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Sociological Analysis Of Instagram Media Essay

Social Media/Social Networking Sites are essentially new applications, means, methods and tools by which social scientists can study human interactions and communications in the 'virtual' world.

In this essay, attempts will be made to analyse one such tool: Instagram, by examining how it is and could be utilised for sociological research. A thorough and critical analysis of Social Media, though useful is simply beyond the scope of this essay. Attempts will be made to analyse, albeit in a superficial context how the sociological approaches to social issues in the ‘virtual’ differs from the traditional approaches to the sociology and the study of communities/societies. Community and society refers to the ‘developed world' rather than the universal notion of the words. In addition to touching on the benefits and challenges posed by Instagram and similar SNS, attempts will also be made to define and identify some concepts regarding sociology of the web and analyse these with a view to providing an understanding of the nature of this social phenomenon a little better.

Introduction: Social Media; What It Is

‘We tend to limit the social to humans and modern societies, forgetting that the domain of the social is much more extensive than that’ (Latour)

For over a decade now the view of the Internet as an educative and empowering tool has and continues to gain credence. From academics to activists, the Internet and modern Information Technology tools are being utilised to reach out far beyond the boundaries [both physical and virtual] of one’s societies to places previously deem unreachable. These tools are fundamentally changing the way people interact and socialise and have become a catalyst for the emergence of social networks and the related change in, and implications for society.

Various names have been given by theorists to these new emergent networks, from ‘virtual communities’ (Rheingold, 1993) to ‘network societies’ (Castells, 1997). The common denominator of these plethora of terminologies is the unavoidable fact that peoples and societies are better connected and thus the proliferation of ideas and mobilisation of people has become a lot easier.

A prime example of such technologies is Social Media. In a nutshell Social Media is the ubiquitous, all-encompassing and generic digital technologies term that describes websites and online & mobile tools that facilitate easy interaction between people in digital [virtual] communities and networks. Put another way, it is web-based applications/tools that emerged on the ‘back of the advancement in ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0 and makes the interactive nature of creation and exchange of user-generated content possible’. (Kaplan Andreas M., Haenlein Michael, 2010: 61)

The interactions come in various forms but the primary focus for sociological researchers is the nature of and capacity for participation and engagement for these platforms not only make it possible for individuals and communities to share user-generated content, but more importantly they enables the co-creation, discussions about, and modifying of such content, thus introducing substantial changes to the means and methods of communication between communities and individuals, and a trigger for cultural innovation and change.

Cultural innovation in the past years have been massive and society-changing from the massive growth of the virtualisation of group networks and social identities, to the ‘digital convergence of text and audio-visual media’. (Karaganis, 2007: 9-10). In a relatively short period, social media applications have resulted in the creation of digital media communities with millions of participants all because of the inherently ‘participatory dynamics’ (Karaganis, 2007) that undergirds it, and perhaps also because older cultural industries have been discarded. (Karaganis, 2007: 9-10)

As evidenced by the nearly monthly newer innovations the list of Social Media types gets ever longer as the years go by. Some of these innovations have now taken a firm root in our daily lexicon: Facebook,, Wikipedia, Google, Flickr, Instagram, LinkedIn, MySpace, Pinterest etc. All of these developments have and continue to impact society in myriad forms.

As is frequently the norm with change and new technology, Social Media has its advocates but also some very strong critics. Some of the criticisms levelled against it is that it has limitations and is elusive. Some criticisms go much further and question its trustworthiness and reliability. Nevertheless, from a strictly sociological perspective, the above concerns and [alleged] shortcomings are true of ‘real-life’ too, and as such the virtual could be argued to be a mere reflection of the real.

