Sunday, September 25, 2016

Insta-Queer: LGBT Users in the Instagram Era

image source: Marketing Land

Inspired by the article I posted several weeks back, The Insta Hunks, I thought I would explore the intersectional issues of instagram and the queer subculture.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons are often noted in the literature for their early adoption of digital medias, ranging from online dating to mobile dating or hookup apps on their phones.

Instagram, which launched in 2010 has grown significantly over the last few years. This mobile photo-sharing and networking app allows for users to share images or videos--either privately or publicly. It was bought by Facebook for $1billion in 2012.  Today, it is estimated that there are approximately 500 million monthly users.

Who's Out There?: Gay Beards

A simple google search of "instagram and gay" first brought up a list of several frequently sought hashtags (#thenexttopgay, #gaymen, #thegaybeards) as well as varied articles and brief pieces on instagram and gay users.

Source: +The Gay Beards 
While I have general familiarity with Instagram, I wanted to explore a bit about what was written about LGBT users and Instagram.   In The Guardian, Cain (2015) wrote "How Instagram is being given a gay makeover: Gay users are flocking to the photo network which offers support, belonging and taut abs."  While not the most indepth of articles, he focuses upon instagrams success in the queer community, particularly among gay men, as the result of the "fun" factor of instagram and that a community of strangers may be providing a level of support and inclusion that had largely been absent for many during their youth and development.  Within the piece some examples of images were included from +The Gay Beards, +Lesbian Funhouse, and @thenexttopgay.  I particularly got a bit of a chuckle out of the gay beards image, which then made me think about the glitter beards trend

that emerged in later 2015.  Investigating their instagram I found there have been a large variety of often entertaining beard decor pics by these two friends (over 400 posts) and they are being followed by over 260,000.  It appears the same two men are heavy influencers for the emergence of both the flower beard and glitter beard trends on instagram -- which were then replicated by a variety of other men. Given the nature of social media, it is challenging to fully gauge the initiators of such trends--but one can certainly gauge the influencers.  The trend became so popular that Brian and Johnathan @thegaybeards created a youtube video on "How to Glitter Beard" -- it has now been viewed over 550,000 times.  In addition to their instgramming, they are creating approximately weekly youtube videos and active in a variety of social media platforms.


Instagram: Gay Beauty and Insecurity
image source: Marcos Chamizo/BuzzFeed

While much of what is out there about instagram and gay culture appears to focus particularly upon aesthetics (such as "The 9 Hottest Accounts on Instgram" and InstaHunks).  While research certainly has spoken to the body-centric nature of gay culture over the last decades, with particular emphases upon being slender, fit, and muscular, these norms are perpetuated across multiple forms of media.  It used to be that gay men were primarily being influenced by television and magazines, but now social media is infiltrating the psyche of these users. 

As written about by Alfredo Murillo (2016) in I'm Gay and Instagram is Ruining My Life, it is not just about comparing one's body to that of models anymore, but you can now compare it to other seemingly "average" gay men -- or in Murillo's case, his own neighbor!  Now, through instragram, is exposed to the beautiful bodies that may typically be hidden in clothing in our daily lives and led to compare ourselves with those who appear to have jobs and lives like our own--and question whether we measure up. One can now see the activity efforts of one's peers, their muscle-clad bodies, and such -- but we can might also forget the amount of time some may put into the filters and tweaking of those images before they are posted.  All the same, body shame and guilt can undoubtedly emerge...while still relishing in the voyeuristic joys of seeing others.

Instagram and the Gay Family

Out Magazine, in addition to the aforementioned piece on Instahunks also has published pieces such as 26 Adorable Gay InstaCouples (2015)--while primarily focused on gay men's couples, was also inclusive of some images of those with children.  Cain's (2015) earlier mentioned piece also spoke to the imagery of gay couples, gay weddings, and made reference to emerging imagery of gay families.

