Whether it is a selfie, your view, your dog, your mom 2o years back, your car, the meal you just had or about to have, or even just something cool… What we post on Instagram, is so more than just an image…
In his article Social Network Profiles as Taste Performances, Hugo Liu talks about the use of social media as a way to convey users “taste statements”. However, given the time the article was written Liu specifically focuses on the users profiles and how they were used as a creation of identity through written descriptions on a profile, as seen on MySpace. Although making relevant claims to the overarching use of social media, Liu is focusing his study in a time period when profile centric sites were popular, as opposed to today where we see the continuing growth of media-centric sites. A media centric site, as described by Nicole Ellison and Danah Boyd, is one that involves regular updates and posts, versus the one time creation of information, that for the most part would remain static over time. Given this shift in use, as opposed to studying a social network site like MySpace, we must now turn our attention to sites such as Instagram and Snapchat in order to understand how the taste statements suggested by Liu have also shifted to fit into this “media-centric” framework.
Liu defines 4 types of taste statements: prestige, differentiation, authenticity and theatrical persona, within his study. Arguing that they were the forces guiding the behaviors within profile centric sites such as MySpace. Applying his ideas to Instagram, for example, and the popularity it has reached in such a short period of time can help us understand the media-centric appropriations of these taste statements, which arguably also govern the behaviors of the users on these sites.
In order to understand the taste statements circulating within Instagram however, we must first understand why the site is so popular, and who makes up its user base. According to an article from CNet called Why Teens are Tiring of Facebook, it is the youth, particularly teens that are now making this transition from profile-centric to media-centric sites. The article talks about how teens, craving digital freedom, are looking for a community in which they are able to express themselves freely. Separating themselves from the now “great” Facebook, which even affords grandparents the technology to see what their grandchildren are doing.
Whether intentional or not, Instagram, has been able to greatly capture the teenage demographic. As it is the teenage population that classified Instagram as social media platform from the get go, differentiating themselves from those, arguably the older users, who initially saw Instagram as a camera app for a smartphone. Given this advantage over the older users, teens transformed the use of photographs and hash tags on Instagram as a way to convey taste and identity salient to their use.
As opposed to profile centric sites, which restricted much of the information that was shared to predetermined categories, Instagram has allowed its users to post anything and everything. As is made evident when one scrolls through the top trending photos of the day, which cover a great range of images, from cute cats and dogs, to fitness tips, baby photos, shameless selfies, food… and so much more…
The idea of using pictures in order to convey personal narratives and identities has now come to be a phenomenon that has taken over and surpassed the use of words and statuses. As Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell found through their case studies in Imagining, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities: Young People and New Media Technologies, the use of a digital camera on ones cell-phone allows you to edit a picture on the spot, which allows for more creativity and variability within posts on the site itself. It also allows for what Irving Goffman terms “Impression management” or the ability to control what one posts in order to get a favorable fan base. On Instagram this can be understood as the opportunity users are given to edit, customize and tag their photos creating a repertoire which enables them to attract an audience according to the images they upload to the site.
Given that social media today is focused on attracting a younger audience of users, it becomes essential to understand why and how these intended users are actually using the sites to create identities and performances about themselves. Since the creation of Instagram and Snapchat we have seen the rise of a fast paced and high demanding culture, requiring constant involvement in order to maintain an identity, defined by Weber and Mitchell as an “identity in action”. The ability to constantly post photos, most of which are done in real time, is what has allowed media centric sites to grow, providing users with a fast and easy way to create a self image, constructed around particular taste statements as presented through photographs.
Using the 4 taste statements above, we come to understand the the importance behind posting an image on a site such as Instagram. As it is clear, that since we are no longer reliant on text, a picture truly can be worth a thousand words, or even more.
Weber and Mitchell introduced the idea of identities “in action”, as a way to categorize this new social media use. As such, we can see that younger users are starting to act as their own audience, posting their pictures, not only for their audience, but for themselves too. Viewing their own pictures, judging their presentation of taste and self image, while at the same time looking to see how others are looking at them. This behavior understood within Liu’s taste statement framework, shows the importance of “taste” as the reciprocity which takes place through the creation of images. As we give off signs (Goffman) of our personal taste, we expect other to relate and thus connect with us, based on our outward performance.
