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DailyBooth.com builds community through photos

Every day for six years, New York photography student Noah Kalina took a picture of himself with a digital camera.

He toiled on the art project in obscurity until 2006, when he strung together all 2,356 self-portraits into a five-minute, time-lapse video and posted it on YouTube.com.

The video surged in popularity, touching off a global phenomenon. More than 15 million people have viewed it, and the video inspired dozens of others to turn their cameras on themselves. Kalina’s digital exhibitionism was even spoofed on an episode of “The Simpsons.”

Where others just saw photos, British entrepreneur Jon Wheatley saw opportunity. “You could see these people actually grow and evolve. You could watch their style and fashion change over time. It was the most compelling thing to sit and watch,” Wheatley said.

He and co-founder Ryan Amos launched DailyBooth.com in February 2009 as “your life in pictures” and asked users to upload a photograph of themselves every day. The social networking site now has nearly 6 million photos and the tally is growing quickly.

Tech-savvy Hollywood celebrities Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore, along with some of the Internet’s biggest names — Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Digg’s Kevin Rose and Flickr’s Caterina Fake — have embraced the online photo booth.

Kutcher, who plugged DailyBooth.com during a recent appearance on Howard Stern’s radio show, routinely uploads his movie star mug to the site, encouraging his more than 32,000 followers to take pictures of themselves whistling or holding up the book they are reading.

“Snapping photos on DailyBooth has become a part of my day almost every day,” Kutcher said.

Kutcher is one of DailyBooth.com’s rabid users, more than 85% of whom are younger than 24. They spend hours each day building a vibrant online hangout that revolves around snapshots instead of snippets of text to express what they are thinking, feeling and doing.

Dorsey, the maverick entrepreneur who thought up Twitter and is now running mobile payment start-up Square, usually snaps up the common username “Jack” because he’s often among the first to sign up for new online services. On DailyBooth.com, he had to settle for “JD” after 15-year-old Jack Moore wouldn’t give it up, even for Dorsey.

Now Dorsey’s just as hooked as Moore.

“Once something becomes that kind of fascination for me, it’s hard for me to let go of it,” said Dorsey, who advises DailyBooth.com. “This is a whole new way to communicate and behave.”

Sometimes described as Twitter for photos, DailyBooth.com is similar to the micro-messaging site that allows users to update their followers in blurbs of 140 characters or less, except users upload photos for friends and strangers to follow. Over time, the series of snapshots transforms into a textured portrait of a person, like pixels in a digital image or tiny brushstrokes in an Expressionist painting.

“Boothers,” as they call themselves, have come up with some creative ways to use the site. One with the handle “knockedup” documented her pregnancy by taking a picture of her profile every week. Even a 12-year-old cat named Shadow has an account.

Part of what draws them to DailyBooth.com is the sense of community. Boothers use photo comments to engage in fun activities. They form virtual conga lines. They act out favorite scenes in “Pulp Fiction” or “Toy Story” that they watch in unison as part of DailyBooth.com’s film club.

They compete in goofy contests. Justine Ezarik, a.k.a. iJustine, a 26-year-old “vlogger” (or video blogger) from Santa Monica, got 2,700 photo comments, the site’s longest thread, after challenging fellow Boothers to post pictures of themselves touching their noses.

They celebrate one another in pictures. One user wrote the names of all of his followers on paper leaves and made them into a tree mural on his bedroom wall.

In April, Boothers joined in a more serious effort to raise money to fight a killer disease in Africa, taking pictures of their hands on which they scrawled the message “end malaria.”

DailyBooth.com is one of a new wave of social networking sites that reflect a shift in how young people communicate. Julie Albright, a digital sociologist at USC, calls it the rise of visual culture in social media.

Bombarded by text messages, instant messages, tweets and blog posts, young people have gravitated toward pictures as a simpler, faster and more expressive medium to talk about themselves and to tell stories.

“People are basically social animals. They are curious. They want to see and be seen. This space gives them a way to do that,” Albright said.

For them, the Internet is not a destination but an extension of their lives. With a bevy of digital tools at their fingertips, they snap pictures of themselves, their friends and their surroundings on mobile phones, laptops and digital cameras and post them to social networking sites for all their connections to see.

The advent of new features, such as front-facing cameras in mobile phones, including the new iPhone, has only made it easier for them to document themselves and their lives in pictures. Some new cameras have share buttons that let users tag photos and upload them to Facebook and other social networking sites, and face recognition that can tag pre-registered faces.

Photo sharing is already one of the most popular features on social networking sites.

Caterina Fake’s Vancouver start-up scrapped a game it was developing after an engineer created a tool to share photos. Fake and her former husband, Stewart Butterfield, transformed the project into Flickr, which quickly became one of the Web’s fastest-growing properties. They sold it to Yahoo Inc. in 2005 for $35 million.

Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking site, saw its engagement levels skyrocket after it began allowing users to upload photos and tag their friends.

Cat Valdes, a.k.a. Catrific, a popular 21-year-old vlogger on YouTube, was one of the first to discover DailyBooth.com. She has since posted more than 500 photos of herself and spends hours each day on the site. In fact, she is so taken with DailyBooth that she has joined the company as an employee.

“When people first hear about it, they say, ‘I don’t want to take a picture of myself every day, that makes me feel conceited.’ But it’s not about taking a picture of yourself. It’s a log of your life,” Valdes said.

Some photos are casual, snapped in just a minute or two. Others are assiduously stylized and staged.

Christina Rose Leon, 24, whose DailyBooth handle is Rosiehart, spends up to four hours elaborately staging her photographs from her home on the west coast of Scotland.

Late one night while changing her bed sheets, Leon decided to challenge her fellow Boothers to a pillow fight. So she took pictures of herself swinging the pillow, redoing her hair and makeup for each shot, and edited them together to make it look as if she was having a pillow fight with herself.

“I barely knew how to use Photoshop last year,” Leon said. “Now I regularly send messages on DailyBooth teaching younger Boothers how to do little tricks.”

DailyBooth.com’s founders said last year that the site was getting 6 million monthly unique visitors, with that number growing by about 35% a month. They declined to give current statistics. Compete.com analyst Chris Bulger estimates that the stay per visit at DailyBooth.com averages seven minutes. He says the site’s traffic and engagement are on a steady upswing.

A down-on-his-luck British Web developer, Wheatley came up with the DailyBooth idea in December 2007 during a desperate late-night brainstorming session to earn money after being laid off from his job in Edinburgh. Wheatley moved back in with his mom in the south of England.

With his brother camped out in his old room, Wheatley holed up in a closet, his imagination lit by the glow of his laptop. The project hit some snags getting off the ground but took flight in December 2008, when Wheatley hired Amos, a talented Web designer from the Midwest, to build DailyBooth.com, eventually bringing him on as a co-founder.

The two landed $15,000 in seed funding from start-up incubator Y Combinator, where their project caught the eye of influential angel investor Ron Conway. DailyBooth has raised $1 million from Conway and other blue-chip investors. Brian Pokorny, one of Conway’s handpicked lieutenants, was so taken with DailyBooth.com that he joined the San Francisco company as its chief executive in March. With Wheatley stranded in London awaiting a work visa, Pokorny has assumed a large role.

Kalina, a 29-year-old professional photographer in Brooklyn who still snaps his own picture every night, said he was thrilled that he helped inspire DailyBooth.com.

“That’s beyond my wildest expectations,” he said.

jessica.guynn@latimes.com


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