I use Instagram to explore the world around me through the eyes (and lenses) of other people. In an instant, I can travel to New York City, India and Iceland, and be immersed in different cultures.
This made me question how people use social media to explore places that are my reality. How is Wollongong defined and recognised through social media, and how does this impact on perceptions of Wollongong?
Cities are unique expressions of human activity and, at their core, are the intersection of physical spaces and the people who live in them. The citizens and visitors of a place collectively build an ‘urban imaginary’ through the images they post online. Unique perceptions, experiences, interpretations and images coalesce to build a collective narrative around a place. In this way, social media can be viewed as a cartographic process that contributes to the reshaping of places and communities. Online photographs are not restricted by physical space, time, or language, and have the potential to open people’s eyes to different opinions, perspective, issues and events.
Instagram is a platform that creates spatial stories and consequently allows users to connect and discover the world around them. Instagram utilises hashtag and geolocation features, which makes it ‘geosocial’ – meaning that it has substantial geographical content as well as social significance.
Hashtags are typically used to link together similar ideas, issues or events throughout the Internet. In addition, photos on Instagram often have embedded location data or can have a location assigned to them. Consequently, users can explore photos that are tagged at a certain address, business or landmark and learn about that place. Somewhere is a web application that allows users to explore the best places in the world through the eyes of random people on Instagram, and highlights the geosocial nature of Instagram.
To investigate this idea and its relevance in Wollongong, I collaborated with three of my friends, who all come from different parts of the world, and use social media in different ways. Erin Shea used to live in Wollongong, but now lives and work full time in Sydney. Erika Boeckling is from the States, and was an exchange student in Wollongong in the autumn of 2015. Alice Brown is from Canberra, but is currently on student exchange in the UK. These girls have all helped me to study Wollongong in relation to Instagram, the spatial imaginary, and place perception through social media.
What might be the significant and iconic imagery in Wollongong that contributes to the urban imaginary?
Having lived in Wollongong for two years now, I can confidently describe it as a coastal city that is very multicultural and has a large student population, because of the University. Consequently, I would expect the typical imagery to be of the beach, the lighthouse, cafes and art.
ERIN: Significant imagery would be the beach and events at the uni I would say. Most of the posts I’ve done have been that. I think these show the Wollongong culture pretty well. It shows the laid back nature of the community and also the fact that it’s quite a young population.
How does the urban imaginary of Wollongong on social media impact on people’s perceptions of the city?
Erika, who doesn’t have an Instagram account, learnt about Wollongong from other social media and her peers before coming to Australia.
ERIKA: I knew a couple of students who had gone before me, as well as professors who had led the trip. Based on them, I had learned that Wollongong was a beautiful place, it was located super close to the beach, everybody fit the Australian stereotype of being super friendly people.I would say that the primary platforms that influenced my perception of Wollongong were Facebook and Buzzfeed.
Alice has never been to Wollongong, so she experiences the city exclusively through the online urban imaginary.
ALICE: I would say that searching hashtags did present a clear image of Wollongong as a costal town. There were lots of pictures of nature and food too, as well as beautiful pictures of the beaches, parks etc. Definitely encouraging me to come visit!
How accurate is the urban imaginary compared to the reality of Wollongong?
Erika, who was introduced to Australian culture on social media prior to actually experiencing it, can offer a comparison between the two. In her response, she also raises a very interesting point about the nature of social media.
ERIKA: I think that social media pretty accurately portrayed the reality of Wollongong. People do go out all of the time, abroad kids travel as much as they can, and we all went to the beach all of the time. I suppose the only thing that was different about Wollongong in reality is that there are some not so nice parts of Wollongong that nobody really talks about, so that was a bit of a noticeable difference when I arrived to campus.
The thing about social media that I have issues with is that people only post what they want you to see. I suppose that kind of relates to the media in general, and how it twists peoples’ perceptions of reality.You look at pictures of a town on social media and you only see the pretty parts or the bars and clubs. You never see the flip side of the places that are poorer or have racial or educational problems online, which are very much a part of the city’s reality.
This is a very important aspect to consider in regards to the construction of urban imaginaries through social media. While Instagram images may be accurate, they may not depict the entire story, and may exclude certain social or cultural groups as well as important perspectives. While I believe that the negative aspect of places aren’t always hidden, they are nonetheless changed and made more attractive for social media… typically through an Instagram filter.
Finally, I wanted to gain insight into how other people might use Instagram to explore the world, on both a local and international scale.
Do you explore the world through Instagram, and do you think it is an effective way to gain perspective and insight about different places?
ERIN: I use Instagram a lot too see what’s going on internationally, which is important in the fashion industry. It’s very important in my job to consider the global population, not just what’s going on right in front of you and I think Instagram is a really important medium for that.
ALICE: I use Instagram to search places a lot. Instead of using the hashtag feature, I tend you search by ‘places’, which shows everyone who has tagged their photo at a specific location. I do this for restaurants and cafes regularly as it gives you a good idea of the kind of the food somewhere will serve. I also have been doing it for cities while I’ve been overseas, as it often gives me ideas for places to visit that I may not have otherwise found on Google.
ERIKA: Since I don’t have an Instagram personally, I’ll instead talk about this question as it relates to the pictures portion of Facebook. I feel like Facebook could be an effective platform to explore different places, but that’s oftentimes not how it is used. However, I have also seen social media photos used in a productive manner. People posted pictures of natural disasters globally like the Nepal Earthquake or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to raise awareness about things happening outside our personal niche.I think that if we focused on its potential for raising global awareness and allowing you to realise that there are people and places that experience things far beyond our own personalised narrow views of the world, then yes Instagram could be an incredible tool for spatial representation.
Spatial analysis is something that I study as well, but I do so as a Geography student. I do think that it is interesting to explore this concept through a social media lens. With my educational background, I look at your question and think, “Okay, how can we use social media as a way of teaching the global north about how our personal actions affect the global south, specifically in terms of climate change?” So it’s kind of how social media can let us be aware of other people’s “space and place” so we know what some of the issues they are facing are. And this in no way is limited to climate change; it can also be thought of in terms of racial or religious conflict, politics and power relations, female oppression, and so much more. I think that social media has a ton of potential to be a useful tool of analysing space because it is now such an inherent part of our everyday lives that it’s almost like free advertising and advocacy for social change.
This collaborative study has provided an interesting analysis of Instagram as a tool for learning about, and experiencing, place. Overall, the online urban imaginary of Wollongong is mostly an accurate representation, and influences people’s perceptions of the city.
Social media is highly effective communication tool, and can be an interesting way to explore different cultures, issues and perspectives. In this way, Instagram can help users consider the global population, which can be important for studies, careers, and general travel. This project did however reveal some of the issues with social media and the depiction of place. Social media content can be limiting and exclusive, and images are often made more ‘attractive’ and interesting for platforms such as Instagram.
Instead, social media should aim to provide accurate and diverse portrayals of place. Furthermore, when used effectively and positively, social media can open our eyes to new issues and stories, and inspire social change.
Disclaimer: interviews and discussions with the collaborators have been edited.