Many early Web 2.0 scholars held high hopes for Instagram. Unlike the rigid perceptions of gender reinforced through traditional media, social network sites (SNS) were heralded as a space where harmful gender norms could be challenged, dismantled, and eradicated. However, cultural and institutional filters embedded within Instagram communities are having quite the opposite effect, instead reinforcing and reproducing existing hegemonic gender stereotypes, inhibiting the formation of group and individual identities that fall outside of existing gender norms, mirroring offline inequalities, and slowing the progress of fourth wave feminism.
Academics have dedicated many hours and essay inches linking aggressive dialogue online with the disinhibiting effects of anonymous online environments (Jane, 2019). Early research into identity and the Internet centred on self-presentation in anonymous digital spaces, whereby users showed a preference for roleplay and anti-normative behaviour (Zhao et al., 2012). However, Instagram—and its parent Facebook—has been at the forefront of a push toward a real name Internet (Zhao et al., 2012). Within this new, nonymous environment where offline names and markers are core, users express their identities implicitly rather than explicitly; showing who they are through interactions rather than explicitly narrating the self (Zhao et al., 2012). As it becomes increasingly culturally discouraged, if not technically difficult, to mask one’s offline identity on Instagram, so too does it become harder to dismiss gendered abuse prevalent across the platform as a byproduct of anonymity. Instead, we must face the uncomfortable reality that actions Jane (2017) frames as gendered cyberhate are in fact intentional performances of identity exhibited by users adhering to the traditionally homosocial values governing the digital communities with which they seek to belong.
By participating on Instagram and using even the platform’s most basic features, such as commenting, writing and uploading bio information, and posting captions, photos or videos, users are, as Boyd (2006, p. 112) describes, “writing oneself into being in a digital environment” with every single interaction and post. These actions are undertaken by people to sustain their personal connections publicly—a practice that Couldry (2012) terms presencing; the performance of identity. With every selfie, comment, hashtag, Story, and follow (or, indeed, intentional lack thereof), individual users and communities of users are sustaining a public presence (Couldry, 2012) and signalling important information about who they are (Donath, 2014).
Instagram, as a SNS, is an inherently networked environment in which people perform their identities. Through the public articulation of self, users bind themselves together into networks (Cefai and Couldry, 2019). Clusters of users also convene around hashtags, sparking and strengthening group identity (Bruns and Burgess 2011). Such mediated environments create a blurring of the public and private—even communication across digital spaces that feel private can be witnessed by many others (Pearson 2009). In this way, Instagram becomes a space in which the very concept of intimacy can no longer be termed private, but rather a public performance of identity and self (Hjorth and Lim, 2012).
In the context of gendered cyberviolence, most commonly directed to women on Instagram, Lewis (et al 2016) notes a particularly abhorrent bonding ritual between homosocial communities on Instagram who actively attack, abuse, and report individuals whose identity blurs the lines of their strict, narrow view of palatable femininity. This is typically a hegemonic femininity defined by the rigid, patriarchal values and expectations held by men with social power (Krane et al., 2004). Participants interpret abusive comments on feminist posts as language cues according to their own status within the social group (Donath, 2014). Through such behavior they gain status and can strengthen their position within the group (Lewis et al, 2016). Performing this type of mediated intimacy on Instagram hastens and strengthens the development of group identities, as groups cohere around high status users particular topics. Such behaviours strengthen the group identity of these collective abusive individuals (Couldry 2012) and mobilize political action (Chadwick & Stromer-Galley, 2016).
Phipps and Young (2015) note similarities and a relationship between offline forms of harassment and gendered violence that occurs regularly on social network sites such as Instagram. While Boyd (2012, p.108) argues that online networked environments are a complex interplay of “design, business, and social issues” that fundamentally alter the way we interact, other scholars take a different view. Williams (2006) finds that real-world social and cultural patterns are reproduced on the Internet, particularly when platforms are engaged to facilitate abuse. This is particularly relevant when considering the similarities between street harassment offline and abusive behaviour online. While violence against women and girls is often committed privately in the offline realm, street harassment is one example that can take on a performative, bro-ish nature. This echoes the type of public abuse directed towards those whose actions fall outside of gender norms or expectations on Instagram. Even Instagram interactions performed in front of a small group of followers has the potential to be recirculated (Pearson, 2009) amongst a much larger chosen or unknown community.
