Click-To-Send: Why Camera Phones Matter in Today’s News Cycle
“Click-To-Send: Why Camera Phones Matter in Today’s News Cycle”
Jeff Borenstein, M.A. Candidate, Georgetown University
On July 7, 2005 terrorists bombed targets across London, including passenger buses
and subway trains. Trapped deep inside the underground tunnels, stranded victims turned
to their camera phones and recorded the horrific scene — chaos, wreckage, survival —
and in moments the images arrived at photo-sharing websites, personal e-mail addresses,
and eventually, the front page of the BBC News website and The New York Times.
Tragedy had given way to a new form of news: camera phone images.
The media reported on the event using all possible information sources, including
eyewitnesses and survivors. Unable to deploy professional photographers to the
bombsites, the news outlets relied on user-generated content to tell the story and make
sense of the bombings. Flickr received hundreds of images from the attacks within hours,
and the BBC news website flooded with uploaded content. 2 As the story unfolded,
professional journalists and survivors on the ground converged to tell a tragic story of
enormous political consequence. Images of burned out buses and darkened subways,
taken by those directly affected by the bombs, were prominently displayed online and in
Anthony Barnes, “Attack on London: How 3G Phone Technology Created Instant
History,” The Independent, July 10, 2005, Sunday Edition, Lexis-Nexis. “
The Irish Times, “Everyone’s a Journalist Now,” July 16, 2005., News Features, p. 3,
print publications. Alexander Chadwick is one survivor whose iconic camera phone
image became a headline story in the days following the London bombings. His image,
selected among thousands, was published in popular news outlets including The Times
and the BBC. The outgrowth of user-generated content made the London Bombing a
historic turning point in the news industry.
To put the London bombing in context of other recent tragedies, the BBC received
35,000 e-mails in the aftermath of September 11th, but few photographs.3 During the
London bombing over 1,000 images and 20 videos were sent into the newsroom on the
first day.4 The London bombings happened in a converging world where online networks,
changing social norms, and ubiquitous mobile devices upended traditional news
gathering techniques. As a result, passive victims of a terrorist tragedy became active
participants in the news- making process.
A watershed moment had occurred in the journalism industry when the BBC and
The New York Times published Chadwick’s image on the front pages and on global
websites. The pale yellow light that engulfed Chadwick deep inside the London Tube
was reproduced and transmitted in the form of a digital photograph. The one-way
interaction between readers and newsmakers had ruptured, the lines blurred. Readers
witnessed a crude but striking representation of what life was like moments after the
explosion in the tube -- its rawness unmatched by professional images, its authenticity
compounded by Chadwick ‘having-been-there.’ His image and mobile photography
became news stories in the days and weeks following the bombing. Four years later the
mass media incorporates camera phone technology and citizen participation to break
David Derbyshire, “Mobiles Captured First Images,” The Daily Telegraph, July 12,
2005, p. 004
news every day. Who and what constitutes the news would never be the same after the
In the selected data, news articles describe camera phone technology and the impact
it had on the journalism industry. The authors write with an implicit mix of academic
theories, including technological determinism, Social Construction of Technology
[SCOT], and Actor Network Theory [ANT]. Technological determinism argues that
technology determines or drives our history, innovation and cultural values. SCOT takes
a less rigid approach by incorporating the societal and contextual factors surrounding a
technological change or device. For example, the theory derives meaning from people’s
interpretations or behaviors. 5 ANT ignores social context in its analysis and explores
technology as a means of connecting actors, both human and non-human.6 Yochai
Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks observes:
"Neither deterministic nor wholly malleable, technology sets some parameters of
individual and social action. It can make some actions, relationships, organizations, and
institutions easier to pursue, and others harder. In a challenging environment -- be it the
challenge natural or human -- …it can result in very different social relations that emerge
around a technology."7
As humans adapt their behaviors to objects such as the camera phone, the news
media is thrust into its swirling nexus of societal change. In today’s network information
economy, the form of news is undergoing a transformation. Who and what constitutes
news will no longer be static. “The future is here now,” wrote Dennis Dunleavy in the
Langdon Winner, “Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding It Empty: Social
Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology.” Science, Technology, &
Human Values 18, no. 3 (1993): 366.
Henrik Bruun, and Janne Hukkinen. “Crossing Boundaries: An Integrative Framework
for Studying Technological Change.” Social Studies of Science 33, no. 1
(February 2003): 106.
Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets
and Freedom. Yale University Press, 2006., 17.
aftermath of July 7, an author for Digital Journalist. “Photojournalism made history last
week…the digital camera phone is the future and we have much to learn from this
emerging technology.”8 By exploring the form of news with an integrative approach, one
can unpack the complex societal and technological factors that allowed an average citizen
such as Alexander Chadwick to create a digital photograph that made global headlines.
In “Crossing Boundaries: An Integrative Framework for Studying Technological
Change,” authors Henrik Bruun and Janne Hukkinen suggest, “The production and
diffusion of new technologies require new ways of doing things, new routines for action
and interaction.”9 Academic tools from SCOT and ANT can deconstruct the news making
system. For example, both theories seek to identify the change agents in a network or
system, such as newspaper editors, camera phone users, or the object being constructed –
the digital image. Before undergoing an analysis, Bruun and Hukkinen suggest asking
four questions prior to devising an integrative framework: “What changes in
technological change?; What is the driver of change?; What is the process of change?;
What delimits change?”.10 Each question can be explored independently of one another
or in groups.
Drawing upon Bruun’s second question one can ask, “What drives change in the
newspaper image and camera phone usage?” In this analysis, change comes from
multiple sources: A synergy is born out of citizens, camera phone technologies, and the
natural world – a digital image is created by new user behaviors. Society reinterprets the
image as a respectable and desirable object: the phone and its image become a news-
making tool. Citizen journalists now help to produce the newspaper image – a task once
Dennis Dunleavey, “Camera Phones Prevail: Citizen Shutterbugs and the London
Bombings,” The Digital Journalist, July 2005.
restricted to professional photographers and their syndicate agencies. In the aftermath of
the London bombings, the image had freed itself from the small, tightly connected
network of editors and photographers and became a democratized object that has the
potential to reach a global audience. In the network information economy, wireless data
transfers at megabit per second speeds, camera phones record the natural world in high-
resolution, and people enact the hybrid role of citizen journalists. On that tragic day in
July 2005, the forces converged so that Alexander Chadwick’s grainy image made
history and signaled a major turning point in journalism.
London Bombing Media Coverage
In the old industrial information economy, the media cultivates technology to
produce and sell a product that meets our need for social connection. It maintains a
monopoly because capital investment to reach a large audience is substantial.11 However,
in today’s network information economy, the monopoly on effective communication has
eroded and individual voices can be heard in print publications and the Internet. Citizens
find innovative ways to reach out and connect. “Like the crow in Aesop’s story,” writes
George Basalla, “[we] use technology to satisfy a pressing and immediate need.” 12 In the
case of the London bombings, the survivors’ camera phones chronicled a tragic
experience and the images shared the story with the world. Under duress in a smoked
filled London subway car, a few survivors snapped photographs with their camera phones
and transmitted the images across the Internet to viewers’ screens. Images like
Alexander Chadwick’s arrived on news editor’s desk and within an hour or two his
pictures appeared on the BBC homepage.13
George Basalla,, Owen Hannaway. The Evolution of Technology, 1989., 6.
“It was a disaster like no other,” wrote Anthony Barnes in his piece “Attack on
London; How 3G phone technology created instant history.”14 He interviewed Helen
Boaden, BBC Director of news and reported that “people were sending us [BBC] images
within minutes of the first problems, before we even knew there was a bomb.”15 She
recounted how the BBC received more than 1,000 pictures, 20 pieces of amateur video,
4,000 text messages and around 20,000 emails by Friday afternoon, approximately one
day after the attacks.16 Barnes claimed “digital technology brought the full impact of the
horror on London transport to millions in graphic detail within minutes of the
explosions.”17 His rhetoric exemplifies technological determinism, a theory that discounts
complexity and social choice in the evolution of a technology, or technology in practice.
A SCOT or ANT analysis would examine the conditions under a given scenario – the
images produced from the London bombing – and consider the various actors and
socially constructed mechanisms in its creation. For example, the BBC set up online
galleries to accept user-generated content. Cell phone carriers promoted camera phones
and 3G networks, while citizens adapted the tools to suit their needs, including the
transmission of news worthy events. The 3G network did not make history like Barnes
claimed – it was a complex story, with people such as Chadwick playing a specific role.
Despite the overt and determinist headline that claims 3G Phone Technology
created instant history, Barnes’s piece highlighted three main influencers: the news
image, camera phone users, and online networks. The synergy between the three created
an outpouring of user-generated content after the bombing, including Chadwick’s
photograph. His image was part of a vast history-making network. The survivors
reached out to the public and kept in contact with loved ones, via the Internet and mobile
images. In other words, all the pieces were in place for Chadwick’s image to make
history. And it did.
Chadwick likely stood inside a subway car during the “disaster like no other.” He
would have heard metal crashing into metal, glass breaking, and seen emergency lights
turn on, directing passengers to safe exit points. He also carried a camera phone, a
relatively common piece of technology in 2005 when approximately 300 million were
sold worldwide.18 After impact, one can only speculate about the events that took place,
but from the image it appeared to be a dark and frightening place inside that tunnel. Why
did Chadwick send the image across the Internet? What were his intentions in doing so?
Actor Network Theory brings awareness to actors “impulses to grow; to transform
themselves from micro-actors to macro-actors,” or put simply, to gain influence or
status.19 Intention is a central but not all encompassing feature of ANT. In his piece,
Barnes neglected the question of intentionality. One could argue that Chadwick and
others wanted to document the historic moment and share it with the world through the
BBC website, but there was no certainty their images would be published. The changing
social norms, namely the accepted use of camera phones as news making devices,
allowed Chadwick to act as both survivor and citizen journalist. By establishing an
online platform that allowed for user-generated content to be submitted through phones
or the Internet, the BBC played a central role in the London bombing coverage and the
evolution of news images.
Thousands of submissions traveled through Internet, from Flickr to private e-mails,
The Irish Times, 2005.
Steven Shapin, “Review: Following Scientists Around.” Social Studies of Science 18,
no. 3 (August 1988): 534.
and the BBC news desk. The full impact of the July 7 bombings reached the world as
digital transmissions, images and personal accounts. Without clear economic incentives,
Chadwick and others told the story in a visual form. What Barnes failed to describe in
his article is the power gained by news organizations. Professional journalists and
syndicate agencies such as Getty Images and the Associated Press now compete with
citizens to cover the news, giving media outlets greater choice in the content they
distribute. When disaster strikes and only citizen journalists record the event,
professional photographers face challenges in a hyper connected world where news
strikes anytime. Getting the image, from a citizen journalist or professional
photographer, trumps credentials. Citizens with camera phones can temporarily displace
professionals in the network information economy. “We've found that many of the
amateur shots have been better than those supplied by the photographic agencies,' said
Ms Boaden of the BBC.”20 The marginalizing of professionals is one unintended
consequence of ubiquitous mobile devices and an issue that deserves further exploration.
How did the BBC, a conservative news organization, decide to make public an
unverifiable, grainy, dark, and abstract image of the London bombings? It was the human
need to make sense and connect. On July 7, a moment conspired when the camera phone
images satisfied a need – to chronicle a decisive moment and share it with the world.
“The success of a technology is not something that is necessarily obvious,”21 writes John
Law, a SCOT scholar. In the case of the camera phone, a technology adapted to its users
needs, not passively by society. After the bombings, the BBC updated its web server
capacity to meet incredible viewer demand of its galleries and news stories. Pete Clifton,
the editor of BBC news interactive said of July 7, 'We know it will be, without question,
our busiest day in history.'”22 Record level demand suggests that the public wanted to
interact with images on a massive scale, an outcome partly made possible by camera
phone images and the willingness of citizen journalists to contribute for free.
To fully explore what drives the change in newspaper images and camera phone
technology one must take an integrated approach. For example, Social Construction of
Technology theory argues “technological artifacts are culturally constructed and
interpreted.” Camera phones capture breaking news events, transmit digital
replications to online networks, and produce images that can reach the cover of The New
York Times. The designers of camera phones and 3G networks could not have anticipated
these uses. Nevertheless, anyone with a camera phone can now be a news maker. In the
world of citizen news gathering, “where technology and the age-old desire to
communicate hot information…are converging and forcing traditional news organizations
to dramatically change the way they cover big news events.”24 The news industry relies
on images from citizens, made possible by the ubiquitous mobiles, changing social
norms, and online news platforms.
Camera Phones Matter in Today’s News Cycle
Dennis Dunleavy published an article in July 2005, which drew longer conclusions
about camera phones and network technologies. In reaction to the camera phone’s
ubiquity, Dunleavy wrote “What this means potentially is that everyone is a visual
communicator with a camera phone - everyone has the potential of contributing to
Trevor J. Pinch, and Wiebe E. Bijker. “The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts:
Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit
Each Other.” Social Studies of Science 14, no. 3 (August 1984): 399.
Mike Hughlett, “Cell phones send early photos, video,” The Baltimore Sun, July 8,
shaping our perceptions of major and minor events happening around the world” 25 The
average phone owner can now engage with a global audience by capturing a digital
photograph, transmitting it across online networks, and receive attribution or even
payment in exchange for the image. The emergent system, with the citizens at its core, is
born out of a human need for connection. Camera phone technology is one tool that has
enabled millions to communicate and stay in touch with images. Even though Flickr and
news websites receive millions of user-generated submissions per year, occasionally a
historical moment arrives and an image such as Chadwick’s gets published in a high-
profile outlet like The Times. Despite the surging popularity in camera phone usage and
online photo sharing networks, not every writer believes in the power of user generated
Sarah Boxer, writing for The Times, reacted critically to citizen journalism and
offered a counterpoint to Dunleavey’s enthusiasm. She argued that the images
constructed from the new interpretation of camera phones and online networks including
Flickr are superfluous, and by and large, uneventful. “The Web is supposed to be a great
place for people to get their information firsthand,” she wrote, “before it is processed.”26
But in reality, we discover processing in user-generated images. People stare at the
camera, banal and conventional compositions of non-notable events after the fact. They
lack poignancy. In evolutionary terms, we are now witnessing the amplified noise, the
rejects and unfit images worthy for destruction. However, the one-of-a-kind gems, the
decisive moments fit for reproduction exist in the same places as the throwaways.
Sarah Boxer, “On the Web, Photos Strain to Connect 7/7 and 9/11.” The New York
Times, July 9, 2005, sec. Arts.
Editors must now wade through the noise to find the spark, the best image to tell the
story. The proliferation of images available online makes for a richer news experience,
but to curate digital images takes time and new skill sets. Citizen generated content has
been a part of the news industry before the Internet’s arrival, but it is the low production
costs and ease of access that foster its explosive growth.
Before the London bombings, citizen journalists have shaped the news, from the
Rodney King assault in 1991 to the Twin Towers attack on September 11, 2001, and the
countless stories in regional papers that never made national headlines. The synergy
among camera phones, active citizens, and online networks changed the news gathering
paradigm. By publishing camera phone images, institutions like the BBC and The New
York Times leveled the barriers to entry and allowed Alexander Chadwick and millions of
others to participate in consumption and production of the news. To understand this shift
on a broader historical scale, one could use theories like SCOT and ANT to unpack the
evolution from professional news gathering to citizen generated content and the hybrid
form of news. Based on the articles published in the aftermath of July 7 and the ongoing
surge in citizen news gathering, the drivers of change to the newspaper image are the
ubiquitous camera phones, the changing social norms, and the convergence of online
networks to fuel the demand for breaking news and on-the-ground coverage.
For those who watched the London bombings unfold that fateful day in July 2005,
“The interlinked, constantly updating world of the web provided a faster, more detailed
picture of what was happening on July 7th than could be gained by passively watching
TV's rolling news coverage.”27 Among the coverage was Alexander Chadwick’s historic
photograph, a split-second moment published around the world in the form of a camera
The Irish Times, 2005.
phone image. It was recorded by a tiny piece of technology in the depths of a bombed
out subway car and transmitted to news editors instantaneously with high-speed wireless
technology. An incredible feat that has by now been routinized and refined by better
equipment and an evolving news industry. In our quest to connect and make sense of the
world, the camera phone matters more than ever and will continue to drive, but not
determine, the news.
Barnes, Anthony. “Attack on London; How 3G phone technology created instant
history,” July 10, 2005.
Basalla, George, and George Basalla, Owen Hannaway. The Evolution of Technology,
Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks, 2007.
Boxer, Sarah. “On the Web, Photos Strain to Connect 7/7 and 9/11.” The New York
Times, July 9, 2005, sec. Arts.
Bruun, Henrik, and Janne Hukkinen. “Crossing Boundaries: An Integrative Framework
for Studying Technological Change.” Social Studies of Science 33, no. 1
(February 2003): 95-116.
Derbyshire, David. “Mobiles Captured First Images,” The Daily Telegraph, July 12,
Hard, Mikael. “Beyond Harmony and Consensus: A Social Conflict Approach to
Technology.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 18, no. 4 (Autumn 1993):
The Irish Times, “Everyone’s a Journalist Now,” July 16, 2005.
Law, John. “On the Social Explanation of Technical Change: The Case of the Portuguese
Maritime Expansion.” Technology and Culture 28, no. 2 (April 1987): 227-252.
Pinch, Trevor J., and Wiebe E. Bijker. “The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts:
Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit
Each Other.” Social Studies of Science 14, no. 3 (August 1984): 399-441.
Shapin, Steven. “Review: Following Scientists Around.” Social Studies of Science 18, no.
3 (August 1988): 533-550.
Winner, L. “Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding It Empty: Social Constructivism
and the Philosophy of Technology.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 18,
no. 3 (1993): 362-378.
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Alexander Chadwick’s Camera Phone Image, London Subway, July 7th, 2005.,