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You Can Run but You Cannot Hide: Mobile phone video cameras in social situations

“I found my creativity when filming and editing the films.” That’s how a middle-aged mother describes her experience using a mobile video camera for one month. Although it is easy to say that constantly carrying a video camera affects the life of its carrier, it is also equally important to notice how a person with a video camera affects other people.

Study in Milan

In order to better understand how people use their mobile phone video cameras, we conducted a user study with twenty-two participants in Italy from 2003 to 2004. Our scope included video recording, as well as sharing and preserving videos.

Participants consisted of four groups: two families and two groups of friends. One family was a typical Italian family with six members and three generations—two grandparents, a middle-aged mother, and three children (aged 15, 16, and 18.) The father of the family did not participate in the study. The second family consisted of five members and three generations—two grandparents, a middle-aged father, and a son and his girlfriend, both in their twenties. All members of these two families were familiar with information and communication technologies.

The first group of friends consisted of five members between ages 15 to 17, and one 24-year old. The second was a coherent group of six socially active young adults who attended either university or college and who spent a lot of time together. Both groups were mixed gender.

We supplied participants with video phones equipped with video editing software and 128Mb memory cards for the duration of the study. They were able to cut segments of video clips, combine them, and change audio tracks. The participants had software for editing the still images and they were also able to transfer the multimedia material created on the phone to the computer. Furthermore, we gave each group a video camera for shooting DVD or TV-quality video.

The study consisted of an introductory meeting, a four-week usage period, final interviews, and data analysis. We asked the participants to use the mobile devices and the additional software as naturally as possible. Furthermore, we asked them to send the material they created to those with whom they would communicate in their everyday life. Participants actively used their cameras and produced interesting, and even very personal material, even though they were able to delete any material they didn’t want to share.

Video Camera Uses

The study suggested that the motivations of video camera usage can be divided into four areas: archiving, sharing, presence, and group dynamics.


The people willing to archive their life wanted to save all their pictures and videos, even when they were of poor quality. They thought it more important that the moment was captured and the memory stored as a video or picture than it was to get high quality images. They saved the most important moments to media albums, while they simply save less important material (we don’t know whether they ever watched again).


A more obvious motivation for the video camera was to record videos to share one’s life with others. Sharing people tended to send photographs via Multimedia Messaging Service ( MMS) and e-mail and also to show them in face-to-face occasions on their phone display. Sending videos was not popular because of technical limitations, although this is likely to become more popular as the technology matures. The shared material usually presented places, people, or activities that shape people’s lives.

Sometimes a photograph or a video clarified a message the sender wanted to convey. According to the participants, sharing an image or video was easier than explaining the situation in words. Users often performed some editing on the material that they intend to share.

The middle-aged woman who enthusiastically recorded videos was amazed at how dramatically the atmosphere and mood of the film could be changed just by changing the audio; she eagerly experimented with the audio and video combinations. In one case she shot a video clip from her flat’s balcony on a gray December afternoon in a suburb of Milan. By putting Mendelssohn’s ” Wedding March” as a soundtrack to that trivial clip of gray balcony view, she created a dramatic, yet humorous micro-movie about the feeling of hope in a young marriage contrasted with the reality of life as a middle-aged wife.

Presence and Group Dynamics

Pictures and videos in messages strongly enhanced the feeling of presence and togetherness when communicating with a person who was not present. This kind of activity took place mostly between couples and close friends who wanted to enhance social presence and always feel close to each other.

When the video camera was present in a social situation, it produced an effect upon the camera operator, the target, other people present, and on the audience. Our study suggests that the video camera plays a big role in group dynamics during both recording and viewing. It was common to talk and make jokes with people in nearby surroundings while recording, and there was a bi-directional relationship between the camera and the context.

First, the presence of the camera in the social situation shaped the way people behave; the camera operator often interacted with others in order to make them talk to the camera and produce a more collective end-result while targets behaved the way they thought the operator wanted.

