What visuals can tell us if we really look

shoe last wall

Wall of shoe lasts at the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Sydney

Instagram is a visually powerful medium. Anyone with the slightest interest in aesthetics will attest to that. I find it both compelling and strangely addictive. Being pummelled with one exquisite image after another has a potent effect on the eyes and brain.

Artists and designers have been fully on board with Instagram since its beginnings in 2010. It’s impossible to tell just how many are using Instagram, but a quick search through hashtags like #workinprogress (or #wip) #artiststudio #studio #contemporaryart #designlife #designing will give you an indication of what’s going on in this space. Many are using social media platforms like Instagram as part of their virtual studio practice.

As researchers like Gillian Rose have said, visuals, especially those generated by digital spaces, are now a massive part of our lives. How do we make sense of what’s happening in these places/spaces?

A little while ago I did two really interesting studies using Instagram. One I did alone and the other was with a co-researcher (Alli Burness).

What astounds me is that we’re not doing more of this kind of research given how huge screen-based visual culture has become in society. Especially via Instagram. There is so much to understand about engagement, connection, communication, and how people make sense of the world around them through this area of research. In my view, visual research is pretty much up there at the top of the tree.

So what did I and then later we study?

In the first study I ‘read’ and analysed Instagram posts from museum visitors around a single exhibition that was open for almost 8 months. I wanted to understand what it is that they were posting and sharing on Instagram because it’s a good way to understand how museum visitors are communicating with the content and their various communities. It’s also a way we communicate about ourselves, and is a part of identity construction. I wanted to get beyond the ‘selfie panic’ going on in some cultural institutions; the idea floating around that people are ignoring the content and experience of exhibitions and all they want to do is take selfies once they get there. I wasn’t convinced. And as a researcher I wanted to see the evidence, not just hear what sounded to me like preconceived ideas or its worst, outright prejudice.

The research I did showed that nobody was taking selfies in that exhibition. Think about that for a moment. Nobody at all over an almost 8 month period. There were some people related posts (just 9% of all posts) but on the whole these were people with objects or other exhibition related material. On the whole people took photographs and posted content that was all about the exhibition material. And aesthetics was found to be a big factor.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with selfies, I might add (although I know some would disagree). Aaron Hess has done some fascinating research and argues there’s more to selfie culture than plain old narcissism – the main idea permeating mainstream discussions on this topic.

For copyright reasons, I can’t say a whole lot more here about that first study I did. But you can read this article I wrote that’s just been published in Curator: The Museum Journal. And I’m very happy to say it’s been made open access, so anyone can read it. In that article you will find all the detail. It was a fun study to do and I learned a lot.

I got talking to Alli. We both realised we wanted to test the thinking and methodology developed during that first study on a much bigger sample of posts. So that’s when we joined forces and using a slightly different method to generate a much larger sample of visual and text-based data (many users include text with their posts on Instagram) for analysis. And we had similar results! On the whole, visitors posting to Instagram were interested in the content of the site (in this case, an art gallery). Again, I can’t say much more at the moment as an article we wrote about this research is under review, but fingers crossed, it will see the light of day soon. In which case, I’ll come back and update this post with a link.

Visual activity has much to do with art and design, and Instagram continues to play a big role in this. My point is we need to do more research in this space. There is so much that can be learned when we systematically look at and listen to the way people are responding to contexts through the visual medium – in Instagram’s case this is via photography and video. If we want to really look, we can learn a lot. Social media analysis done with a critical lens is hugely important because so much of the population engages in this space. So let’s do more. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to discuss the idea of working together on this kind of research.