Marije Peute, Marissa Willcox, Richard Rogers, Justus Uitermark, John Boy, Natalia Stanusch, Selcuk Yalcindag, Charlie van der Reijden, Yke van der Salm, Jingyi Zhou, Joris Binsbergen, Lena Stefan, Kristof Cotter, Antonio Psoncak, Margherita Di Cicco, Maria Cecilia Buonocunto, Yassine Fenniche, Kexin Zhou, Zhiyi Qu, Alexis Rey-Millet.
Over the past decade, Instagram has emerged as one of the world’s most important social media platforms. Young people use it as a vehicle to share defining moments they have grown up with the platform. The app serves as a focal point in their biographies, as they form relationships and revise their personalities through their profiles. Although it offers its users control over the images they post and the people they follow, users are embedded in complex webs of interdependence which can sometimes create difficulties in their everyday lives. Our project seeks to understand how users craft and negotiate their Instagram presence in relation to proximate and distant audiences. For this purpose, we have interviewed 19 frequent Instagram users, who are students enrolled in international programs at the University of Amsterdam. This group of young people is particularly aware of their self-image construction as they move into new cultural contexts. For international students, Instagram serves as a space to mark geography, class, location, and importantly, well-being and belonging. We found through the text and visual analysis of these data, that young people construct their own identities in relation to (digital) others. Instagram enables young people to become and stay connected to different (geographic) groups, from family to friends and lovers. It also amplified emotions around self-esteem, on the one hand enhancing negative feelings like (social) anxieties, and on the other hand crystalizing celebrations of memorable milestones.
Over the past decade, Instagram has emerged as one of the world’s most important social media platforms. Young people use it as a vehicle to share defining moments they have grown up with the platform. The app serves as a focal point in their biographies, as they form relationships and revise their personalities through their profiles. Although it offers its users control over the images they post and the people they follow, users are embedded in complex webs of interdependence which can sometimes create difficulties in their everyday lives.
Our project seeks to understand how users craft and negotiate their Instagram presence in relation to proximate and distant audiences. For this purpose, we have interviewed 19 frequent Instagram users, who are students enrolled in international programs at the University of Amsterdam. This group of young people is particularly aware of their self-image construction as they move into new cultural contexts. For international students, Instagram serves as a space to mark geography, class, location, and importantly, well-being and belonging.
At this stage of the project, we are in the midst of creating an accessible and shareable repository to function as the starting point for interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration. We consider this winter school experiment as an important step in developing a more collaborative, open, and interdisciplinary study of social media that takes the views of users seriously. We have analysed a selection of seven in-depth, structured interviews and their corresponding Instagram posts to study the interrelation between identity formation, visual representations and platform vernacular. Three groups of five participants have each tackled their own subquestion. Depending on the skills and interests of the group, we have divided roles into ‘data pilots’ and ‘story-tellers’, who each had their own role in the analysis of the data and the creation of the final product.
The analysis consists of textual and visual analysis, including creating group coding structures, these are guided by the facilitators and structured assignments. As a result, we have created a set of narrated themes and ethnographic case studies, which are enriched by quotes and visuals, and designed a visualisation of the data supporting this story.
For this project we used a selection of seven interviews, from an open qualitative dataset of 19 in-depth interviews, which are intended to be used for interdisciplinary analysis. The respondents have given consent to share their data (including their Instagram content) with other researchers, available on an open database. We believe that open data can contribute to more transparent and collaborative theorising, because scholars from other disciplines or social media users can be invited to simultaneously reflect on the meaning of the data. This is in contrast to the more common way of analysing qualitative data, within a small research team, with feedback from respondents when the product is already finished.
Since the open database itself is still in progress, we used a OneDrive folder with the selected interviews and background information on the respondents. Each interview has been processed as a full transcript, in the original order of the conversation and in some cases with the relevant posts attached. We have also created highlights, which is a selection of the key moments in the full transcripts, arranged in order of the interview questions. During this Winter School, we have worked with the highlights as our primary source, which includes text and images, but when we delved deeper into a question or phrase, we used the original transcripts.
