Instagram: Visual social media cultures (Ideas Alive 2020)

Transcript of talk for Ideas Alive, Off The Shelf Festival 2020

There are over one billion Instagram users worldwide, using what started as a basic photo-sharing app to visually showcase lives, businesses, events, and causes. In doing so, Instagram and other apps have become part of the everyday life of many – and in this talk, I’ll take a look at how that happened, and what that means for life in the context of 2020.

Hello, I’m Tim Highfield, Lecturer in Digital Media and Society at the University of Sheffield. Together with my colleagues Tama Leaver and Crystal Abidin at Curtin University in Australia, I’m co-author of the book Instagram: Visual social media cultures published by Polity. In the book, we explore the history of Instagram; how a mobile photography app developed as a platform and a culture, bringing with it new visual social media aesthetics, new visual economies, and more. We argue that Instagram has altered the ways people communicate and share, creating new approaches to marketing, advertising, politics and the design of spaces, striving to become ‘Insta-worthy’.

How did this happen? It was just over ten years ago, on 6 October 2010, that the original Instagram app was launched on Apple’s App Store. As you’d expect, it looked very different to the current version of Instagram that you may be familiar with. If you think back to what social media and being online meant in 2010, or indeed what the world was like ten years ago, it’s quite extreme; this is before the Cambridge Analytica scandal, before the Brexit vote, Trump’s election in the US and the rise of the alt-right, before the Occupy Wall Street protests, before Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement – and a couple of months before the initial protests in the Middle East and northern Africa that would be dubbed the Arab Spring. At this point, social media were growing in popularity, particularly the likes of Facebook and Twitter, but the broader potential impact of these platforms was still being contemplated.

Instagram emerged into a growing smartphone app market, one of many apps that allowed users to do something different with the photos they were taking on their phones. The early appeal of Instagram was partly that it came with pre-designed filters that you could apply to your photos to make them look like vintage ones – washed out colours, heightened contrast, film scratches and borders, and so on. But Instagram wasn’t the only app doing this; apps like Hipstamatic were offering these retro aesthetics, and had sizeable user numbers. What Instagram did that was different though, was that it was free and it allowed users to publicly post their photos to a profile and follow other users; rather than a standalone editing app, it brought social connections as well as visual novelty. Even though it was only available for iPhone users, this functionality gave Instagram added appeal, and helped it grow quickly – within a year, it already boasted 10 million users, and six months later Instagram and its 30 million users were bought by Facebook for USD$1 billion.

At this point, Instagram was firmly focused on being an app for sharing edited photographs – the suite of filters it offered also helped to normalise the idea of editing photos before posting them to social media. By making it simple for you to adjust the brightness or contrast, warmth or saturation, of a given photo, Instagram actively encouraged the construction of the platform’s visual aesthetics: rather than just post a photo as is, consider what it would look like with some fine-tuning. This contributed to a rise of imitable subjects and styles – arty images of cups of coffee, meals, corners of buildings, and the like, elevating everyday experiences into grander productions – that inevitably became so widespread they became clichés.

Over time, though, Instagram has moved away from the plainly photographic, adding more and more functions that encourage engagement through a wide range of forms – through video, through temporary Stories, through live streaming, and more. These new features have evolved alongside broader trends in social media, and the emergence of competitors and rival apps: the Stories format was initially popularised by Snapchat before its adoption by Facebook and Instagram in 2016; the new Reels feature launched earlier in 2020, meanwhile, owes a lot to the short inventive video creations of TikTok. But what is important here is not just what Instagram has added to the platform – it’s what its users do with Instagram that is perhaps even more crucial. The rise of Influencers, for instance, showcases users who understand how Instagram works and how to make the most of it, through the construction of a highly visual and idealised presence designed for optimal appeal – and the massive following and industry around Influencers in turn helped push Instagram’s development of shopping and commerce functionality.

What this means then, we argue, is that Instagram itself has become “…more than an app, more than a platform, and more than a jewel in the Facebook ‘family’. Rather, Instagram is an icon and avatar for understanding and mapping visual social media cultures, whether on Instagram itself, or through the many ways the material world has sought to become ‘Insta-worthy’ in redesigning practices, cultural institutions and material spaces”. In doing so, we’ve seen the emergence of a logic of templatability, where popular and new content and approaches become repeated and replicated over and over again, evidenced both in the visual look of Instagram posts and the cultural practices of the platform’s users. This templatability explains memorable and memorisable looks, styles, settings, and understandings of how Instagram works – and how to make the most of that.

At the same time, what has happened on Instagram is not limited to that platform. This is not a story just about a single app; it’s a story about visual communication, about social media used by a plurality of users and cultures yet at times bearing a singular corporate view, and indeed about many different Instagrams all existing alongside one another from the perspective of different users… If we look at the events of 2020, the experiences of everyday life in a time of an ongoing global pandemic and social turmoil, and how people used digital media in response, we see just how these platforms have become intertwined with what we do. As many aspects of life turned toward the digital in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, platforms like Instagram become used in new ways, including for shared experiences, activism, and information-sharing.

