So fun! So quirky!

Screen grab from Instagram

I followed a link from Navalny‘s Twitter feed to see this. On the left, an image of an opposition protester placing a sprig of white flowers into the uniform of a Russian OMON officer (think SWAT teams, riot police). On the right, Navalny’s tweet: “OMON, in shock, fighting off the flowers they’re being given.”

It’s a cool picture, likely conjuring up memories of other protesters fighting the power of other states with flowers. The immediate context here is an ongoing protest in Astrakhan, where a mayoral candidate has been on hunger strike to draw attention to falsification and corruption in local elections. He’s looking very thin, according to recent reports. Activists in the broader movement For Honest Elections have been working hard to draw more attention to the situation.

But what struck me was the odd juxtaposition of this image and its social context with the framing produced by Instagram:

Somehow, “fun & quirky” seems a bit inadequate here. Of course, I very much doubt the programmers and designers (slash newly-minted-billionaires?) of Instagram expected this juxtaposition: their idea was to create a fun, easy interface for photo sharing. Most likely they envisioned people snapping pics at parties, while hanging out with friends, while playing with their kids, and so on. These kinds of assumptions about users and their lives shape the way software is designed.

Earlier, I talked a bit about the logistics of using digital social networks when researching actual social networks that don’t overlap–a task which is complicated by assumptions made by designers and programmers who, like Mark Zuckerburg, don’t understand why someone might need to keep different social identities distinct from one another. When you start with the assumption that your networking software will be used for “quirky fun,” you may not stop to consider what kinds of policies related to privacy, use of personal data, or anonymity and use of psuedonyms might be needed by political protesters in an authoritarian state.

It’s also curious thinking about the claim that using a photo filter transforms a photo into a memory–a subject for another day, really. But I somehow doubt that fading the color on this photo played much of a role in transforming this moment into a memory for the woman giving flowers to riot police.


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