These Instagram communities are, at their core, communication systems comprising human signallers and receivers. For users to gain and earn trust and form communities, identity is critical (Donath, 2014). Through these abusive interactions, groups of individuals signal like-minded values and edge closer towards what Pearson (2009, para. 19) calls “strong ties,” a relationship that features “high levels of emotional engagement, intimacy, and strong bonds of reciprocity.
Any scholar who classifies gendered cyberhate across Instagram as non-violent should consider Lewis (et al, 2016)’s findings. In her research, Lewis (2016) found that perpetrators of gendered cyberviolence often intend to muzzle and exclude their targets from critically important digital spaces—and they are regularly successful in their mission. In the recent study, Lewis (et al., 2016) found that more than a quarter of women who were targeted with gendered cyberabuse reported that they became more cautious about the discussions they participated in online and the topics they chose to discuss after the abuse occurred.
The disastrous impact of this exclusion can only be fully comprehended by highlighting Instagram’s importance. Instagram is a significant space where rich cultural, political, and economic exchanges occur. Jane (2018, p.162) studied the ways women respond to gendered cyberabuse, finding many are coerced into withdrawing to a 1.0 version of the Web, “suffering increased forms of exclusion and under-use of the Internet.” Overall, she concludes that the impact of gendered cyberhate on targets is “impeding online participation and digital citizenship.”
Indeed, activity that explicitly means to exclude non-conformist groups from this public political space is at best grossly unjust, and at its most severe, a hate crime. Through the global domination of this new public space, political culture is no longer centered on identity, but also on visibility—citizens come to Instagram to express, perform, and discuss their political identity in a visible space (Milan, 2015). To be excluded from political conversation on Instagram is to be excluded from modern political life. Megarry (2014) argues that such abuse polices women’s voices, thereby inhibiting their use of powerful online environments for feminist activism. Citron and (2014) make the argument that gendered cyberabuse compromises women’s digital citizenship and should be considered a civil rights violation. At the very least, it’s clear that patriarchal values and norms with which dominant users identify may become increasingly entrenched into Instagram culture as more feminist voices are silenced.
Social networking applications like Instagram have been valorised as an alternative to mainstream media in which more diverse and inclusive representations of humanity—and femininity—could thrive (Gill, 2007). While mainstream media propels images of young, thin, white, able-bodied women, the democratisation of mass communication theoretically opens the floodgates for a diverse, inclusive digital utopia. However, a decade after Instagram’s launch, we’re seeing a much less positive reality play out.
While Instagram has the potential to challenge conventional gender norms that have long been perpetuated by offline, patriarchal power structures, it has fallen far short of this idealistic vision. Throughout this paper I have presented the ways in which Instagram is used as a tool for individual and group identity formation—and indeed, how the platform hastens and amplifies the process. Across Instagram, the very concept of intimacy and connection becomes a public performance of identity and self. This discussion also linked the prevalence of cyberabuse with toxic manifestations of identity performance. Indeed, the abuse creates stronger ties between abusers and strengthens group identity. By policing the representations of femininity deemed accessible on instagram by this dominant group, homosocial communities perpetuate their patriarchal values and expectations, silencing and excluding women who fall outside of their narrow expectations from this important public space. Instagram itself plays a role in the exclusion of women. The platform’s multi-stakeholder approach to governance ultimately empowers homosocial communities to strengthen and perform group identity via heavily gendered cyberabuse. Entrenched gender values and norms are being strengthened and perpetuated across Instagram through toxic, heavily gendered abuse.
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