Picturing the Social Conference, 7 November 2014

20141107_130738Last year’s Researching Social Media conference was one of the best I had ever been to, so when I found out Farida Vis was organising another conference about researching social media I jumped at it, and again it didn’t disappoint. The conference was again part of the ESRC Festival Social Science and part of the Visual Social Media Lab project.

The focus was on social media images and there were a series of fantastic papers, all raising important questions for me about social media methodology. In my PhD a lot of my focus is on text and interaction, I haven’t really acknowledged images and so this conference was valuable in bringing it back into my consciousness. What was emphasised throughout the day was the ubiquity and importance of images in our everyday lives, and how influential they are in user engagement. Farida started off with the point that “images are big business” and there is a rise in image-centred platforms (such as Instagram and Pinterest). She pointed out the methodological concerns with images, such as the difficulty with working out meaning, complexities with data mining and lack of context. The issue with context came up time and again throughout the day, and I’ll discuss this more later.

Francesco D’Orazio pointed out that 63% of social media content is images, and introduced some tools to analyse images (such as face recognition). As with most applications designed to analyse social media, they’re not always accurate and can’t be relied on solely for analysis. Shawn Walker from the University of Washington brought another issue to the forefront that I hadn’t really thought about before – how content and links disappear and decay. When links get broken, content gets deleted, or pages get moved, how does this affect our research and how do we get around it? Shawn proposed an archiving system which captures data at the time of posting, which seems like it would certainly be useful.

Lin Proitz, who I had a good chat with beforehand about methodology, talked about her ethnography on young people’s self-presentation online. She raised an important point about self-regulation and how young people actively try and regulate their social media usage. Self-presentation is an aspect I will probably look at in my research and Lin’s insights and and use of ethnography were of particular interest to me. Anne Burns gave a fantastic paper about selfies and social ‘micro aggression’ reinforcing negative stereotypes and hatred. She took a gendered perspective of female selfies and the negative attention they receive online. She discussed how these negative attitudes recycle and normalise stereotypes, positioning men as superior and women as narcissistic. Anne also talked about ‘revenge porn’ and how the victims are often talked about as the ones to blame, ‘they brought it on themselves’. For me the presentation really brought to light the gender and power dynamics which take place online.

The next presentation of particular interest was by Gillian Rose, who talked about social media images and use as a complex ecology of hardware, software and people. She proposed that methodologies should focus on local practices and also forms of looking and spectatorship, and claimed that maybe a more superficial and immediate approach to image analysis (rather then deep analysis) would be of use. She also mentions the importance of looking at labour and networks, which are both particular areas of interest for my research. Katrina Sluis talked about questioning the reality of photography, the circulation of cultural value and the increasing importance of social media to cultural institutions for engaging visitors and audiences. She claimed that they are becoming more like brands, needing to use same analytics as commercial companies to prove their value to the taxpayer. This resonated with me, but what is needed is a direct conversation with cultural institutions to talk about their perception of social media use.

Ruth Deller talked about performance of charity acts on social media, and compared the #nomakeupselfie with Stephen Sutton’s campaign. Like Anne Burns she highlighted the criticism of women’s self-photography. She pointed out the negative reaction towards #nomakeupselfie and the lack of credit its originator received, and compared this to the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Stephen’s Story. For me, making direct comparisons between the two is less helpful; the reason why Stephen’s campaign was received so positively was because he himself was terminally ill.


Rhys Crilley gave an interesting paper about the British Army’s use of Facebook. He highlighted their preference for the ‘mundane’ images, such as groups of soldiers posing, celebrities and other endorsements, rather than images of civilians and casualties. PR and trying to appeal to the users with mundane and easily shareable content is something I had to do when working in the commercial sector, so I’m well aware of such practices. Finally Simon Faulkner discussed the tweets around Margaret Thatcher’s death, and the use of images. He asked important questions about image types, the re-purposing of images and the rationale behind this.

The need for context

One major omission for me, in almost all of the papers, was the viewpoint of the user. The point was raised time and again about the need for context and how useful perception and rationale would be, and the best way for that to be attained is to ask the users themselves. Why do they take selfies at funerals? Why do they post abusive comments? Why did they ask their mate to take a picture of themselves toasting Margaret Thatcher’s death, and why did they circulate it? Asking people about their perception of their social media use, and the reasons for activity, will give a rich context to any research into social media. This is difficult of course in a large-scale quantitative study, but some viewpoints from at least a few users can only help any study.

This conference was fantastic and a huge thanks must go to Farida, the organisers and the speakers. It has confirmed to me the importance of context and the user, and will be of great help when I’m thinking about the methods to use in my research.

About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.
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