Alternatively, the context and situation formulated camera use. Sometimes loosely planned, spontaneous short sketches were made just for fun. Flirting is one example where the role of the video camera facilitated group dynamics. This kind of behavior was common especially in school environments. We have seen examples of a camera operator flirting with the targets by making jokes, flattering, and teasing. In some cases, being recorded made people want to flirt with the camera operator. Also, the target may even ask the cameraman to record some specific actions. Because people are interested in how the others see them, they captured themselves in photos or videos by using the camera as a mirror to see how they look.

chart of cameraman and their their targets


How does the video camera affect social situations and feelings of privacy? Do people think about the possibility that virtual representations of them may become everyone’s property as published video clips? Media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo states that in the nineteenth century, there were frequent complaints about amateur photographers transgressing existing social rules related to privacy and decency. Huhtamo noticed that being the focus of a snapshot was identified as a possibility and that a person carrying a camera is de-humanized.

According to our study, video cameras usually affect human behavior in social situations. The study suggests that perception of privacy depends on the situation, the emotional closeness between those present, and the familiarity of the context. The trust between familiar people makes recording acceptable. A more familiar filming situation elicits a more open and natural response toward the camera operator, taking the form of anger, frustration, or affection, for example. In a public situation, the target’s response is to act joyfully. Another significant finding of our study is that the passage of time (a few weeks in this case) changes the target’s behavior and attitude toward recording and presence of the camera from excitement, to annoyance, to ignoring.

It is almost self-evident that both the camera operator and the target welcome the video camera with remarkably positive interest, but when time goes by, they start to consider it as a normal part of life and respond depending on circumstances. The clearest example of the differences in the response toward the camera operator occurred during the time the 9-year old girl recorded her grandfather and her brother. Her grandfather’s response toward his grandchild recording him remained positive during the four-week period, but her brother’s response changed from excitement to anger and then, in two weeks, to ignoring her.

In a study like ours, privacy concerns are presumably low since the recorded material is shared only within the group of pre-defined familiar people and trusted researchers. But we don’t believe that the participants’ trust in us was the only reason for ignoring the possibility of public picture and video sharing. It seems that many people either do not know, or do not care, about the fact that after posting some highly personal material online (such as to a personal blog or an online community,) the material is fairly easy to publish all over the Web. We easily found such material on the Web that seems to be recorded spontaneously in a private setting expressing something that obviously was not meant to be visible to the entire world.

One possible explanation for this is that as people get used to the cameras around them, they pay less attention to them and, in time, become almost unaware of them. This seems to lead to less artificial behavior and lower concerns about publishing and privacy loss. The well-known television program “Big Brother,” is a good example to see that kind of adjustment happening; contestants often mention after the show that it was too difficult to act for so long a time, or to even think about being recorded and seen by an audience.

How Does the Future Look?

This study brings up the two-fold nature of privacy in terms of designing and developing systems that allow capturing and sharing videos and images. On the one hand, designers should take privacy regulation features into account and try to avoid such functions that might be harmful. On the other hand, users will inevitably apply the given means to their own purposes, and designers and developers have very limited means to regulate their usage. Since our study, the trend of sharing videos through the Internet has grown. The recent technological and behavioral evolution related to capturing and sharing multimedia content has resulted in a discussion about a radical change in privacy. The private sphere diminishes while the public sphere expands due to video recording and sharing capability of mobile phones.

Many people are concerned about this development. However, one can also take an alternative viewpoint. The future where everything is recorded and viewable for everyone can be seen as a relief, and provides an opportunity to live less stressful lives without keeping secrets. This surveillance may also help people feel safer because criminal acts are more likely to be witnessed and recorded. In addition, monitoring of authorities has become easier for citizens (a phenomenon called sousveillance), and this might lead to a more just society. Attitudes toward video recording, and even live video sharing, should be researched more to observe whether the behavior of the people in social situations with video cameras has changed since our study.

Just like celebrities chased by paparazzi, our study participants are in the vanguard of the coming era or citizen journalism. Mobile phones with video cameras and sharing capabilities offer the opportunity—or the danger—of worldwide visibility.