The selection of the sample consists of seven participants, two identified as male students and five identified as female students. Each interviewee was born between the years 1997 and 2002, so they all share a certain familiarity of use and of approach towards the current media environment. Interviewees also shared their expat background, as they were all international students who moved to Amsterdam to study and who originally came from different countries in Europe, North America and Asia.
Our learning aims for this winter school are two-fold. First, we want to analyse the available interview data, in alignment with our research questions. Second, we want to explore how to analyse qualitative data across disciplines, with a large group of scholars. How can we stimulate a fruitful dialogue and collaboration between researchers, the public and research participants through open data?
Our main research question is:
How does Instagram figure into the process of identity formation amongst international students?
Our three sub questions are:
How do students imagine close and distant audiences, and how is this reflected in their content curation?
How have students developed their [Instagram] identity since the beginning of their Instagram use, and how is this expressed in their content curation?
How has Instagram affected the well-being and self image of students, according to them?
Since the dataset of interviews was already available before the winter school, we focused on applying different methods of analysis to make sense of the data: text and visual analysis, which also entailed instructions of how to write a narrative with qualitative data and the visual design of the findings.
The first step we took was to conduct a textual analysis by closely reading each participant's interview highlights while annotating anything we found relating to the research questions. By recapping each participant's journey on Instagram and their features in a collaborative overview of our annotations, each team identified three themes that correspondingly described diverse aspects of Instagram use as reflected in the stories of the interviewees.
Based on this framework, each team coded the data by assigning quotes from the interviews to each category or subcategory of our ‘coding trees’. Later, through a process of coding disruption inspired by Maggie Maclure’s (2013) wunderkammers we created coding cabinets which allowed for parallel possibilities and themes to emerge laterally rather than hierarchically across the research data. The participants in the DMI Winter School Project also performed a detailed visual analysis of images for each participant to analyse how their meanings are expressed through the aesthetic and formal qualities of the image. They analysed both images that are directly referenced by the interviewees in their responses as well as all images and feed snippets that were provided. By such a comprehensive visual analysis, we were able to better understand the context and progression that occurred on the Instagram profiles of our interviewees.
Coding the interview texts along with the posts from the participants in this study allowed us to understand the ways some young people use Instagram when forming their Insta-identity. This was essential to understand the Instagram users as more than how they present themselves in their images, but in connection to how they view their uploading practices and how they affect their sense of self and everyday life. Participants’ subjective narratives have given us an inside view into Instagram use which we could not get from what was publically available on the platform, for it needed to be discussed with users themselves.
During this winter school, learning wasn’t limited to the analysis of the dataset. To work together in teams with in-depth interviews proved to be a challenging, yet highly rewarding experience. Most of the team members had similar demographics as our interview sample, especially in relation to age and cultural heritage, enabling them to make sense of the findings in a complex way. While analysing the data, and brainstorming about their meaning, they also shared their own stance and reflections from their personal experiences. This enriched the theorising process, creating interesting and fruitful dialogues between the team members and the facilitators. We found common themes arise in the interview coding which related to well established fields within new media research (authenticity, belonging, visibility, well being etc) which brought about discussions of how we formulated the case studies based on prior knowledge in these fields.
On a methodical and more pragmatic level, we found that open datasets need to be both accessible and interactive in their lay-out and design to stimulate collaboration. The teams worked in the same set of highlights on a shared OneDrive document, making remarks and highlighting in different colours to indicate interesting sections or quotes. They also coded quotes in excel to create their own coding cabinets and to group together emergent themes based on what Maclure (2013) would call a data “glow”. Thus, our winter school participants could see clearly how others interpreted data and could debate on the potential other meanings phrases could have than what was initially stated. One team member for example observed that she would label phrases in a different code than other team members did, which provoked them to think through how to code in a meaningful way, and its implications for theory.
