The hidden narrative in our Instagram photos

Most Instagram accounts tell a hidden story. On the surface you may see an aspiring actor documenting their busy life in LA. Or maybe a shop owner sharing each customer’s joy of a new purchase. And it can even be a worrisome amount of alcohol in a son’s first year at college. Below that easy-to-read surface story is a subplot exposing passions, fears, and other interesting things about the people around you.

Before I get into it, I have to mention that I love spotting trends, clusters and relationships between visual data. I’ve done this since I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I took a certain 400-level class in college called Visual Media Analysis that helped me understand what I was seeing. In short, we broke down the contextual messages of an image; a set/series of images; as well as how that message changes over time, across cultures and placement. It was by far one of my favorite classes, and something I feel every designer/artist should take.

Benny Gold Instagram

A story in three parts

I was looking through a friend’s Instagram account when I started to notice three themes come up over and over in the timeline: a beverage, a distant horizon, and storefronts. There are other images in there, but these three come up often over a long period.

I spent some time swiping through the accounts of people I follow and I noticed more and more of them had a distinct clustering of three in their Instagram narrative. Take the following accounts for example:

  • San Francisco designer and clothing brand @BennyGold: skateboarding (specifically the ability to still pull old tricks), friends visiting his store, and his daughter #rumisailor.
  • New York photographer @RyanPlett: buildings, lamps/lights, and Mercedes.
  • Chicago photographer @PaulOctavious: his feet, far away and tiny people, expansive horizons.
  • Graphic design badass Aaron @Draplin: discovering old logos, selfies with friends, and his dad.
  • St. Louis art director @Heathropolis: hand-drawn type/signs, abandoned buildings, misplaced objects.

Break it down, parse it out

Ok, so finding three common subjects in someone’s Instagram feed isn’t all that ground breaking, but it is important. And, it is also important to note that I ignore the obvious photos, you know, that ones that are inserted to remind people what we do for a living. In @RyanPlett’s I removed the models and clothes; in @BennyGold’s I removed the product shots; in @Draplin’s the traveling talks he gives are out too.

What we are left with is starting to tell a different story. Once you get past the glossy story people are telling we can start to hear the real story they are showing.

But, you can’t really do this to your own Instagram timeline. It’s like self-diagnosing your mental state: you are too close. So, ask a friend to tell you what your three subjects are (minus images promoting your work/job), and maybe that will work for you.

Reading Instagram tea leaves

First, I am not going to go all Carl Jung on anyone’s Instagram account in this article, nor am I going to rehash a 400-level college class into a blog post. Second, this is just a fun way to cut the fat and bullshit out of someone’s IG feed to see a new and interesting story; it’s not a science.

pauloctavious instagram
photo: @pauloctavious
What do you see in the images that make up these three subjects/topics/themes?

  • Are people small or big (far or close)?
  • Are certain themes in black and white?
  • Are the subjects of the past, or about the future?
  • In these three themes, are they using more or less words in the description than the others?

What don’t you see in the images, or what is obviously lacking/removed?

  • Is there a certain person or persons missing from the images? Or no people at all?
  • Are they all black and white?
  • Alcohol is commonly present, but no pictures of food?
  • No outdoors photos.
  • All photos are of past events (not yesterday, but months and years ago.)

Obviously there are countless questions you can ask about a collection of images, and the answers you see bring up new questions. The ones above are just to get the party started.

You don’t need a psychology degree for this, just a critical eye and the ability to see trends. In some cases it is obvious that the person is consistently dwelling on the past, where others are always in the moment or looking to the future. In other feeds it may be a common item or object that keeps finding its way into the images (but is not necessarily the subject of the image and not the same exact item) like a candle or skull or mirror. It can be a certain color too. In my feed I noticed that I tend to have a lot of brown/yellow/orange images. Odd since my favorite colors are typically in the blue range (or so I thought?)

“when we text, email or post to a social networking site, we’re able to project ourselves as we want to be seen. ‘We get to edit, we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch.'” Is Social Media Actually Making Us Less Connected? – Mashable [source]

Why this matters

Today, we are not as close to each other as we were in the past. Before the socialwebs, we talked to each other a lot. And I’ll go so far as to say that in the 70s and 80s we shared more about our lives to those around us than we do today. What you see now is us sharing a smaller part of us to more people, whereas it used to be a bigger story to fewer people.

Looking for and analyzing the three stories we tend to share on Instagram can help unlock the subplots our friends, heroes and coworkers aren’t saying, but want to tell.

What about Facebook, Twitter and others?

I’m not totally discounting them as being useful in helping unlock your friends’ stories. But, I will say that the format and social construct of Instagram helps strip the noise often found in Facebook, and the inconsistency of imagery in Twitter. The stories we say versus the stories we type versus the stories we show (photograph or draw) are often wholly different. Ask me my favorite color and I’ll say blue, I’ll type a blue hexadecimal number (#2980bd), but share brown/yellow/orange images.

Try it

Visit a handful of your friends’ Instagram feeds, strip the work out, and what do you see repeating? What don’t you see?

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