Digital Anthropology

This is an extract from a project I completed as part of my degree.

The images posted to, and links shared on, social media are non-tangible material culture, constituted largely of images. Beyond that, the structures of the sites themselves form social landscapes which inform their function. This is demonstrated by the Why We Post research project from UCL, which studied social media usage patterns on nine sites globally. While it is worth noting that the uses of social media varied among the areas studied, the techniques of material culture were used on all the sites to study the social relations which were revealed (Miller, et al., 2016).

One site studied in Why We Post was Mardin, Southeast Turkey. The people of Mardin use Facebook to promote an idealistic vision of themselves to the public. Posting photos of one’s home to Facebook brings the traditionally semi-private world into a more public sphere. In this regard, Facebook fulfils much the same social function as a wedding, when everyone presents their best behaviour (Costa, 2016). WhatsApp, however, is a more private platform. It is used to share private messages between close family members, pre-marital lovers, and “forbidden friends” (ibid). Whereas photographs shared on Facebook are used to demonstrate the ideal version of the poster, photos shared on WhatsApp tend to be more informal and intimate; they display everyday life. These differing uses of social media platforms are no doubt informed by their landscapes, i.e., their user interface. WhatsApp consists of conversations between individuals (or selected groups of individuals). To instigate a WhatsApp conversation, you and the individual you are messaging must have already exchanged phone numbers. Thus, you must already establish a certain level of intimacy with the person you are communicating with. It is therefore natural that Whatsapp conversations are of a more intimate nature. Facebook, however, is always on display. A person’s individual page is labelled their “wall”, emphasising the public nature of posts there. The average number of Facebook friends in Mardin is 338, and any post to Facebook is broadcast to all those friends. Thus the structure of WhatsApp encourages the sharing of intimate, revealing content, whereas the structure of Facebook encourages the sharing of media to wider audiences, helping create an image of the idealized self in a more public sphere.

To further demonstrate how different digital landscapes affect social media use, I have taken examples from my friend Johnnie Youd, who was also featured in the Photography section of this project. The three social media platforms (and hence digital landscapes) I have chosen to examine to this end are Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram.

As an artist, Instagram fulfils a niche role for Johnnie, acting as a digital portfolio of his work. When I asked Johnnie what he used his account for, he told me that it was almost exclusively as a promotional tool for his own work, and the only time he tended to log in was to upload new photographs and pieces of art. His account’s biography (below) illustrates that this is the nature of his Instagram. His biography is very simple, the account name and header are joke versions of his own name, and the only other information explains his artistic credentials at the Leeds College of Art (LCA) and a link to his full online portfolio.


Here are some of the images he has posted to the account. All were uploaded between the 17th and 23rd of January, 2017:


Often, there is not a lot of description for these images. The first image, posted on January 23rd, is captioned:

Heimat Hirzel #hirszel #swizerland #frost #frosty #photography #nature #nikon #d5200 #frost #frost #photographer #photooftheday #frostoftheday #frosts

Most of the captions for the images follow this format, although occasionally there is humorous addition to the title, such as with the second photo in this selection, which is captioned:

Upside Down Images Look More Aesthetically Pleasing Than Normal #iceland #vik #blackrock #beach #photography #nature #ocean #photographer #photographoftheday #upsidedown #rock #water #d5200

Despite the humorous nature of the title, how Johnnie has positioned the capital letters in the caption indicates that “Upside Down Images Look More Aesthetically Pleasing Than Normal” is also the title of the piece.

Although there are occasionally longer captions in his work, Johnnie’s Instagram is very much not a photo-blog. He posts images taken with a Nikon D2500 DSLR, which is capable of producing photographs of much higher quality than a standard smartphone. Johnnie leaves the photographs for consideration as one would in a photo gallery, with little information provided. Thus, in a sense he has become the curator of his own exhibition, allowing both himself and others to follow his progress and explore his style. This relates to the notion of intersubjective space described by Christopher Tilley (1994). Tilley argues that the world is neither entirely inside our own heads nor entirely external, but is somewhere in between, in an intersubjective landscape. Tilley further argues that this intersubjective world is realised in the material culture of a landscape, and this Instagram page is a material culture landscape of his own creation, which is additionally formed by others interacting with his page. ThWhatsapp1.pngrough comments, likes, and shares, Johnnie is able to help realise and internalise the intersubjective world created on his Instagram page.