In the following sections we will explore per research question what the main findings were, and in the discussion an overarching reflection follows on what this means for our main research question.
Three central themes were identified in this question: close, distant, and imagined audiences; ‘audiencing’ by location and ‘audiencing’ and content curation (using Instagram’s vernacular). We found that the Instagram accounts of the seven participants, as well as their use of the platform, show great diversity in their usage intentions. Some participants place greater importance on close audiences consisting of family and friends, while others prioritise distant audiences of strangers with shared interests or locations. Simultaneously, the students report on having multiple audiences. Thus, the close, distant, and imagined audiences can co-exist. We dub their process of content curation for their intended audiences a form of ‘audiencing’ and our findings suggest that the students are aware of an Instagram vernacular, tailoring it to find the audience they wish to appeal to. We found that the ways they shaped their posting was responsive to certain audiences, and rather than try to accurately represent their daily life and sense of self, they adhered to unwritten rules around Instagram’s vernacular, and posted in line with common trends which certain audiences followed and were interested in.
Close, distant and imagined audiences
Some audiences are followers that Instagram users know, like family and friends, while many others are strangers. In the process of posting, users imagine their audiences and their audiences’ expectations. These imagined audiences are dynamic and do not always translate to these users' actual following. However, students attempt to create content that fits their preferred audience when uploading to Instagram, consciously or not.
Louis is a Cypriot student who expressed a disconnect between imagined and actual audiences. Louis is aware of the expectations close audiences can have, like friends and family. He does this by not showing aspects of his life that they might judge, for example when he says, “I would not consciously post: ‘okay mum, I am smoking weed here’.” This close audience of friends and family comprises most of his audience. However, Louis wants to reach a wider, global audience of those also interested in photography and callisthenics. He stresses that: “I would like to have some fanbase, like 20.000 followers or something.” To catch the attention of strangers, he meticulously constructs his posts. He takes a large number of photos to choose from, and edits to make the colours pop. “I took like two hundred photos, and I selected the ten best.”
Audiencing by location
Location and language factor strongly into the students’ content curation on Instagram. Given the international aspect of their lifestyles, the students in the sample each have audiences from where they have previously lived as well as their new acquaintances in the Netherlands. Additionally, the cultural identities of these young people are varied and, regardless of their location prior to moving to the Netherlands, where these students situate their cultural affinities influences how they imagine audiences. We can identify their process as ‘audiencing,’ forming the image of the “International Student in Amsterdam” through their Instagram content curation while simultaneously preserving their participation in other spheres (Highfield et al., 2013, 317).
Hailing from the USA, Harper is a student who moved from her home in West Virginia to New York City before reaching Amsterdam. Harper describes a lot of her artsy, random Instagram content as being influenced by her move to New York, more so than to Amsterdam. “I was caring a lot about having that location there. Maybe it could have been because I was meeting a lot of new people at the time and I cared what they thought about me, perhaps. You know, I’m from West Virginia, it’s just like ‘Ah, I want them to think I belong here’ etc.”
Meanwhile, Martina has numerous accounts which each cater to different audiences. Her photography one, which is designed to reach the broadest audience amongst her accounts, also contains multicultural markers of affinity with the location stamps in her bio (MX | NYC | KR | NL for Mexico, New York, Korea, Netherlands) as well as highlight reels with travel destinations.
For this question the following sub-themes were identified: “Awareness of the self through time”, “Curating to the ideal self” and “Curating the self to the other”. Our findings show how users redefined the role of Instagram through time as a medium for developing their own identity as they became more familiar with the platform. Most of them referred to what we label as their ‘ideal image’, which seems to have guided their content curation. How they constructed and expressed their ‘self’ on Instagram seemed to be heavily influenced by how they perceive others, as well as how they think others perceive them. Thus, young people learn through time how to navigate Instagram and the vernacular and affordances it offers.