Instagram accounts among users in the lgbt community can help peers and the general public have a visceral connection to the lives of gay and lesbian families (for example, @2mums_2dads which celebrates the diversity of lgbt parenting families or the more broad #gayfamilies).  What one sees may expand their view of the "normal family" -- however, I suspect the majority of followers of these types of instagrams are themselves LGBT and are seeing these images as affirming to their personal identities, aspirations, or community diversity.  Certainly, some heterosexuals are also following, but I am led to ponder how this engagement may then intersect with being seen as cultural sensitive, politically correct, or even slacktivism. 

Instagram: Looking at the Literature

Having explored a bit of the popular culture and internet published materials on instagram and lgbt communities, I thought I would delve into the academic literature a bit.  However, using Ebscohost revealed a dearth of work in this particular population/community.  Simply searching "instagram" elicited a result of over 25,000 pieces---across a myriad of relevant topics, with over 600 references being explicitly linked to peer-reviewed materials.  However, a search of "instagram + gay" brought up only seven references (across all types of sources), which were to news pieces on celebrity coming out, Fantasia Barrino's (American Idol) commentary on gay marriage in 2013, and pieces about the football player William Gay.  Searching "instagram + lgbt" was even less fruitful.  The only related search that produced any useful connection was "instagram + queer" which led me to the book, Communities and Technology: Enhancements in HIV-prevention research and practice among adolescents and young adults, by Sheana Bull, Tarik Walker, and Deb Levin (2014).  While undoubtedly social media, including instagram, is offering a venue to both educate and provide social support for HIV prevention in this community, I find it concerning that this appears to be one of the few academic pieces that is examining gay/lgbt communities and instagram in any manner.  I'm confident it is a useful piece--but when this is seemingly the only piece, it may serve to reinforce cultural stereotypes of HIV and LGBT communities to the average American.

It is clear that instagram is a growing area of academic inquiry -- across topics of user rates, different consumer bases, as a marketing tool, as an activism forum, etc -- but this is not translating into an exploration of an lgbt consumer base, despite seemingly high rates of participation and use of this social media tool.

What Does it All Mean?

Digging into this topic has left me both impressed by the degree instragram has entered the popular culture dialogue in connection to the lgbt community as well as disappointed.  There are LGBT persons who are using instagram to create fun dialogues and visibility, those who are using it to market themselves and making a living, those using it to perpetuate ideals of beauty and those who are challenging them, and those who are looking to demonstrate the diversity that is embodied within the queer community.  It is a broad, accessible, social networking resource for people to connect with others over vast distances or within their same neighborhood.  It is disappointing that more social research has yet to investigate lgbt communities and the constructions of these images and how they intersect with followers/subscribers and likes -- but this also leaves a rich field for investigation.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Visual Storytelling: Honey Maid

Image Source
Storytelling remains a persistent part of social interaction and communication.  Stories allow us to educate our peers and children, create and maintain a shared history, represent social norms and mores, and spark imagination and creativity.  Story telling has been passed through generations immemorial not only in spoken, but also in visual forms.  Let's explore what visual storytelling has meant and continues to mean for today's culture.

Prehistoric Imagery: Still Telling a Story
Source: Ralph Morse - Time & Life Pictures/ Getty Images

 Among the most famous of prehistoric visual story telling examples are the Lascaux cave paintings.  These paintings are estimated to be over 17,000 years old and tell the story of the lives of the Cro-Magnon men and women who created them --- with a particularly emphasis upon the animals they were surrounded by and hunted.

Source: Meros
Such storytelling, despite thousands of years past continues to fascinate and attract viewers since their rediscovery in 1940.  Unfortunately, the mass appeal and tourism led to environment issues in the caves (particularly mold and fungus) -- to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site, a replica was built for tourists and  limited access to the original site is currently only granted to scientists and preservationists. 

Paintings, Photography, Motion Pictures & Television

Source: Noah's Ark Depictions Through History
As time passed, visual storytelling occurred in near all cultures, ranging from the stories told on the painted pottery, the embroidery, bead work, and weaving of clothing and decor, the frescoes and mosaics decorating homes and public works, carved stonework, and illustrations of texts -- helping the illiterate masses understand their social, cultural, and spiritual heritage.  An example many in the West may be particularly familiar with are biblical images, such as that of Noah's Ark.

With the invention of modern photography in the 1800s, artists suddenly had the ability to create stories in a far briefer time than was required of a painting.  Ann Davlin has created an  Illustrated Timeline of the Camera, that you may find interesting.  Today, of course the camera has evolved from the costly tool of a specialist to the mainstream storytelling tool of the masses -- particularly as we can now use our cell phones to create stories to share with our friends in Snapchat, Pinterest, and on Facebook.

From the still images of the camera, we saw the emergence of motion pictures in the late 1800s.  While films were initially black and white and silent, their storytelling ability-- engaging with authenticity, visual appeal (sensory), and social relevance (see Papandrea 2015) -- made them a huge hit.  The popularity and consumption of film continued to grow with the introduction of color and sound ("talkies") -- clearly, the audience loved a good story as much then, as they do today.  The twentieth century saw not only the continued storytelling of photos, print material, and film, but the profound impact of television, video games, and the internet.  Visual storytelling has become a mainstay of cultural understanding and shared knowledge.

Visual Storytelling Today: The Case of Honey Maid

Given the long history and shared understandings of visual storytelling, it has remains a mainstreamed approach to advertising and engaging a consumer audience. Numerous articles and blogs explore the phenomena of brand story telling, some great examples include: 7 Incredible Examples of Brand Storytelling on Social Media, 3 Hugely Successful Storytelling Campaigns: What's Yours?, and The Power of Visual Storytelling: 15 Stunning Examples to Inspire You

As I am currently teaching Sociology of the Family, I got to thinking about the Honey Maid "This is Wholesome" campaign.  This campaign, that debuted in 2014, focuses upon four family portrayals annually.  This campaign tells the story of American family diversity and has included families with single parents, gay and lesbian parents, immigrant families, multi-racial families, adoptive families, among others. Honey Maid's brand equity manager, Katrina Plummer, conveyed in an interview the story of inclusion this campaign has created.

The campaign received both positive and negative responses -- with particular negative outcries received in response to the portrayal of gay fathers and multiracial families.  Rather than simply compose press releases, they transformed the negative comments into a visual story, that aired as the "Love" commercial:

As the campaign entered its third year (you may see the four ads of 2016 via the link), the story continues to evolve to befit contemporary culture and society -- the messages of diversity and inclusivity may continue, but the incorporation of acceptance brings added dimension to the campaign.  The ads of 2016 include images of "Neighbors" from other cultures, "an adoption story, a father accepting his gay son and son-in-law, and father coming home from war as a double amputee."

New to this year's campaign has also been the introduction of the "Wholesome Button" -- a button one can add to their web browser to "change any webpage into one that's full of love, positivity and acceptance."  They are not just creating visual stories through their commercials, but they are allowing a consumer to modify the stories they read to be "wholesome."  Not only is Honey Maid telling the story of the American family and convey the values we should embrace, they are allowing the consumer to literally transform the stories of others to befit this viewpoint.  

Given the breadth of visual formats to engage in storytelling, Honey Maid has not limited their ad campaigns to television commercials -- these commercials have been integrated into Youtube, instagram, facebook, their twitter feed, and of course their website

While learning about Honey Maid's ad campaign I found a particularly interesting piece in Adweek that spoke about the Google testing of different ad lengths online to assess effectiveness. This testing particularly assessed ad viewing on YouTube's skippable preroll format -- trying to discover if a 15-second, 30-second, or 2 minutes 17 second version was best received.  Despite Google's assertion that length of engagement was a central aspect of viewer brand awareness and consideration -- longer-form being regarded as better -- they found that the 30 second ad was watched all the way through most often, while the 15 second was the most skipped of the versions.  The 2 minute 17 second ad was skipped more than the 30 second, but less than the 15 second, however this culminated in only 15% of viewers watching it fully.  One particular challenge of the longest ad was that the brand was not even presented until 1 minutes 17 seconds in -- so many would have watched part of the story line and never have even known the brand affiliation.  

Honey Maid is effectively using its story telling to align itself with a particular socio-political viewpoint on diversity and family.  Their ads have brought awareness to the American mainstream public about the many and varied forms of family that exist in our society.  By creating a story of inclusion, particularly with gay and lesbian imagery, their brand did elicit significant negative feedback, but far more positive feedback (see Love ad, above) -- this audience response created social dialogue and discourse.  The brand further transformed the overall story to demonstrate the largely positive feedback they had received -- they not only told the story of gay dads, but they then told the story of American's response to gay fatherhood, centrally positioning the idea of family not only in the construct of diversity, but also in the central message that family is 'Love.' 

Given the changing cultural landscape of the time, the storytelling of Honey Maid has been particularly effective.  The 2014 ads, particularly that of the gay fathers, resonated nationally in a time when legal cases were occurring across the nation relevant to the issues of same-sex marriage.  The 2016 ad of Neighbors, depicting what may be understood as a Judeo-Christian white family and their understanding of Muslim neighbors, resonates with today's audiences as issues of Muslim and immigrant rights have emerged as an issue of dialogue during Presidential campaigning.  These speak to what Walter Fisher speaks of in the narrative paradigm -- coherence and fidelity.  These stories align or coherent with what we understand to be images of the family, while also appear factual and credible.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Ben-Hur: Social Media Monitoring Report

Source: Official Trailer

Ben-Hur: Social Media Monitoring Report
I was recently reading an interesting article The straight-washing of “Ben-Hur”: Remake of the ’59 epic drops gaysubtext—and beefs up religious themes. This inspired me to consider exploring audience feedback about this film on social media during its opening weekend.  The film’s opening weekend was just a week ago (Aug 19-21, 2016) and resulted in a low box office turnout of $11.4million domestic--quite a poor outcome for a film with an approximate $100 million production budget.

Considering Approaches to Collecting Data
In considering ways to explore how the film was being discussed on social media, I initially considered looking at its Facebook page (Ben-Hur Film) or its Twitter feed.  As of this posting, approximately 226,000 people have liked this Facebook page.  I had considered exploring the feedback of audiences to the posted video clips or to the film in general, with a focus on posts during the opening weekend, but this resulted in too large a sample for the purposes of this dialogue.

I also considered looking to Twitter and found there were several hashtags I could explore, including #BenHur, #BenHurMovies, and #BenHur2016.  However, looking at some of these, I was finding a mix of audience response, celebrity encouragements to go see the film, and tweets from film producers, such as Roma Downey (@RealRomaDowney).  This mix of dialogues was going to be challenging to explore—particularly as it might require my further investigation into the tweeter to gauge if they were connected to the film.

Rotten Tomatoes: Site of Examination
Ultimately, I decided to use Rotten Tomatoes,  a film review website that has an active audience participation pool that is separate from their “critic” or reviewers.  Looking at the page for Ben-Hur (2016) we are exposed to preliminary feedback on the film’s response.  As seen on the “Tomatometer” the film was rated at a 28%, which indicated the percentage of approved critics who have given the film a positive review, which is assessed at a 3.5 or higher out of 5 stars.  Meanwhile, we see that 66% of the audience respondents rated the film positively.  While these initial numbers are somewhat informative, presenting information about critical and audience response it does not dig into the opening weekend feedback.  These numbers speak to feedback up to the current time.


To explore the audience feedback during opening weekend I looked at the audience reviews posted on Aug 19, Aug 20, and Aug 21, 2016.  It should be noted that these reviews are fairly immediate and does not explore the reviews people posted in the days that followed, who may have seen the film during opening weekend.  The collected reviews from these three days resulted in a sample of 208 reviews (n=208).  Given the variety of review lengths and assessments that could be done, I chose to centrally focus on a quassi-measure of reviewer legitimacy/social engagement, who was posting a review, and their star rating.  

Firstly, to assess the legitimacy and social media engagement of the reviewers I examined their “profiles.”  “Profiles” are readily visible on the page of reviews in the form of an image and a screen name. Unlike some social media platforms, these profiles are not full profiles in the traditional sense, by in large.  One is unable to click into a person to learn more about them, we are constrained to examinations of their identity based on image and screen name.  As a quassi-measure of likely digital media engagement I collected data on the number of reviewers who included a photo in their profile and those who did not.  I found that nearly ¾ of the audience reviewers included an image, which may suggest a certain familiarity and engagement with both digital technologies and profile construction/meaning.

