Lehmuskallio and Gómez Cruz: “Because digital photo files carry metadata and can be combined with a variety of database, their use for the purposes of modeling events which have taken place, or for predicting what might have happened, is increasing” (Lehmuskallio and Gómez Cruz, 2016). This is confirmed by Männistö (2016), who argues that big data analysis might also challenge the notion of social media as a fragmented hyperreality and provide important patterns. The metadata from the photographs of the event will therefore be examined through the use of language and speech processing tools, and geolocation tools. New possibilities emerge, such as mapping the photos onto a timeline, and that map providing new information not available through single images, enabling the telling of new stories about the event. An initial conclusion from the project is to consider collecting social media photography metadata in large quantities as a complement to qualitative and curated collecting efforts.

Case study: #Christmas in Aalborg

Aalborg City Archives initiated digital collection from Instagram by launching the project #Christmasinaalborg in December 2012. The archives have conducted the project for six years, with the latest hashtag #christmasinaalborg17 (#juliaalborg17); today, it is one the case studies in CoSoPho. The advantage of the long period of time is the possibility to identify changes in the use of the platform (Instagram), user behavior, as well as in motifs. The time span allows comparison of observations, as is used in the tradition of longitudinal studies in other research fields. As Manovich (2017, 4) states: ”The period covered here (2012-2015 in his case) includes both the time when most people used Instagram spontaneously without deliberate planning, and the later period when the spontaneous and strategic uses co-existed.”

Figure 5: #Christmasinaalborg—the most popular Christmas photo from the Instagram collection project in Aalborg, Denmark. Photo: Marlene Lauritsen (Marlenel88 on Instagram)

In 2012, Aalborg City Archives identified a lack of modern, private Christmas photos in their holdings, and simultaneously wished to experiment with digital curation methods using a #hashtag, as well as to initiate user involvement in the collecting process. (Jensen 2013 and 2014). The collecting practice was and is still today adopted from analog photo collection—only the photo, not captions, is collected with permission from the photographer, which means new insights into the complexity of social media photos as a mixture of image, caption, and platform are not yet incorporated in the practices; this confirms Cameron’s (2010) assumption that work practices in memory institutions are based on stable and delimited units and are not easy to change.

The option to be a part of history was accepted positively by the Instagramers, and regarded as recognition from the beginning. However, the experience is that people do not spontaneously share images with the archives by themselves, as observed in the Södertälje case. Therefore, the archives tested user-involving methods ranging from Instawalks, account takeovers, cooperation with local partners; the archives play a facilitating role in the Instagramers Aalborg group. In 2017, the archives found it was getting harder to involve people, perhaps because of changes in the use of the media as cited above. Instagram seems not to be associated with the same hip factor as in 2012. At that time, being an early adopter was one of the reasons for participation. Today growing numbers have private accounts and use one to one media, such as Snapchat.


The case studies of the CoSoPho have proven it necessary to use multidisciplinary methods for collecting, as social digital photographs are embedded with new characteristics, and a combination of image, text, and media platforms. Collecting has to be performed through qualitative methods, such as surveys and interviews in combination with quantitative methods in order to capture patterns not visible through smaller selections.

In the case studies, the archives and museums have placed themselves in the mediation junction between communication, self-presentation, and memory (Van House, 2011, 130), and offered history and eternity to the volatile photo practices. Through the cases, the institutions have experienced that maintaining this position requires participatory methods. These methods are a prerequisite for collecting in real time, meaning the time the social photo is produced, in order to capture metadata and context, and even to ensure that the photos are not deleted. Furthermore, it has been confirmed that to identify changes in practice and understand the implications of the changes within the social media platforms, longitudinal studies are needed. These conclusions confirm postulations in modern archives and museum theory in general, which focus on the need to involve and communicate with the user/creator at an early stage of creation of digital data.

It could be claimed that so far, the originality of CoSoPho is that the project in general, and the case studies, operate within a field where research and practice around photography collections are closely connected. The project attempts to implement theoretical findings in the field of social media photography into the case studies and relate them to current museum/archival practices, in order to recommend new practices. Regarded the other way around, with the project positioning social media photography as a potential historical source and record, the results could contribute to the research of social photography in general, with a strong focus on memory, which so far has not been identified in many works.

The case studies have helped concretizing the entire process of collecting, from outreach to acquisition, appraisal, and dissemination, and initiated thoughts on the complexity of the social digital photograph. This might even cause museums and archives to consider regarding social digital photography as a significant new form of source material, and not a continuation of their analog photography collections. This intriguing idea will be brought into the second half of the project.


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Cite as:
Hartig, Kajsa, Jensen, Bente, Wallenius, Anni and Boogh, Elisabeth. "Collecting the ephemeral social media photograph for the future: Why museums and archives need to embrace new work practices for photography collections." MW18: MW 2018. Published January 15, 2018. Consulted .