Can we learn something from Instagram?
At a first sight the answer seems undoubtedly NO. Scrolling down in complete boredom I asked myself if it really is just about foodporn, stunning (filtered) landscapes and commodization of several things among which chiefly the female body. Considering that today the platform’s estimated value is of near US$ 1 billion – I see myself prompted to reject the idea that it is just that. Could it be that Instagram is a huge archive of people’s and organizations’ lives? Can we understand how businesses function out the information users provide? Can we write histories that go beyond the perspective of the single user?
People tend to keep their Instagram profile open in a way that potentially allows mapping their close networks – or more creepily “stalk” them. That is, while these networks are for the most part not explicit, they can be reconstructed by a close look at tags and long-term interaction such as comments and likes on the platform. Instagram stories makes this even easier because people will take videos of themselves while being with friends or working with colleagues and tag them directly. This indicates potential for research, which is not necessarily visible/accessible from big data.
What if it is possible to map specific networks of professionals (singers, designers, chefs, you name them…) and understand not just their marketing & communication strategies but also their patterns of innovation? For instance, in the case of the fashion industry I have the feeling this would be a highly possible exercise, due to the high presence of operators on the platform and their sort of frantic use of Instagram stories (more research would be needed to substantiate my guess). Alternatively, I recently saw an engaging Instagram story by the chef Jamie Oliver documenting his trip to Naples and surroundings, in search for ingredients and inspiration… Design studios and shops show their behind the scenes before fairs or new product introduction, despite their attempt to preserve the surprise effect.
Much scholarly research in communication and media has been looking at Twitter and Facebook feeds to draw conclusions on companies’ CSR policies. I wonder to what extent social media can be used as empirical material for research in business studies and social science? Could Instragram (potentially Instagram stories) provide relevant sources for analyzing the evolution not only of marketing campaigns, but also of dynamics that are more internal to companies? I see two major drawbacks, which nevertheless I still do not consider insurmountable hurdles to the purpose of collecting sources. First, Instagram is used (more or less consciously) as a marketing channel, and hence several people will tend to use it in a way that is biased to positive content, i.e. only post moments of joy and success. Second, the available sources in the form of Instagram posts and stories are in complete control of the user posting them as soon as they do not get screenshot by followers – this will result into a notification to the user who posted.
Having worked with business archives as well as semi-structured interviews in the past, the first problem does not really differ much to the usual challenges faced by researchers in the social sciences. Several, if not most of the sources we work with are fragmented, biased, meant for external use and communication and only accidentally or partially revealing inner dynamics. The world of social media runs fast requiring constant presence especially from those who want to maintain a strong follower base. This increases the room for insight – and sometimes error – in the user’s life. Further, it seems increasingly important for key Instagram personalities to manage the “social media pressure” and be “true to their followers,” thus show elements and mechanisms behind their private and professional life. This has been recently stressed by several key Instagram superstars such as Selena Gomez (more than 100 million followers), Gigi Hadid, Katy Perry and other more or less influential web personas. This attitude by the most followed users of course creates a standard that produces a “cascade effect,” setting the tone for how to behave on the platform, what to post, how to acquire more likes, create hype etc.
As for my second point: again I don’t see a major difference with archival material I consulted around the world. You subscribe to the archive and get access to listed material. You are allowed to take pictures, but often required to notify the material copied. For the rest you can always take notes. Same goes for the videos in Instagram stories, although (and this is a major and perhaps a really problematic issue) they are only accessible for 24h. As simple as that, difference is that material is not phisically stored in centralized locations such as archives by stays on the web. And I am not sure about the legal implications of doing research on material publicly available on social media, although I suspect it counts as newspapers and other openly published content.
Well… now that we have established that Instagram might be considered a modern, constantly flowing massive archive for written, visual and video content as much as Twitter and Facebook, let’s go back to what triggered this whole discussion: Is there research out there using this type of data and “micro approach” to map networks? if yes, what are the results? what is happening within these networks? More specifically, could this material provide threads on the way companies or professionals innovate?
Today I tried to have look at my school’s library directory and it seems that actually there’s not much published yet along the lines imagined above. But perhaps there’s some dissertation being written using similar data or new research in publications I did not screen. SO it definitely needs a more careful search…and I will get back to that soon.