They’re also in a transformative life phase. Whereas they were more casual and care-free, sharing ‘random’ posts, during their teenage years, they have become more aware of how they (want to) come across. For some, this entails playing the Instagram game and optimising their content for increasing their following and visibility. Others wish to distance themselves from the Instagram trends, and become more private by sharing with people they know.
Awareness of the self through time
Our interviewees all started using Instagram at a young age, when they were going to high school. Since then, they have developed both their knowledge on how the platform’s affordances and vernacular work, and the curation of their identities. The interviewees begin to increasingly understand the mechanisms behind likes, comments, followers. But over time, interviewees become more aware about how they identify, and what they want to represent in the curation of their content.
One of the interviewees illustrates this well. Sarah started using instagram in 2017, by using it she could become ‘a part of the community’. The first photo she posted was a visually artistic image which she called 'an Instagram picture', and since then Sarah has defined the platform as 'a place where I could put my creative work’. With more and more followers, Sarah began to consider likes and comments, 'After I post a skate edit I know how much to expect’. Thus, Sarah felt anxiety because of her dependency on Instagram. Her approach to posting her work became 'random and mysterious' and she became less concerned with what others thought of her and more concerned with her own hobbies.
The Perceived Identity from the Other
When interviewees articulate their “Self”, they do not just consider their own identity, and taste but also what “the Other” will think of them. Many of the interviewees are conscious of what others might think of them when posting, whether it is a story or a post. A common pattern is that interviewees meticulously curate their content, based on what they like themselves and what they like and dislike about the Other. One of the interviewees Harper, an expat living in Amsterdam, has been using instagram since 2011. She sees herself as artistic and quirky and this is also how she believes the other might perceive her. She uses a lot of adjectives to describe her instagram personality and aesthetics such as “artistic”, “quirky”, “chill”, “nonchalant” and “dumb”. Although Harper dislikes hyper-curated profiles that the “Other” does on Instagram, she reflects on how she still strives to curate an accurate portrait of herself for others and wants other people to think she is “cool”. We conclude that users go back and forth between their self-image and the Other’s aesthetics and expectations. This process is both individual and social.
Curating to the ideal self
The interviewees tend to have an ideal image(s) on what content they aspire to curate. Some of them shared clear aims and strategies to come closer to the “ideal.” For instance, Sarah directly set her ideal self to be “unique and mysterious.” She started to give up adding filters to her photos and instead made herself invisible in her account, showing more random images of herself and her hobbies. Most of the interviewees explained their journey of how their ideal image of themselves shifts over time. Meanwhile, their changes of ideal self is still individually specific and reflects their personal journey and life events.
Louis has a very clear vision of his ideal image, and he curates his content based on it. He wants his ideal self to be muscular, mature, and a big following base. He has a consistent warm-tuned filter on his workout pictures in carefully designed angles. In contrast to Louis, Sarah’s ideas about her ideal self has changed over time. Sarah used to be very devoted to creating a polished profile, with herself prominent in her content, to attract more followers. However, since she has started to develop herself as a photographer, she has become more spontaneous and private.
Three themes were identified: well-being, which refers to emotional (both positive and negative) responses; social stigma, entailing the issues of performativity and comparison (to both others or to self); and performativity, which was understood as the acts of self-disciplining and self-branding on Instagram. Since the interpretation of social stigma largely overlaps with the concept of audiences, we will focus on well-being and performativity in this section.
