Tag Archives: instagram

Assignment 2 – How Instagram works…we think

Mark Zuckerberg quote


Some feedback from the last OCA General Hangout was that I should think about taking my idea a little further than simply posting people’s personal Instagram suggestions, two options came up. The first was to add a pre-digital photo of the people concerned to their images and the other was to construct some profiles from the selection I have been given, i.e. images selected for non-existent people. I felt that second suggestion had more potential, and my next move was to contact someone I know who works on the periphery of Instagram to try to understand how their algorithms work in practisee. It was a most illuminating conversation. As I don’t want to compromise the person, I am unable to support some of the writing below with publicly available references, but I have done so whereever possible.

As mentoned in my previous post, Instagram’s algorithms are based on six priorities. But how does this work in practice? First of all, what does the algorithm do?

A search algorithm is the step-by-step procedure used to locate specific data among a collection of data. It is considered a fundamental procedure in computing. In computer science, when searching for data, the difference between a fast application and a slower one often lies in the use of the proper search algorithm. (https://www.techopedia.com/definition/21975/search-algorithm)

These algorithms sift all the data coming into the platofrom and tried to sort it into a meaningful index. Instagram’s original mission statement was ‘to capture and share the world’s moments’ which sounds very laudable, but it has always been a business, and therefore there must be an earning producer underlying the main platform. It is a very new company, having only been set up in 20????, but it was an immediate hit and since then has grown exponentially to the point where it now claims to have over one billion active monthly users. (https://www.statista.com/statistics/253577/number-of-monthly-active-instagram-users/). It has also always had close ties with Facebook, that notorious supplier of odd advertisements to our pages) and was merged with them in 201????. Instagram’s business model is not to advertise directly, but to provide a platform for users to advertise themselves. Speaking personally, I don’t think I ever see adverts on Instagram, but my contact tells me that 80% of users are subscribed to some so


rt of business feed, so one can assume that it takes the form of soft marketing. But this is all background to how the algorithms work.

In practise, it all depends on the type and number of data points that each individual supplies. Data points are key strokes such as Likes, Follows, hashtag searches and Comments on other people’s posts.  The more often one adds a data point, the more information Instagram has about one’s interests, and as their aim is to get you closer to the people and subjects you love, it is both their and your interests to provide lots of data points. This, as was discussed at a recent OCA hangout (details) their business model and methodology encourages users to engage more and more with the platform, such that the platform becomes more important than real life (Flusser – get eaxct ref). The bottom line is that the more one interacts with Instagram, the more they know about your interests and contacts and the better their suggestions for you will become. Conversely, if like my partner, you have an Instagram account but don’t post on it, and merely scroll through what appears on your feed, then the company has very little information about you to draw upon. This explains why some people’s feeds are better tailored to their interests than others. In the absence of specific personal data, the algorithm falls back on general socio-economic data, such as gender, age, Follows etc. and so the results of a search will be extremely generic.

For example, I have just set up a new Instagram account. All the platform knows about me is that I am over 18. This is the first Explore suggestions screen I got.

me new account - first iteration

Architecture, wildlife and travel. The architecture is a little surprising, but the others a generic subjects that will surely appeal to a large number of people.

Some photographers have used this system to create online personas which are entirely different from their real life, such as Amalia Ulman (https://petapixel.com/2016/01/23/this-artist-got-90k-instagram-followers-with-photos-of-a-fake-lavish-lifestyle/). I want to turn this idea the other way around and




Assignment 2 – Contextual Background

N.B. This post should be read in conjunction with the companion one, Photography and New Materiality (Woodward, 2019). This assignment has morphed through several different ideas since I began the research for it. Originally, I had planned to do it on some old correspondence that my great-grandfather had with the operetta composers Gilbert & Sullivan. After reading the course and reference materials though, my mind was teeming with new ideas, particularly on the subject of internet privacy and specifically, how much Instagram knows about us – or can surmise about us – given our interests and the pages and images we like.  This led to further research on algorithms and how the internet stores our data, and the ‘Aha moment’ came when I printed out the digital code for a 7×7 pixel square and was astounded at the size of both. The image and the associated data now forms the first image of my assignment book.

This led to some experiments using photographs and digital image code, two of which are shown below.

Fig. 1 Two altered found photographs (2018)

At this point, it became clear that I wanted to explore the relationship between the digital image and the code that forms it. Using the program onlineimagetools.com I printed the entire code for a single 6×4″ photograph to PDF, and it came to over 1100 pages of Word, using a 3 point font. Such a huge amount of information for one image! And with so much potential for alterations, visible and invisible. This underlying matrix of coded information, particularly at the micro level, became the basis of the assignment.

