The Challenge of Participation: Flickr Photostreams and Tumblr as Backchannels in the Digital Media Classroom

CJ_Final.inddCinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol. 1 Winter/Spring 2013
Melanie E.S. Kohnen
New York University

How do you foster meaningful participation and collaboration in the (digital media) classroom? I often ask myself and others this vexing question while preparing a new syllabus or class meeting. An increasingly frequent response to the challenge of fostering participation is the use of social media during and outside of class. While much has been written about the integration of Twitter in the classroom, I have found Flickr and Tumblr most successful for creating a space for an ongoing engagement with course content.

Students in my Web 2.0 class collaborate to analyze the technological and cultural significance of the iPad, Summer 2012.

Students in my Web 2.0 class collaborate to analyze the technological and cultural significance of the iPad, Summer 2012.

Both Flickr and Tumblr are social media platforms that focus on the archiving and circulation of visual media. Flickr focuses almost exclusively on photos: users can archive their own photos on the site, follow other users’ photostreams, and join groups based on shared interests. Flickr also allows users to embed their photos in other websites. In contrast to Flickr, Tumblr’s central feature is not the publication of original content, but rather the reblogging of other users’ posts. With the click of one button, each Tumblr user can re-publish another user’s post on his/her own account. This almost instantaneous sharing of content has contributed to Tumblr’s current popularity. Even though Flickr and Tumblr differ in their purpose and functionality, both emphasize participation and community as core features of their infrastructure, which is a central reason I have included them in my classes.

Beyond fostering participation, it is also important to me that these platforms allow students to experience many of the principles of digital media that emerge from course readings and case studies. Thus, I use the features of Flickr and Tumblr to weave our theoretical explorations of copyright, privacy, interface design, user-generated content, etc. into a lived experience that shapes students’ encounters with digital media. The ultimate goal of the social media backchannel is getting students to realize that thinking about and using digital media are processes that necessarily converge both in class and in everyday life.

I want to highlight a few components of the initial assignment design that I have found crucial to the successful integration of Flickr and Tumblr into my classes. The first component is the collective ownership of the backchannel. As I explain in the assignment guidelines, “We will use Tumblr to share news, art, and activism about and involving digital media. Everyone shares the same username and password—this means everyone also takes responsibility for curating the posts and reblogs that appear on our Tumblr account.” Sharing one account among the entire class creates an immediate sense of shared space and collaborative creation of content; as such, this assignment component draws on important principles of participatory culture, a defining feature of Web 2.0 and social media (the shared account also cuts down on logistical issues such as everyone needing to keep track of twenty or more different accounts). Everyone identifies their individual contributions via tags that can consist of a real name or a pseudonym, which allows students to maintain a level of anonymity in their posts. Once again, making this decision allows students to experience defining features of digital media—in this case, identification vs. anonymity, online and offline identities—that become topics of discussion later on in the semester.

While the overall guidelines and goals for the Flickr and Tumblr assignments are very similar, the platforms play slightly different roles in my classrooms based on their interface design and perceived purpose in the world of social media. For instance, Flickr’s main purpose is to share photographs with other members of the Flickr community; this community aspect sets Flickr apart from other photo-hosting sites such as Photobucket or Picasa. Drawing on this aspect of Flickr, I encouraged students in my Web 2.0: Consumption/Collaboration/Creativity class to document and share precisely those processes that often remain invisible or ephemeral in the classroom: brainstorming, drafting, work environments, and setbacks (see Flickr assignment).


Instead of focusing only on finished assignments or the concluding insights of class discussions, our photos on Flickr allowed us to think more deeply about the process of working with and through digital media. Another aspect of Flickr that allowed for a connection of theory and practice in this class was Flickr’s integration of Creative Commons licensing. Every Flickr user has the option of changing the default “all rights reserved” setting on their photos to a Creative Commons license, which grants other users the right to reuse and transform their images. After discussing the current state of copyright law and its impact on remix culture, I gave my students the option of changing the default setting of our Flickr photostream to a Creative Commons license. My students voted for a “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike” license, which gave others the option to reuse and remix our photographs for non-commercial purposes if they credited us and made their content available under the same license. Making this decision turned my students’ engagement with copyright from an abstract consideration into personal decision. Flickr thus served as bridge between social media as object of critical analysis and as collective experience.

