← Back to Articles

Zooming into an Instagram City: Reading the Local Through Social Media

Written together with Nadav Hochman.

Published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal First Monday, July, 2013.


How are users’ experiences of production, sharing, and interaction with the media they create mediated by the interfaces of particular social media platforms? How can we use computational analysis and visualizations of the content of visual social media (e.g., user photos, as opposed to upload dates, locations, tags and other metadata) to study social and cultural patterns? How can we visualize this media on multiple spatial and temporal scales? In this paper, we examine these questions through the analysis of the popular mobile photo–sharing application Instagram. First, we analyze the affordances provided by the Instagram interface and the ways this interface and the application’s tools structure users’ understanding and use of the “Instagram medium.” Next, we compare the visual signatures of 13 different global cities using 2.3 million Instagram photos from these cities. Finally, we use spatio–temporal visualizations of over 200,000 Instagram photos uploaded in Tel Aviv, Israel over three months to show how they can offer social, cultural and political insights about people’s activities in particular locations and time periods.


A large proportion of contemporary cultural media is created, experienced, and shared using software. Contrary to earlier incarnations of the web that were focused on content created by professionals, companies, and organizations, we are now producing, sharing, or tagging massive amounts of our own images and videos. If, similar to earlier technological developments, this media shift changes the way we know the world, and the ways in which we generate and conceive this knowledge, what can media sharing software tell us about our own experience of living in the present? How can we trace the socio–cultural operations of this software as well as its imaginations and potentials? What can visual social media tell us about the lives of cities, neighborhoods, and individuals? What is this data not able to reflect, and what can it only show with systematic distortions?

This paper addresses these questions via the analysis of the mobile photo–sharing application Instagram, a social network that offers its users a way to upload photos, apply different manipulation tools (‘filters’) in order to transform the appearance of an image, and share them instantly with the user’s friends (using Instagram’s application or other social networking sites such as Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, etc.). As of June 2013, only three years after its launch, the application already has over 130 million registered users who have shared nearly sixteen billion photos from all over the globe.

Article  2013