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Approaching Instagram: New Methods and Modes for Examining Visual Social Media

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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When authenticity and advertising collide on social media

New commentary from me in today’s The Conversation:

When authenticity and advertising collide on social media

Tama Leaver, Curtin University

Be true to yourself! Embrace the real you! Fundamental philosophical imperatives or contrived marketing slogans?

The answer, of course, is both. And 19-year-old Instagram model Essena O’Neill’s very public rejection of the inauthentic nature of social media last week can been read through both lenses.

On the one hand, O’Neill deleted her heavily trafficked Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr accounts, and re-directed her audience to her new blog decrying the artificiality of social media life. She was embraced by many for revealing the inner workings of a poorly understood social media marketplace. Deleting accounts with more half a million followers certainly does make a statement.

On the other hand, O’Neill’s actions have also been interpreted as a rebranding effort, shifting away from the world of modelling toward a new online identity as a vegan eco-warrior.

Influencing the influencers

O’Neill was – and largely remains – what is referred to by marketers as an “influencer” or by some academics as a “microcelebrity”.

Given the large numbers of followers, they are very attractive platforms for brands and marketers wanting to reach these “organic” social media audiences. Yet, while these social media channels often depict idyllic lives, O’Neill’s dramatic revelations have raised questions about the authenticity of many influencers.

Or, more specifically, questions about exactly what sort of money is changing hands, and how visible sponsored and paid posts ought to be on social media.

Clashes between authenticity and commerce have a long history on social media. A notable example occurred in 2009 when Nestlé courted influential “mommy bloggers”, effectively dividing the community between those happy to be flown to a Nestlé retreat and those who argued Nestlé’s history of unethical business practices in relation to breastfeeding were unforgivable.

More recently, influential YouTube star and fashion blogger Zoe “Zoella” Sugg faced a backlash following the revelations that her best-selling debut novel, Girl Online, was written at least in part by a ghostwriter.

Anthropologist and social media researcher Crystal Abidin has extensively studied and documented Singaporean influencers, noting a range of different practices, from explicit tags to implicit mentioning of brands, to indicate paid or sponsored posts.

Recognising these various tags and indicators requires a level of Instagram literacy that regular viewers will likely develop, but casual audiences could easily miss. Indeed, as Abidin and Mart Ots have argued, this lack of transparent standards can be understood as “the influencer’s dilemma”.

As Singaporean influencers have been around for a decade, some have aged sufficiently to shift from their own sponsored posts to endorsements featuring their children, becoming what Abidin describes as micro-microcelebrities.

Australia also has its own infant influencers, the most visible being PR CEO Roxy Jacenko’s daughter, four year old Instagram star Pixie Curtis. As a second generation influencers emerge, clear social norms about sponsorship and advertising transparency on Instagram become more pressing.

Leveraging authenticity

Australian newly launched marketing company Tribe has positioned itself as a broker between influencers – “someone with 5000+ real followers” on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – and brands.

As Tribe notes, the ACCC does not currently require individuals on social media to reveal paid posts. However, it does recommend influencers add #spon to sponsored posts to flag identify paid content.

Tribe influencer marketing in action. Tribe Group

The difference between a recommendation and a rule aside, while a quick search reveals some 47,000 Instagram images tagged with #spon, many of these are not sponsored posts.

Top images tagged #spon on Instagram, 9 November 2015. Instagram

Of the top #spon tagged posts on Instagram yesterday (9 November), they feature influencers spruiking tea, videogames, resorts, beer and a mobile service provider along with two pets sponsored by a dog show and, as seems fitting, a dog food company.

An explicit marker like #spon would at least make sponsored posts identifiable, but no such norm currently exists, and even Tribe only “strongly recommends” rather than mandates its use.

See through

In a post ironically titled “How To Make $$$ on Social Media”, Essena O’Neill notes that she was charging A$1,000 to feature a product on her Instagram feed, a fact she did not disclose until her recent rejection of her social media modelling past.

O’Neill’s own authenticity might not be helped by the fact that she took to Vimeo – another social media platform – and her own blog, to denounce social media.

This could be read as a clear reminder that social media isn’t inherently morally charged: the value of communication platforms depends in large part on what’s being communicated.

Moreover, as O’Neill’s actions have inspired other Instagram users and influencers to add “honest” captions about the constructedness of their images, if nothing else O’Neill has provoked a very teachable moment, potentially increasing the media literacy of many social media users.

Traditional media industries have long had regulations that ensure advertising and other content are clearly differentiated. While regulating social media is challenging, calling for social media influencers to self-regulate should not be.

Far from damaging their influence, such transparency may just add to what audiences perceive as their authenticity.

The Conversation

Tama Leaver, Senior Lecturer in Internet Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A slightly longer version of this piece, with the title I’d originally suggested – The Cost of Authenticity on Instagram – is available on Medium.

