Due to the global pandemic, this year’s International Communication Association conference was held online. This post shares the abstracts and short videos made for our roundtable on ‘Approaching Instagram: New Methods and Modes for Examining Visual Social Media’. Hopefully it might prove useful to those studying Instagram and thinking about methodologies. The participants in this roundtable were Crystal Abidin (Curtin University), Tim Highfield, (University of Sheffield), Tama Leaver, (Curtin University), Anthony McCosker (Swinburne University of Technology), Adam Suess, (Griffith University), Katie Warfield (Kwantlen Polytechnic University) and Alice Witt (Queensland University of Technology).

The Panel Overview

Instagram has more than a billion users, yet despite being owned by Facebook remains a platform that’s vastly more popular with young people, and synonymous with the visual and cultural zeitgeist. However, compared to parent-company Facebook, or competitors such as Twitter, Instagram has been comparatively under-studied and under-researched. Moreover, as Facebook/Instagram have limited researcher access via their APIs, newer research approaches have had to emerge, some drawing on older qualitative approaches to understand and analyse Instagram media and interactions (from images and videos to comments, emoji, hashtags, stories, and more). The eight initial participants in this roundtable, from Australia, Canada, Finland and the United Kingdom, roundtable have pioneered specific research methods for approaching Instagram (across quantitative and qualitative fields), and our intention is to broaden the discussion moving beyond (just) methods to larger questions and ideas of engaging with Instagram as a visual social media icon on which larger social, cultural changes and questions are necessarily explored.

Contributions set the scene for a larger discussion, examining the invisible labour of the ‘Instagram Husband’ as a highly important but almost always hidden figure, particularly mythologized by online influencers. Broader conceptual questions are also raised in terms of how the Instagram platform reconfigures time from 24-hour Stories, looping Boomerangs, to temporality measured relative to when content was posted, with Instagram becoming the centre of its own time and space. Another contributor argues that Instagram users are always creating and fashioning each other, not just themselves, using the liminal figures of the unborn (via ultrasounds) and the recently deceased as case studies where Instagram users are most obviously creating other people in the feeds. Another contributor asks how the world of art is being reconfigured by the aesthetics and practices of being ‘insta-worthy’. Another contribution asks how to move beyond hashtags as the primary method of discovering collections of content. On a different note, the practices of commercial wedding photographers are examined to ask how weddings are being reimagined and renegotiated in an era of social media visuality. Finally, important questions are raised about the content that is not visualized and not allowed on Instagram at all, and how these moderation practices can be mapped against the ‘black box’ of Instagram’s algorithms.

  

[1] The Instagram Husband / Crystal Abidin, Curtin University

Social media has become a canvas for the commemoration and celebration of milestones. For the highly prolific and commercially viable vocational internet celebrities known as Influencers, coupling up in a relationship is all the more significant, as it impacts their public personae, their market value to sponsors, and their engagement with followers. However, behind-the-scenes of such young women’s pristine posturing are often their romantic partners capturing viable footage from behind-the-camera, in a phenomenon known in popular discourse as “the Instagram husband”. These (often heterosexual male) romantic partners toggle between ‘commodity’ on camera to ‘creator’ off camera. Although the narrative of the Instagram Husband is usually clouded in the notions of sacrificial romance, the unremunerated work is wrought with strain. Between the domesticity of Influencers’ romantic coupling and the publicness of their branded individualism, this chapter considers the labour, tensions, and latent consequences when Influencers intertwine commodify their relationships into viable entities. Through traditional and digital ethnographic research methods and in-depth data collection among Singaporean women Influencers and their (predominantly heterosexual) partners, the chapter contemplates the phenomenon of the Instagram Husband and its impact on visual representations of romantic relationships online.

[2] Examining Instagram time: aesthetics and experiences / Tim Highfield, University of Sheffield

Temporal concerns are critical underpinnings for the presentation and experience of popular social media platforms. Understanding and transforming the temporal is key to the operation of these platforms, becoming a means for platforms to intervene in user activity. On Instagram, temporality plays out in different ways. Ostensibly describing in-the-moment, as-it-happens sharing and live documentation, the Insta- of Instagram has long been complicated by features of the platform and cultural practices and norms which encourage different types of participation and temporal framing. This contribution focuses on how Instagram time is presented and experienced by the platform and its users, from how content appears in non-linear algorithmic feeds to aesthetics that suggest, or explicitly callback to, older technologies and eras. These create temporal contestation as, for example, the implied permanence of the photo stream is contrasted with the ephemerality of Stories, where content usually lasts for only 24 hours, and the trapped seconds-long loops of Boomerangs. This temporal contestation apparent between different features of the platform also plays out in Instagram’s aesthetics, which include retro throwbacks of filters to the explicit visuals of Story filters reminiscent of VHS tape and physical film. Such platformed approaches then raise questions for researchers about Instagram’s temporality, how it is experienced by its users, and how it is repositioned and reframed by the platform’s own architecture, displays, and affordances.

