Thursday, 24 March 2011

What is an image board? Reflections on Image Threads

I've just taken down the Image Threads installation that I described in my last post. It wasn't a fabulous success, but it was enough to give me some reflections on two issues:
1) Why interactive installations are difficult to set up
2) What is an image board

I'll start on an up-note. While the contributions to the installation were very limited in number, those that did come up towards the end of the installation period were quite interesting in terms of how people made use of the medium. While the system was designed to replicate the topic-threads of web-based image boards, the realisation of the system in a three-dimensional environment led to three-dimensional, cross-thread references. In addition, the flexibility of the materially realised medium, the postcard, allowed people to make additions to other peoples' comments on the same card. This led to a small but recognisable 'trending topic' about squirrels and other small creatures becoming visible at two different trajectories - across different parts of the installation and within a single card.

The limitation on the number of posts to the irl image board was caused by two main factors. Firstly, the timing and placement of the installation to coincide with my MA course's work in progress seminars was ineffective. I had hoped that with over thirty people in the same building for three consecutive days, the installation would get a lot of traffic. However, the schedule for the days was very intensive, with only short breaks during which it was hard for people to relax and take their minds off the content of the seminars. Activity did rise in the last 24 hours of the installation, but this was really too late for any significant dialogue between cards to flourish.

Secondly, the balloon-mounted structure of the installation turned out to be unsuitable. While I had hoped that the balloons would sink a little when loaded with cards, making popular threads more noticeable, they inevitably sank so much that the cards lay flat on the floor or on the table, making the thread appear closed and inactive. This happened regardless of the amount of balloons used to hold one thread, especially after a couple of hours had passed and the helium started to seep out of them, reducing their buoyancy at an alarming rate. It's interesting here to observe the amount of social agency possessed by the balloons, as they effectively silenced the human actors in the installation.

However, the response of users to the failure of the balloons taught me a lot about the nature of the thing I was simulating. While on the first day, when there was very little activity, the sinking of the balloons discouraged people who might have posted something, on the second and third days, as activity increased, people responded inventively to the problem, essentially restructuring the threads around the nearby furniture to keep them alive. Since this furniture just happened to be a computer, the installation seemed to absorb meaning from its surroundings as it was restructured by the users.

For me, this foregrounded the fact that an image board owes very little to its fundamental structure and a huge amount to its users. Even when the structure fails, if the users have enough motivation they will assert their own agency over the structure to make it work. This interpretation illuminates a very important aspect of the history of 2channel (2ch), futaba channel (2chan) and 4chan. All three of these platforms owe their success to people manipulating existing structures for their own ends, be it the ascii art of the text-based 2channel, the set-up of, and migration to, futaba when 2channel was in danger of being shut down, or the impressive ability of the 4chan community to organise powerful, coordinated actions on a mass scale when the hive mind sets upon a target. While Image Threads was a small project with a low level of response, it has succeeded in highlighting the problematic nature of technologically determinist accounts of the development of internet cultures.