New Media: Instagram as a Form of Self-Expression

Maryjo Fernandes


            As an introvert, communication is something I have always struggled with; my sociality revolves around the endless cycle of low and high energy levels. Characteristically, there are times when the capability to express myself is obstructed by the inability to get a message, or creative thought across when trying to communicate as little as possible. When we communicate with others in public, it gives them a strong sense of our personality; self-expression is a part of our identity and the way we want to represent ourselves to other people in society. Over the years, I have tried to channel my personality through the ways I present myself, whether in real life, or digitally online. For example, I will wear a piece of clothing that represents how I feel, or a part of my personality I want to get across. Over the years I have used social media to help express myself, specifically using Instagram, taking advantage of its visually stimulating interface which I find appealing. I know myself to have always gravitated towards visual media, because I do believe there are some words that cannot describe the intricacy life has to offer visually; this is where my interest in expression has collided with the study of new media.

With technological advancements leading up to the 21st century, we observe the effects new media has had on the development of society and culture. New media is defined in two ways, the first being, “emerging communication and information technologies undergoing a historical process of contestation, negotiation and institutionalization”; and the second being, “media we do not yet know how to talk about. They are uncertain objects, their terms are unclear; their use, purpose and impact are not yet fully understood” (Peters, 18). New media is something that is constantly changing; what might be considered new media might be considered ‘old’ new media, or alternatively something that we do not know of yet. Technology has integrated itself into nearly every part of human life, making us question how we have adapted to this both beneficial and disadvantageous intrusion. In my study I look at how Instagram, a form of new media, has had its effects on self-expression in a generation that is in the heart of technological innovation and adaption, as well as narrowing down how they find the construction of themselves online. I will look at this topic in a positive light, due to the limited sources favouring social media’s introduction into our lives.  

             In gathering and approaching my fieldwork, I used the Instagram app which can be viewed on any cellular device; I proceeded with conducting my general observations, and participant observation through this platform. In addition, I conducted interviews with informants who were well versed with the use of Instagram; this part of my research was either done in person or through skype, all of which had a face-to-face element. In elaborating my theory that social media has helped individuals in their self-expression, as well as helped them find themselves, I will mainly use Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘The Technologies of the Self’, as well as some articles published by Sarah Pink and other scholars to facilitate my argument in which new media has interwoven its self into the construction of the self.


            When conducting my ethnographic research I kept in mind the theories displayed by Sarah Pink in her article ‘Visualizing Emplacement: Visual Methods for Multisensory Scholar’. She relates how visual ethnography can benefit an ethnographer in the field; in my case I use visuals to look at the construction of the self by those on Instagram. She uses Ingold and Grasseni to express that visual senses are linked to our other senses, and that when we look at an image it is as if we were in the room, or behind the camera when it was taken; the connection of our senses form a ‘Multisensory Knowing,’ which in a way gives us a sixth sense when viewing an image (Pink, Sarah). She goes on to state, “the emotional and sensory effects of visual texts will themselves have culturally and biographically specific meaning” (Pink, 20); with this in mind I pay attention to the messages my informants might want to reveal.

My overall research project spanned the length of 12 weeks, and was conducted over the Instagram app, as well as online and in person interviews. When initially starting my research I had the idea of studying Instagram models and ‘Instagram Famous’ accounts on Instagram to understand the motives of those that sought out to obtain a large following; whether if they produced these accounts for entrepreneurial, fame, or fortune reasons. Unfortunately, due to the fact that it was hard to find such a demographic of informants, in addition to my findings not matching my initial objective, I decided to switch my focus to self-expression through social media; something we often see. My fieldwork comprises of three main sections: general observations, interviews, and participant observation.

            I conducted my general observation from the perspective of the outside viewer, looking at individuals I did not know personally; this occurred mainly on the explore page featured on the Instagram app. The explore page displays people who you might know, or content you frequently view. In my explore page there were a lot of beauty and fashion bloggers, miscellaneous accounts presenting memes, cat videos, guitar lessons etc. I took the time to look at the beauty and fashion bloggers in order to compare their accounts to ordinary ones that take part in the app for social reasons. I then looked at my followers to see who they were following in hopes to find more grounded accounts. When viewing the profiles, I would analyse their accounts as a whole, finding common themes. I would then pay attention to my perception of what I perceived from these accounts, taking note of my findings. I wondered if the themes I perceived were intentional, or if there was a passive cognitive thought into producing the material they were posting.

            Moving on to the interview portion of my fieldwork; when trying to pick informants to interview, I turned to individuals that I was acquainted with. I picked three main informants who I thought constructed a form of themselves online based on their accounts, as well as posted frequently. Two out of the three informants agreed to participate in skype interviews, while the last one preferred to meet in person. I asked them questions such as:

Could you tell me about yourself?

