This picture keeps appearing in my Twitter timeline today:

Morgan Fire - Station 2

It’s a signpost being used as part of an attempt to record environmental change over a period of time, specifically to record the way in which a wild landscape recovers from a bush fire. The idea is that you (a passing walker) read the information board, you pop your camera phone into the bracket, take a shot, upload it to a social media platform and tag it #morganfire02. The hashtag allows the photos to be captured by the agency behind the project, and the bracket on the station will ensure that the shots are consistent: they can now be used to produce a crowdsourced time-lapse image. Pretty clever, right? Well Twitter users think so!

There is a nice collection of tweets on the #morganfire02 hashtag which chat about the project, and all seem to agree it is a “cool”, “awesome” or “fantastic” innovation in public/government comms and public science. People are excited about the crowdsourcing and just the really cool use of Twitter.

Oh hang on. Wait a second. There aren’t many photos of the landscape though. Ah. Something has gone wrong. Let’s just back up a bit here.

The idea is that people at this station – Morgan Fire 2 – take a photo with their camera in the bracket, upload it, and tag it #morganfire02 (there are also tags for stations 1 through 4). Somewhere along the way people have lost their way with what this is and through wishing to talk about the data collection project they have actually poisoned the data well itself by posting photos of the sign and using the hashtag. The fact is there is more poison in there than data now: the hashtag mostly returns photos of the signs or people pointing out that the hashtag only has photos of the sign. That’s probably not much more than an inconvenience for the project as they can easily work out what is legitimate data and what is backchannel chatter (they may not have anticipated so much cleaning but they can do it without much hassle). So, why am I bothering to write this one up? If you poke this a little bit all sorts of interesting things spill out of it. Here are just a few:

1. The data thing

(I’ve covered that above)

2. Why and how people use hashtags.

I think we know that when people use hashtags it’s often #weird. People deploy them with a data collection / retrieval purpose (the original intent here), people use them to tie tweets into larger conversations, or they use the hash symbol as a sort of grammatical marker. This is a nice case study in the fact that there is a literacy problem around hashtags. It’s a problem that runs deeply and runs into groups of people who claim to be interested in (and possibly expert in) social media and data projects.

The image of the board was shared by Sergei Krupenin. He simply says it’s a “Cool use of Twitter“. He later tweeted that he had contributed to the project by taking and tagging a photo at station 1 and he demonstrates that he’s quite considerate in the way he uses the hashtag – he didn’t tag the photo of the sign photo because it wasn’t the data the project wanted.

After he uploads it, the photo gets taken up and shared but people begin to add in the hashtag #morganfire02. That means that at some point someone has read the sign in Krupenin’s photograph and then manually distributed his photo on with a new caption that includes an unneeded and unhelpful hashtag. One tweet that is hash tagged has had 250 retweets at the time of writing.

From then on people are either recirculating material with the hashtag without considering what it means or they are taking it all in and still choosing to hashtag their tweet. As I said: this is a literacy problem, and it is a literacy problem that befuddles experts and commentators alike.

3. The cool thing.

This project is interesting but it has not been proven to be effective. People (those experts again) don’t find it interesting, they find it to be cool, awesome, fantastic and a great example of using Twitter. Is it though? We don’t know. The station has only collected a handful of photos – will it ever be able to prove it’s worth? Or are the community who shared this image simply saying that to have come up with an idea is enough? If they are, should we expect more of them?

4. The project actually is highly likely to “fail”.

There are several design flaws in this project that will prevent it from being effective at producing a useful time-lapse photograph – here are three: only hikers with high levels of digital literacy will be able to contribute (and only those with an inclination will); there are dozens of shapes and sizes of camera phone so the bracket doesn’t actually give a consistent angle needed for the time-lapse film; a quality time-lapse image needs consistent intervals between images but this method will not yield them.

But actually it’s all very cool

Despite all of this, I like this project, and I do think it’s quite cool. When I talk to students about “digital” and “innovation” we spend a lot of time talking about the fact that sometimes the obvious and publicly stated intention for a piece of work isn’t the intention at all, or perhaps isn’t where the real benefit lies. Often marketing campaigns that offer ‘high levels of brand engagement through an interactive digital experience’ seem to be as much about selling in PR stories to the news (that get wide coverage) as they are about serving the small numbers of people who actually take part (an ARG game is a classic case study here). Innovation can become its own story, and that’s what has happened here with this hashtag bombing. But this project’s engagement metrics have taken a boost by people sharing photos of a sign and even if that was unintended someone somewhere must be delighted s they now have something to show for this work. And it’s not just empty numbers. It’ll be hard to quantify the value of it, but thousands more people are now aware of a Californian wildfire, and they’re thinking about their environment, even if it’s just for the fews seconds it takes for them to sloppily retweet about it.

But more than that the thing that is most clever, the coolest thing about this project is that anyone who comes across this sign in the wild is confronted with something new and different and there is a digital disruption to their journey. “What the hell is? Do what with my camera? Why? Huh! A fire you say?”; even if they don’t contribute a photograph, the digital project has intervened in their day; every “correct” photo is a synecdoche of engagement with the environment, not the totality of it. If you see that sign, I imagine, your experience of the area would be reframed even if you did not contribute to the production of the time-lapse. Perhaps that’s what prompted Matt Hickman, over at Station 04, to take a series of photos (1 | 2 | 3) outside of the bracket which he has tagged #morganfire04.

Yeah, that’s pretty cool.

Pictures:  Ken-Ichi Ueda,
Sergei Krupenin

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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