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Instagramming The Ends of Identity: Pre-birth and post-death identity practices mapped via the #ultrasound and #funeral hashtags

  1. Instagramming 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
  2. Overview 1.  Context: The Ends of Identity 2.  Method: Instagram data collection 3.  #ultrasound 4.  #funeral
  3.     [1] Context/Background: the Ends of Identity
  4. 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 presented. •  When agency is not the controlling influence, this is seen as an issue to be overcome (eg better privacy settings, clearer Terms of Use).
  5. 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?
  6. 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 etc … •  How do and should young people ‘inherit’ online identities?
  7. “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)
  8. 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).
  9. Blatant plug “Researching the Ends of Identity: Birth and Death on Social Media” Tama Leaver (2015) Social Media + Society manifestos
  10.     [2] Method: Collecting Photos from Instagram
  11. 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 – Politics – Crises – Popular culture – Sports
  12. Twitter data User  name   Tweet   Hashtag   Link   Date  and  4me   @men4on  
  13. Tags and social media •  Tagging did not originate with Twitter, although a prominent aspect of how users tweet. •  Tags and hashtags used on other social media, although functionality, adoption, and intentions vary. – Instagram vs. Tumblr vs. Pinterest vs. Facebook…
  14. Instagram data Creator  user   name   Image/   video   Cap4on   Likes   Comments   Tag   @men4on   Date/4me  
  15. 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.
  16. Prototype Instagram methods •  Following the Twitter analytics model of querying for specified keywords/hashtags, query Instagram API for similar tag-specific results. •  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).
  17. Changing data •  Unlike Twitter, content posted on Instagram is not static. –  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 comments. •  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?)
  18. 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).
  19. 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)
  20. 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 online”).
  21.     [3] #ultrasound
  22. #ultrasound Table  1.    #ultrasound  tagged  media  on  Instagram,   2014       Images   Videos   Overall  Media   March   3468     151   3619     April    3847   128   3975   May   3575     151   3726   3-­‐Month  Totals:    10890   430     11320    
  23. #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 …
  24. #ultrasound – types of photos … •  Advertising: 3 •  No relevance (hashtag spam): 6 •  Ultrasound humour: 8 •  Other Medical Ultrasounds: 17 (including 1 dog) •  Also 15 images deleted or made private
  25. Social Experiences of #Ultrasounds •  32 photos depicting social experiences centred on prenatal ultrasounds •  EG parent(s) travelling to/ from the ultrasound •  EG selfie and caption expression nervousness or excitement prior to ultrasound
  26. Collages/Professional Photos incl. #ultrasounds •  32 photos either deliberate collages or professional photographs incorporating ultrasound photos •  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).
  27. 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 ultrasound equipment) •  Typically includes mother’s full name, mother’s DOB, medical facility, estimated gestation period to date, date of the scan, etc.
  28. Ultrasounds without personally identifiable text in the photo •  105 photos (38% of the set) do not include personally identifiable information in the photograph •  Some deliberately obscured, some out of focus, most zoomed to avoid those details (either consciously or simply to take a better photograph)
  29. “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)
  30.     [4] #funeral
  31. #funeral Table  2.    #funeral  tagged  media  on  Instagram,  2014       Images   Videos   Overall  Media   March   5375   214   5589   April   5429   220   5649   May   5059   200   5259   3-­‐Month  Totals:   15863   634   16497  
  32. #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 images …
  33. #funeral – types of photos … •  Not photos (memes, screenshots, inspirational quotes): 70 •  Names of deceased: 8 •  Coffins: 9 •  Open caskets/graves: 2 (people); 5 (animals) •  Also 28 images deleted or made private
  34. #funeral imagery •  Flower arrangements, wreathes and typical funeral icons constituted a significant proportion of the Instagram funeral media, consistent with more mainstream funeral visualisation. •  Coffins, cemeteries, and images of the funeral ceremonies also represented, if not as frequently
  35. 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).
  36. Non-funereal #funeral •  Images relating to: – The album Funeral by Arcade Fire – The band Funeral for a Friend – Funeral doom music (sub- genre of doom metal) •  The band Funeral (Norwegian funeral doom band)
  37. #funeral humour •  While smaller in number, there were still a range of humorous images and memes – motivational ( ‘a funeral for my fat’) – emphasising funeral as a farewell rather than death – comedic subversion – death-related memes
  38. Storytelling and intertexts •  Narrative construction through collages •  Screenshots of texts, conversations, music and media players •  Intertexts – stills from films, television shows, sequential GIFs reformatted for a still collage
  39. 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 in black •  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)
  40. Findings: #ultrasound and privacy •  15 images deleted/hidden in first fortnight is significant (potentially rethinking sharing publicly). •  71 images with personally identifiable information = the initial (named) social media footprint preceding birth. •  Whether conscious choice (informed) or not, very hard to tell.
  41. 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.
  42. 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?
  43. Findings: identity/presence forming •  All shared #ultrasound photos are indicative of a growing culture of sharing photos of young people by parents/guardians/etc. •  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
  44. References •  Aufderheide, P. (2010). Copyright, Fair Use, and Social Networks. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 274-303). Routledge. •  boyd, d. (2010). Social Network Sites and Networked Publics: Affordances, Dymanics and Implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 39-58). Routledge. •  boyd, d., & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical Questions for Big Data. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662-679. •  Bruns, A., & Burgess, J. (2011). Mapping Online Publics. •  Gibbs, M., Meese, J., Arnold, M., Nansen, B., & Carter, M. (2015). #Funeral and Instagram: death, social media, and platform vernacular. Information, Communication & Society , 18 (3), 255–268. •  Halavais, A. (2013). Structure of Twitter: Social and Technical. In K. Weller, A. Bruns, J. Burgess, M. Mahrt, & C. Puschmann (Eds.), Twitter and Society. New York: Peter Lang. •  Highfield, T., & Leaver, T. (2015). A methodology for mapping Instagram hashtags. First Monday, 20(1). •  Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Book. •  Leaver, T. (2015). Researching the Ends of Identity: Birth and Death on Social Media. Social Media + Society, 1(1). •  Lupton, D. (2013). The Social Worlds of the Unborn. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. •  Markham, A., & Buchanan, E. (2012). Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (Version 2.0). Retrieved from •  Zoonen, L. van. (2013). From identity to identification: fixating the fragmented self. Media, Culture & Society, 35(1), 44–51. doi:10.1177/0163443712464557
  45. Questions or Comments? For more details and slides: @tamaleaver @timhighfield