7 Academic Studies of Instagram


Every new technology has the potential to influence the way we communicate with others and how we see ourselves. Once our habits in the new technology get established, they are ripe for study. The social photo-sharing app Instagram is still relatively new, but research into its effect on our lives is already underway. Here are seven academic studies of Instagram, by their titles.


How is social media changing how we mourn? This study, published in Information, Communication & Society, analyzed photos shared on Instagram that were accompanied by the hashtag #funeral. Some were selfies or group photos taken at funerals. There were also pictures of objects at ceremonies like vehicles, programs, or food, but rarely of open caskets or headstones. According to the researchers, the use of this kind of social media at funerals indicates a transformation of rituals of mourning, into a less formal and more personal form. While there have long been forms of memorializing the dead on different internet platforms, Instagram memorializing is distinguished by being very “in the moment,” and the “central aim of sharing funeral images is to signify and communicate presence … mourners are sharing photographs to create a sense of proximity, connection and co-presence with friends, family and acquaintances that may not be present.”


What happens when photojournalists turn to Instagram-style images? A set of photos published on the front page of The New York Times in 2010 sparked a debate on this issue. They were taken on an iPhone using the Hipstamatic filter app by a photojournalist embedded with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. This paper, published in New Media & Society, examines the “technical, aesthetic, and ethical dilemmas that mobile app photography provokes about digital photojournalism.” According to author Meryl Alper, the highly-stylized look of the photos may have a truth-distorting effect, one that makes war look glamorous and hip. Another problem raised by the app photos is how the style of photos the media takes imitates those that soldiers themselves take, blurring the lines between the “objective” photojournalist and the “subjective” soldier.


Where athletes' images were once at the mercy of how the media portrayed them, they now have the ability, through social media, to do their own self-presentation in the development of their public image. This study of the Instagram feeds of 27 professional athletes from a range of sports, which was published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, found that despite conventional wisdom suggesting that men are traditionally framed with closer headshots for power and women from more of a distance, in their self-presentation, both male and female athletes tended to post photos that showed their full bodies. The selfie, which usually does not show the whole body, was seldom used. The captions and hashtags that accompanied the photos were also analyzed, and categories of post types emerged that covered themes like humanitarian, family driven, dedicated athlete, and endorser.


Companies are still figuring out the best approach to public relations on social media, especially in so-called “crisis” situations. This study, published in Corporate Communications: An International Journal, looked at negative hashtags about fast food companies on Instagram to analyze how they were used by the public, and how they were responded to. The researches searched for strings like companynameFAIL, companynameSUCKS, and companynamePROBLEMS. Most posts were from customers complaining about service issues. Very few had to do with the food. (Many Starbucks complaints were about names being spelled wrong on cups.) One quarter of the negative posts were from employees complaining about their work environment. The companies in question had very little engagement with or monitoring of such posts, and are advised to “put Instagram next to Facebook and Twitter at the center of their social media strategy and crisis communication plan.”


This study, published in MultiMedia Modeling, aimed to see whether the way Instagram users used filters to change the look of their photos was related to their personality traits. They had participants agree to allow access to their Instagram accounts and asked them to fill out a personality questionnaire. They analyzed the personality features against image features and found various correlations. For example, the personality trait of openness to experience was correlated with more saturated, vivid colors, and also less inclusion of faces and people in the photos; the trait of neuroticism correlated with higher brightness levels; extroversion tended to correlate with more blue and green colors, rather than red and orange.


This study, published in Computers in Human Behavior, used a survey of college students to examine the reasons why they use Instagram, and how it relates to narcissism and contextual age (a sort of measure of where you are in life with respect to life satisfaction, interpersonal relationships, and social activity). The researchers found that Instagram is used mainly for four things: “Surveillance/Knowledge about others,” “Documentation,” “Coolness,” and “Creativity.” Surveillance was the reason most correlated with the amount of time these students used Instagram. Coolness and Creativity were the reasons most correlated with amount of time editing photos. The amount of time spent editing photos was also significantly related to narcissism.


This study, published in Computers in Human Behavior, aimed to see whether image-based as opposed to text-based social media was more likely to relieve loneliness because of the greater intimacy and feeling of “realness” for pictures. Using surveys, the researchers found that image-based social media did seem to be associated with a decrease in self-reported loneliness. Loneliness was highest among those who used no image-based social media. The use of text-based social media alone did nothing to reduce loneliness: “If anything,” the researchers wrote, “increased use of text-based media may exacerbate loneliness.”

When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

There was a surprise waiting for Canadian buyers of The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979, a greatest hits collection by the musician that was released in the summer of 1998. Inside the package was a notice announcing the arrival of BowieNet, a major undertaking spearheaded by the legendary musician that promised a unique portal to the internet. For $19.95 a month, users could access BowieNet in the same way that they logged on to America Online, signing on via a dial-up connection to gain access to the web, email, and a variety of perks for devoted Bowie fans.

The news was a little premature. The Canadian version of the album had been released too early, and BowieNet wasn’t yet up and running when fans first read the news. But by September 1 of that year, Bowie had launched a pioneering effort in the intersection between music, the internet, and fandom. In many ways, BowieNet anticipated the concept of social networking five years before MySpace debuted and six years before Facebook came into existence. It was a fitting accomplishment for an artist who spent his entire career looking for revolutionary ways to share his work.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

Bowie, who first rose to fame during the 1970s glam rock era, had long been fascinated by the promise of digital connectivity. He was reportedly using email as early as 1993. In 1994, he released a CD-ROM of his single, “Jump, They Say,” that allowed users to edit their own music video for the song. In 1996, he released one of the first digital singles, "Telling Lies," and sold 375,000 downloads in just two months. In 1997, Bowie presented a “cybercast” of a Boston concert, which ultimately proved to be too ambitious for the technology of the era (viewers of the live stream were confronted with error messages and frozen feeds).