Following on from assignment 1, which was influenced by the work of Kensuke Koike, Joe Rudko and Pippa Drylaga, I have continued to watch out for photographers who use the materiality of the photograph to make their points. In the previous assignment, I used found photographs, but this one called for digital images, and I have used my own photograph this time. Just the one, as my exploration is about the constituents of the digital image rather than the end result.

There are several modern photographers whose work in the this field particularly underlies the project and I would like to consider three in particular in this post.

Thomas Ruff

I have written about Ruff’s work before,  in my posts Thomas Ruff – Tripe (Woodward, 2019) and Thomas Ruff- Size is everything (Woodward, 2017). The aspect that particularly intrigues me is his way of looking at the nature and constituents of an image and then plays with them by altering just one aspect. He has moved a very long way from his original, very typographical work, although he still revisits it from time to time. In jpegs (2009), for example, he examines the geometric nature of the pixel and reduces the numbers to re-see the images as if to form a more limited point of view (similar to how the first digital images appeared). At the same time, he hugely increases the size of the photographs, so that from a distance, they look to include all the original information, while close-up each individual pixel square is clearly visible. On another tack, in substratum (since 2001) he overlays multiple copies of an image onto each other and then plays with them in Photoshop to the point where the original meaning of the image is completely lost, just leaving an impression of the work, not its reality. (I have been doing my own versions of these, but at a lesser, more realistic level, with my mandala images, some of which I discussed in my blog posts ore More on photo-manipulation (Woodward, 2017) and Some more mandalas (Woodward, 2017). In these, I retain some of the detail of the original but reworked and simplified to make a pattern which echoes the main points of the original, while producing something totally new, and hopefully interesting in its own right).

Wolfgang Tillmans

Tillmans is another photographer whose work I looked at in my post Wolfgang Tillmans at the Tate Modern (Woodward, 2017). Although the range of his interests is vast, he also has a fondness for exploring the nature of the photography and specifically the relationship between subject and object. An excellent article in Dazed Magazine (Epps, 2017) refers to his ongoing interest in mistakes, darkroom accidents and interventions, which he has then explored more fully in series such as Blushes (2000) and Freischwimmer (2003), as well as the ones I mention in another post. I am fascinated by his ability to take an idea and then stretch it out to form something completely new, but which still clearly references the original.

(Speaking of darkroom accidents, and still very much on the subject of this assignment, I was in the darkroom yesterday, with the intention of printing the first image below. I had originally planned it as a digital negative, but had printed it on the wrong side of the transfer film and rather liked the results. Unfortunately, when drying the print, I put the negative alongside it for comparison, and it stuck to the print. Perhaps I should call the second image Double Digit Accident (After Tillmans).)

Fig. 2 Darkroom mistakes: before and after (2018)

Ellen Jantzen

On a different tack, I cam across the work of Ellen Jantzen via Instagram. I love her ongoing Unexpected Geology series, in which she imports small rocks into much larger landscapes to play with their relative sizes, Coming Into Focus (2016-17), where she lifts parts of the image away from the rest to give the impression of a landscape slowly coming into focus as a whole, when initially one only saw specific elements, and Losing Reality; Reality of Loss (2011), in which shadowy figures inhabit the landscape almost invisibly. I could go on, as most of her work appeals to me. Earlier last year, I made some images using similar techniques and a couple are shown below.

Figs, 3 & 4 The mystery in the woods, Spring & Winter (2018)

In a related vein, I have an ongoing experimental series which I have called Barcodes of Nature, which uses some of the same techniques to try to capture the colour palette of a place from a single line of pixels in the image. There is more about this in my blog post First thoughts for assignment 1 (Woodward, 2018). Other photographers whose work examines similar themes are:

  • David Szauder – his Failed Memory (2013) series uses ‘glitch art’ to consider how our memories of events fragment over time
  • Joan Fontcuberta – in Datascapes: Orogenisis/Googlegrams (2007) he takes the ideas in the opposite direction and constructs images from multiple other internet images, which have a similar other-worldly vibe, but are based on some of the multitude of online data.
  • Catherine Yass – uses digital manipulations alongside both digital and analogue layering to look at how we perceive time and space. She is also a fan of the light-box and digital negative, which are both becoming a feature of my own work.
  • Samuel J Fordham – uses physical and digital manipulations to think about memories. I love I Thought I Would Sit Here and Look Out At The Fjord For The Last Time, 2018  from his series C-R92-BY (Fordham, 2018). It looks simple enough, but the digitally altered pieces don’t correspond with the missing pieces in the main image, producing a nagging feeling of discord.