Secondly, informed by the profile information, I explored the likely gender of the reviewer.  Given the limitations of this project, I centrally focused upon categories of men, women, and unknown.  Reviewers were categorized primarily based upon their screen name, using personal knowledge of name gendering based on a western context.  For a number of profiles it was impossible to determine gender on name alone—in such a case, if a picture was present, it would also be used in the gender determination when appropriate.  This did leave a number of reviewers as unknown.  This demonstrated that among those posting reviews on opening weekend on this website, approximately 60% were men, 25% were women, and 15% were gender unknown (see image for precise statistics).

Finally, I explored the star-rating these reviewers gave to the film.  The ratings ranged from zero to five, with five being the strongest possible review.  Below you may see the breakdown of ratings.  The average number of stars given was 3.5, with a median of 4 stars. Based on this sample and the Rotten Tomatoes rating system, this demonstrated 64% of the audience who wrote a review on this website on the opening weekend liked the film.  This is highly consistent with the current rating, a week later, of 66%.  This said, the numbers are skewed in part due to at least two reviews: one reviewer gave the film zero stars, but had evidently not seen the film based on their written commentary “This won’t be very good. I am not going to watch it.” and another gave the film zero stars, but has extremely positive things to say “I thought the film was awesome!” These two reviews demonstrate some of the problems with this sort of data – some may post feedback/reviews without being personally informed and others may not fully understand the correct manner to assess or evaluate something in a system such as this.

Looking Elsewhere
Another obvious place one might look for film feedback is the Internet Media Database, largely known as IMDb.  On the IMDb website when we look at Ben-Hur we see a 5.5 star out of 10 star score, based on just over 3,800 current reviews. It is interesting that one can actually dig into the reviewer statistics specifically.  Herein, we can find information on reviewer characteristics such as sex, age, age, and U.S./non-U.S. users. For example we can see, that among reviewers whose sex (male or female) is determined, that approximately 80% are male and 20% are female. 

Summarizing Thoughts
Looking at the audience response to this film on this social media site and others offers perspective for various consumers and producers of media, particularly film in this case.  As a consumer, before paying substantial money to see a film in the theater, many may consult reviews from experts or from online reviews in general. Certainly, we may weight expert reviews more heavily on average, but the word of mouth of the audience can make a real difference.  There sure have been films that opened to poor reviews, but became hits with the audiences -- you've probably seen at least some of them!

Looking to the reviews for this film on Rotten Tomatoes offers a more positive response to the film than IMDb.  However, the current general reviews on both arguably align with an IMDb overall rating of 5.5 out of 10 stars and a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 66% liking the film.  Indeed, if the Rotten Tomatoes scale is adjusted to a 10 points scale, looking at the opening weekend reviews, it would demonstrate a 7 out of 10 stars.  When examining these numbers we do need to consider the longevity and internet traffic of these respective sites.  IMDb was launched in 1990 and has an Alexa rank of 53.  Meanwhile,  Rotten Tomatoes was launched in 1998, but has a Alexa rank of 552.  Clearly, IMDb is more trafficked and thus likely more respected by the average consumer.  This said, there may different types of audiences using these websites – perhaps Rotten Tomatoes is the “underground” reviewer locale?

Regardless of source comparisons, Rotten Tomatoes demonstrates that the opening weekend’s audience reviews were largely consistent with ratings throughout the week. Despite the various media word of mouth, this film is clearly appealing to a significant number of reviewers.  While not specifically assessed, anecdotally, it appeared that those offering particularly negative reviews were often making comparisons to the classic Ben-Hur (1959). Those with very strong reviews appeared to reference the action of the film as well as its strong religious messages.

Beyond the informing of audiences, these reviews offer insight to film producers and companies as they consider remaking films—especially critically acclaimed films that persist in their reputation.  However, an exploration of domestic versus international reception can also be part of the equation as they consider the financial implications for a film remake such as this – while many Americans may be familiar with the 1959 version, foreign audiences may not be and may receive such a film more openly, without baggage of prior perspective.