Clearly excited by the unexplored possibilities these cutting-edge efforts offered, Bowie decided to stake out more digital real estate right around the same time he released "Telling Lies." In 1996, two internet marketers named Robert Goodale and Ron Roy approached Bowie with the idea of building an online fan club that would double as an internet service provider (ISP). In essence, Bowie would be offering online access via a dial-up number using a turnkey web design system from a company called Concentric Network Corporation. The site was developed by Nettmedia, which had worked on web content for the women-centric Lilith Fair music festival that had caught Bowie’s attention.

While users would be free to access any part of the internet, their default landing page would be DavidBowie.com, a place to access exclusive Bowie photos and videos, as well as a unique @davidbowie.com email address and 5 MB of storage space so that they could create their own content. If they wanted to remain with their current internet service provider, they’d pay $5.95 a month for membership.

Bowie liked the idea and became the first investor in UltraStar, Goodale and Roy’s company. More than a figurehead, Bowie actively helped to conceive of BowieNet as having a unique identity. Whereas America Online was a little sterile, Bowie’s aesthetic was more experimental. There were 3D-rendered environments and Flash animation sequences. The CD-ROM sent to subscribers included a customized Internet Explorer browser and music and video tracks, including encrypted material that could only be unlocked online.

More significantly, Bowie used his branded portal to interact with fans. Posting as “Sailor” on the BowieNet message boards, Bowie regularly logged on to answer questions, debunk news reports, or comment on ongoing conversations. He also hosted online chats in real time. In 2017, Newsweek shared excerpts of one 2000 session:

gates asks: "do you gamble in casinos Dave?"
David Bowie answers: No, I only do cartwheels—and don't call me Dave!

queenjanine asks: "Is there anyone you haven't worked with (either dead or alive) that you wish you could?"
David Bowie answers: I love working with dead people. They're so compliant, they never argue back. And I'm always a better singer than they are. Although they can look very impressive on the packaging.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

In his loose interactions with fans, Bowie and BowieNet anticipated the explosion of social media. It was an area that interested Bowie, as he often spoke of the idea of art being unfinished until an audience provided their reaction.

“Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here—the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the gray space in the middle,” Bowie told the BBC in 1999. “That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

With BowieNet, the artist was helping to facilitate that response, in one instance even soliciting a co-creator relationship. In 1999, Bowie took lyrics from an online songwriting contest to help create “What’s Really Happening,” which he put on an album released that same year. He also planned on having a working webcam that peered into his recording studio (though it’s not quite clear whether he achieved it). Ultimately, it was the advancement of internet technology that led to BowieNet's downfall.

With the dissolution of dial-up, BowieNet went from a high of 100,000 subscribers to becoming largely irrelevant in the early 2000s. In 2006, UltraStar’s assets were sold to Live Nation and BowieNet was quietly shut down—though it would take another six years for Bowie to actually announce that fact, via his Facebook page of all places.

But for the 10 years it lasted, BowieNet was the artist's strange, revolutionary predictor of the growing importance of fandom online.

“At the moment,” Bowie told CNN in 1999, the internet "seems to have no parameters whatsoever. It's chaos out there—which I thrive on.”

L’Oréal’s New Wearable Sensor Keeps Track of Your Daily UV Exposure

L'Oréal USA
L'Oréal USA

Anyone who has ever suffered a sunburn knows that too much exposure to UV radiation is bad for your skin. But in the moment, it can be hard to tell when you’ve gotten too much sun—especially during the winter, when you might not think you need sunscreen. (In reality, snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV light, so you may end up getting hit with the same rays twice.) A new wearable sensor spotted by Wired aims to make understanding your sun exposure a whole lot easier.

L'Oréal’s new La Roche-Posay My Skin Track UV sensor pairs with a smartphone app to alert users when they’ve had high levels of UV exposure. Developed by L'Oréal’s Tech Incubator in collaboration with Northwestern University engineering professor John Rogers and Swiss designer Yves Béhar, the sensor measures UVA rays (which are associated with skin aging and skin cancer) and uses an algorithm to calculate UVB exposure (which is associated with sunburn and skin cancer).

The UV sensor
L'Oréal USA

At only half an inch tall and 1.3 inches long, the waterproof sensor is designed to be discreetly attached to your clothes, watchband, or sunglasses. The sensor's LED detector measures UV rays as sunlight passes through a small window in the device, then transfers the data to your phone via a near-field communication (the same technology in some hotel key cards). It stores the photons from the UV rays in a capacitor, eliminating the need for a battery.

Based on this data, the My Skin Track app can tell you how close you're getting to the maximum limit of UV exposure doctors recommend per day. It also provides updates about the air quality, pollen count, and humidity wherever you are at any given moment. Based on this information, as well as data about your specific skin type and skin tone, the app's Skin Advice feature will provide customized tips for keeping your skin healthy. It also recommends specific products—La Roche-Posay items can be bought directly through the app, should you desire.

The sensors are exclusively available through Apple stores. You can order one online for $59.95.

[h/t Wired]