I could go on at length, but it is worth considering the works of Anastasia Samoyova,  Barbara Kasten, Adrienne Hughes, and Anna Yeroshenko,  to name but a few.

Finally, and in a different direction, the different ways in which pixels have been interpreted has been a subject I have explored before, specifically in my posts More thoughts on subverting the male gaze, NSFW (Woodward, 2017) and Quick note on another iteration of the mandala work (Woodward, 2017), and which was influenced by my work for Research on embroidered photography (Woodward, 2016). It seems that I keep coming back to the same themes – of materialism and manipulation of ideas and both digital and physical images from a conceptual viewpoint. Maybe I am finding a Voice, at last.


Fig. 1 Woodward, H. (2018) Two altered found photographs. [mixed media] In the possession of: the author.

Fig. 2 Woodward, H. (2018) Darkroom mistakes: before and after. [mixed media] In the possession of: the author.

Figs. 3 & 4 Woodward, H. (2018) The mystery in the woods, Spring & Winter. [Altered digital images] In the possession of: the author.


‘Your ultimate guide to Wolfgang Tillmans’ In: Dazed 23/01/2017 At: http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/34353/1/your-ultimate-guide-to-wolfgang-tillmans (Accessed 18/06/2020).

Fordham, S. (2018) C-R92-BY. At: https://samuelwjfordham.com/C-R92-BY (Accessed 18/06/2020).

Woodward, H. (2017) More thoughts on subverting the male gaze, NSFW. At:  https://hollyocaidentityplace.wordpress.com/2017/08/16/more-thoughts-on-subverting-the-male-gaze-nsfw/ (Accessed 18/06/2020).

Woodward, H. (2017) Quick note on another iteration of the mandala work. At: https://hollyocaidentityplace.wordpress.com/2017/06/30/quick-note-on-another-iteration-of-the-mandala-work/ (Accessed 18/06/2020).

Woodward, H. (2017) Research on embroidered photographs. At: https://hollyocacontextnarrative.wordpress.com/2016/04/07/research-on-embroidered-photography/ (Accessed 18/06/2020).

Woodward, H. (2017) Some more mandalas. At: https://hollyocaidentityplace.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/some-more-mandalas/ (Accessed 18/06/2020).

Woodward, H. (2017) Thomas Ruff: size is everything. At: https://hollyocaidentityplace.wordpress.com/2017/11/15/thomas-ruff-size-is-everything/ Accessed 18/06/2020).

Woodward, H. (2017) Wolfgang Tillmans at the Tate Modern. At: https:// ollyocaidentityplace.wordpress.com/2017/05/09/wolfgang-tillmans-at-the-tate-modern/ (Accessed 18/06/2020).

Woodward, H. (2018) First thoughts for assignment 1. At: https://hollyocadic.wordpress.com/2018/04/24/first-thought-for-assignment-1/ (Accessed 18/06/2020).

Woodward, H. (2019) Photography and New Materiality. At: https://hollyocadic.wordpress.com/2019/03/06/photography-and-new-materiality/ (Accessed 18/06/2020).

Woodward, H. (2019) Thomas Ruff – Tripe. At:        https://hollyocadic.wordpress.com/2019/01/30/thomas-ruff-tripe/ (Accessed 18/06/2020).


Exercise 2.1 – The #feetie, or #fromewhereistand

For this exercise, we are asked to bring together a series of 12 images with a particular motif, either from our own archives or from online photo-sharing sites. The presentation is indicated as being important to the success of the exercise as well as the subject.

I decided to make mine from images taken from Instagram, on the subject of the #feetie, which is a subset of the #selfie. This generally comes in two forms, 1) photographs made while lying down, generally on holiday, so that viewers can share the view you can see from your sunbed. They often include wooden jetties disappearing into the centre of the image and swimming pools, but they cover all locations from mountain tops to the heart of the city. 2) the picture taken of the ground you are standing on, which is about showing interesting patterns on the floor and is much more subtle, as it leaves the viewer to work out the back story. I have made both types myself in the past.

The methodology I used was to go through images on Instagram which were tagged with #feetie and choose a variety which perhaps encourage the viewer to think about the circumstances in which the image was made. They come from all over the world and the languages of the comments are multiple.

More information and a host of other images of feet can be accessed via the following articles: