Phonar: Openly Networked Digital Storytelling
Phonar, an abbreviation of PHOtography and NARrative, is an in-person course at Coventry University in the UK and an open online course for as many as 35,000 participants around the world who co-create learning communities through a variety of media including blogs and a blog hub, Twitter (using the #phonar hashtag), and a Google+ community. The class grew out two forces that were created by the advent of digital media and global networks: (1) the problem of how to monetize cultural products such as photographs now that they can be so easily reproduced and distributed; and (2) the phenomenon of open, connected, hybrid courses that take place simultaneously online and in a physical classroom. In Phonar, the subject matter of photography as a vehicle for transmedia storytelling meshes with — and mutually amplifies — the networked forums through which students and instructor communicate.
Case Study compiled by: Howard Rheingold
Much of the Web is visual. Together with the Web’s facilitation of communication among geographically separated people through text, image, video, and voice, the ease of sharing images online created the conditions for a new kind of open, connected learning about photography as a storytelling medium — and also about the new social realities of what had, traditionally, been a solitary medium. The kind of networked co-learning among photographers and their audiences that Phonar highlights feels to me like a version of what Shelly Terrell calls “passionate learning networks.”
Jonathan Worth is a professional photographer whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Vogue, among others, and has been commissioned by clients including Levis and Sony. The idea that became Phonar started to evolve when Worth was asked to teach a photography class at a point in his own career when he was trying to deal with the transformation in the photography profession that digital media were instigating.
“I said I would teach courses, but they had to reflect the realities of what I was facing as a photographer at the time,” Worth recalled when we videochatted about Phonar. “I’d done a course that was probably written in the 70s by people who probably practiced in the 60s and my practice as a photographer was through the 90s and the noughties, during which the world of photography had changed fundamentally. Traditional approaches seemed inappropriate. For that reason, I couldn’t, in good conscience, teach the classic photography course that I had studied and that people were expecting. At that time, I was also beginning to write publicly about what happens when you realize that you’re a maker who produces a scarce product. I was personally interested in what happens when that formerly scarce product becomes digitized and infinitely abundant, as photography has become. I was struggling to cope with the implications of that development for my own livelihood.”
The question that drove Worth to seek out others who were attempting to make a living with cultural products was “how to develop a sustainable professional practice now that digital reproduction separates the physicality of photographs from their content, and digital networks make that content potentially available to everybody in the world at no cost and no profit to the photographer.” Worth notes that his thinking was most strongly influenced by someone who wasn’t a photographer — the science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, who gives away free Creative Commons licensed versions of his books online and still manages to sell healthy numbers of copies of the paper version.
Worth photographed Doctorow for a magazine assignment, and when he got to know him, Worth decided to experiment with Doctorow’s strategy: The free copies Doctorow gives away serve as no-cost marketing vehicles for the ones his publishers sell. Obscurity, Doctorow claims, is far more threatening to writers like him than piracy. “It’s difficult to monetize celebrity, but no one has worked out how to monetize obscurity,” is how Worth paraphrases Doctorow. Most writers and photographers would love to become well-known enough for large numbers of people to download copies of their work. Doctorow argues that the digital copies he has deliberately given away for free have multiplied sales of the paper edition by people who were already Doctorow fans, and other free copies brought Doctorow’s writing to the attention of entirely new populations of readers.
Worth started making his own photographs publicly available for use under Creative Commons licenses because, in his own words, “I was already unintentionally and unavoidably giving away digital versions of my work but, unlike Doctorow, I wasn’t making money at it.”
Phonar grew from an online/in-person course (Worth and his Phonar successor, Matt Johnston, call it an “OUCH” for “Open Undergraduate Course Hybrid”) on “picturing the body,” which ended up being shortened to “Picbod.” Worth credits Jonathan Shaw and Shaun Hides for encouraging his first forays into open learning and Coventry University and “taking a gamble on me.” Johnston, also a photographer and editor, assisted with Picbod and then took it over when Worth started devoting himself to Phonar.
Like many others who have stumbled onto, found their way, or were shown how to tap into the power of networked learners, Worth opened the class to comments from people beyond the undergraduates in physical co-presence at Coventry U. He initially opened online access out of a sense that other people out there might well know something about the questions Worth was asking of his Coventry students:
“When it came to teaching this stuff, I realized that I didn’t have all the answers and that — in a connected classroom — the chances of me being more clever than all those people were virtually nil, so I decided to put the class on a blog and ask for help. So much help was forthcoming that I soon found myself curating some of the questions and answers that people threw in. It turned out that asking the help of networks I didn’t yet know was pretty effective, but getting all the learners and the media to work together had a bumpy start. It took a lot of learning on my part and that of the first nine students. Figuring out how to do what we wanted to do was such a great experience that we ended up going on this journey together through many different media.”
Picbod started on a Blogger platform in 2009. In subsequent years, as Worth started evolving Phonar and his assistant Matt Johnston took over Picbod, Phonar began to spread across media. The subject of Picbod was the depiction of the human form and issues around people photographing people. “That’s not my area of expertise in any way shape or form and I wasn’t really that comfortable teaching it,” said Worth, “so what I chose to focus on was the idea of the artifact. This idea of what is it that we do that can be of value, exploring this idea of generative artifacts. I was inspired by my reading of Kevin Kelly’s “Better Than Free.” I was aware that the digital image was very different from the physical artifact and had very different properties even though I was using the same language to describe both and this was really confusing for me. A photograph is a photograph.”
“Of course, a photograph on a wall has very different properties than the digital image made of pixels. One of them is fixed in a place and ages over time. You have to stand in the same room to experience it, you have to be in a specific geographic space. The other kind of image is made of pixels, bits, and information and it connects people, it reaches out, it has a very different set of attributes than the digital print.”
“These classes took place physically at Coventry University. I have always derived my energy from the people in the same room. The core course is not massive – 10-30 students in person. And not all of what goes on in the physical classroom is accessible to the outside world. But adding the online dimension set loose a generative force: there are direct correlations between the subject matter I teach and the mode of delivery; one has to embody the other. Teaching about networks couldn’t be confined to the physical classroom, although that is where the course is rooted. Also, I couldn’t really hide any longer that I was putting the classes online after the first time it crashed the server. I had to explain to the school administration what I was doing and why. The reactions from, not my local managers or from the two people that really supported me, but from elsewhere, was that if you give this stuff away for free, no one’s going to pay for it. Who would pay for an education if you can get it all for free online?”
“I said, ‘You know what? That’s what I used to think as a photographer but it turned out that my product wasn’t what I thought it was.’ I had a whole new set of attributes. Yes, I can sell prints, but I’m not going to sell the digital image. The digital image does other things — it connects me to audiences, whole new audiences, distributed audiences that might actually want to buy the physical artifact or my services.”
Although Worth had not built it into the course, the first cohort of Picbod students spontaneously decided to mount an exhibition of their own: “We had all these people joining the class online who were submitting pictures from all over the world. Very few of them were practicing photographers at that point. They were architects, librarians, undergraduates, musicians, printers, chicken farmers – a bunch of different people.” They were all pitching and sharing images, then the Picbod community decided to “show what they could do that an iPhone photographer couldn’t.” The community of learners was taking ownership of their co-learning because Worth gave them the tools, freedom, guidance, and encouragement to do so.
When Worth decided to take on the broad subject of photography as a storytelling medium in a digital age, he didn’t recruit accomplished participants for Phonar’s online network, or even look for the best photographers. Instead, he actively sought photographers who were engaged, passionate, and committed, no matter what their experience. Whether they were interested in car photography, wedding photography, landscapes, photojournalism, or animals didn’t matter as long as the subject matter of their photography personally mattered to them.
The connecting thread was “21st century storytelling.” Worth posed tasks for the online community – “a set of problems with no answers.” In the Phonar FAQs, he described these questions/koans/learning activities this way: “The syllabus is designed to introduce a complex problem at the outset which we chip away at through combination of the guest lectures, seminars and tasks. By the final task, you should be ready to grapple with that initial issue. We will be investigating notions of ‘trans-media’ and how this can be applied to modern photographic practices.”
The narrative assignments are broad enough for everybody to apply it to their interests. “The key is that they are passionately interested in their subject. That kind of interest is at the heart of the Phonar course.” Phonar challenges photographers to move from their traditional perspective of telling a story from just their point of view to curating and contextualizing the work of others, as well, to engage with networks and digital distribution, and grapple with the creative and professional problems and opportunities these new, technology-driven phenomena represent.
Worth acknowledges that his own peer learning network had set a model for the networks he encouraged his students to cultivate: “I rely on the web of friends I made and continue to make who are all better than me at different things. We all share within these networks of information and knowledge about what we’re trying to do, and we are all generous with our sharing in the open. As we do that, we draw students into that same kind of network-weaving and I hope they see the value in that approach to learning, as well.”
Tapping into networks, the Picbod and Phonar participants learned, requires one to open up to networks. “Peer” implies some degree of mutual trust and reciprocity. One online hub draws together related contributions, no matter where they come from, through tags and hashtags. The hub links contributions to their owners’ blogs, where comments can begin to weave relationships and interconnected subcommunities. There is a commons, but it acts as a connector between individuals and the subcommunities they grow when they click on links, look at each other’s work, comment on each other. Without peer feedback, it wouldn’t be possible for any reasonable number of instructors to comment on every learner’s work. Nor would it likely be as attractive to participants as it has proved to be.
The number of people who show up for Phonar is evidence that many others are interested in the questions Jonathan Worth has been asking about developing a sustainable professional photography practice in the digital age. Worth noted that one guest-lecturer flew from Portland, Oregon to the UK to deliver a class because he thought what Phonar was doing was valuable. People in the class have what Worth calls “bonding moments” when they begin to converse with each other about their shared inquiries.