Overall, the integration of Flickr into my class on Web 2.0 yielded many positive results, but students did not embrace Flickr as much as I had hoped. They readily contributed photos when Flickr was a clearly defined part of in-class work or an assignment, but with a few exceptions, they did not take the initiative to contribute photos.

Partially motivated by my mixed experience with Flickr, I decided to switch from Flickr to Tumblr for my Introduction to Digital Media class last fall. I chose Tumblr for two reasons: familiarity and functionality. Tumblr had been gaining significant traction as a social media platform, and I imagined that it would thus be more familiar to my students than Flickr. In addition, Tumblr makes it very easy to post and share content in multiple formats, including text, images, URLs, and video. Since an introductory course can only include a limited number of topics, my goal was to use Tumblr as a space where everyone could introduce additional material. As a way to ensure that new material would regularly appear on our Tumblr, I decided that one student would take up the role of Tumblr curator and be responsible for adding and reblogging posts related to our topic of the week. I encouraged all other students to contribute as well but left the parameters of participation open (you can see the Tumblr at


In the first few weeks of using Tumblr, I had a similar experience to my Web 2.0 course. The designated Tumblr curator contributed most of the posts, and other students only contributed sparingly. Pondering solutions to this dilemma, I finally realized that the missing component of the assignment was bringing the backchannel into the foreground of class meetings. The main purpose of Tumblr, after all, is to circulate photos, GIFs, video clips, quotes, news, and thoughts via reblogging posts. A single post can be reblogged thousands of times, indicating its importance to thousands of individual users. Similarly, my students wanted to talk about the posts that they had made and seen on our Tumblr—they wanted to share what they found important about their contributions. Once we set aside the beginning of class meetings to talk about the latest posts that had appeared on our Tumblr, participation took off.

Over the course of the semester, the thirty-six students and myself generated over four hundred fifty posts that were frequently reblogged by other Tumblr users. Posts appeared at night, on the weekend, and even during class. Our Tumblr also gained nineteen followers. I believe that the reblogs and followers helped students to see that their contributions resonated and had meaning beyond our class. A few students also decided to share work they had produced publicly on our Tumblr (you can see a few remix videos here and Tactical Media projects here).

Student evaluations confirmed the value of Tumblr as a place of continued conversation in and out of class. One student wrote, “I really liked that we went over content posted in the beginning of class”; another student added, “I contributed when I had to (because it was my week), for participation (because I knew it counted), but mostly because I was invested in the topic of my posts and the class as a whole.” The most encouraging feedback was a student’s statement that “[t]he tumblr made me feel very up-to-date on digital media news and helped bring the interacting of the class to a whole new level. Please continue this!” I am indeed continuing the use of Tumblr in my Spring 2013 Introduction to Digital Media course, and you can follow our posts here:

Further reading:

Grigar, Dene. Guiding Principles for Born Digital Scholarship and Teaching. HASTAC, 2011.
Hybrid Pedagogy: A Digital Journal of Teaching & Technology. Concordance of Digital Tools.
Koh, Adeline. Twitter in a Higher Education Classroom: An Assessment. Journal of Victorian Culture Online. September 2012.
Lothian, Alexis. #121machine…and the Trolls? Teaching with Twitter. A Cautionary Tale? Storify, 2012.
Marshall, Kelli. I Hate Twitter, That Piece of Crap” And Other Comments From My Course Evaluations.”, 2011.
ProfHacker: Tips about Teaching, Technology, and Productivity, a blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Whitson, Roger. Annotating the Paperless Classroom: Collaboration and the Invidiual Reader. 2011.
Young, Adriana Valdez. Follow, Heart, Reblog, Crush: Teaching Writing with Tumblr. Learning Through Digital Media: Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy, The New School, 2011.

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