InstagrammingThe Ends of Identity: Pre-birth and post-death identity practices mapped via the#ultrasound and #funeral hashtags
The Ends of Identity:
Pre-birth and post-death identity
practices mapped via the
#ultrasound and #funeral hashtags
Dr Tama Leaver, Curtin University (@tamaleaver)
Department of Internet Studies
Dr Tim Highfield, QUT (@timhighfield)
Digital Media Research Centre
1. Context: The Ends of Identity
2. Method: Instagram data collection
Shared assumptions of ‘Identity 2.0’, the
‘Networked Self’, and ‘Web Presence’
• Individual agency is central.
• Presumption that identity should be controlled,
curated and managed by the ‘self’ being
• When agency is not the controlling influence,
this is seen as an issue to be overcome (eg
What about the Ends of Identity?
• Following Erving Goﬀman (1959) if frontstage
is self performed, and backstage is the more
essential self, who builds the stage, and who
remembers the performance(s)?
à Before (online) agency: before birth, until the
‘reigns’ of online identity tools and
performances are inherited?
à After (online) agency: who looks after online
traces of self once the self they refer to dies?
At one end: parents as initial identity
curators/creators online …
• Parents/guardians set the initial
parameters of online identity.
• From ultrasounds photos to cute
toddler pics, losing that first tooth
• How do and should young people
‘inherit’ online identities?
“The emergence of such social media platforms
as Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Twitter, Bundlr
and YouTube facilitating the sharing of images
has allowed the wide dissemination of imagery
and information about the unborn in public
forums. Indeed, sharing of the first ultrasound
photograph on social media has become a rite
of pregnancy for many women.”
(Lupton, 2013, p. 42)
At the other end: Memorializing
Performed Digital Selves?
• What happens to profiles, accounts,
photos, videos and other social
traces after someone dies?
• Do we have the right to delete it all?
• Should it be memorialized?
• Who decides? (very few laws
address social media inheritance).
“Researching the Ends of Identity:
Birth and Death on Social Media”
Tama Leaver (2015)
Social Media + Society manifestos
Building from studies using Twitter
• To map and track social media use, we start
with established methods for studying Twitter.
• Topical datasets, using similar methods around
varied subjects, including:
– Breaking news
– Popular culture
Tags and social media
• Tagging did not originate with Twitter,
although a prominent aspect of how users
• Tags and hashtags used on other social media,
although functionality, adoption, and
– Instagram vs. Tumblr vs. Pinterest vs. Facebook…
Tracking Instagram activity
• Our initial approach builds on Twitter-specific
work and tools, which allows for comparative
analysis (methods and content).
• The starting focus is on #tags – practices,
functions, coverage of the same topic/tag,
including across diﬀerent platforms.
• See Highfield and Leaver (2015).
• But also an evolving space with ongoing
challenges – emoji hashtags, for instance.
Prototype Instagram methods
• Following the Twitter analytics model of
querying for specified keywords/hashtags,
query Instagram API for similar tag-specific
• The tag search query retrieves data including:
media id, media type, user id, user name,
caption, image/video links, time and date,
location data, tags, comments (count and
content), likes (count).
• Unlike Twitter, content posted on Instagram is not
– Captions now editable after the fact
• A photo or video posted can be added to by the
original user and others viewing the file.
– Liking, adding comments, replying to previous
• Rather than creating standalone data, comments are
additions to the existing image – attached to this
specific data point, not in isolation.
à When should we ‘capture’ the data? (How long until
comments typically finish, for example?)
Authorship and intentions
• Comments also impact upon what is being
tracked and captured.
• Tracking specific tags through the Instagram
API returns media where the creator has, in the
process of publishing the content, included
these tags in their caption.
• However, it also includes media where a
follow-up comment includes these tags
(although this can later be filtered out).
NB: Privacy isn’t a binary …
Individual and cultural definitions and expectations of
privacy are ambiguous, contested, and changing. People
may operate in public spaces but maintain strong
perceptions or expectations of privacy. Or, they may
acknowledge that the substance of their communication is
public, but that the specific context in which it appears
implies restrictions on how that information is -- or ought
to be -- used by other parties. Data aggregators or search
tools make information accessible to a wider public than
what might have been originally intended.
(Markham & Buchanan, 2012, p. 6)
Contextual Integrity in Ethics
• Instagram may be experienced as private or partially
private in everyday use (contextually), despite being
public at a technical level (via the API).
• The shift from an iPhone only app to Android and
Windows phone, plus web profiles makes Instagram
photos more and more public.
