Instagram Diary-Keeping: Between Introspection and Self-Disclosure

Team Members

Marije Peute, John Boy, Justus Uitermark, Richard Rogers, Ruben Hazenbos, Sam Goutbeek, Federico Lavatori, Qianqian Wei,Anke de Kimpe, Jingming Wang, Qitong Zhao, Nash Keller, Adam Ultzen, Tianci Guo, Samme Kors, Roosje Huistra

1. Introduction

Alice scrolls through her Instagram account, going back to the beginning when she reopened the app in 2019. “This post reminds me of some really good memories of the summer in 2021. I just graduated from high school and went to another city for a trip with my friend”, she says while pointing to one of the first pictures. “I post the original pictures to recover the feelings and what happened on the day that I took them.” Alice describes moments as memorable when she had a good mood, or when it portrays something beautiful. By looking at her account, it enables her to revisit these positive memories and relive the emotions she associates with the pictures. Because of the ability to revisit pictures, she can recall in vivid details the context of the pictures she shared. She has deleted pictures of the past, because “I feel those pictures or those posts are not that memorable or may recall some negative things. […] I remember one of my first posts was a picture that I took in another city in China. I went there to take the TOEFL exam, but when the exam grades was published I wasn’t really satisfied with that grade. Though I quite enjoyed the day that I took the picture, every time I saw that post it just reminds me of my bad grades. [By deleting the picture], it’s kind of like wanting to escape from the reality. Trying to pretend.” Thereby, the positive stories that Instagram enables to tell others becomes an important part of identity formation, whereas negative or trivial memories are deliberately removed from their past.

This vignette illustrates how Instagram is experienced and used as a memory device, whereby the personal meaning people attach to posts is constantly changing, reflecting reconstructed memories of the past and aspirations for the future. In contrast to a photo album, where the audience is limited and controlled (Walker 1989), Instagram accounts have many diverse audiences. Thereby, the story people tell of themselves is always filtered through the eyes of others and the platform.

We explore how Instagram functions as a photo album for young people to remember their lives. How is life recorded and remembered through the interface of Instagram, and what role do the public and visual affordances of Instagram play in memory-making? In particular, we will approach Instagram as a platform to store, share and shape memories, and we want to ask how it enables and limits possibilities for autobiographical authorship. Instagram allows social media users to create and recreate memories with intimate others, document milestones of their self-development, and prefigure aspirations for their futures. Several Instagram features, such as archiving and story highlights, allow users to revisit everyday events.

By applying the qualitative methods of in-depth interviewing and a digital diary study, we have gained insight into the way social media are woven into everyday life and shape biographical practices. The 30 research participants are international students in Amsterdam who volunteered to contribute to research and make sense of their and others’ experiences. We studied the data together with the research participants, to make the theorizing process more collaborative (Lapadat 2017).

2. Initial Data Sets

  • 18 in-depth interviews with international students in Amsterdam, on Instagram use.
  • 12 diaries of the participants of the DMI Winter School 2024.

3. Research Questions

  • How does Instagram shape the stories we tell about ourselves?
  • What opportunities does Instagram provide for people to document their lives?
  • What Instagram features do people use to write their own biographies, and how?
  • How do people develop their own aesthetics over time, and what does that look like?

4. Methodology

To understand how life is recorded and remembered through Instagram, we need to make sense of it from the perspective of its users. Therefore, we have combined two qualitative methods to study Instagram as a memory device: in-depth interviewing, and collaborative autoethnography. In 2022 eighteen interviews were conducted with international students in Amsterdam online, asking interviewees to guide us through their timelines by scrolling through the platform, prompting them to share their life stories and experiences. Based on insights from these long and rich conversations, we developed a diary study that we call DMs² (Digital Moments and Situations via Direct Messages). Participants of the DMI Winter School 2024 were asked to record situations and moments of digital mediation. They sent messages intermittently to themselves over the course of a week with self-reports of how our Instagram accounts figure in our lives and the stories we tell about it. What do we revisit, what do we show, what do we keep to ourselves? How do we remember the past through our feeds? What memories do we highlight, and what do we leave out? To make theorizing more collaborative, we have jointly processed and analyzed both datasets, resulting in the poster below that illustrates the main concepts drawn from the study.

Diary studies are promising for future digital research, because they provide a rich insight into the way digital technologies are interwoven in everyday life. This offers a different perspective on platforms, that is closer to the lived experience of people. Participants were positive about the experience of keeping a diary, because it made them more aware of their feelings and actions. Making this autoethnographic collaborative, by jointly analyzing the diaries, further enriched the insights participants gained. They were able to see similarities and differences between their own experiences and others, which lead to the identification of patterns and concepts. At the same time, because of the intimacies participants shared in their diaries, analyzing them in a collaborative context is ethically challenging. We addressed this challenge with the group of participants, and actively worked on creating a safe and open research space. For example by having ethical check in moments together, whereby each participant was asked how they felt when sharing their stories with their peers. Since the Winter School was a mandatory part of some of the participants’ masters, we provided them with the option to share their diary data for future publishing purposes such as this report.

We (the facilitators) were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic and open attitude of the participants, who were willing to learn from one another and share their own vulnerabilities, despite the differences in their backgrounds and positionalities.

5. Findings

As a kid I looked through photo albums that we have, and that was always a big thing. At least for all the aunties and my mother. And I decided, Instagram is just one way to keep a memory. It's actually nice to look back at it, or show someone. It's just one way to capture a moment, instead of just having physical albums, that is more difficult to show everyone. This is almost like a digital photo album. (Amelia)

This quote illustrates our findings: that Instagram functions as a memory device for young people, that enables them to remember and share memories. Thereby it can both be used as a photo album, constantly on display for others, and a private archive of photos with intimate snapshots of life phases. At the same time, this also creates a tension between the external pressures of public audiences and the internal process of self-development.

Narrating life stories and identity formation

First, we will show how Instagram enables its users to remember parts of their lives vividly, and aids in constructing coherent life stories about their identity. The timeline on Instagram is designed in chronological order, making users go back in time when they scroll down their grid. For example Duman clicks on particular photos that they cherish and double check what it looks like through their present perspective, and whether it has survived the scrutiny of time.

Sometimes I scroll down. I would delete most of [the old pictures], except my dog pictures. There are some pictures that I would delete, like this [points to a close-up photograph of some printed text with circles and checks in blue pen].

Why would you delete this?

Because I don’t remember the memory that I associated with this. I mean, I do remember the memory, because I was trying to learn English at this point. I came to Abu Dhabi and I didn’t know any English, I studiedEnglish for a month and got an entrance exam and got into the school that I wanted. There is some text and writings. Okay? But… what is this? It’s nothing, you know? I would delete this. I can delete this right now! [laughs].

Through the process of editing the past by looking at Instagram timelines coherent and chronological life stories are constructed, which helps in making life goals for the future. Bodie, for example, identifies three life phases: 1) high school, characterized by mental struggles, depression, and an escape in art, 2) student life, characterized by an exploration of their gender and sexual identity, and a growing awareness of politics, 3) the present time, where they accept themselves as they are. In this narration, a clear canonical structure can be identified. Revisiting the past through Instagram posts reinforces the memory of pivotal events and adds new emotions and layers of the present to them. The following excerpts show how users talk about their Instagram to create a coherent life story:

This was beginning to late 2017 [3: points to the third post, a sketch of two eyes and a pen underneath them] which is when I fell into a deep depression. So most of my art centred on things of that. Some of which I have deleted them now, just because they weren’t very good sketches but also very personal to me. […] Now, we switch to singing content [scrolls up]. That was the break in content, I kind of shifted. This was around the time I graduated, I was kind of done with art because I graduated in art so you get your art judged all the time. You kind of stop being passionate about it. This was a big emotional moment [opens a post , a video of them singing in a microphone, wearing a white suit that reflects the light of the spotlight] At the school concert in summer, the year I graduated, I sang “I was Here” by Beyoncé. Big emotional moment for me. Then I also started posting on YouTube. Embarrassing [laughs]. Now, a new chapter in life began. These pictures are from the graduation themselves [17: clicks on a post with a picture of them in a bright yellow suit and white shirt]. The party and everything. I made the suit myself. Okay, I bought the yellow things, but I did the little extra’s on it. Inspired by the dress from “Hold Up”, the music video by Beyoncé This was me dancing Single Ladies, at the after party, which was very fun [clicks through the pictures]. Just an emotional time because things were coming to an end, choosing different paths, not knowing what you’re going to do in life. It was a nice time, it was summer, we were all celebrating. [scrolls up again] We switch to more singing content. I believe that a lot of it — horrible vocals — you overestimate yourself [laughs]. You listen to it and “Oh my God, Beyoncé could never!” [laughs] and then you listen back and it’s like “Jesus Christ. You let people hear you like that?”. (Bodie)

It feels like I’ve come to this point of curating my own profile after spending 10 years on Instagram. Feeling social anxiety, feeling enthusiasm, feeling depressed. I now know that I don’t shy away from personal or sensitive topics, when I address them I want it to be serious. I ask my followers to share their thoughts on the topic. I don’t want to just throw it out there anymore. It made me feel much more in control of my own story and my own online presence. (Diary entry, Joey)

The extensive quote from the interview shows the thrill and embarrassment of showing a turning point in Bodie’s life to the interviewer, transitioning from a high school student to graduated. They almost relive the prom night in their handmade dress, full of excitement and anxieties for the future. It’s interesting to note that pictures like this would not often find their place in the traditional genres of photo albums (Walker 1989). In that sense, social media allow for new autobiographical genres to develop.

The excerpts above also show similarities in what users deem important enough to remember. Each life phase is characterized by a different vernacular approach and particular epic milestone posts, shaped by the temporal and spatial context of users. We identify different epic milestone moments that help construct a canonical and coherent life story: a turning point at the beginning or the end of a life phase (graduation, prom, etc.), personal accomplishments (running a marathon, cutting off hair, coming out, etc.), and a “throwback” (pictures of the past with nostalgic captions). These epic milestones are carefully curated into a post. More mundane everyday activities like cooking and studying are shared on stories, that disappear within 24 hours.

Lastly, Instagram as a memory device strengthens relationship building practices, because social media users can easily share insights into their past together, or reinforce memories by posting “throwback” pictures of joyful moments in the past. Huizhong, for example, enjoyed sharing posts of a past holiday to reminisce and relive the positive experience. She had spent quality time with a good friend she had not seen for a long time, by doing fun things together abroad. When Huizhong returned home alone, she wanted to continue feeling the connection she felt when she was on the trip with her friend by posting the pictures they took together:

When did you last use Instagram to recall or retell something from your life?

Story sharing of 5 photos

With my friend

Felt moved and delight with sharing the highlight moment of my new year’s eve and trip in [place] and also tagged my friend. A sense of us related online through the platform (as they never use Ig before)

Though I’m alone on the way but sharing post made me feel like I’m still in the vibe with my friend and a lot of pleasure.

(Diary entry, Huizhong)

Social media users also use their Instagram as a quick way to retrieve pictures with their friends, to show to others or reminisce about together:

I used my instagram last week when i was in a bar with two German friends and with some guys in my (Dutch) friend group. I wanted to show my friends what ‘the boys’ looked like when we were on our first trip together to the island Texel. So I scrolled back to a picture of summer 2016 that I posted early 2017 where you see me and the boys walking. It’s always fun to look back at (happy) moments in life that we document on our instagrams. And it was an easy and funny way to show my new friends how my ‘friends friends’ looked when we were younger haha. (Diary entry, Tom)

now i am calling with a friend on facetime and telling them about how i have once again posted on instagram while writing this entry, and we wind up chatting about the nights we have spent together

then i look up the photo they shared in a story the second night we were together in their room making a vegan liquor traditionally made of eggs and creme (Diary entry, Liam)

These diary entries show how different technologies are interwoven into the relations that people build, and what they do when they’re together. A good anecdote can be accompanied by a picture, if they can be found again. As native smartphone users, young people can be alone together by keeping in touch across platforms.

Memory distortion

In the previous examples, we showed how people make use of the functionalities of Instagram in a similar way to a photo album: writing life stories and forming an identity, and sharing memories with a limited audience of their choice to strengthen relations. However, Instagram is distinctly different from a photo album in several ways. Most obviously, it’s a commercial platform that to some extent owns the intimate photo albums of young people. Social media users are also aware of this, making them feel ambiguous about the intimacies they share. Secondly, users cannot entirely control who sees their content. This makes them anxious about how it can be received, making them curate their profile with different audiences in mind.

For this section, we will focus on Instagram’s functionalities of archiving and deleting. Users archive posts when they have a special meaning for them, but wouldn’t want everyone to see them:

I’ve archived over 90% of everything I ever uploaded on my Instagram profile. I never felt like deleting posts, because it felt like deleting memories. Same goes for all the photos with my ex-girlfriend. I didn’t feel like having it on my public profile, yet I didn’t want to delete those specific memories. Mainly because Instagram was the only place where this ‘physical’ memory existed… (Diary entry, Joey)

As a result, there is a private part within a public account that only serves as a memorial for past events for the user. This remains hidden from the researcher or follower, making it an interesting part of the platform to study together with users.

Archives can contain a substantial part of the user’s content. Joey kept only 5 posts publicly, whereas “90 percent” of his content was archived. Nao had a similar distribution: she kept 6 posts publicly, while her archive was filled with pictures from her teenage years and her home situation. However, she felt ambiguous about seeing her archived pictures. Archiving signifies that certain parts of her life should be hidden from others, making these parts of her past self unresolved. Moreover, the act of revisiting archived pictures, in contrast to revisiting public pictures, adds a negative dimension to the memory that wasn’t present when the user first shared it. Nao describes the shame she feels about her parental home:

I archive everything, because Instagram for me is like a memory box. I put everything that I wanted to put there, and then I didn’t want to show people my past. That’s why I archived everything, so I can check it out in the future, but just for myself. For example, this family gathering [shows picture of her family in her home]. I think this is quite personal, so I also archived it because I don’t want people to see how my house looked like and be judged, or something, in the future. And also, I archived the photos of my school. I just don’t want people to know my past.

Nao describes how she is not just reminded of a warm nuclear family when she sees the picture of her family home, but views the memory through the judgmental eyes of others who might find her poor or uninteresting. This reinforces her to feel ashamed about her background, and remember this part of her upbringing distinctly.

Because of the ambiguity users feel around archived pictures, some users find it easier to delete pictures. Like Alice, who described in the opening vignette how deleting pictures was for her a way to escape reality, or undo negative memories from the past. Whereas archiving distorts the original memory, deleting a post makes people forget the memory. During our interviews we sometimes asked people what their deleted pictures looked like. They often had difficulties remembering them, but also in retrieving them. They were keen to show us, and tried looking for them on their phone and in their computers. But most often, pictures were never found, and memories remained vague or forgotten. This shows how users have a strong dependency on Instagram to recollect memories. Users attach meaning to the selection of life events on their Instagram, hindering them to switch platforms or use less social media.

6. Discussion

  • Our research contributes to literature on life stories and identity formation (Pasupathi et al. 2007, Atkinson 1995, McAdams 2001). Artefacts like autobiographies, diaries and photo albums display a selection of memories that become a part of these stories (Walker 1989), whereas other life events fade out to be forgotten. Objects can contain memories for us, aiding to cognitively offload (Eliseev & Marsh 2021). While social media are designed and studied as public stages to display the self for others, our research suggests that they are also formative of life stories and identities by being used as digital photo albums or diaries.
  • Identities are developed through the construction of life stories (McAdams 2001), which is the way in which a sequence of events is related to one another in a narrative structure. Narratives add meaning to experiences, and can aid in making decisions and goals for the future. Life stories are often told through a canonical structure, whereby the narrator has learned important lessons through difficult periods of struggle. To construct this story, events need to be highlighted or left out. The process of selection carves paths for the future, serving as stepping stones for what is deemed important.
  • Through material culture, life stories can be shared with others, and archived for future generations. Diaries, autobiographies, and photo albums tell tales of personal trajectories and identity formation, and they reflect cultural values and expectations.

7. Conclusion

  • Collaborative autoethnography is a useful method for exploring platforms from the perspective of users. It allows access to parts of the platform that are normally hidden for researchers, such as stories, deleted pictures, archives, or the contents of private accounts.
  • Diary studies is a promising tool for future new media research, in particular for studying the role of technology in everyday life. Despite being qualitative, it could be upscaled to larger sample sizes.
  • Because of the private and intimate nature of diary studies, researchers need to define and approach consent together with the research participants to make sure they’re well informed and don’t feel pressured to share data.
  • Memories are selectively stored and strengthened on Instagram, allowing social media users to construct coherent life stories with epic milestone posts.
  • Memories are also distorted, when users delete posts to forget a memory, or archive it to hide it from the public eye.

8. References

Atkinson, R. (1995). The gift of stories: Practical and spiritual applications of autobiography, life stories, and personal mythmaking. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Eliseev, E. D., & Marsh, E. J. (2021). Externalizing autobiographical memories in the digital age. In Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Vol. 25, Issue 12, pp. 1072–1081). Elsevier BV.

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of general psychology, 5(2), 100-122.

Lapadat, J. C. (2017). Ethics in autoethnography and collaborative autoethnography. Qualitative inquiry, 23(8), 589-603.

Pasupathi, M., Mansour, E., & Brubaker, J. R. (2007). Developing a life story: Constructing relations between self and experience in autobiographical narratives. Human development, 50(2-3), 85-110.

Walker, A. L. (1989). Photo albums: Images of time and reflections of self. Qualitative Sociology, 12(2), 155-182.
Topic revision: r1 - 29 Feb 2024, MarijeHermaPeute
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