The best courses in physical classrooms engender co-learning communities, but traditional curriculum does not afford continuing communication among co-learners when the course is over. Online, co-learning subcommunities have many ways to stay in touch. The individual blogs and their comment threads, Tweetchats, and other conversations among Phonar participants continue in multiple forms, even when the Coventry class isn’t in session and activity in the hub is suspended.
Weaving the lectures, tasks, and tools into a coherent course is itself a shared purpose. Worth definitely provides structure, and lectures are part of the mix, but a great deal of the fuel for participants’ enthusiasm is the co-responsibility for making observations about photographs, encounters with photographers into a coherent whole.
Worth pointed me to a visualization of the Twittersphere to illustrate the kind of peer network he, his colleagues, their students share. Martin Hawksey built a Twitter social network visualization tool, TAGSExplorer, that shows the nodes and networks that Tweet about particular hashtags. Alan Levine, who is also instrumental in the evolution of ds106, a digital storytelling class that doesn’t focus exclusively on photography, showed Worth how to use TAGSExplorer to see the reach of Tweets related to Phonar. “When I show this to students, I show them how to search and drill down to see who’s talking about their work and who else those people are talking about.”
Visualizing the networks on Twitter helped Worth make the power of online social networks more concrete to students. Another powerful tool for showing network power was TweetReach: “I remember the day when a student made a kind of back-of-the-classroom, semi-joking remark in our class at Coventry and someone Tweeted it with the #phonar hashtag. When we saw that it had reached more than 10,000 people, we all looked at each other – one of those penny-drop moments when everyone in the room understood how large the online part of the course had become.”
Worth brought some of the most well-known and influential photographers in the world into the Phonar network by interviewing them, making the interviews available to students, then talking about the interviews on Twitter. “When a well-known photographer starts to Tweet feedback or answers to the questions students are posing on Twitter, he exposes the students to his entire network of other well-known, influential photographers, who suddenly start to see what we’re talking about and they join the discussion as well. It would never be possible to run the class with that many rock stars in a conventional course. So Phonar has become a kind of dating agency: people will Tweet that they want to meet some photographer of renown and I connect them via email. They often connect via Skype and pay for a portfolio review with PayPal. Now, by participating in the Phonar network, anyone can get access to world-class portfolio reviewers who will look at their work for an affordable fee.”
Creative Commons (CC) licensing has been an important way to break out of the old photography business model of selling photographs exclusively as physical artifacts: “CC licensing made possible everything I have. It enabled me to break out of a dying business model with my photography and it’s enabled me to learn and to gain the trust of the other people in the open community as well. I haven’t run away with the family silverware and try to sell the stuff for instance. People share generously. Many have helped at their own cost throughout the course.”
“There are four parts to Phonar,” says Worth. “Almost all of the classes contextualize the problem with a lecture, introduce a tool kit – here’s a great way to remix, here’s a great way to use your camera, organize around a theme – try thinking about the problem this way, how would you deal with the theme with your tool kit, then there is applying this knowledge – going and do something with it.”
When I asked for an example of the thematic component, Worth talked about a quote by the famous photographer Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” (A sad irony is that Capa died while covering combat.)” A photographer and photography teacher, Tod Papageorge, changed the Capa quote slightly. What he said, Worth recalls, is “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough.” A lecture by professor David Campbell called “Narrative, Power and Responsibility” expands on Papageorge’s quote: “Without context,” Worth says, paraphrasing Campbell, “if you don’t understand the situation you walk into, you can be the greatest technician in the world, but if you don’t know what to point your camera at, your pictures will lack significance. We make this into part of the thematic toolkit by asking the students to read a text and posing a photography problem to tackle, using themes from the book.”
Worth argues that the course and the current situation in photography reflect each other. Just as the print is no longer the product of photography, Worth contends that “information is not the product that the university sells, it’s the mentored live learning experience. By making a version online, we turn this asset into an outward-facing asset, so my focus is on having a really, really fun, loud time in the classroom and making it as open as possible.”
The Coventry course takes place in the final year of a three-year degree program, one of the last courses in the program — the final class meeting is their final exhibition. “These are technically advanced students,” says Worth. “Phonar is a way for them to start many projects before they pick a few they think are the most successful and develop, polish, hone them for their final exhibition. “The learning activities focus on the idea of being a trusted source, a credible witness, and being a publisher as well as a storyteller. The three strands that come together in the course are art design, storytelling, and publishing.”
The context of the professional photographer has changed, and not just because their images are infinitely reproducible. The special skills of serious photographers are now, in part, widespread literacies: “Now that everybody has the ability to make and distribute images through their phones, everybody is a potential witness, image maker, and publisher. Professionals have to think about what we do differently, given this situation. Being able to make a photograph that lasts two hundred years isn’t a skill that you can get on an iPhone, nor is it something you can download on YouTube. You need mentoring and specialist equipment. The storytelling, being a credible witness and trusted source also takes some key learning and understanding about the gravity of the role of the storyteller.”
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