• Researchers have to weigh intentionality in sharing,
not just technical publicness (“it’s freely available
#ultrasound 48hr snapshot (focused on
first Monday of each month)
• March: 289 images / 7 videos
• April: 331 images / 14 videos
• May: 373 images / 11 videos
à Now to drill down further into the
March #ultrasound images …
– types of photos …
• Advertising: 3
• No relevance (hashtag
• Ultrasound humour: 8
• Other Medical
(including 1 dog)
• Also 15 images deleted
or made private
Social Experiences of #Ultrasounds
• 32 photos depicting social
experiences centred on
• EG parent(s) travelling to/
from the ultrasound
• EG selfie and caption
expression nervousness or
excitement prior to
• 32 photos either deliberate
collages or professional
• EG professional posed shot or
ultrasound on screen or printed
• EG collage showing ultrasound,
parent(s) plus celebratory details
(eg champagne glass or ‘it’s a boy/
girl’ or planned baby name).
Ultrasounds with personally
identifiable text in the photo
• 71 photos (26% of the set)
included personally identifiable
information in the photo
(usually generated by the
• Typically includes mother’s full
name, mother’s DOB, medical
facility, estimated gestation
period to date, date of the scan,
Ultrasounds without personally
identifiable text in the photo
• 105 photos (38% of the set) do
not include personally
identifiable information in the
• Some deliberately obscured,
some out of focus, most
zoomed to avoid those details
(either consciously or simply
to take a better photograph)
“On Instagram alone, every month thousands of
foetal images are shared and publicly tagged as
ultrasounds. Often these images capture the
metadata visible on the ultrasound screen, which
might include the mother’s name, the current date,
the location of the scan, the expected delivery date,
and other personal information. For many young
people, this type of sharing will be their first
mention on social media, the beginning of a long
and likely loving record published by their parents,
guardians and loved ones.” (Leaver, 2015)
#funeral 48hr snapshot (focused on
first Monday of each month)
• March: 398 images / 9 videos
• April: 543 images / 26 videos
• May: 472 images / 19 videos
à Now to drill down further
into the March #funeral
#funeral – types of photos …
• Not photos (memes,
• Names of deceased: 8
• Coﬃns: 9
• Open caskets/graves: 2
(people); 5 (animals)
• Also 28 images deleted or
• Flower arrangements, wreathes and typical
funeral icons constituted a significant
proportion of the Instagram funeral media,
consistent with more mainstream funeral
• Coﬃns, cemeteries, and images of the funeral
ceremonies also represented, if not as
The deceased and #funeral
• Images of the deceased less common –
presentation of self/groups, but stylistic
framing of elegiac imagery (overlays, collages)
– Limited photos of the deceased in situ – more notes
and programmes, headstones
• There were several funeral images of pets
(mostly goldfish being flushed down a toilet).
• Images relating to:
– The album Funeral by
– The band Funeral for a
– Funeral doom music (sub-
genre of doom metal)
• The band Funeral
(Norwegian funeral doom
• While smaller in number,
there were still a range of
humorous images and memes
– motivational ( ‘a funeral for my
– emphasising funeral as a
farewell rather than death
– comedic subversion
– death-related memes
Storytelling and intertexts
• Narrative construction through collages
• Screenshots of texts, conversations, music and
• Intertexts – stills from films, television shows,
sequential GIFs reformatted for a still collage
A brief note on funeral selfies
• Just over a third of the images were selfies (self-
portrait photos either of an individual or group
taken with a mobile device)
– Recurring imagery of sad/forlorn expression, clad
• But not universal – smiling common too
• #funeral as means for remembering and
celebrating deceased – but also the personal
experience and context (getting ready, on way)
• See also: Gibbs et al. (2015)
Findings: #ultrasound and privacy
• 15 images deleted/hidden in first fortnight is
significant (potentially rethinking sharing
• 71 images with personally identifiable
information = the initial (named) social media
footprint preceding birth.
• Whether conscious choice (informed) or not,
very hard to tell.
Findings: social experiences
• Social experience (selfies, journey to/from) and
collages/professional photos demonstrate the
mainstream sociality of sharing images about
ultrasounds and funerals.
• Collages show explicit choices about framing
the ‘story’ of the ultrasound; often a form of
visual digital storytelling.
Findings: social experiences
• For funerals, the presentation of self rather
than the deceased further underlines social
mediation – personal experiences, family and
friends, reflection and memory
• This does not overlook or forget the context for
these images – use of captions and comments
to share this information rather than or in
addition to the images?
• All shared #ultrasound photos are indicative of a
growing culture of sharing photos of young people by
• Literacies regarding the persistence of this data are
haphazard, rarely informed by the apps/platforms,
showing a cultural need for widespread embedding of
mobile media literacies.
• Social norms about sharing these images are evolving
because of aﬀordances, as much as driving them
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Questions or Comments?
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