In February and March 2020, as concern grew about the spread of COVID-19, governments moved to institute quarantine rules and lockdowns, putting many people into situations of physical distancing and social isolation. Working from home, required to minimise the amount of time they were in physical proximity with people they did not live with, and advised not to travel, for many digital media became the means for resituating aspects of daily life. Meetings and teaching moved to video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meets, while social interactions and interpersonal communication similarly became primarily digital in form.

Spending more time engaging with content on digital media also translated into an ongoing documentation of life under lockdown, a communal demonstration of the shared experiences amongst family, friends, and followers however near or far away they were. Whether updating about the stresses and uncertainty of the pandemic, the sudden move to become someone working-from-home, home-schooling, and parenting all at the same time, successes in cultivating sourdough starters, or commenting on Zoom fatigue, platforms like Instagram gave an outlet for posting these thoughts – and an audience going through many of the same situations.

Supporting the directive to stay at home in many countries, Instagram promoted a ‘Stay Home’ sticker for use in Stories, alongside other stickers demonstrating support for health and key workers. Other uses of Instagram as a means for sharing lockdown experiences took advantage of other features not developed specifically for this context. The Live function saw increased use, not just for communicating between users but for the digital replication of events no longer possible in person under lockdown: musical performances and concerts, DJ sets, and parties among them. Streaming the mundanity of life at home became a popular outlet for creators and influencers, maintaining connections with their audiences under extraordinary circumstances. Celebrities posted updates from their own domestic lockdowns, giving insights into their lives and settings. As lockdowns continued, meanwhile, more and more would-be in-person experiences went online: for example, Instagram Live, as with other streaming platforms, became home to gym workouts and yoga sessions, while Instagram rolled out content specifically for graduation ceremonies happening via distance or solely online at the end of the northern spring. To help local businesses, too, Instagram introduced more commerce options that enabled shopping directly through the platform – although this also comes with the associated concerns of giving Instagram and Facebook more information about yourself and your purchases.

With the feeling of the passing of time changing under lockdown, as days became more and more samey, other forms of shared experience took on additional importance for breaking the monotony and maintaining connections with others. The spread of challenges encouraged users to watch what others had done, repeat it themselves, and then tag other users to attempt the challenge themselves, for tasks as varied as attempting to draw a carrot in Stories to doing a certain number of push-ups. The challenge format did not originate on Instagram – it owes a lot to the watch-and-replicate model of Tiktok, as well as older forms of digital communication – but its spread during lockdown underlined the social dimension of online connections.

Not everything posted on Instagram in the wake of the pandemic was seemingly frivolous or throwaway, however. In response to the growing call for racial justice and an end to police brutality in the US, for instance, Instagram and other social media have become important channels for support for Black Lives Matter, guides and resources promoting Black voices, and visual activism. However, this has also seen the pitfalls as well as the possibilities of such digital action: the attempted display of racial justice activism of #BlackoutTuesday in June, for instance, saw Instagram users post black squares in place of any other content that day – however, the choice by many users to include the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag meant that the hashtag was swamped with black squares, pushing other vital information about the movement out of sight with the volume of blank posts.

The black squares also showcase how visual content has expanded beyond just the photographic on Instagram. Aesthetically appealing how-to and step-by-step guides and lists have also become promoted types of content in 2020, offering ways of sharing information and resources that also fit in with the wider visual characteristics of Instagram. From tips and instructions for COVID protection to lists of marginalised voices warranting amplification, new visual templates have emerged that reimagine how information can be spread on social media; at the same time, though, this does not mean that just because these ideas are posted in a nice infographic, what is being said is true. Conspiracy theories, misinformation, and disinformation are a major problem for social media platforms, with the same aesthetic styles being used to push viewpoints that are not just false but dangerous, but are spreading because they understand how Instagram works, with the familiar becoming weaponised.

What does this all mean for Instagram, and for visual social media cultures? We argue that the ever-growing importance of visual content means that a platform like Instagram is at the centre of multiple interests that do not necessarily align: the pressure from communities and governments for social media corporations to take more responsibility for what happens on their platforms, the desire for advertisers and commercial interests to flourish, to encourage commerce, and the experiences of users from many different perspectives are all at play here, but who gets heard and who is privileged highest by Instagram?

The presence of Instagram, and other social media, within the everyday lives of many is inescapable, especially as the global threat of COVID continues to impact us. If the last decade has seen Instagram become one of the main lenses through which we see the world, both sharing and framing the lives we share with our family, friends and the wider online world, what happens next is very much dependent on how Instagram and Facebook see their own role and responsibility towards their users, not just what they allow to happen on the platform.

To find out more about our work, please check out @polityinstabook on Instagram and Twitter.