Seeing things

Google Street View is being used in bad ways

Shitty screenshots are ruining the news.

Seeing things

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Seeing things

Google Street View is being used in bad ways

Shitty screenshots are ruining the news.

On Nov. 1, The Irish Sun's homepage ran a gory, but typical, headline —"Man dies after being stabbed in chest in broad daylight on this town street" — accompanied by a photo of said street.

The photo isn’t good. There is fuzzy text on the ground; the lines on the street don't match up; the perspective is off. It’s clearly a composite of at least two photos.

Off the homepage, the headline lost the word "this," as if to acknowledge the photo wasn't so authoritative after all; four other outlets, including another Sun site, published four completely different views of the street. Not one of these five articles mentioned that the images, all screencapped from Google Street View, dated back to July 2011.

Google Street View vehicles have driven over 5 million unique miles of the world’s streets and collected 20 petabytes of images as of 2012, the last time the company released the statistic. Google, now Alphabet, allows anyone to use these images for free. That’s how Street View came to define the photo aesthetic of local news sites like Patch, The Daily Voice, and various TV and radio affiliates. It also often pops up in regional papers and altweeklies. Street View is a Getty Images for every location, no matter how specific or obscure, even though the photos are often sloppy, filled with computer-generated artifacts, or five years old.

Consider this screenshot of East Main Street in Benton, Illinois. We know it’s East Main Street because of the text slapped on the ground. The perspective is hyper-exaggerated, like a drawing by someone who just discovered vanishing points. And because Google’s camera is mounted on top of the car (see this shadow for reference), the vantage point is unfamiliar to anyone less than 10 feet tall.

These three elements are just a few of Street View’s hallmarks. Google’s labels feature prominently in these screenshots, as do the translucent boxes that allow users to move through the scene. At times, digital text competes with actual signage. Objects above the camera often fall prey to clumsy photo stitching, which is also responsible for phantom letters, truncated windows, and accidental Cubism.

“They are not going to click on a stock image. They’re going to click on a photo of an actual place.”

If the subject is too close to Google’s cars, perspectival distortions verge on the absurd: This Target logo might as well be an anamorphic projection. But if the structure is farther away, small distances will be vastly magnified, making every parking lot into an eerily deserted vista. Tilting Street View upward also causes extreme shifts in perspective, making any moderately tall building into the digital rendering of a dystopian architect.

Seen from this perspective, New York’s Library Hotel and a nearby skyscraper inspire not awe, but confusion. The story’s ostensible setting — the rooftop bar, and then, tragically, the ground — is not visible. Instead we get a bizarre, reverse view of the scene.

Perhaps the oddest part of Street View is the juxtaposition of these empty, focal point-less photos with headlines describing crime, traffic accidents, and other extreme events that aren't pictured. When Google cars documented this intersection in June, there was no way to know that a man would expose himself two months later, and that the Sunderland Echo would need a photo of the McDonald’s where it happened. In the end, the McDonald’s in the published image is obscured by a pole.

This use for Street View has been possible since Google started adding the photos in 2007. On the internet, photos are essential — even more so as news outlets get their traffic from Twitter and Facebook. "At the end of the day, if we just had a listing of the text versus a thumbnail next to it, you’re going to have 75 percent click on thumbnail versus 30 percent on the text," said Ash Roberts, the lead digital developer for Vista Radio, a Canadian broadcasting company that operates multiple news sites.

"On social media, you definitely need a photo," said Mark Osborne, the Manhattan editor for Patch. Readers will ignore stories without photography, he said, and photos that are too generic. “They are not going to click on a stock image. They’re going to click on a photo of an actual place.”

As iPhones and high quality cameras proliferate, most photos on the internet have gotten better. The popularity of Street View is a prominent exception. One possible reason is that the quirks that make a Street View photo look so odd are also marks of authenticity, like the graininess of security footage. You can trust this, they say. It’s Google. Alien as it may be, it’s familiar to anyone who has used Street View: though these outlets practice local journalism, you can get the same images anywhere with an internet connection.

In the press release that introduced Street View, Google announced that the service "provides users with a rich, immersive browsing experience directly in Google Maps, enabling greater understanding of a specific location or area." Despite an odd insistence that Street View might also be used to check the speed limit before taking a drive (in a video from 2007, a Google employee checks out parking signs on Street View), the thrill of digital exploration remains its best feature. “You can take a virtual drive over the Golden Gate Bridge or see the bustle of Times Square from the comfort of your own home,” went a later press release. As such, Street View photos are meant to be quintessential images, summing up “the bustle of Times Square” rather than depicting specific incidents. Despite their appearance in journalism outlets around the world, their news value is a byproduct.

But in its quest to provide representative images, Street View has created an archive of oddly anonymous reference material. Though the location may be specific, everything else is generic — smoothed over, stretched out, perpetually midday. A recent caption in Glasgow’s Evening Times even identified a Street View screenshot as "a general view of Kilmarnock's Dean Street."

When they appear in media, Street View screenshots are always "general views." Even when the subject veers toward the personal or voyeuristic — here is the school where a teacher slept with her student — these images feel interchangeable. At the surface, the prevalence of Street View seems to show how destitute local news outlets have become and how they attempt to nobly soldier on. The practice seems to be another example of another narrative, however: online media's endless churn of cheap shit as it panders more and more shamelessly to the purveyors of likes and shares. A Street View screenshot is more likely to confuse than add information. Take the image on this article, for example, which illustrates a two-car crash by showing seven unrelated cars that are not crashing. The image confirms nothing other than this street exists.

In 1927, the German critic Siegfried Kracauer argued that photographs could not reveal any truth beyond physical reality. (His targets included Weimar-era listicles: "an illustrated newspaper recently put together photographs of famous personalities as children and as grown-ups and published them under the heading, ‘The Faces of Famous People: This Is How They Once Were—And This Is How They Are Today!’") At one point, he described the sensation of viewing an unrecognizable photograph of a relative: “All right, so it is Grandmother, but in reality it is any young girl in 1864.” For any technological development, there’s a German theorist who can explain why it represents massive cultural decline, but Kracauer’s point is especially pertinent to Google Street View. These are the streets, buildings, and spaces in question, but through the eyes of Street View, they could be anywhere, and they tell the reader nothing.

Petey Menz is a freelance writer who writes a weekly digest of European tabloid news.