Meet minutiae, the Photo-Sharing App That Captures Your Actual Life
Interview by Mike O'Donnell / Editor
WNW Member Martin Adolfsson, a photographer and creative technologist, met artist-turned-neuroscientist Daniel J. Wilson at NEW INC, the New Museum’s incubator program. They shared an interest in how humans interact with technology and a distaste for the way social media breeds a culture of disingenuous self-branding. After exploring “the beauty in the boring” and the notion of the “forced photo,” they got to work creating a new app, which Wired has called the anti-Instagram.
In our interview below, Martin and Daniel share the inspiration behind their app minutiae, how it works, and what a collaboration between a photographer and a neuroscientist looks like. They also offer what this exploration and experience has taught them about the ways creatives interact with technology in both positive and detrimental ways, and how they ultimately measure minutiae’s success. “Success, in our eyes, was a small dedicated group of participants. I think we’ve hit the mark on those metrics.”
What led you to create minutiae? What was the initial idea behind it?
Martin Adolfsson: Minutiae began as an attempt to capture the “in-between moments,” those nuances of daily life that often get overlooked. We realized that while these mundane, ordinary moments make up 99.9% of our lives, we rarely document them--often waiting until it’s too late. And since most of us carry a phone with us all the time, it made sense to create the project as an app.
Daniel J. Wilson: On a bigger-picture level, the idea for minutiae was borne out of a confluence of societal factors that we wanted to push back against (i.e. found annoying). The most obvious being the curation-of-self and highlight-ification of life that social media encourages, and how this ties into this pervasive idea that we should ALL be creating some sort of personal brand. minutiae both acknowledges and celebrates the tedium of the everyday - which provides a much truer representation of our lives.
How does it prohibit the usual patterns of curation and performance and encourage something more genuine?
MA: Once a day, all participants receive an alert simultaneously at the exact same minute regardless of time zone. The participants then have a one-minute window to respond to the alert, and since the alerts are randomized, it becomes almost impossible to curate the timeline. We also decided to make the experience anonymous and not use any profile, likes, or comments to encourage participants to be honest toward themselves.
DJW: Just to add on to the constrained nature of the experience, while you have one minute to respond to the alert each day, once you open the app you only have 5 seconds to take a picture. Not much time for framing...
Do you feel that there’s a neurological benefit to taking time out of your day to capture your surroundings?
DJW: As a scientist I am careful not to make any sweeping claims, though there is literature you can find that speaks to the benefits of taking breaks throughout the day. However, they don’t deal with (as far as I am aware) the type of experience that minutiae provides -- where you are only taking (at most) 60 seconds, and also creating a piece of documentation. Honestly, if this were not a completely anonymous project I would love to look at the data on this.
That said, I can speak to my own experience and the feedback of many participants. The common experience seems to be one akin to, if anything, mindfulness. Being forced to pause, once each day, to take a photo of what you are doing breaks you out of your routine, and makes you acutely aware of how you spend your time. For me, it has underlined how much time I spend in front of my computer screen.
The secondary benefit is one that will kick in later down the road. As humans we are designed to remember novelty, which means that many of our daily experiences get “erased” by sheer repetition. These images provide a bread crumb trail of sorts for our future selves, to rediscover the actual substance of our lives at a past time.
Describe the collaborative process between a neuroscientist and a photographer.
MA: I met Daniel at NEW INC, the New Museum’s incubator program, a few years ago. I think we brought different perspectives and experiences to a problem we were both concerned about. The project uses photography as its medium but it’s more about the memory that’s attached to each image than the aesthetic of the photographs. That being said, the images taken by the participants have a very distinct look, which probably has to do with the spontaneous nature of the project.
DJW: I was an artist collaborating with scientists at the time I met Martin at NEW INC (I started my PhD the year that minutiae launched). After I gave an informal presentation on the idea of “little data,” I found myself talking with Martin about the idea of trying to respect and capture the mundane — “the beauty in the boring” is what we were calling it at one point in time. While we had different backgrounds, we were both deeply interested in the documentary arts, ideas of lost memory, and self-representation. We did quite a bit of research at the beginning, from looking at other apps created by artists to reading scientific papers which supported the idea that documentation of mundane moments were more desirable than those of “special” moments in the future.
The collaboration, initially, just involved a lot of workshopping and prototyping of ideas. We came to the concept of the “forced photo” at a random moment quite quickly, but neither of us had ever developed an app so that was a learning curve we both started at the bottom of and scaled together.
Through this experience, what have you learned about the relationship between creativity and technology?
MA: For me, as a photographer, it’s been a really interesting journey. I’ve come to realize that we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of using photography as an interactive communication tool. Given that photography is one of few global languages that everyone can understand, it has real potential to change how we understand the world around us. With the capabilities of the mobile phone, we can transform an old medium into something of a much more interactive experience.
DJW: I agree. I also think that one interesting aspect for me is not just the relationship between creativity and technology but the relationships that creative uses of technology can facilitate. In the case of minutiae, this may sound a bit grandiose, but I truly feel a little bit more connected to the world each time I connect with some random stranger in Texas or Vietnam or Libya. I feel grateful that they have given me this peek into their lives and it definitely creates a small sense of wonder in me.
What advice do you have for creatives on social media trying to get their work and brand out into the world?
MA: I think that there are certainly benefits of using social media as a tool to reach a wider audience for your work. However, it can probably have a negative long-term effect if you create work only to generate a gratification buzz. From a creative perspective, it seems like social media has created a form of visual homogenization. By frequently looking at social media, especially Instagram, I think it becomes harder to develop a unique voice because we’re constantly bombarded with so much visual stimulation. I personally think that the best way to get your brand out in the world is through personal relationships; that’s how this project came about.
DJW: I’m kind of sick of hearing about “brand.” I think my reaction is largely due to the fact that “brand” has come to be seen, by many, as an end in itself. I understand that if you have something that you’ve made and you’re proud of it and think people should know about it, then utilizing social media/marketing tools makes sense. But I think it is worth just focusing on the work at first and building something interesting and good before worrying too much about self-promotion.
Any other insights you can share from this project?
When we started down the path of making minutiae, we suspected that people would either love it or hate it. Success, in our eyes, was a small dedicated group of participants. I think we’ve hit the mark on those metrics. Also, completely honestly, I still get excited each time I hear my minutiae alert go off.