[Transcript]

[3] Creating Each Other on Instagram / Tama Leaver, Curtin University

While visual social media platforms such as Instagram are, by definition, about connecting and communication between multiple people, most discussions about Instagram practices presume that accounts, profiles and content are managed by individual users with the agency to make informed choices about their activities. However, Instagram photos and videos more often than not contain other people, and thus the sharing of visual material is often a form of co-creation where the Instagram user is often contributing and shaping another person or group’s online identity (or performance). This contribution outlines some of the larger provocations that occur when examining the way loves ones use Instagram to visualize the very young and the recently deceased. Indeed, even before birth, the sharing of the 12- or 20-week ultrasound photos and gender reveal parties often sees an Instagram identity begin to be shaped by parents before a child is even born. At the other end of life, mourning and funereal media often provide some of the last images and descriptions of a person’s life, something that can prove quite controversial on Instagram. Considering these two examples, this contribution argues that content creation could, and probably should, be considered visual co-creation, and Instagram should be seen as a platform on which users fashion each others identities as much as their own.

 

[4] Navigating Instagram’s politics of visibility / Anthony McCosker, Swinburne University of Technology

This contribution reflects on several research projects that have had to negotiate Instagram’s depreciated API access, and its increasingly restrictive moderation practices limiting what the company sees as sensitive or harmful content. One project with Australian Red Cross was designed to access and analyse location data for posts engaging with humanitarian activity, in order to generate new insights and information about how to address humanitarian needs particular locations. The other examined users’ engagement with content actively engaged with the depression through hashtag use. Both cases required the adjustment of methods to sustain the research beyond the API restrictions and enable future work to continue to draw insights about the respective research problems. I discuss the development of an inclusive hashtag practices method, data collaborative co-research practices, and visual methods that can account for situational and contextual analysis through a targeted sampling and theory building approach.

[5] Appreciating art through Instagram / Adam Suess, Griffith University

Instagram is an important application for art galleries, museums, and cultural institutions. For arts professionals it is a key tool for promotion, accessibility, participation, and the enhancing of the visitor experience. For arts educators it is an opportunity to influence the number of people who value the arts and seek lifelong learning through the aesthetic experience. Instagram also has pedagogical value in the gallery and is relevant for arts based learning programs. There is limited research about the use of Instagram by visitors to art galleries, museums, and cultural institutions and the role it plays in their social, spatial, and aesthetic experience. This study examined the use of Instagram by visitors to the Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (14 October 2017 – 4 February 2018). The research project found that the use of Instagram at the gallery engaged visitors in a manner that transcended the physical space, evolving and extending their aesthetic experience. It also found that Instagram acted as a tool of influence shaping the way visitors engaged with art. This finding is significant for arts educators seeking to engage students and the community through Instagram, centered on their experience of art.

[6] Instagram Visuality and The West Coast Wedding / Katie Warfield, Kwantlen Polytechnic University

The intersection of artsy, youthful, beautiful, and playful aesthetics alongside corporate branding have established certain normative modes of visuality on the globally popular social media platform Instagram.   Adopting a post-phenomenological lens alongside an intersectional feminist critique of the platform, this paper presents the findings of working with six commercial wedding photographers on the west coast of Canada whose photographs are often shared for clients on social media.  Via interviews, photo elicitation, and participant observation, this paper teases apart the multi-stable and manifold socio-technical forces that shape Instagram visuality or the visual sedimented ways of seeing shaped by Instagram and embodied and performed by image producers. This paper shows the habituation of these modes of seeing and argues that Instagram visuality is the result of various and complex intimate conversational negotiations between: discursive visual tropes (e.g. lighting, subject arrangement, and material symbols of union), material technological affordances (in-built filters, product tagging, and the grid layout of user pages), and sedimented discursive-affective “moods” (white material femininity and nature communion) that assemble to shape the normative depictions of west coast weddings.

[7] Probing the black box of content moderation on Instagram: An innovative black box methodology   / Alice Witt, Queensland University of Technology  

The black box around the internal workings of Instagram makes it difficult for users to trust that their expression through content is moderated, or regulated, in ways that are free from arbitrariness. Against the particular backdrop of allegations that the platform is arbitrarily removing some images depicting women’s bodies, this research develops and applies a new methodology for empirical legal evaluation of content moderation in practice. Specifically, it uses innovative digital methods, in conjunction with content and legal document analyses, to identify how discrete inputs (i.e. images) into Instagram’s moderation processes produce certain outputs (i.e. whether an image is removed or not removed). Overall, across two case studies comprising 5,924 images of female forms in total, the methodology provides a range of useful empirical results. One main finding, for example, is that the odds of removal for an expressly prohibited image depicting a woman’s body is 16.75 times higher than for a man’s body. The results ultimately suggest that concerns around the risk of arbitrariness and bias on Instagram, and, indeed, ongoing distrust of the platform among users, might not be unfounded. However, without greater transparency regarding how Instagram sets, maintains and enforces rules around content, and monitors the performance of its moderators for potential bias, it is difficult to draw explicit conclusions about which party initiates content removal, in what ways and for what reasons. This limitation, among others raised by this methodology, underlines that many vital questions of trust in content moderation on Instagram remain unanswered. 

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