“Here I am… this is my experience”: Instagram and the depiction of campus life

“Here I am… this is my experience”: Instagram and the depiction of campus life

This blog post is the second of three that details the main findings from Imaging Sheffield — an ethnographic study that formed part of the Picturing the Social project at the Visual Social Media Lab.

The aim of the Imaging Sheffield study was to find out some of the reasons why social media users share images of Sheffield online. How are images of Sheffield selected in order to tell a particular story? And in what ways does Instagram itself affect how a narrative is formed and understood? This second case study looks at the University of Sheffield’s Instagram feed, and enabled me to consider how certain representations of place are understood to be more authentic than others.

For this case study, I followed the University of Sheffield’s Instagram feed for 12 months, and conducted in-depth interviews with the two people who were responsible for its content: Euysuk Kwon, a PhD student who took the majority of the photographs, and Hannah Hall, the Digital Content Co-ordinator at the University. During the period of observation, I noticed some themes emerge, in terms of particular scenes and settings that reappeared frequently. The interviews allowed me to explore the significance of these places, and to appreciate the factors that influenced the feed’s production and management.

In the interviews, an emphasis was placed upon the need for images to give a representation of campus life that viewers would receive as being truthful. Authenticity was understood as a combination of two factors: the photographer, and the platform. Firstly, Euysuk is a student at the university, so his representation of the campus was regarded as being truthful because he was living the student life himself. The images he created conveyed a different perspective from that presented in the prospectus, as it came from a peer, rather than directly from the institution itself. As the images below show, he depicts a range of campus activities, from studying and playing sports to relaxing in the park. These images show not just what Sheffield looks like, but suggest how it actually feels to study here.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 10.51.37

Secondly, my interviewees suggested that Instagram itself was received as a more ‘truthful’ medium than traditional forms of institutional representation — such as the website or prospectus — as it changed and grew every day. Furthermore, Euysuk’s authority as the student photographer also exemplifies Hine’s characterisation of the internet as “embedded, embodied and everyday” (2015). Below, a selection of Euysuk’s most liked images during the period of observation demonstrates this situated perspective both on campus and within the city centre. He looks down on some of the University buildings, up at another in construction, and waits as a tram passes him by. These images depict the campus whilst moving around it, highlighting not just the physical landscape but also the ways of being within it (travelling on a tram, or by lying on the grass).

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 10.11.14

Aside from the authority of the photographer and the perception of the platform, Hannah also described how the feed maintained an ‘organic’ feel by responding to the varying weather conditions in the city. Through representing snow, cherry blossom and fog, the feed depicted familiar places but with a changing mood. As mentioned above, this responsiveness to changing seasons was seen as a strength, as it presented a view of campus that was somehow more complete and nuanced than that present in the prospectus. Hannah also felt that this was a means for appealing to a wider audience, as people from across the city — not just those who were interested in the University — could relate to seasonal and weather images.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 10.50.36

Unsurprisingly, a central theme on the Instagram feed is the University’s buildings. Certain buildings frequently reappear, such as the ivy-covered Firth Hall, and the criss-cross facade of The Diamond. However, it is the University’s Arts Tower that dominates, with 66 images out of the 592 observed over a year featuring the building. When asked what the reason for this might be, Hannah suggested a number of reasons, relating to its shape, and the associations people who work or study in the building may have with it. She recalled one ex-student describing trying to see it when passing through Sheffield on the train, suggesting that the tower has a synecdochic function, in that it stands for the whole of the University. Similarly, Euysuk described using the building as a point of orientation, as it could be seen from many points within the city and served as a reference point for the campus. The Arts Tower is closely associated with the University, therefore, because of its physical domination of the surrounding area.

But both my interviewees also suggested that there was also a much simpler reason for the Arts Tower’s domination of the feed — it was just really good to photograph. As the images below demonstrate, the tower’s shape, size and position in the landscape enabled it to be represented in a variety of ways.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 10.20.47

Before I asked my interviewees about this, I expected their answers to suggest that the Arts Tower represented something about the University’s ethos, and its commitment to modern principles of education. It was only through gaining their insights into the feed that I understood that there were other factors at play here. This demonstrates the value of ethnographic research in relation to social media, as sustained observation and discussion enables perspectives to emerge that would otherwise be missed.

(Photos by Euysuk Kwon)