Visual Communication in Society

Past research

New Mobile Visualities

and the Social Communication of Photography:Instagram as a Case Study

Research aims and overview

University of Hull: New Mobile Visualities and the Social Communication of Photography: Instagram as a Case Study being a thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Media, Culture and Society, April 2015

Digital Life on Instagram was a three year research project through which I have completed my Doctoral training at the University of Hull (UK) in 2015. Through this project, I wanted to investigate the way new mobile technologies are changing the way we perceive the world and our mediated lives. The proliferation of personal affordable smart mobile devices facilitated the now widespread tendency of capturing, editing, and sharing of many of our everyday life events. In this, the launch of the smartphone application Instagram (October 2010) dedicated to the sharing of photos and videos marked a turning point in our way of using and thinking visual communication. Considering the notable increased use and exchange of visuals witnessed in the recent years after its launch, I have decided to analyse Instagram as case study. Specifically, I explored how it transformed people’s perception of i) interpersonal relationships, ii) marketing techniques, iii) concerns related privacy and surveillance, and iv) the construction of our self-identity.

Methodologically, this project employed a qualitative research method informed by netnography, computer-mediated interviews and visual data analysis. The critical analysis of predetermined themes (described above) presented the innovative transformations that the mediation and mobility of Instagram brought into the relation human-technologies. In order to understand how Instagram is changing people’s behaviors, I followed Pink’s (2007) idea that to study visual practices it is important to consider how relationships develop among individuals, visual technologies, practices and images, society and culture.

Findings from this project showed that nowadays visuals have invaded a range of areas of our everyday lives in a way never experienced before. The widespread use of smart mobile devices facilitated the development of a snapshot aesthetic that radically transformed traditional functions of photography.

Data collected
Nature and positivity. The word of God on Instagram. Instagram, 2014. SOURCE:

Konnor finds Instagram a potential means to create community and gather people in Stuttgart, his new German residence. For him, the main aim of using the platform is to share positive messages through images that mainly capture landscape, nature and other people. This is only one example that shows that many users tend to use the practice of photosharing as a way to share experiences and emotions. In this case, Konnor wanted to share with the online community the baptism of a member of his Cristian community. He did it with the idea that even other Instagram users could appreciate and engage with that specific moment (Chapter 2).

Goran Bregovic in the Time of Instagram. Instagram, 2014. SOURCE:

Using Instagram users realized that their visual attention towards surroundings is augmented. They also realized that it changes their behaviors towards and within events. For many the actual experience of events appears more often to be mediated by their own devices, such as smartphones or tablets. Regarding this, Michela while attending Goran Bregovic’s concert noticed that in front of her there were a lot of people holding up their mobiles. So she decided to post a photo titled “Govan Bregovic in the time of Instagram”. Then she put her smart phone away and enjoyed the concert. She saw that people could not do without experiencing the event through their smartphones. Michela’s experience describes how the ubiquitous use of smartphones is changing incisively people’s experiences and their necessity to establish a visual relation with events and their surroundings (Chapter 2).

The Vagues Igers. Instagram, 2014. SOURCE:

Since its launch, Instagram has facilitated the worldwide establishment of a number of communities (even called Igers). Among various activities, these communities organize online photo contests and offline meetings called InstaMeet and InstaWalks. Ektara enjoys InstaMeets. In 2013, she organised one in Helsinki and she captured that experience through the shadows of her with other 3 community members. This photo for Ektara summarises the enjoyment that they had during that offline social event (Chapter 3).

With #FordDSFL was born a wonderful reality. Instagram, 2014. SOURCE:

In 2014, for its innovative marketing strategy Ford Italia valorized its new car using the technique of ‘storytelling’, giving value to the entire history of the brand and adding new sources for the launch of the new product. To do so, Ford Italia organized an event titled #guidasicura (safe driving) that included an offline driving experience and an online photo campaign. Through the topic of driving safely photo campaign, the brand engaged with Instagram users and at the same time boosted its visibility without displaying mere images of the car. In combination with the event shared on Instagram, Ford Italia launched a photo contest inviting users to post photos to show how they drive safely using the hashtags #guidasicura and #FordDSFL. This photo contest was aimed to encourage users/potential customers to create online visual conversations around the practice of driving safely and, more precisely, around Ford cars. This combination of offline event, photo campaign and photo contest is a relatively new technique that found on Instagram fertile ground (Chapter 4).

Figure 21. Hostess mood #fashionoftheday. Instagram, 2014. SOURCE:

Patrizia, for instance, admits that her initial use of Instagram was almost exclusively dedicated to selfies. Her production of selfies was related to fashion and the photosharing of particular outfits, hairs styles, makeups and so on. Initially, she was using the platform to display her passion for these specific areas and the act of sharing photos was related to the intent of showing her personality accordingly. She believes that everybody flicking through her photo stream can perceive that she is into fashion, as fig. 21 shows. Her use of photosharing, in this case, is a technique to present the self through the connection with brands, thus showing a persona related to a precise status symbol. CHAPTER 6.

List of selected publications


Serafinelli E. (2020)
Networked Remembrance in the Time of Insta-Memories.
Social Media + Society, 6(3), 1-12.


Serafinelli E. and Cox A. (2019)
‘Privacy does not interest me’.
A comparative analysis of photo sharing on Instagram and Blipfoto.
Visual Studies, 34(1), 67-78.


Serafinelli E (2018)
Digital Life on Instagram.
Emerald Publishing Limited.


Serafinelli E. (2017):
The Paradox of Privacy on Instagram,
in Paul Reilly, Anastasia Veneti and Dimitrinka Atanasova (eds.):
Politics, Protest, Emotion: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.
Sheffield: Information School, University of Sheffield.

Serafinelli E. and Villi M. (2017)
Mobile Mediated Visualities.
An Empirical Study of Visual Practices on Instagram. Digital, Culture and Society, 3(2), 165-182.

Serafinelli E. (2017)
Analysis of Photo Sharing and Visual Social Relationships: Instagram as a case study.
Photographies, 10(1), 91-111.

Digital Life on Instagram

New Social Communication of Photography (2018, Emerald)

How does Instagram shape how we relate to each other online? Are users concerned about privacy when documenting their lives in fine detail? How does Instagram work as a marketing machine? Drawing on three years’ research with Instagram users, I explored how Instagram changed people’s visual experiences.

Instagram is now by far the most popular online photo sharing platform, fuelled by the growth of smart mobile devices, and the management of an online persona is now part of millions of people’s everyday reality. This has not gone unnoticed among commercial actors, with the savviest of these exploiting the social dynamics of sharing that underlie the very logic of Instagram.

This book addresses the issue of how mobile media and visual communication permeate people’s daily routines, how marketing influences practice, whether privacy and surveillance concerns are a reality, and how the platform shapes social relationships and identity formation. In its conclusion, the book advances the innovative concept of new mobile visualities to describe the social communication of photography and its huge expansion. Digital Life on Instagram is an online ethnography fit for the modern age of social media.