My notes on What image types do universities post online?

Twitter has become a mainstream activity for universities in the UK and the US, with most institutions now having a presence. The platform has taken an image based turn over the last few years, since native photo sharing was introduced in 2011 and Twitpic et al vanished, in common with social media more broadly. This presents us with a question: what types of images do universities tweet? Emma Stuart, Mike Thelwall and David Stuart analyse the use of images by university twitter feeds in the UK and consider what this can tell us about how universities see the platform and how they seek to relate to the audiences found through it.

This twitter activity is connected to rising competition, as universities compete against each other to increase enrolment following the reduction of government support. Social media offers a means for universities to differentiate themselves, including through the use of images which express a visual identity. Platforms differ in what they offer for this. As Stuart et al observe, Instagram images tend to “focus more on the aesthetics of individual images, whereas images on Twitter tend to supplement or complement the text of a tweet”.

Their study is a companion to a 2016 investigation in which 51 Uk universities (out of 128 with multiple units of assessment in REF 2014) were found to have an Instagram account. It focuses on the Twitter presence of the same 51 in order to facilitate comparison. A random sample of 20 images was taken from a date range overlapping with Instagram activity (I presume for each university) to produce a final sample of 1,020 images. They undertook a content analysis using a coding scheme developed in a previous study of Instagram use within organisations by McNely (2012) given below. Images were classified based on their content, accompanying text and the interaction they generated.

  1. Orientating: “The primary focus of the image is of specific and unique university (and university associated) locations, landmarks, or artefacts (e.g., buildings/public areas/statues/university affiliated objects)” (4.8% of Twitter images, 14.3% of Instagram images)
  2. Humanising: “The primary focus of the image is of things that add more of a human character or element of warmth/humour/or amusement to the university’s identity” (20.9% of Twitter images, 31% of Instagram images)
  3. Interacting: “The primary focus of the image is centered around people interacting at university (and university associated) events rather than people merely posing for a staged photograph” (2.1% of Twitter images, 5.7% of Instagram images) 
  4. Placemaking: “The primary focus of the image is concerned with the university ‘placing’ their identity within locations or events” (2.7% of Twitter images, 12.8% of Instagram images)
  5. Showcasing: highlighting some event, success, course, service or product of the university (61% of Twitter images, 28.8% of Instagram images)
  6. Crowdsourcing: “The primary purpose of the image is that it has been posted with the intention of generating feedback, interaction, engagement, and online interaction with viewers/followers” (7.7% of Twitter images, 7.5% of Instagram images) 

They found that 41.8% of images had no retweets, with an average of 2.7 retweets per image. It was interesting that showcasing images (most popular type) were significantly more likely to be retweeted than humanising ones (second most popular type) but I wonder how much of each can be explained in terms of staff and students at the university retweeting an expression of support or loyalty rather than an endorsement from those outside the institution? They found far more Twitter images than Instagram images overall from the time period under investigation (7,583 to 3,615) yet a few universities shared more images on Instagram. Does this suggest the influence of an Instagram enthusiast on a university’s comms team? They suggest the discrepancy has its roots in the norm of posting less on Instagram, the service being newer and the restrictions on how one can post to it.

They suggest the popularity of showcase images on Twitter accords with it being an information source rather than networking tool. The two most popular categories of humanising and showcasing seem to be externally-orientated towards potential students. Interestingly, they suggest that not only might universities benefit from posting more of the other categories, doing so “could be aligned with the practice of content curation, whereby the staff member(s) in charge of the Twitter account would specifically attempt to highlight a range of interesting and meaningful content that they think would appeal to their followers”.

Does social media lead to a devaluation of introspection? This is what Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp claim on loc 4098 of their The Mediated Construction of Reality:

The selfie stamps the marker of ‘the self’ onto whatever things a person wants to record as a way of increasing its value. But why should that have become so important recently? There are no doubt many overlapping factors at work here including the changing affordances of smartphones, but one background factor, we want to suggest, is the increasing devaluation of introspection: that is, reflecting, comparing, building the basis of a memory through organized thought that remains ‘internal’ (still unshared). Introspection, in the habit of taking selfies, gets overridden by the ‘higher’ value of generating an exchangeable trace of one’s ‘experience’ whose form is tailored exactly to the data-based needs of social media platforms.

This is an example of why I think Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity might prove extremely powerful in making sense of how social media is reconfiguring subjectivity. Couldry and Hepp assume here a zero-sum relation between interiority and exteriority, as if the disposition to share (cultivated through repeated exposure to the incentives of the platform) necessarily implies the diminution of introspection. There is certainly a tension between these internal and external moments: it is a matter of the time available to the agent and the duration of their subsequent mental activity if nothing else. However, there are many ways in which this tension could be negotiated, reflecting characteristics of the people concerned and the situation they find themselves in.

This is what I think of as reflexive variance: the variety of ways in which individuals orientate themselves to their situations, linking self and circumstances through the generation of action trajectories. Recognising reflexive variance is something which sociology has never been good at because it is a phenomenon which sits uneasily at the intersection between the domains of psychology and sociology. It is a matter of introspection, social action and environment: the relation which obtains between them in a particular situation. It’s much easier to leave the introspective to the psychologists (who circumscribe its objects by admitting only a limited range of social referents) or to subordinate it to social action or to the environment through various theoretical devices. But the diversity with which people orientate themselves to what are empirically similar experiences will tend to get lost in this case.

There are descriptive and explanatory problems which emerge from this. However, it also facilitates cultural critique of a rather irritating sort, with identifiable trends afflicting some within a group being assumed to hold true for all members of that group (or even all groups, if the critic in question is prone to overstatement). I’ve been thinking a lot in the last couple of months about the conceptual structure which is common to many of the most prominent critics of digital media for its postulated consequences for young people. It strikes me that it rests on a denial of reflexivity variance and repudiating these critics will involve recovering the range of ways in which people respond to social media.

This seems like a really important initiative:

Instagram – the new(isn) kid on the social media bloc

For the AoIR 2016 we, Jakob Svensson (Uppsala University, Sweden) and Uta Russmann (FHWien University of Applied Sciences, Vienna, Austria), are putting together a panel proposal on Instagram and its relevance in today’s communication. We are looking for colleagues who have also started to explore Instagram. Please contact us (jakob.svensson@im.uu.seuta.russmann@fh-wien.ac.at) if you are interested.