GDC project: On Display

Justus Uitermark and Richard Rogers

On display: Negotiating local and global connections on Instagram

Description of the research activity

Over the past decade, Instagram has emerged as one of the world’s most important social media platforms. Especially young people use it as a vehicle to share defining moments. The app has become a focal point for establishing and revising social relations and personalities. Although Instagram offers its users control over the images they post and the people they follow, users are embedded in complex webs of interdependence. Their posts are generally viewed by different kinds of audiences – ranging from close friends and colleagues to distant relatives or prospective employers.

Our project seeks to understand how users craft and negotiate their Instagram presence in relation to these proximate and distant audiences. Choosing depth over breadth, we want to interview 20 frequent Instagram users. To focus our research, we will recruit our respondents from students enrolled in research master programs at the University of Amsterdam. Students are an interesting group because they are generally in a formative stage in their life, finding out who they are, where they want to go, and who they want to relate to. They typically have both global and local connections, meaning that they have to relate to expectations from different audiences. Often – though certainly not always – they will experience a growing rift with the values and environments of their childhood. We are interested in how Instagram figures into the process of identity and relation formation of international students. How do they reflect on the perils and joys of online visual self-presentation? How do they reflect on their own development as they compose their messages and curate their feeds? And, how do students juggle the different expectations from – proximate and distant – audiences in their online presence?

A number of authors have observed a specific “Instagram vernacular” that is used throughout the world. The digital environment of Instagram is characterized by its smooth and colourful aesthetics, focusing on imagery (Manovich 2017; Leaver, Highfield & Abidin 2020). Although the Instagram vernacular is global, social media users develop repertoires based on their specific backgrounds and positionality. We know, for instance, that repertoires vary between countries (Miller et al. 2016) and according to race, sex, and class (Brock 2009). We do not aspire to systematically address all these variations – that would be impossible considering our small sample of one particular group of users – but we do want to provide in-depth accounts of how individual users perceive, negotiate, and enact their particular positions within a network of local and global connections (Burawoy 2000).

We will assemble our dataset by combining methods from sociology and media studies. The basis for our interdisciplinary dialogue will be the collection of approximately 20 in-depth interviews. Based on our own preliminary research we expect that the interviews will take anywhere between 2 and 4 hours. Apart from an extensive—often therapeutic—conversation on how our interlocutors navigate social life through the prism of Instagram, we will closely examine how they use the app—what they post, who they follow, what they see, which posts they engage with. We focus in particular on how our interviewees perceive and juggle internal and external expectations.

From the social sciences, we use ethnographic interviewing (Spradley 1979), stimulating respondents to reflect on practices and dilemmas within the context of their broader identity development. In this way we can capture narratives about the place of Instagram in life trajectories. We complement narrative research with techniques from media studies, such as the walk-through method (Light et al, 2016) and the scroll-back method (Robards & Lincoln 2017). These methods prompt research participants to scroll through their own feeds, while the interviewer asks the participant to describe what he or she sees in his or her own content and to retell how the content came about. We further use content analysis to study on a micro-level how the interviewees use the platform, examining how they develop and learn posting rhythms, platform vernaculars and aesthetics as well as distinctive functionalities—Instagram stories, regular posts, tagging—to craft their narratives.

We will create an accessible and shareable repository of such interviews to function as the starting point for interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration. We consider this repository as an important step in developing a more collaborative, open, and interdisciplinary study of social media use. It is at present uncommon to share datasets of qualitative interviews, which means that collaborative and interdisciplinary work on such data is rare. It is also uncommon to analyse media content and interview material in conjunction. This is not by chance: there are substantial obstacles that need to be overcome to construct this kind of research database. We consider our experimental efforts to do this as part of a broader effort to develop the ethics and techniques of collaborative, interdisciplinary research in the fields of media studies and digital sociology. Moreover, it will provide input for a collaborative project that will be carried out during the DMI Summer and Winter schools.

The database will be constructed according to the following principles:

  • Reciprocity between researchers and interviewees. We are asking a lot of interviewees: a considerable amount of time as well as the willingness to disclose private information to both the interviewer and the researchers, who might use the material for analysis. Our preliminary experiences suggest that, under the right conditions, interviewees are not only willing but eager to share their experiences. Interviewees have so far reported to feel empowered by talking about their social media.
  • Collaborative theorizing. Interviewees do not just provide information but are analysts in their own right, which is especially true for research master students. By hypothesizing together during the interview, respondents’ own way of understanding practices can become part of the research. Thereby we pre-empt a situation, so common in digital research, where data are taken out of their original context.
  • Multi-modality. Our database does not only include transcripts of interviews but also data on social media activity, including posts, images, follower lists and metrics. Such media activity helps reveal specific vernaculars, e.g., how metrics and prevailing styles of friends affect what is posted. These three types of information—reflections in interviews, media content and metrics—will be brought into conversation through participatory issue mapping: interviewees will be asked to reflect on their position within multiple Instagram networks, indicating how they relate to different parts of their networks (family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, lovers) through the platform (cf. Rogers et al., 2015).


Brock, A. (2009). “Who do you think you are?”: Race, Representation, and Cultural Rhetorics in Online Spaces.” Poroi 6 (1): p. 15-35

Burawoy, M. (2000). Introduction: Reaching for the Global. In Global ethnography: Forces, connections, and imaginations in a postmodern world, edited by Michael Burawoy. University of California Press.

Leaver, T., Highfield, T., Abidin, C. (2020). Instagram: Visual social media cultures. John Wiley & Sons.

Light, B., Burgess, J. and Duguay, S. (2016). The walkthrough method: An approach to the study of apps. New Media & Society. doi:10.1177/1461444816675438.

Manovich, L. (2017) Instagram and Contemporary Image. Cultural Analytics Lab.

Miller, D., et al. (2016) How the world changed social media (p. 286). UCL press.

Robards, B., & Lincoln, S. (2020). Growing up on Facebook. Peter Lang Publishing.

Rogers, R., Sanchez-Querubin, N. & Kil, A. (2015). Issue Mapping for an Ageing Europe. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.


Description of planned output:

  1. Accessible dataset

We aim to set up an accessible dataset of qualitative, in-depth interview material, so scholars can analyse the same data from different angles. This in effect can facilitate interdisciplinary discussions.

  1. Providing material for the summer and winter school[1]

Every year, a summer and winter school are organised by the Digital Methods Initiative. Over the course of two weeks, PhD candidates and other scholars engage in research projects, in order to learn and develop techniques to study the internet. The aforementioned dataset could thus be analysed by scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, contributing to interdisciplinary collaboration and discussion.

  1. A reflection

We will publish a reflection on the challenges and opportunities of constructing such a database as a methodological contribution to sociology and media studies.

  1. Publication of articles

As is the general procedure, research reports from the summer and winter schools will be transformed into journal-ready articles.

Description of outreach activity:

In addition to the creation of a database which will be analysed during the summer and winter school, we will search for additional funding to enlarge our output scope. We aim to reach a larger audience, in particular social media users themselves. Complementary to the written formats proposed above, we seek to make the findings more accessible by communicating them visually.


  • Exhibition. Preferably in a museum that attracts Instagram users (such as Instagram museums), we aim to exhibit our findings.
  • Audio-visual essay. In addition, findings can be communicated in documentary format, through which the experiential dimension can be brought across. This may either be broadcasted or shared through social media.

Ethical plan

In order to build an accessible dataset ethically, we will ask respondents both for their consent to use and/or share their stories and to use and/or share their imagery on Instagram. In case pictures are used for publication or highlighted, we will also ask for their consent. Thus, we build a trusting and transparent relationship with our respondents.

Team details

Justus Uitermark & Richard Rogers will:

  • Coordinate the overall research process.
  • Continually connect project and its findings with other academics affiliated with similar topics.
  • Write up the findings.

Research assistant will:

  • Organize research process.
  • Select and conduct interviews.
  • Select images to analyse.
  • Write up findings

Interviewers will:

  • Prepare, conduct, and process interviews