Thusly, these perceptual misgivings about Social Media platforms should rather be a spur for social scientists to become more imaginative. Like in the words of C Wright Mills

... to pay closer yet more imaginative attention to the social routines in this time of rapidly changing human societies for the sociological imagination is a quality of mind that seems most dramatically to promise an understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities. It is not merely one quality of mind among the contemporary range of cultural sensibilities- it is the quality whose wider and more adroit use offers the promise that all such sensibilities-and in fact, human reason itself- will come to play a greater role in human affair. (C. Wright Mills, 2000: 15)

C Wright Mills’ prophetic treatise went to further postulate that:

[...] The human variety also includes the variety of individual human beings; these too the sociological imagination must grasp and understand […]

The social scientist seeks to understand human variety in an orderly way, but considering the range and depth of this variety, he might well be asked: is this really possible? Is not the confusion of the social sciences an inevitable reflection of what their practitioners are trying to study? (C. Wright Mills, 2000: 133-134)

How Social Media Has Been and Is Being Studied

'Time for a paradigm shift?' (Manneh, DF)

As most adults in the ‘developed world' would attest to, the phenomenal pervasiveness of the Internet on all aspects of life makes it an inevitably worthy subject of study social scientists. The Internet [this term would be interchangeable with Digital Technologies for this essay], and specifically Social Media touches, affects and influences myriad aspects of society, thus requiring further and thorough study from the ‘perspectives of most Social Science disciplines despite the obvious challenges this presents’. (Cavanagh, 2007: 1)

Currently there does not exist a disciplinary structure of studying the Internet, what rather obtains, is a plethora of academic areas and disparate disciplines which deal with sections of Internet studies. As a result, the ‘possibilities of Information multiplication and overload are vast’. (Cavanagh, 2007: 3). As further pointed out by Cavanagh (2007), the current state of affairs as pertains to the sociological study of the Internet is constrained due to the fact that Sociologists have traditionally been subsumed by, and interested in theorising about diversity, multiplicity and difference. (Cavanagh, 2007: 3).

[…] Thus far it would not appear that academic discourse around the internet is particularly sociologist friendly. Sociology, with its grand theoretical schemas, appears forlornly anachronistic on an academic landscape people by theorists emphasizing diversity, multiplicity and difference. Sociology's equally dearly held commitment to the here and now, the empirical and the demonstrable, seems less well suited to survive than cultural studies' commitments to virtuality, where this is understood as 'the mediation of relationships, their malleability, the artifices, and the constant possibilities of arrangements' (Webster 2005: 451). For this reason, among more institutional others, Webster argue that cultural studies has outpaced sociology in responding to the new dynamics of information. (Cavanagh, 2007: 7 -8)

By any definition, and all indications, the virtual is a community as any other in the 'real' world and it is conveniently ‘positioned at the intersection between geography, communication and culture’. (Cavanagh, 2007). For Sociologists the debate has been centred on the issues and ‘questions of the internet's relationship with offline life and offline communities’ (Cavanagh, 2007: 11), and the intersection between physical and electronic space. (Cavanagh, 2007). The focus for them being questions of how to fully understand the symbiosis between online and offline communities, and how these two communities can ‘serve the same socially integrative role as traditional communities’. (Cavanagh, 2007: 11).

The research findings have so far proven problematic in so far as they are contradictory. And perhaps it is no great surprise that ways and methods of resolving the resultant imbroglio in evidence and interpretation have precipitated attempts to ‘re-conceptualize what is meant by community in sociological circles’. (Cavanagh, 2007: 11). Another parallel of the ‘real’ to the ‘virtual’ since the advent of the Internet is the creation and emergence of class divide between the haves and the have-nots, thus forcing a re-examination and/or even the requirement of a paradigm shift in the application of sociological theory. The old-fashion attachment to ‘traditional, occupational or structural definitions’ Cavanagh, 2007) of class has to be discarded and replaced by ‘more technologically and media-centric ones’. (Cavanagh, 2007: 12).

This shift in focus has been championed by the likes of Kroker and Weinstein’s theory of the ‘virtual class’ (1994), Scott Lash’s theories of information underclasses and overclassses (2002), Mark Poster’s virtual classes (1998), Hardt and Negri’s multitude (2004), and Manuel Castells' network classes (1997). Resulting in the placing of 'new communications technologies' as a central reference point. To the theorists ‘Social class has come to be predicated on the wider notion of inclusion and access, where access is understood as the ability to use and exploit new media. (Cavanagh, 2007: 12)

The core message from the above theories is that class has now to be viewed through the prisms of one's [or a community's] 'inclusion/exclusion' (Cavanagh, 2007) from the Internet, as these are the result of digital divide between communities, with the ability and means to access & know-how, on one hand and those without, on the other. This new use of categorising sections of society is perhaps not enough as the basis for understanding class; for on the face of it, it simply deals with access or lack of it thereof to resources. (Cavanagh, 2007: 12-13).

As typical with most facets of society, identity is also central to the new technologies of communication, and how this new identity is evolving in the age of digital technology vis-à-vis how the ‘sense of our self is developed, and in the role that identity plays in social interactions and social situations’. (Cavanagh, 2007). Some theorists of the network society Giddens, Beck and Castells argue that this reality 'rests on the decline of traditional cultural resources, narratives and authority as ways to organize society and identity'. (Cavanagh, 2007: 15)

This new understanding of self is the result of ‘confrontation between the individual and impersonal forces of modernity’. (Cavanagh, 2007) and provides the background to the development of ideas of the self by cybercultural theorists.

For cyberculture the technical affordances of the internet alter the character of identity construction in so far as it transforms a personally experienced imperative towards reflexive identity construction into the postmodern realm identity play. Thus Sherry Turkle argues that the online self is constructed not given. To be online is to be ‘inventing ourselves as we go along’, having a fluid and multiple self (Turkle 1995: 10-12). In Turkle’s account, as in similar accounts by Hayles (1999) and Stone (1996), the self is a random construct organized around mutation and transformation, and there is no stable subject to act as an arbiter of a real or essential self. (Cavanagh, 2007: 17)

Instagram: It’s more than just being a happy-snapper.

'I am not just a tool for the conceited and the flâneur' (Manneh).

Fundamentally, Instagram is a social network that facilitates the taking of photographs on mobile phones, applying elegant, vintage filters and then sharing them on the Social Network platform. It is exclusive in the sense that one has to create a profile prior to taking part. The inter-user dynamics works by mutual attraction and shared interest.

On its FAQ page, the founders of Instagram defined it as

[...] a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures. Snap a photo with your mobile phone, then choose a filter to transform the image into a memory to keep around forever. We're building Instagram to allow you to experience moments in your friends' lives through pictures as they happen. We imagine a world more connected through photos.

So from the above it is becomes abundantly clear that Instagram has been designed with a view to sharing one’s life with friends rather than merely happily snapping, 'touching-up' and uploading photographs. The decision to name the tool Instagram was also quite remarkable, for according to the creators:

When we were kids we loved playing around with cameras. We loved how different types of old cameras marketed themselves as "instant" - something we take for granted today. We also felt that the snapshots people were taking were kind of like telegrams in that they got sent over the wire to others - so we figured why not combine the two?

Again, what the creators’ choice of name signifies is the core utility of Instagram as tool for sharing one’s life rather than one merely capturing events with one’s mobile phone and sharing them on the platform. To Sociologists this is clearly a case of ‘participatory’ process and the act further illustrates the desire to be a part of a community. Such participations have both a voyeuristic and performativity quality as argued by Boyd. It is therefore fair to say that Instagram, just like other social media forms, has created a ‘stage for digital flâneur (boyd), a place to see and be seen’. (Karaganis, 2007: 155)

Instagram and what makes it a Social Medium

‘The Medium is the Message’ (Marshall McLuhan)

For Cultural theorists, social scientists and Sociologists, Instagram, [like other Web 2.0 applications and platforms] provides ways and means through which further study and analysis of the theory of 'social systems' [or what Parsons calls ‘action theory' (Parsons,1937: )] can be carried out; for at the basic level, ‘the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.’ (McLuhan, 1964: 7).

Like also pointed out by (Beer and Burrows, 2007), if networked technologies are totally re-aligning society's relations, then they inevitably are of high sociological significance. Furthermore, they implored Sociologists to be alert in ensuring that albeit the ordinariness and pervasiveness of these new technologies, they should not be left to ‘sink from sociological view’. [(Beer and Burrows, 2007), (Wellman and Haythornthwaite, 2002)]. Concerted efforts ought to be taken to fully study and understand the sociological agendas relevant to understanding the culture of collaborative and participatory user-generated web content (Beer and Burrows, 2007). How people on Instagram and other Web 2.0 platforms not only create but effectively consume web content [by building relationships, sharing photos, tagging photos, commenting on photos etc] gives credence to the argument of it being a 'participatory culture'. [(Jenkins et al., 2006) :( Beer and Burrows, 2007)].

Furthermore, the user-generated content nature of Instagram is an exemplification of the 'Prosumption' culture, for the participants/users are both producers and consumers of content. This symbolises the ‘changing relations between the production and consumption of content’. (Beer and Burrows, 2007). Just like participants in other more entrenched social media platforms [e.g. Facebook, Wikipedia] would readily admit, users of Instagram have a dilemma as to what is private and what is public in the sharing of photos.

It may in fact sound like a contradiction in terms that Internet/Social Media is intimate and personal but at the same time it is a public domain/space. Or as put by Bauman:

The public is colonized by the private; public interest is reduced to curiosity about the private lives of public figures, and the art of public life is narrowed to the public display of the private affairs and public confessions of private sentiments (the more intimate the better). (Bauman, 2000: 37)

In this day of ever rapid developments in digital technology users of social media platforms need to be conscious of the fact that:

…public space is not much more than a giant screen on which private worries are projected without ceasing to be private or acquiring new collective qualities in the course of magnification: public space is where public confession of private secrets and intimacies is made." (Bauman, 2000: 40)

Aspects of Social Media that Instagram enables the study of.

‘Participatory Performance’.

Like was the case in the dana boyd’s Friendster study (Karaganis, 2007: 155), when a person installs the Instagram application, their first act is to create a profile and connect with other users. If they already have an account on Facebook, a list of their friends with Instagram accounts is automatically displayed, thus effectively and consciously encouraging them to 'link' them up.

Of great advantage to newly signed-up users is the chance of seeing how their friends' use Instagram thus providing them cues as to how they in turn choose to present themselves. It is a form of performance of identity ritual which ‘relies on the active interpretation of social contexts’. (boyd, 2002). Although all Instagram users’ profiles have the same basic layout, adding individual personal touches ‘create a performance space in which norms are established and interpreted. (Karaganis, 2007: 141)

By default or design, Instagram is a 'Social System that enables and facilitates a form of 'Gift Cycle' [Mediating the Social; Guest Lecturer: Kuan Neng Foo Dec 2012], i.e. it enables users to 'give', 'share' and 'reciprocate'. Using the Instagram filters to touch up pictures is at the basic level, a means of 'increasing the gift quality', and sharing the images with a select group of people is effectively turning it into 'gift exclusivity' [Mediating the Social Guest Lecturer: Kuan Neng Foo]. The act of sharing increases the probability of reciprocation, which inevitably leads to a process of ‘community formation around shared values and tastes’. [Mediating the Social Guest Lecturer: Kuan Neng Foo].

Perhaps this should not be a huge surprise, but there is ‘impression management’ (Goffman, 1956), in how users present themselves on Instagram. ‘People convey impressions, and these are usually deliberate’. (Goffman, 1956). The process involves a ‘performer and a reader’. (Goffman as individuals or in the case of teams, groups could work hand-in-hand in conveying a particular impression of themselves. (Karaganis, 2007: 142–143). This urge to participate is fundamentally an innate inclination to be voyeuristic and performative, and thus, like other forms of social media, Instagram has created a ‘digital stage for digital flâneur (boyd) - place to see and be seen’. (Karaganis, 2007: 155)

Aspects of Social Research Methods Instagram Can Facilitate

'A picture is worth a thousand words' (source: contested)

The adage 'A picture is worth a thousand words' [attributed to Arthur Brisbane and Confucius, amongst others] is quite an apt description of Instagram's potentials, for fundamentally visualisation enables the absorption and understanding of relatively complex issues much more quickly. For social Scientists analysing and interpreting photographs as social data is a useful exercise as the photographs in their inanimate ways convey messages, either by providing visual evidence or as an illustration and support of ideas about society.