After deciding to display photographs from Johnnie’s Instagram, I asked him Johnnie about the style of art he produces. As you can see from the chat screen shot, he told me that his art style is “Swiss”. Johnnie and I both grew up in Switzerland (He spent twelve years, the last eight of which were consecutive living there between the ages of 3 and 18), and it seems likely that his art style was influenced by the country, but I think he has overlooked the English influence in his work. Johnnie has an English father and holds UK citizenship. The sense of humour present in his work is somewhat understated and deadpan, which could apply to the British influence in his identity as much as the Swiss.

Whereas Instagram is a professional medium for Johnnie, Whatsapp is far more intimate, as it is in Mardin. There are two mediums by which we communicate regularly in Whatsapp, in a private chat between the two of us, and in a group chat with a group of friends from highschool, who now live in 7 different countries across three continents.

In the group chat (called, The Gnarwahls, which refers to an inside joke) we play a game called Take A Picture (TAP). In this game, a person writes the word TAP to the group, and the participants of the chat share a picture of what they are doing at that moment, and often this involves a selfie. Selfies are often perceived as narcissistic, but in this case especially, selfies are designed to be shared which reinforces values sharing experience and memory, both functions being key to maintaining social cohesion. This is particularly valuable as the members of the group chat live so distant from each other.


Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 18.24.35

You can see from these images that Johnnie is far less concerned with presenting a professional image in photographs to the group chat on Whatsapp than on Instagram, though from the unusual hairstyles to the bohemian bowtie, to the nose ring, he can still be seen to be promoting the identity of a bohemian artist, still with an air of humour.

The name Gnarwahls and sharing of selfies is representative of the sociality of the group chat, and how social ties are maintained across large distances through the medium of Whatsapp, more intimately than can be done on Facebook or Instagram. While it is true that both Instagram and Facebook have private messaging features, they are less commonly used for two reasons. The first is simply that they do not have as many instant messaging features as WhatsApp, and the second is that the tones of the digital landscapes of the other platforms is not as conducive to intimate group sharing.

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 18.24.45Chats between the two of us tend to be more specific, but they are arguably more intimate than the group chat. In a group chat it is hard to discuss someone’s life in depth, especially as in a group of 16, you inevitably know some people better than others. In the individual chats, we can speak directly to each other’s interests. For example, Johnnie’s sister works in the civil service, and he sent me a picture of her holding the Paris Agreement, in part because I know her well also, and he knew I would be both proud and impressed, but also because he knows I have an interest in politics which other members of the group might not be.



Johnnie’s identity is created through his Instagram posts and his artistic aesthetic, and also in the selfies shared within our group chats, but another way to digitally present the idealized self is with through memes. Memes function as the “moral police of the internet” (Miller, et al., 2016, p. xvi). They express values and discredit opposing values in a less direct manner than simply stating those values (ibid). The memes Johnnie has shared recently are different than most memes in that they are created by himself, and are self-referential. In this sense, they are almost parodies of memes. These memes fulfil the functions of memes in that they express values, and are interacted with by others, but they are rarely shared by individuals other than Johnnie himself. Johnnie shares screencasts of posts from when he was younger (using Facebook’s memory function). With this, he mocks the kinds of things he used to put on Facebook as a young teenager.

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 18.24.56

In the image to the left, Johnnie shares and comments on a post he made aged 13. From the post, we can infer that it was considered cool to mock his “home town” (in this case, the English town his father is from, where his grandparents live). Now that he is older, Johnnie realised that it is silly to mock protocol for a skill he did not possess, and indeed still does not possess. These self-referential memes express values of maturity, and mocking the follies of youth in the self-deprecating manner which once again speaks to the British sense of humour which one can get a feeling of through his art.

The self-referential memes Johnnie shares also speak highly to memory, which persist throughout Johnnie’s Facebook feed also, as sharing memory is key to presenting identity. On his Facebook page, Johnnie constructs his identity by distancing himself from undesirable aspects of previous identity (by posting self-deprecating comments along with self-referential memes), and promoting past photos and current photos which support the current identity he wishes to present.

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In the photos above, on the left Johnnie is sharing the photograph a friend took of him. His dress and expression demonstrate a carefree and excitable attitude, the photograph on the right demonstrates a more mature, refined sense of self, which is not without a hint of a sense of fun, as Johnnie himself describes of his aesthetic.


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