Selfies, in and of themselves, are universally boring. Talking about them is even more boring.
But the information captured within selfies can perhaps shed light on the way different societies make use of social media – and how people relate to their environment in different parts of the city.
The SPIN Unit (Spatial Intelligence Unit) is a small but global team of data scientists, artists, urban designers and one philosopher. In the “Baltigram” project, it’s compiled data from Instagram selfies taken in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius – the capitals of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania respectively – to deduce whether a shared identity is truly discernible across the three Baltic states.
Baltigram’s aim was to “explore how people living in these areas represent themselves in relation to their architectural environments,” in the words of the project’s tagline.
“What we try to do here is find the pictures in their spatial context. So we study the pictures in the city, in the urban environment,” says project lead Damiano Cerrone. He added that positioning of people in their environment and their activities can be pinpointed to specific locations. ”Each single picture has a GPS location and we are capable of studying the activities.”
SPIN Unit sifted through about 20,000 selfies, and eventually managed to sort them into three groups: those taken in the ‘old town’, those snapped in Soviet housing districts, and the pictures captured in the greener city suburbs.
“There was this striking fact that in these Soviet blocs, life was pretty much private,” says Cerrone. “The pictures were pretty much taken in very closed spaces. Like with teenagers – their own rooms, or inside the lift, there was almost nothing outdoors – the city was never depicted.”
On the surface of things it seems obvious that pictures taken in private spaces at home would contain a higher proportion of person to surroundings than in the city centres. But Cerrone said that there may be a more specific reason for this in the Baltic capitals – especially in the deliberately homogeneous housing.
“The pictures taken in the Soviet blocks in Riga would look the same as in Tallinn and Vilnius,” he said, speculating that “people are not attached to the place they live and they are not proud to show it”. He noted that pictures taken in lifts seemed to be more specific to the Baltics, although he added that he hadn’t yet conducted any comparative studies using data from other countries.
“The rooms are shared, so if you’re a teenager, very often, you have to share your room with your siblings. And maybe depending on the size of the house – because of the lack of privacy – the elevator is this moment of privacy,” he said.
Meanwhile, the architecture of the medieval old towns features prominently in selfies that can be traced back to the tourist centres. ”The cities are of course all Hanseatic League cities,” says Panu Lehtovuori, professor of planning theory at the Tampere University of Technology, School of Architecture. He also mentioned the potential uses for the project. “Baltigram was used to mount critiques of urban planning and bring things to public attention,” he says.
The number of selfies taken at different times of the week: the cities appear to have more in common with each other than with their own suburbs. Image: Baltigram.
SPIN Unit argues that, through the photographs, they can connect with the cities” youth and engage with their needs without necessarily having to obtain their direct involvement.
“We get the info on how the city is used and what they feel about the city, without having to approach them and getting them physically somewhere to share that kind of you,” says urban planner Katherine Donaghy, referencing a different SPIN Unit project called Russalka.
That project used photographs from social media to prove to the city administration that a sandy beach they wanted to build a highway over was not a hotbed of antisocial behaviour. Rather, it was somewhere that was “bringing together tourists, locals and also ethnic Russians,” explains Cerrone.
The images used, unlike information from activists or the city, were not motivated by a specific political standpoint. “When we take a picture with Instagram or Facebook or whatever, we don’t have an agenda, we are simply expressing ourselves in space,” says Cerrone.
“It’s adding an extra dimension to your community’s stakeholders in the urban planning process,” concludes Donaghy.