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Instagram’s spaces of flow

September 19th, 2012 § 2 comments

Hihi. I am presenting at the Association of Internet Researchers Conference 13 next month in Manchester.

The abstract I submitted is below. I have plenty of things to re-write because of the constant changes to Instagram, particularly since Facebook bought it. A sidenote: I am an active user of Instagram, and I have been a believer of its potential since it started. I think making flippant comments about Instagram being all about “posting dinner or cats” is the same type of reductionist thinking about Twitter. The exciting part is the complexities and discursive ways we operate in these networks. To dismiss them so easily, is to dismiss their potential (which can go beyond the capitalist framework they are situated within). Although I have to admit, I am having a perplexing time participating in a mediated network owned by Facebook, a social media platform that I cannot stand, and do not believe in its potential at all. Particularly because I have personal issues with it. Maybe that will happen with Instagram at some point too, but for now my research stands.

Instagram’s spaces of flow
Magdalena Olszanowski
Concordia University, Canada

The proliferation of broadband Internet and digital cameras has made photo sharing a popular activity, particularly as tool of communication (Crow et al. 2010), however, as Sarvas and Vihavainen argue: the “camera phone has changed the role of the camera: the camera phone is always carried with, it has an inherent network access, and access to contextual and social information” (1). By mid-2011, over 30% of mobile phone users in North America shared photos through their mobile phone online (Rainie and Wellman 183).

Utilizing these features, Instagram , a distinctive free mobile social network (MSN) (de Souza and Frith 289), centered on personal user-uploaded photographic content, has rapidly formed its own heterogeneous mobile community out of a larger mobile ‘public.’ Like other online social communities comprised of networked individuals, Instagram’s simple user interface (UI) allows users to build their own communities within its ‘public’ sphere and cultivate their own identity markers, rules and etiquette.

Unlike other social networking sites focused on visual content, no re-blogging/posting or saving photos is permitted or done in a facile way: two main features of other visually-based social networks, such as Flickr and Tumblr. I argue this creates a community focused on ‘making,’ and promotes the ‘banal everyday’ – the most often accessible subject matter to the average mobile user – as an aesthetic engagement and (re) negotiation. In addition, some users also share pictures with each other and “collab,” meaning one user will take a photo and send it to another user for editing, specifically, on their mobile phone.

Specifically, I identify six characteristics that shape the identity and users of this mobile photography community: 1) ephemeral ‘flash mobs’ through hashtag use; 2) formation and up-keep of micro-communities through the hashtag; 3) aesthetic trends through both —various ‘lens filter’ use, and different photo application use, and their influence on production and consumption within the application; 4) creation of a new identity, ‘the mobile photographer/artist’; 5) the creation of hybrid spaces (de Souza e Silva 19) through instameets ( Instagram user meet-ups to take photos together in physical space to post online) that are mediated through unofficial city Instagram accounts made by users, informal photo walks and brick-and-mortar exhibitions; 6) and, its current marketing and advertising-free environment.

Drawing upon Rainie and Wellman’s (2012) work on the triple revolution (the rise of the Internet, the advent of mobile phones, and the attention to social networks), and Castell’s (2000) theories of networked societies, I argue that this visually-centered mobile technology allows users to traverse through hybrid spaces, sets up relationships between places and people, and in turn, heightens our relationship not only to our own environment but the environment of others as mediated through the community. A common sentiment among Instagram users is the importance of being able to view other parts of the world through the eyes of others, and, respectively, present their own environmental explorations to their followers. This is one example of the community’s aesthetic practices being rooted in the production of space. Indeed, I ask, thinking with Bourdieu (1996), that theoretically and with use of appropriate technology, everything may be photographed, yet isn’t, and so what sorts of visual ideologies does Instagram promote? Cameras and images function “within particular social contexts and moments, which also define their significance” (Harrison 37), and indeed Instagram’s context is inextricably linked to the consumption of Apple products. Despite its unique characteristics I outlined above, I question whether Instagram still follows a hegemonic framework of inclusion and exclusion. As much as it builds community – it has grown from 1 million accounts in 2011 to 15 million in 2012 – and is free of advertising, the application is not without its exclusivity, and is currently a propriety-branded platform for Apple’s iPhone and iPad products, a problematic facet of many contemporary mobile social networks.

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Reissue. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Castells, Manuel. The rise of the network society. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Crow, Barbara, Michael Longford, and Kim Sawchuk. The wireless spectrum: the politics, practices, and poetics of mobile media. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

de Souza e Silva, Adriana and Frith, Jason. “Locative Mobile Social Networks: Mapping Communication and Location in Urban Spaces.” Mobilities , 5 (4), 485–505.

Harrison, Barbara. “Snap Happy: Toward a Sociology of ‘Everyday’ Photography” Studies in Qualitative Methodology 7 (2004): 23-39.

Rainie, Lee and Wellman, Barry. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012.

Sarvas, Risto and Vihavainen, Sami. “A Holistic View on Future Snapshot Media.” Pervasive Image Capture and Sharing Workshop (PICS2006) at UbiComp 2006: 1-3.

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