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Captured at Birth? Presence, Privacy and Intimate Surveillance

Yesterday, as part of the fantastic ‘Presence, Privacy and Pseudonymity ‘panel at Internet Research 15: Boundaries and Intersections in Daegu, South Korea, I presented an expanded and revised version of the paper first gave in Dunedin earlier this year. The paper has been retitled slightly as ‘Captured at Birth? Presence, Privacy and Intimate Surveillance’; the slides are available now:

If you’re interested, Axel Bruns did a great liveblog summary of the paper, and for the truly dedicated there is an mp3 audio copy of the talk. The paper itself is in the process of being written up and should be in full chapter form in a month or so; if you’d like to look over a full draft once it’s written up, just let me know.

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A Methodology for Mapping Instagram Hashtags

At this week’s Digital Humanities Australasia 2014 conference in Perth, Tim Highfield and I presented the first paper from a new project looking a visual social media, with a particular focus on Instagram. The slides and abstract are below (sadly with Slideshare discontinuing screencasts, I’m not sure if I’ll be adding audio to presentations again):

Social media platforms for content-sharing, information diffusion, and publishing thoughts and opinions have been the subject of a wide range of studies examining the formation of different publics, politics and media to health and crisis communication. For various reasons, some platforms are more widely-represented in research to date than others, particularly when examining large-scale activity captured through automated processes, or datasets reflecting the wider trend towards ‘big data’. Facebook, for instance, as a closed platform with different privacy settings available for its users, has not been subject to the same extensive quantitative and mixed-methods studies as other social media, such as Twitter. Indeed, Twitter serves as a leading example for the creation of methods for studying social media activity across myriad contexts: the strict character limit for tweets and the common functions of hashtags, replies, and retweets, as well as the more public nature of posting on Twitter, mean that the same processes can be used to track and analyse data collected through the Twitter API, despite covering very different subjects, languages, and contexts (see, for instance, Bruns, Burgess, Crawford, & Shaw, 2012; Moe & Larsson, 2013; Papacharissi & de Fatima Oliveira, 2012)

Building on the research carried out into Twitter, this paper outlines the development of a project which uses similar methods to study uses and activity on through the image-sharing platform Instagram. While the content of the two social media platforms is dissimilar – short textual comments versus images and video – there are significant architectural parallels which encourage the extension of analytical methods from one platform to another. The importance of tagging on Instagram, for instance, has conceptual and practical links to the hashtags employed on Twitter (and other social media platforms), with tags serving as markers for the main subjects, ideas, events, locations, or emotions featured in tweets and images alike. The Instagram API allows queries around user-specified tags, providing extensive information about relevant images and videos, similar to the results provided by the Twitter API for searches around particular hashtags or keywords. For Instagram, though, the information provided is more detailed than with Twitter, allowing the analysis of collected data to incorporate several different dimensions; for example, the information about the tagged images returned through the Instagram API will allow us to examine patterns of use around publishing activity (time of day, day of the week), types of content (image or video), filters used, and locations specified around these particular terms. More complex data also leads to more complex issues; for example, as Instagram photos can accrue comments over a long period, just capturing metadata for an image when it is first available may lack the full context information and scheduled revisiting of images may be necessary to capture the conversation and impact of an Instagram photo in terms of comments, likes and so forth.

This is an exploratory study, developing and introducing methods to track and analyse Instagram data; it builds upon the methods, tools, and scripts used by Bruns and Burgess (2010, 2011) in their large-scale analysis of Twitter datasets. These processes allow for the filtering of the collected data based on time and keywords, and for additional analytics around time intervals and overall user contributions. Such tools allow us to identify quantitative patterns within the captured, large-scale datasets, which are then supported by qualitative examinations of filtered datasets.

References

Bruns, A., & Burgess, J. (2010). Mapping Online Publics. Retrieved from http://mappingonlinepublics.net

Bruns, A., & Burgess, J. (2011, June 22). Gawk scripts for Twitter processing. Mapping Online Publics. Retrieved from http://mappingonlinepublics.net/resources/

Bruns, A., Burgess, J., Crawford, K., & Shaw, F. (2012). #qldfloods and @ QPSMedia: Crisis Communication on Twitter in the 2011 South East Queensland Floods. Brisbane. Retrieved from http://cci.edu.au/floodsreport.pdf

Moe, H., & Larsson, A. O. (2013). Untangling a Complex Media System. Information, Communication & Society, 16(5), 775–794. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2013.783607

Papacharissi, Z., & de Fatima Oliveira, M. (2012). Affective News and Networked Publics: The Rhythms of News Storytelling on #Egypt. Journal of Communication, 62, 266–282. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2012.01630.x

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