As we create this performance, we begin to place ourselves into one of the four taste categories mentioned above. Prestige statements focus on promoting the idea of a “club culture” where people are “dressed to impress” (262). This idea, although structured around MySpace, can also apply to the use of Instagram. as users are constantly worrying about what pictures they choose to post, at what times, and where. The ability to present oneself in the best way possible allows for favorable reactions from your followers, the more impressionable you are, the more followers you will have. Today, many blogs and websites, such as Almost Insta-Famous! 4 Tips to Rocking Your Instagram and Instagram Tips: Using Hashtags, catering to this very idea of creating a favorable impression of yourself, by listing tips and pointers on how to properly post on Instagram. Teaching users specific ways of enhancing images and posts in order to gain popularity throughout the site.
The idea of differentiation, having to do with expressions of uniqueness and diversity in order to differentiate from those around you, can be attributed as one of the biggest factors that lends to the popularity of Instagram today. As Liu saw that many people attempted differentiation on MySpace, we too can see the idea of differentiation as manifested through youth’s behavior on Instagram. Particularly, this differentiation involves one in which younger users are seeking independence from the older users, as is mentioned in Why Teens are Tiring of Facebook, according to Danah Boyd “teens are looking for a place of their own”. Instagram, has not only allowed teens to differentiate their media use through images, versus posts on Facebook, but has also allowed teens to escape the critiques and commentaries made by many parents with access to the information posted though Facebook.
Authenticity statements are what I like to think of as Instagram’s claim to fame. The idea being that we give off a relaxed and slightly imperfect feel, in order to remain “authentic” in the eyes of your followers. Authenticity statements may be the most relevant when it comes to Instagram, given the creation selfies and “in the moment shots” we give a viewer the ability to peer into our authentic world, where most posts constitute a framework of everyday people, versus make-uped models and superstars. Heidi Kim, a graduate student interviewed inWhy is Instagram so Popular?, makes the point that when we use photography we are being much more authentic in what we are trying to say about ourselves, versus when we post a status on Facebook that can come across as self absorbed, or simply reveal that we are trying to hard. Although many times we can, and do, use filters to enhance our posted images, it is known that when pictures hash-tagged #nofilter or #me pop up on our news feed, we can expect a more or less authentic post. Giving personal insight into the person that has uploaded the photo, and many times enforcing the creation of a connection between two users.
Theatrical performances, which according to Liu are created with the intentions of putting on a show for your audience, intended to get the LOL reaction from viewer, are also present in Instagram and other media centric sites. However, given the availability of filters, and limitless edit options, we as users are handed the ability to create an image with as much or as little imagination as we wish, no longer just aiming to get a laugh, we are now creating a performance with the intentions of evoking a deeper reaction. As is mentioned in Almost Insta-famous: 4 Tips to Rocking Your Instagram, many users who take on the theatrical performance are simply trying on new identities through their use of sites such as Instagram. Our access to the filters and edit options, allow us to tap into our creative and imaginative side and post images similar to those of professional photographers today, and although we are clearly not professional photographers, this ability to mirror their performance allows for the creation of our identity within the site. An identity, which although seeming fake, Tim Moynihan argues in Why is Instagram so Popular?, should not be defined as inauthentic behavior, but instead help us see the theatrical taste statement as a way through which users can now come to “exert their creativity choosing which filter and effect fit a photo best.”
That same article referred to Instagram as providing its users with a “casual simplicity” that comes along with the use of the site. As opposed to other social media sites that function off of the creation of statuses, tweets, written accounts, etc. Instagram gives its users the luxury of relying mainly on photographs, and photo updates. The use of photographs as is mentioned by the article, not only opens the door for communication, as it becomes less daunting to post a picture versus sounding coherent through words and writing, but also allows for the creation of weak ties, and formation of strong ties through social grooming and bridging behaviors, mentioned by Nicole Ellison in Facebook Relationship Maintenance Behavior.
It thus becomes clear that although outdated in terms of application, the taste statements that Liu points to in his article are still very much a guiding force behind the different uses of social media sites. This analysis simply focused on Instagram and the creation of taste within its younger set of users, however, this is just one of the many different ways taste can be portrayed through social media. As such, we must always be conscious of the diversity among users within one social media site, and thus be open to the existence of multiple expressions of taste, which may or may not continue to fit into the framework created by Liu.