Through photographs, social scientists can analyse and interpret; comprehend how images can be used to express uncertainties and show changes of social and cultural diversity. They should be paid more than passing glances and be viewed as visual evidence as they have the capacity to inform about key dimensions of modern society such as gender, ethnicity, class and nationality. Furthermore, photographs capture and provide an immediacy to a certain time and place and are great for the communication of [sensitive and complex] issues. An example that readily comes to mind is carnage and devastation from war zones. Such images have proven over and over again to elicit reactions more than newspaper coverage.

Instagram enables the three theoretical paradigms that can be applied when studying society's structure: functionalism, symbolic interactionism and critical theory as it provides Sociologists a platform through which objective socio-technical aspects of the Instagram community can be analysed. Through partaking and observation, Sociologists are provided an opportunity to study the actions and/or reactions elicited, or the symbolic meanings attached to photos, and how users define their identities. This is a classic case of symbolic interactionalist approach to sociological research. As a thorough study of today’s society will be incomplete without the inclusion of the 'virtual', and a true [critical] social theory can also never be complete without providing explanations as to what is wrong or inadequate about social reality. (Max Horkheimer)

For an effective study of SNS, Sociologists would need to be more than just outside observers. They would need 'to be become participatory, become active participants in part of the collaborative cultures of Web 2.0. They will need to develop abilities and skill set to carry out virtual ethnographies’. (Beer and Burrows, 2007).However just merely being active participants in SNS would not be enough; sociologists may need to explore innovative methods and means of ‘using Web 2.0 applications, and particularly the interactive potentials of SNS, as research tools or research technologies’. (Beer and Burrows, 2007). This would enable 'mining' of the vast archives on the everyday lives of individuals for valuable insight into how society is changing and what effects SNS have on those changes. (Beer and Burrows, 2007)

As cogently argued by Mike Savage and Roger Burrows in the (The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology (2007) paper, Social Media is forcing a rethinking of the repertoires of empirical sociology and as a consequence it behoves sociologists to not ONLY adapt new methods of training but asks for greater reflection on how they can best relate to the proliferation of social data gathered by others, which is currently largely ignored. They argued that Sociologists should not rest on their laurels by ‘invoking their sophistication in relation to social theory’ but should instead renew their ‘interests in methodological innovation, and reporting critically on new digitalisations’. (Savage and Burrows, 2007: 12-14). They argued that it is only through this means, that Sociologists can renew the critical project of sociology through challenging current practices in the collection, use and deployment of social data. (Savage and Burrows, 2007: 12-14)


Instagram and other SNS hold great promise for researchers in Sociology and related disciplines for a lot of social interactions are carried out on these platforms. With the phenomenal pace at and growth in newer and more innovative technologies emerge, ‘social scientists need to draw attention to and seek ways to understand how our very relationship with the past is quietly being reconfigured, and with revolutionary effect’. (Karaganis, 2007: 28)

Specific to Instagram's role in this interesting but yet challenging development is the value of photographs as documentary data in the social sciences; for social processes of snapping, the application of filters, and sharing pictures needs to be viewed as more than merely a hobby but rather as recorders/depictions of history and be understood in terms of content and context. Social scientists would need to be convinced that ‘the path to a new society is strewn with optical fibre and pocked with silicon chips’. (Karaganis, 2007: 34).

At the beginning, the assumption and suspicions was that the rope that binds Social Media and makes SNS attractive is immediacy, as humans have a natural desire to want to be able to act, consume, react and share instantly, and working on this essay has only strengthened that conviction. Social Media platforms have effortlessly and uniquely enabled users to add a whole new and [r]evolutionary dimension to the here-and-now, by almost effortlessly managing to increase the basest human desire to expect things to be more current. And this is what makes it distinct from other forms of media and thus the great promise as a tool for Sociologists and other social scientists.

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