5: Using and Analyzing Digital Media Sources

5: Using and Analyzing Digital Media Sources


In order to approach the question of the characteristics of contemporary “blacktivism” on Instagram, I applied navigation techniques from my prior usage of the application. Instagram is an aesthetically simple yet neatly organized application for photographs. The typical Instagram user posts photographs with corresponding captions. Captions are filled with a variety of things like quotes, hashtags, and the opinions of the people who are posting these photos on Instagram. The photos that a user posts are compiled in a grid where they can be previewed dozens at a time or viewed one by one. The only pictures that a user can see on their timeline are ones from accounts that they are following. This became a problem for me because I don’t follow any “blacktivist” accounts that would have been ideal to view for my media based research.

This led me to ask a question to kickstart my research: whose opinions are dominating Instagram in regard to black community and black activism? According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in September of 2014, only 26% of online adults use Instagram.[1] This leads to another pitfall of this social networking application: exclusivity. The website is not navigable online in the same manner that the application is on smartphones or tablets. The black community on Instagram is not nearly as infamous as that on Twitter, coined “Black Twitter.” Due to this distinction, I purposefully decided to look at the ways that black users were expressing themselves beyond the content of their pictures. I focused on the way that they utilized the conventions of the social media application.

Since I had no previous knowledge of accounts that promote black community and black activism, I started my research on a clean slate by using hashtags. Hashtags are primarily used on Twitter, but have proven to be the only effective strategy for my research using Instagram. A hashtag is “a community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata” to posts.[2] In the case of Instagram, hashtags are extremely useful because they often describe the content of pictures and place these photos in a larger context by aggregating them all under the identical hashtags that people use. A pitfall of the picture based interface of Instagram is that text cannot be searched without being attached to a hash (#). This leads people who choose to use hashtags to generalize the content of their post in order for it to be visible amongst other similar posts.

This picture based interface can also detract from a sense of community due to lack of reposting. It is easier for people to “share” text that they agree or disagree with on Facebook; the same goes for “retweeting” on Twitter to show some sort of validation or to make commentary on an eye-catching tweet. My research on Instagram has shown that this form of community building and validation amongst groups, including black activist communities, is discouraged by the design of the social media application. There is no way to “repost” pictures. The share button only allows users to send posts by the means of direct message. This increases the difficulty in pinpointing trends amongst black and black activist thinking on Instagram.

Due to the lack of a “repost” feature on Instagram, the only viable way to search for information regarding contemporary “blacktivism” was to use hashtags since they connect posts between profiles. The first hashtag that I searched was #blacklivesmatter. While I was conducting this search, I noticed that Instagram quantifies tagged posts, allowing me to grasp how widespread a certain tag was. This is a huge advantage compared to Twitter and Facebook which limit your view to popular posts first. These popular posts don’t always capture the diversity of opinions regarding events in the Black Lives Matter movement. I was able to compare the number of posts under certain hashtags. For instance, #blacklivesmatter garnered 1,259,587 posts while #alllivesmatter had 243,762 associated posts. It is extremely probable that these two related hashtags were used in many different contexts aside from advocating for the causes, but it is hard to determine because the content of the various pictures that use this hashtag cannot be searched. However, it is important to note the trends presented by the relative popularities of these hashtags.

By searching the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, I used the grid format to easily scroll through over one hundred photos and to select the ones that appealed to me the most. By researching in this manner, I was able to view over thirty different pictures from thirty different accounts easily. Instagram makes it extremely accessible for people to view the diversity of the photos under a certain hashtag. On the contrary, hashtags that are used in captions are the only ones that are shown in Instagram’s collection of relevant posts. Comments underneath posts are extremely hard to navigate; a popular post can garner anywhere from hundreds to thousands of comments and there is no efficient way to navigate the commentary on these posts aside from scrolling and reading every single one.

I noticed that hashtags allowed major movements become personal, especially since profiles on Instagram are so individualized. A perfect example of this was the hashtag #blacklivesmatter being used at the end of a user’s post about his friend being murdered outside of a fast food restautant in Brooklyn. His caption told his story, but related it to the greather theme that has been resonating amongst black activists for the past year. Another way that I noticed hashtags becoming essential in building community and fostering agreement amongst black activists is the way that they can be tweaked in order to get a message across. By typing in #blacklivesmatter, I also stumbled across variations of this extremely popular hashtag including #alllivesmatter, #alllivesmatterisignorance, #allblacklivesmatter, and #allliveswillmatterwhenblacklivesmatter. Feelings can succinctly be expressed in this manner, but these feelings don’t have much depth when they solely have a picture attached as opposed to the comprehensive essays that can be posted on Facebook or the powerful statements that can be tweeted.

People on Instagram speak through hashtags. The “blacktivist” movement on Instagram is connected in such a way that people can speak through and identify with phrases of usually six or less words, but it is difficult to fully express oneself in a space that is intentioned for pictures. These trends and commentaries provided on Instagram by means of hashtags and captions are extremely useful for research in my opinion. It is just difficult to reach out to people who are not following you by means of direct message in order to ask for consent. When someone is not following you, your message goes into a hidden “pending” folder, which might not catch the eye of the user who posted the photograph or caption that you want to use. The private nature of Instagram, in a variety of ways, decreases the chance of a strong, multifaceted black community being able to build and express themselves on the application.

Considering my thirty minutes of research, I have come to the conclusion that contemporary “blacktivism” on Instagram is extremely thematic, yet personal. People find ways to connect with each other by the means of hashtags but keep these connecting points extremely general, while relating them to personal feelings or events in their photographs. Instagram is not a social networking application that is conducive to conversation which suppresses the ability for black activists, as well as black users, to form a solid and reliable community.

Word Count: 1247

[1] Pew Research Center, “Social Networking Fact Sheet,” http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/social-networking-fact-sheet/ CP 311

[2] “Twitter for Research.” http://www.twitip.com/twitter-for-research-why-and-how-to-do-it-including-case-studies/ CP 348

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