Love it and hate it
Thinking about well-being, the interviewees saw Instagram amplifying the feelings of sadness and pleasure, where pleasure springs out of the acts of sociality in their close social connections, and sadness is evoked by Instagram's ‘Rabbit hole’ environment, where sociality can deepen a sense of alienation and anxiety. Seeing a picture of a friend can signal their mental state and an excuse to reach out, “might be happiness, might be sadness, of course with happiness I click like and half of the brain is like ‘Oh! He's happy, I’m really happy for him!’ (…) When it’s sadness maybe I write to say ‘Hey man, what’s up? Is everything alright?’” Instagram is thus a way of performing social acts of care. At the same time, Gianni points at a subtle tension he is aware of when seeing his friends sharing ‘happy’ content, as he wonders why “half of the brain is like ‘Oh! He's happy, I’m really happy for him!’ and the other ‘Oh, why I'm not that happy?’” Selia expressed feeling “sad” by the pressure of sharing positivity on Instagram that some of the people she follows struggle with. “When I see these type of things happening,” Selia added, “I’m like no, I’m not gonna post anything for like a week or something.” Not opening Instagram seems to be the best way to deal with the overly positive content that appears on the platform, which, while all of them are aware is only a part of their friends’ lives, still affects them negatively.
While posting is for Selia and Gianni an ‘active’ and rather positive use of Instagram, they perceive scrolling through their feeds as not only passive, but also unhealthy. They feel frustrated; Gianni says “it makes me feel like ‘Oh I’m wasting my time,’” and Martina adds to how this frustration emerges from the notion that “I could be doing something more productive. I have a lot of things to do and then I see the time and I'm like “It's been so long... and I’m not doing anything.’” To a degree, Selia, Martina, and Gianni share a common sentiment as viewing social media use to be “unhealthy” and “addictive.”
Branding, becoming, belonging
The defining marker of well-being forthese young Instagram users appears in the data to be their consistent urge to look like they belong. The students either actively post or delete specific content and change their poses, editing style, aesthetic or their use of filters to fit with certain trends. Someone that exemplifies this finding is Nao, an interviewee that explicitly states her desire to fit in: “Maybe it’s a media student pressure, but I think people just have lovely pictures there, and I think I should just transform my page to a more media student profile”. Over the years, the gradual changes in Nao’s posting are not exclusively defined by the people she follows or wants to associate herself with. The geographical location of where she’s living seems to be a defining factor of the desire to fit in as well. When she posted a picture of herself in front of a windmill, her explanation for it was: “It’s a symbol of the Netherlands, so we really want to be part of the culture, so that’s why I really wanted to post this: to show that I’m in the Netherlands, I’m enjoying the culture, the Dutch culture, and also I’m part of the country”. However, when asked about it specifically, she mentions how she just posts whatever favors herself and how she’s completely unbothered by the comments or judgement of others.
Since Instagram offers a platform to consistently compare yourself to peers, it is not surprising that its usage reinforces an (already existing) desire to fit in and consequently influences self-esteem. As Nao keeps engaging in this upward comparison, it could explain the reason as to why she can feel jealous, left out or upset when she sees posts of other media students. She is very aware of her online ‘branding’ on Instagram, hoping she’ll become the person she wants to be, and belonging to the people she admires. We found that many students wanted to appear authentic, but were also influenced by what was trendy or cool at the time. Their Instagram usage reinforces a narrative where the desire to fit in and belong influences self-esteem and wellbeing. Therefore, constructions of authenticity, self-representation, and forming an online identity, come second to a feeling of belonging. This appears to be a harder ‘Instagram trend’ to deviate from.
To answer our research question ‘How does Instagram figure into the process of identity formation amongst international students?’, we have illustrated how interviewees perceive their Instagram biographies, how they navigated different (geographic) audiences and their well-being and self-image.
We have drawn on the concepts of audiencing (Fiske 1992), authenticity labour (Duffy & Hund 2019) and Instagram vernaculars (Leaver et al. 2020) to make sense of our findings. More importantly, we recognize the work done by Boy & Uitermark, (2023, In press) who frame Instagram as a symbolic universe – reflecting society. Participants expressed a dual relationship with instagram. Their conflicting “love-hate” relationship is rooted in the notion that Instagram is an integrated web that pulls users together (John D. Boy & Justus Uitermark, “On Display”), for better and worse. Young people subscribe to an ever-changing vernacular through which they construct their representation of the self, which are continuously shaped by and shape the vernacular of Instagram. This vernacular is fluid, dynamic, and acts as a social mirror.
