by Julia Böckling
In her listology.blog post about the Ten Essentials of Hiking, Martha Rust asks whether a collection of pictures can still be a list. This post proposes that in the case of Instagram, an app devoted to collections of pictures, the answer is “yes”. As the listicle below will show, even non-traditional (picture) lists, that is, lists that do not aspire to listhood, share the same / similar functions as traditional lists and should therefore be taken into account when analyzing lists online.
An app like Instagram is not necessarily the first example that comes to mind when one thinks of lists, mainly because Instagram feeds consist primarily of listed images without words (although users may add captions to photos and the app does not limit the number of words added). However, this collection of pictures shares the same formal features as more traditional lists, such as to-do lists or shopping lists. Users scroll through one photo at a time on their feed. The photos are arranged vertically and according to a system. Each new photo is a new item. As long as the reader or viewer of the pictures can make sense of them and is able to arrange them in a list in his mind, a collection of pictures counts as a list too. A list becomes a list when someone interacts with it, e.g. by reading it as a list or by categorizing it as a list. Often, this goes hand in hand with certain formal features of lists, such as vertical arrangement of a number of items or a certain ‘listing effect’. While Instagram shares some of these formal elements, I would also argue that even social media apps that do not seem to aspire to any kind of listhood, can be made into or count as lists as well, just by the way users interact with the content.
To celebrate the existence of lists online, here are 4 List Functions Instagram Makes Use Of
Lists are skim-friendly. Whether it is a to-do list, a grocery list, a table of contents, or an itinerary, a list invites the reader to skim-read or skip the section entirely. Photos can be “skimmed” just as easily as a page long list describing a scene in a novel. While we scroll through our feed, our brains decides which photos really attract our attention and which we want to take a closer look at … and which we do not care for at all.
You type in a certain hashtag, or click your way through lists of recommended hashtags, and you get exactly the type of photos you want to see. Hashtag is just another word for category and you do not need to make that categorization yourself. If you search for #adorablepets the app shows you exactly that: adorable pets. Instagram creates a list with the best pictures for you, compiling not just from one account but from all images with this hashtag. Someone else has tagged, or classified, their content so your brain does not need to. You can sit back and enjoy.
3. A List is a List
Because lists are part of our everyday lives, we know them pretty well and know what to expect. Lists order and structure. By arranging the photos vertically in a list, Instagram provides its users with an aesthetically pleasing experience. The content looks neat and in no way messy. With so much information available online, much more than we could ever process, Instagram gives its users a sense of order and containment. There are probably more photos on this app than anyone could ever look at in a life time. However, the list structure makes the content appear manageable and consumable. Instagram orders your feed according to popularity and a user-friendly experience: content that has a high engagement rate as well as content that a user seems to enjoy appears on top. Posts with less engagement or posts a user has not previously liked appear at the bottom.
4. The Sense of Completion
Do you know the satisfactory feeling of checking off things on your to-do list? Well, Instagram added a new feature. Once you have “caught up” on all new and popular photos on your feed, it tells you, including the little check mark. You did not procrastinate. You accomplished something. Lists, or rather the finite element of lists, reward us with a feeling of closure. While your Instagram feed might be so long that it seems infinite, the (visual) line that the app draws before you reach old content gives you a sense of closure. The list of new things has ended and you have not missed out on anything.
Instagram uses these list functions to make the app appealing to its users and, perhaps, these functions are part of the reason the app is so popular. We might not immediately think of lists when we think of a collection of pictures since the traditional list, such as the to-do list, looks different and consists of texts and bullet points. Nevertheless, the pictures on Instagram are arranged vertically according to a theme or category, and they too order and structure, just like a traditional list. Users are the creators of their feeds and therefore the authors of their lists. However, Instagram decides on the hierarchy of posts. About a year ago, the app changed the algorithm and got rid of ordering posts chronologically. While users still get to see posts from accounts they follow and control the posts they see, Instagram controls where on your list the images appear. They take into account which type of photo or account a user likes frequently, so the app tries to order a user’s feed by arranging photos in a way they have calculated to be the most interesting to the user. This somewhat new change is an interesting twist to the question of authorship when it comes to feeds.
Addendum from the Listology Blog team:
We have an Instagram stream too! Find it by way of the Instagram icon in our header image. Please follow us–and send us your list images too (whether they be in pictures, words, or objects)!