Consumer Production in Social Media Networks

:
A Case Study of the “Instagram” iPhone App

// by Zachary McCune [an executive summary]

// introduction
Today’s information society has become reliant on consumer production. With cheap and ubiquitous technologies such as mobile phones, consumers are encouraged to casually produce videos (see YouTube), audio recordings (see SoundCloud), and real-time textual responses (see Twitter) to their growingly mediated lives. Engagement in these production networks is empowered by “always on” global communication networks, enmeshing consumers in a web of social ties that are predicated, to various degrees, on production. This emergent phenomenon is generally called ‘social media.’

// overview
In a three-month study centered on a four-week ethnography, attendance of a London meetup, and analysis of 23 open-response user surveys, this project assessed the iPhone app “Instagram” as a social media network. The research was grounded in the question why do users share personal media content with global networks? Rather than offering a theoretical response to this question, or attempting a macro-assessment of Instagram use, this study engages “iPhoneography” (neologism: iPhone+ photography) from an experiential lens of using the Instagram app, and communicating directly with other Instagram users. The results, while perhaps too in-depth to offer generalized conclusions, provide an intimate account of Instagram use and show social media users as concerned with both personal production and social reception. It also shows that Instagram users develop high fluency with various iPhone photo apps, and consciously craft rather than simply capture the images they share.

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// research methods
Participant Observation: four weeks of personal Instagram app use + Composed and shared images, gaining experience and understanding of the app’s functions + Commented on other user photos, developing dialogues and relationships with other users + Noted patterns in photo styles, commenting practices, sub-communities, interac tions between users, popular trends, etc. Ethnography of an “InstaMeet” in London + Traveled to an inaugural meet-up of London Instagram users in March 2011 + Participated in a “PhotoWalk” where multiple IG users traveled together through London capturing, composing, and publishing images to Instagram simultaneously + Learned about the powerful multi-app photo-editing tricks of advanced Instagram use + Observed the social habits and composition of a highly-active London Instagram community 25 Open-Response Surveys + 23 returned + Two groups of participants given same survey >12 London InstaMeet attendees > 11 International IG users whose photos have been profiled as “popular”

{

5 Question Survey 1. Why do you take photos? 2. Why do you share them on Instagram rather than keep them private? 3. Do you feel you take photos for yourself or for other people? 4. Is your photography a hobby or do you have professional aspirations? 5. Do the photos of other users inform the photos you take or the way you take them?

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From the Four-Week Participation Observation of Instagram ::

// findings

Successful Instagram users must both publish (share) images and comment (engage) on the images of other users. This production/consumption circuit is the on-going behavior at the heart of Instagram use. Participating only in one half of this binary (particularly just publishing images without commenting) is reminiscent of mass media (one direction broadcast and consumption) and fails to expand IG’s social network dependent on interchange of images and responses. Instragram images often have distinct aesthetics and common subjects. Animals (cats/dogs), landscapes (particularly clouds and sunsets), and travel landmarks are very popular, but it should be understood that tremendous experimentation occurs within these categories. Street photography (candid images of street activities like commuting) is an entire genre of Instagram images. Old cameras, particularly Polaroid instant cameras, are another niche genre of shared photos. Common tags (such as “#cat”) may be quantified to see the most common subjects, but tag use is not universal so this is only a partial sample. Effects like ‘black and white’, ‘high dynamic range,’ or desaturated Hipstamatic filters (from the Hipstamatic app) are among the most common Instagram aesthetics. Most comment interactions are short, textless ‘likes.’ The longer a written comment is, the more likely the image creator is to respond. Conversations occur fairly often on images, as there is no other way for users to communicate directly.

From the Ethnography of the London InstaMeet :: Mobile devices invite new ways of walking, exploring, and photographing spaces, reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s photographer as “flaneur.” In popular photo spots (e.g. tourist sites) many Instagrammers seek a “unique” take on the subject that expresses an individual trait or style. Instagram users often employ several apps in the composition of an image. Users may capture a shot in one app -> Camera+, Hipstamatic, HDR apps, etc. Edit the image in another -> PhotoShop Express, PhotoForge, etc. Then add framing or writing on an image with apps like Diptic or Labelbox. All before posting a final image to Instagram. This multi-app image crafting suggests the hidden complexity and artistic concerns of iPhoneography Instagram users enjoy sharing tips and trick of photo composition, creating a community in which learning and skill sharing is prized. InstaMeet attendees were diverse in age (approx. 18-50) and occupation (lawyers, students, police officers, nurses, etc.) with a balanced gender mix.

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From the 23 Open-Response Surveys ::

Six trends of motivation emerged. These categories of motivation are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, but represent rationales for using Instagram that were observed in repeated phrases and sentiment throughout the surveys. 1. Sharing + Marked by an expressed desire for open exchange of images with people throughout the Instagram network + “Possessing a view in common with others” was also stressed, as a published image is enjoyed simultaneously among any number of users, and may be used as the site of an emergent conversation 2. Documentation + The urge to capture, record, or preserve experiences that felt transient to users + More a reflection on photography generally then on Instagram use itself 3. Seeing + Belief that Instagram allows one to “look through the eyes of others” and present one’s own viewpoint for a similar exchange of vision + Included belief that publishing images provided “visual status updates” allowing friends to share in each other’s life events 4. Community + The thrill of getting responses from other users, a sense of audience, and the pro ductive incentives of social interaction + Belief that ‘InstaSociety’ improved individual photography, encouraged users to take more photos, and allowed users to think of their photography more artistically with a response critical framework 5. Creativity + Characterized Instagram as a “creative outlet” or space for “artistry” + Also stressed the power of Instagram (as an app and a community) to improve one’s photographic skills (craftsmanship) by sharing tips and critiques through comments 6. Therapy + Presented image sharing as a type of “stress release” leading to “healing” or sense of “well-being” + Users reported the validation they got from the Instagram community as empower ing and encouraging, crossing social anxieties or physical ailments and distances

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// limitations & bias
Both the London InstaMeet group and the set of international users who completed the study’s survey represent a highly active, highly popular, and highly engaged population of Instagram users. According to a March 2011 report by Robert Moore, about 5% of Instagram users have uploaded more than 50 photos to the service, a mark all but one of the 23 respondents have surpassed. Consequently, the findings of this study may more accurately represent the motivations of “hyper” users than “average” Instagrammers. That said, there is no evidence that scale of use (i.e. uploading more than 50 photos) dramatically changes user motivations to use Instagram or any other social media in the first place. It is quite possible that a user with only 3 uploaded images and a user with 100 share certain general inspirations to participate in social media.

// about

Zachary McCune is a digital media and culture researcher. He graduated magna cum laude from Brown University with a B.A. in Modern Culture & Media in 2010. He has worked for Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the National Endownment for the Humanities Digital Humanities initiatives, and developed music visualization software for MTVu. His research on Instagram represents the final part of his work for a Masters in Sociology from the University of Cambridge (expected graduation July 2011). Zack is the Founding Editor of the digital art blog A New Day’s Work. This summary is taken from an 80-page dissertation by the same title prepared as a final dissertation for the degree of M. Phil. in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. The full document is available at www.thames2thayer.com/portfolio/a-study-of-instagram/

all work licensed: creative commons 3.0 attribution.

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