Moreover, social media profiles can serve as “digital bodies” on which individuals can “write themselves into being” (Boyd, 2007). Their insights echo that online public display of connectedness has been an issue of both concern and pleasure. Embracing tactics of digital disconnection is a method for some of our interviewees to reconcile the positive and negative effects of building an aesthetic representation of self on Instagram.
We also found that all the participants were very aware of the possible opinions of their close audiences and adjusted their posts to those expectations. They aspired to fit in, and adjusted their Instagram posts accordingly. For example, by copying the style of friends or influencers that inspire them. Even though they want to appear authentic, they were also influenced by what was trendy or cool at the time. For some students, their Instagram usage reinforces a narrative where the desire to fit in and belong influences their self-esteem and wellbeing more than the desire to be authentic. This group was aware of their online representation and how other people might perceive it, to the extent that it had a negative impact on their wellbeing and self image. This made them feel more insecure.
Young people are therefore, not just affected by their close audiences, but also by distant audiences that they know intimately, but are located in a different cultural context than their current residence. This can enable young people to connect to different people easily, affecting their own identity construction. At the same time Instagram can constrain them by feeling ‘surveilled’ by peers from high school or family members. They all experienced moving to Amsterdam as a life transition that shaped their self presentation online. This is because their audiences have widened and diversified, from their family and friends back home, to now include locals and the international student’s new found community in Amsterdam. Content curation reflects the willingness to make friends ‘back home’ feel involved in their new environments, or to assert a sense of belonging to the new city, showing something from their own culture to their new international friends, and so on. At the same time, some participants express concerns that their content directed to a certain audience may be accessed by another unintended one, leading to misunderstandings.
The young people in this study’s relation to others and themselves is not static, or linear, but a fluid process whereby they shape their identities and relations through online content curation. Their biographies are highly individual and location specific, but at the same time patterns can be identified in the way young people develop themselves. The participants in this study admit that they have grown up in a media saturated environment, and looking back upon different stages of their lives through (various) social media platforms provides different experiences of pleasure and uncomfort. All the respondents described their Instagram as some sort of personal diary, a selection and display of memories in the past, despite its public nature. Most of them reflect on their teenage years as playful, displaying a wide range of styles and content types. In the process of migrating and growing into adulthood, they show more aspiration to filter parts of their lives and identities, by becoming more aware of the kind of relations they want or need to foster. This can be both inspiring and conflicting. They also become more familiar with the vernacular of Instagram, making them either professionalise and seek wider audiences, or distance themselves to become deliberately more private.
To conclude, this ethnographic analysis has revealed that international students share a complicated and ambiguous relationship with Instagram.
In order to unpack how participants’ views on content creation relate to what they actually do when preparing a post, and how they might feel about themselves, we have analysed both their personal narratives and the visual content displayed on their feeds. Combining these two kinds of material has given us the opportunity to unveil the inevitable contradictions that characterise individuals’ approaches to content curation. However, the data collection regarded the posts visible on the respondents’ feed at the time of the interview. Accordingly, archived or deleted posts were not included in the sample.
A limitation of the study concerns the recruitment process. Although the sample was heterogeneous in terms of geographical and cultural background, all participants were masters students of New Media and Society at the University of Amsterdam. As mentioned in the introduction, their identity as media students certainly influences their digital practices in terms of reflexivity and critical thinking. Further research on the topic would profit from enlarging the sample to students from different disciplines, ages and universities in the Netherlands. Finally, it would be interesting to conduct additional interviews with the same participants in the future to develop longitudinal data on how their audiencing practices evolve over time. Given the influence of moving to Amsterdam to their self-presentation on Instagram, we could assume that other life transitions may shape their posting behaviour in other significant ways.
These findings are a first step to explore the merits of the interdisciplinary analysis of qualitative data. For future analysis, participants could be invited to apply other digital methods such as auto-ethnography.
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