Can you describe you Instagram account for me?

What motivates you to post pictures?

Do you have a specific aesthetic you aim for?

Why do you use Instagram?

What does Instagram give you that other forms of social media do not?

What do you think of Instagram as a form of social media?

How do you feel you express yourself through your pictures?

Is there a specific message you are trying to transmit?

Could you tell me about your posting habits or strategies?

Is there anything you would like to ask me about my research?

My first informant, Cassandra Fullerton, who is a Toronto based model gave me the inspiration to switch my topic to self-expression. I had initially interviewed her in hopes to get her thoughts about my first objective, but during our interview we went on many tangents about self-expression. When transitioning my topic I used the same questions, modifying them to be more general instead of model centric for my interviews with Lydia Talajic, and Sarah Kooy who have ordinary accounts. Like in the example with my informant Cassandra, all of my interviews had a conversational atmosphere, where both I and my informants would branch off into other areas, circling our way back to the topic at hand.

            Finally, I conducted my participant observation over the span of the 12 weeks, posting 11 pictures in that interval. I continued to post pictures as I would normally do, rejecting the fact I was doing it for my research. The general theme of the pictures I posted danced between ‘outfit of the day’ pictures (#ootd), friendship appreciation posts, my music taste, or pictures I thought were aesthetically pleasing that identified with. Though, I was not paying particular attention to the content I was posting, I made sure to be aware of the emotions and thoughts I had when posting, as well as paying attention to the thoughts I had when I got feedback from my followers, and how that made me feel. Feedback is normally produced from someone liking or commenting on your post. Nearing the end of my research term I decided to see what posting on a daily basis would do to the feedback I was getting, and how I felt about posting as frequently.


General Observations:

When viewing accounts on the explore page for my general observations, I noticed that a lot of users would make sure to keep a constant theme. Those that used colour schemes to tie in all of their pictures were mostly beauty and fashion bloggers who used their accounts to market themselves and the items they used, or are promoting. My goal was to seek out the everyday individual that had a ‘cycle of life’ type of account that concentrated on themselves and events that occurred in their lives. What I had noticed when looking at a public figure’s account versus an ordinary one is that, because public figures have more people looking at them, as well as they are trying to promote themselves and their brand, they opt for a more put together account. When observing the account I noticed uniformity in the way objects or particular items were placed within pictures, providing a minimalistic and clean atmosphere.

Figure 1 & 2: Screen shots of a public figure, who runs a fashion blog.

As we can see in figure 1 and 2, the public figure account has high definition visual imagery, the pictures are of high quality and even lighting, showing visuals from the person’s everyday life, as well as her travels. There is a strong sense of color scheming, where two pictures will have similar tones slowly transitioning into the others making the account appealing, and in some ways satisfying to the eye. Just from looking at the overall view from her account, you can tell that she is a beauty and fashion blogger, due to the way she presents herself and the items she associates with. “The aim of some female bloggers is to achieve some sort of recognition, to make themselves present in the world, and to create the kind of unique style and personhood that would not be represented otherwise” (Murray, 496).

Figure 3 & 4: Represents an ordinary account of an individual I found through mutual followers.

In figure 3 and 4 is an ordinary account, and as we can see the pictures aren’t of the same quality, this might be due to the use of filters over a more natural high quality look. We can see that there isn’t an intentional colour scheme, giving into a more natural account rather than a manufactured one. From viewing this individual’s pictures, I see that she has constructed herself visually to be a friend oriented person, who enjoys nature activities, as well as traveling abroad.


My first informant, Cassandra Fullerton, is a Toronto based models who advocates for dark plus sized models. Her account gives off a uniform vibe where she posts the modeling collaborations she organises with photographers. All of her pictures have an urban feel, normally taken place out on the streets of Toronto, shot from complementary angles highlighting her clothing choice, makeup capabilities and, her favoured hairstyle choices. Though at the time I was asking her about her modeling career and what she wanted to make out of it, our discussion kept touching the topics of societal standards, and how we have such elite norms for what a model should look like.

Figure 5 & 6: Sample of Cassandra Fullerton’s Instagram account.

I discovered that my informant was using Instagram as a form of expression, and that she wanted to make a change. In addition, she had mentioned that she uses Instagram as a platform to share positive body images, not only to her viewers, but to herself; she revealed how this was her way of finally coming to terms that it was okay to be her size, and started practicing self-love through the images she uploads.

“Ya … I’m comfortable with modeling, but if someone were to say ‘you’re a model’, I would probably laugh” – Cassandra Fullerton.

            My second informant, Lydia Talajic, is an ex-model based in Ottawa; she had broken away from the modeling industry stating that it was a difficult industry to be part of, and so decided to leave. Her Instagram account, chronicles her transition from trying to fit the model image into that of a more carefree, life enjoying person. She doesn’t follow a specific theme, going with a ‘post what you feel’ vibe. Within the interview I asked her what empowerment meant to her, she responded:

“Has to do a lot with how you feel about yourself, but I also think it has a lot to do with feeling comfortable with others … not their perspective, but being able to express yourself and give off confidence when other people are present”

Figure 7 & 8: Sample of Lydia Talajic’s Instagram account

I found this interesting when it comes to posting what you feel, because if you are comfortable with yourself, you should be able to feel comfortable being yourself around others. This is where people construct a form of themselves online, through posting pictures that they feel represent them appropriately. Another note, which I found interesting in my interview with Lydia was with her perception of likes. She had stated that she is one to post what she feels represents herself, but at the same time counts her likes as if it were a game. For example, is she gets less likes in a picture than one that was posted previously, she feels like she didn’t achieve some sort of goal. I wondered if this habit had anything to do with reassurance of the self.

            Finally, my last interview was with an informant named Sarah Kooy, who is an ordinary candidate compared my model informants. When I first looked at her Instagram account, I thought it had a very feminine energy, she uses minimalistic pictures that represent her style. In my interview with her she expressed that her account is a collage of her life, where she normally posts according to the seasons, which play a direct role in the way she feels. Her account doesn’t have a specific theme, but somehow each picture she posts happens to complement the other, making the account as a whole relaxed and easy to look at. A specific topic I noted from our interview was the ‘Instagram Worth’ picture.

“I use to have a mindset, where I would think ‘that would make an excellent Instagram picture’, but I’ve come to realize that’s no way to live your life. We shouldn’t be trying to copy the Instagram models we see, because their standards aren’t realistic” – Sarak Kooy

Figure 9 & 10: Sample of Sarah Kooy’s Instagram account.

I found this particularly interesting, because I found myself falling into this exact theme of events when trying to conduct my participant observation. Realizing this, I continued to be wary of the reasons I would take certain pictures.

Participant Observation:

Finally, when trying to understand the construction of the self, I turned to see how I subliminally formed a part of myself online. As mentioned earlier, I had posted 11 times in the 12 week interval, which happened to be record for my Instagram account considering I am a very inconsistent and sporadic poster. In general, I post pictures that I feel represent me and my personality. I am normally in the pictures I post, usually asking a friend to take my pictures for me; when doing this I normally have a vision in mind in terms of where I will be in relation to the camera. Each picture is set up in a different setting; the only time a picture theme is repeated is when I take an ‘outfit of the day’ picture. Over the 12 week span I posted about my music taste, my fashion sense, my humour, and the extra circular activities I take part in. I found that every time I posted I was confident in what I was posting, because I knew it was wholly me. When I got likes or comments it gave me a sense that people understood the vision I was going for, and that it represented me; this gave me a sense of appreciation, because I thought that people understood the type of person I am from the things I like or post.  Another note, is that I have noticed that when posting about concepts about my personality, there is a vulnerability that I allow to be transmitted, which I would not normally do in person. There is a freedom I find in the digital universe which might not be present in real life … yet.

Figure 11 & 12: Samples of 2 out of the 11 posts uploaded a part of my participant

As mentioned earlier, I had fallen into the trap of posting things that would make an ‘Instagram Worthy’ picture. In figure 11, I had to go through a process of different positions, poses, and angles to be satisfied with the pool of pictures I had taken. It took me a couple of weeks of contemplation to pick the picture that would represent me on my account. I finally ended up giving in to a picture that I didn’t feel was me, but rather it was aesthetically pleasing for my followers. In figure 12, we can see the type of picture is a similar to the one before it, but the thought behind it was a lot different than the previous one, where concentrating on the art piece behind me made me feel a lot more comfortable posting it.


New media has expanded anthropological studies to a new geographical location, where new techniques are needed to study the flourishing networks and communities that are arising in online societies. With the development of a vast array of social media networks, I focus my study on Instagram as a visual media, and how it facilitates self-expression, identity, and the construction of the self. As John Postill and Sarah Pink relate in their article, ‘Social Media Ethnography: The Digital Research in a Messy Web’, “Uses of social media can be interwoven with the qualities, political structure and histories of localities or regions” (123). In understanding social media we can gain a sense of societal changes that take place both online, and as well as those that trickle into our real life (John, Postill & Sarah Pink).

Using social media has become a second hand nature to a lot of people in the past couple of years, its large integration in communication across geographic locations has made us dependent in a post capitalist world. When I started my project, I wondered if people realized they were constructing a form of themselves online; before my project, I surely did not realize, or was aware that I was doing this myself. When further reading into ‘The Technologies of the Self’ by Michel Foucault I came to realize that Instagram is a huge medium of self-construction, and that we find ourselves in taking note of the attributes we express. Michel Foucault goes to define: “Technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (225). Foucault mainly compares the technologies of the self within Greco-Roman and Christian principles, where there is a ‘know yourself vs take care of yourself’ theme. I do believe that the generation that uses social media follow the Greco-Roman principle, where in order for one to know themselves, one must be able to take care of themselves.

He further goes on to relate the Stoic technologies of the self, where the management of self-control enables one to defy the destructive emotions one might face. I relate this to individual’s learning to love themselves through finding the self. There are three main themes: the first being external care, second being internal care, and thirdly a mental disclosure of secrets. I find these three themes relevant to our generation’s use of Instagram. The first theme, is of external care where he cultivates the act of self-noting; “Taking care of oneself became linked to constant writing activity. The self is something to write about, a theme or object (subject) of writing activity” (Foucault, 232). The act of writing to one’s self mirrors the act of taking note of one’s self in pictures, a visual repertoire commemorating the self at a certain period in time; “these details are important because they are you – what you thought, what you felt” (Foucault, 234). The second theme narrates how conscientiousness is linked to purity, and to be pure was to be in contact with the divine; this assertion is used in the sense of self-examination when looking at individual development within the self. The final, and third theme relates to the truths we tell ourselves. Through the political and identity related manifestations online, we provide a certain truth about ourselves; when the time comes, being able to demonstrate our expression in real life reassures our identity in the constructed self (Foucault, Michel).

The technologies of the self is important when trying to understand the insurgence of photo opportunities displayed by the numerous users of Instagram. In the wake of discovering the self, we realize our own characteristics, as well as the truths we stand for. In Derek Murray’s article, ‘Note to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the age of Social Media’, he explains how the rise in what might look like narcissistic pictures, have some to stand for empowerment, where our generations is making sure that inequalities or double standards are realized, and that we fight to abolish them. He explains, “What unifies these images however, is shared obsession with self-fashioning; and embraced narcissism that turns navel gazing into high culture, and leisure-based consumptions into a virtue. Fashion plays an important role in selfie culture” (Murray, 496). I agree with Murray in relation to fashion being one of the motivators behind these pictures that are posted on Instagram. We all know that Instagram is a very visually stimulated form of social media, which caters to the visualization of fashion trends in our society.

Fashion in itself can speak so much truth about an individual, from their personality to their political standing; what someone wears, does in fact say a lot about themselves, and is just one way someone can construct themselves. Murray continues to explain, “And it is important to remember that Self Portrait Taking Selfie is not a selfie, but rather a constructed narrative photographic tableau, that wields its self-conscious mise-en-scene in the service of making a meta-commentary on what, for many, is actually a meaningful and thoughtfully realized gestured” (512). Within conducting my participant observation, the previous line holds true to constructing an image to provide a story, or layering of happenings and emotions. As mentioned in my results, when I would take a picture, I normally had a vision or thought already planned out on how I wanted the picture to be, and what subliminal messages are meant to be highlighted or shaded out. I do believe that we all do this whether intended or not, because it is a visual expression of our inner thoughts; where there are multiple layers of cognitive expression that go into producing a visual image from the construction of the self. I realized that when I was posting pictures, I was displaying an ethos which I identified with, and which embodied me; as Clifford Geertz defines, “A people’s ethos is the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood; it is the underlying attitude toward themselves and their world that reflects” (Dooreen & Rose, 79).


With the forever expanding digital universe, anthropologists have a new geographical location to explore within new media, where there are new techniques and research methods waiting to be developed and enhanced in order to understand its dynamic changes. What we have on Instagram is a large community of individuals that come together to share a bit of their lives with one another, sharing stories of all types, creating a culture where we as a generation don’t have to conform to norms, but be our own individual selves. Instagram has created a society in which it is okay to be yourself, but it is also okay to be something you’re not; as the term goes, ‘fake it till you make it’. Overall, my study of Instagram as a platform of self-construction, permits individuals to stylize themselves while being able to match their inner capabilities; over time forming self-confidence in their expression. My study allowed me to understand how we can use visual imagery in understanding how we present ourselves to society, as well as how society has altered our perception of not only ourselves, but the way we interact and communicate with others. There is a constant action and reaction that takes place around us, and the content people upload on Instagram highlight our evolving culture.

In conclusion, though thanks to post-capital movements promoting the consumption of technology and social media, we as a generation have somehow adapted a new way to take this innovation and make the best use out of it for ourselves. With promoting healthy views and finding time to practice self-care online, we can come together in real life and be emotionally educated and prepared for what the real world has to offer.


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