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I’m working with an organisation called Punch Records at the moment on what’s called a Knowledge Transfer project. The idea is to put academics together with businesses and cultural organisations in order to try and make university knowledge ‘useful’ in the real world.

This might take some explaining, but there’s a cool payoff which I hope you’ll find interesting – and there are some great images to talk about – several on this post, and plenty more to come.

The short version is simply this: you can take the images off this page, and use them to have your own conversations online. Those conversations can (and should) be about whatever you want. Recontextualise. Share. Discuss.

What’s it all about?
If, for instance, that above image is useful for you to include in a blog post to illustrate a point you want to make about gender and race within the new British parliament, be my guest. That’s not what it was originally for, but I can certainly see how that would work.

Or you might want to use it regarding a conversation about domesticity, or comic book art – or simply use it as your Facebook profile picture. You’ll probably come up some other topic that I can’t imagine. The point of this exercise is that your use for these images in order to have whatever conversation you might want to have is not up to me, and nor is it up to Punch Records.

I’m trying to demonstrate the theory that this is potentially a positive thing – or at least that it’s natural to the online environment – and they’ve kindly given me permission to try.

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Fight the Power
Punch are going to be putting on an exhibition called Fight The Power – the art and design of global protest and propaganda. They have an amazing collection of posters and images that they’re going to have on display at Devonshire House in the Custard Factory from the 2nd to 26th of June.

Based on a single conversation over a cup of tea in their Digbeth office, they’ve given me scans of all of those images, and have entrusted me with their use online. I said I’d start something here, just as a small experiment. Which is what this is.

My job is to do something with these pictures – in order to explain and demonstrate my theory of how the internet works by actually putting it into practice – and show how that can be useful. Not ‘useful’ necessarily simply as promotion – but as engagement, dissemination, wider participation… that sort of thing.

The working theory
You may recall a little while back that I posted a blog entry about the Five Ages of Media. My contention is that digital media – and specifically the internet – works differently than broadcast media.

Simply put, on the web, you don’t have a platform to shout to an undifferentiated mass of people – so just putting up a webpage that acts as a brochure, and says “come to our exhibition” doesn’t really work.

Instead, the web is a conversational medium – and there are really only two main types of content:

1) The conversation;
2) The stuff about which the conversation is taking place.

This second category of thing is what is often referred to as a ‘social object’ – a term coined by Jyri Engeström to describe the way in which sociality online is not simply about relationships, but particularly about sharing things like videos, photos, audio and text.

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It occurs to me that with the kinds of images that we have access to with the Fight the Power exhibition, there are all sorts of conversations that can be had online – and I want to invite and encourage that.

The Susan Boyle effect
But first, I want to talk about Susan Boyle. You may have heard of her. The video of her on YouTube is currently the second most watched of all time with over 134 million views, spread between the two different uploaded versions of the same televised event.

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And while a lot of people saw that moment on television, I suspect 134 million is a larger number as far as audiences are concerned. But ‘audiences’ is the wrong word – because, as I said, this isn’t broadcasting.

People didn’t just sit and watch the ‘Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent’ Youtube video in the same way they sat and watched Britain’s Got Talent on television. That is – they didn’t just consume it. They sent the link to their friends, they blogged it, they posted about it on Twitter and Facebook. In other words, they used it as part of their online conversations.

On television, Susan Boyle is broadcasting. On YouTube, she becomes a social object. Emails with the subject ‘Check this out’. Discussions that include the video as evidence of “this is what I mean“. That sort of thing.

And why was it so powerful as a part of the conversation? Because it’s a good and very simple story. People are hard-wired for narrative. The theory that there are only really seven stories and we keep telling them to ourselves over and over through different media contexts is a reasonably compelling one.

Susan Boyle is the ugly duckling. The moment she opens her mouth is the moment she becomes the beautiful swan. This is not a statement of aesthetic judgment, but a description of the story arc. She overcomes adversity, surprises her detractors, and returns to her village a hero.

And the reason it was so popular is, I would maintain, precisely because it’s so easy to use that example to tell that archetypal story. It’s a YouTube clip. You can just link to it or embed it, point and say “See?”.

Let’s have a look at that screengrab again – but notice something else this time:

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Susan Boyle may be the second most viewed YouTube clip of all time – but the first is Charlie Bit My Finger.

There is nothing remotely ‘broadcasting’ about Charlie Bit My Finger. There is no scenario in which a television executive sat at a boardroom table and announced a plan for the next great TV hit – in which a boy is bitten by a younger sibling and then cries about it.

It’s phenomenally successful on viewership figures. Perhaps the most-watched minute of video on the planet. But it would be rubbish television. It success lies in its function as a social object. It’s useful as part of a story – or a range of different stories – we want to tell each other.

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Protest and propaganda as social objects
My intention here, then, is to seed conversation. Not to define what that conversation is, but to experiment with the idea of taking interesting, provocative and sometimes controversial works, and encouraging you and anyone you know to reappropriate those works, adapt them and have the conversations you want to have, using these as the springboard.

That billboard above, for instance, is ripe for a bunch of different kinds of conversations.

It’s not a way of controlling the message, as many businesses want to do – and nor is it about ‘viral marketing’. But as Pete Ashton points out – this is actually the secret to winning at culture. When people use your creations to have conversation, that’s what constitutes wild success in the online environment, which is – let’s not forget – a communication medium rather than a marketplace.

Where to from here?
I want to finish with another couple of pieces that I think might spark a bit of conversation – and I’ll be making some other images available over the life of this project in the next couple of months.

These are striking, noteworthy and sometimes surprising images of protest and propaganda – but I’m not going to try and second-guess what you’re going to use them for – or (perhaps controversially) try and track where or how you’ve used them.

While that might make things difficult from a research perspective to measure the impact or effect of the use of these images, it places them firmly in the category of shareable media.

Either hotlink the images from this page, copy and paste the picture, download and re-post the file – or even screengrab what’s here. If I see some of these conversations, or if you’re happy to tell me about where you’ve used them and in what context, I’d be delighted to hear about it.

But the point is that social objects (like these theoretically are) do not define the conversation, but rather contextualise and inspire it. It might not be what you and I are talking about – but it is the reason you and I are talking.

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I’ve used these images here partly as a way to get them out into the public domain and get them circulating so that I can do my research and test my theories in full view of the crew of Punch Records (and anyone reading this blog) – but I’ve also used them as the springboard into a conversation of my own.

This conversation has nothing to do with Nelson Mandela, Lesbianism, the IRA, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, or racial sterotypes. Nor does it have anything to do with the socio-political history of either the UK or South Africa (where these images come from).

It’s about social media theory, and the application of theory to practice in a context where there is clearly a promotional imperative for at least one of the partners involved.

It’s an opportunity for me to try out these ideas and say: “I know what I think these images are about, and what they make me want to discuss – but the question is… what do they make you want to talk about?”

I’d be interested to hear your comments in the blog – but even more interested to see you take these images and start your own conversations wherever you like to do that.

Go for it.