The evolution of online social networks has given us new ways to share and foster community. Picture sharing stands out as one of the most effective ways to share our experiences with others, and the leading photo sharing mobile application, Instagram, has made this easy. Users of Instagram can share their experiences in the visual via the mobile application and through other social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
During the 2012 election season, Instagram has become a place where many users share their political positions by sharing pictures from campaign-sponsored events, generating memes that feature candidates or reposting politically-charged visuals from various media outlets. Once posted, these “Instagramed” images, so-called because of the retro filters that can be applied, spark political conversations in the comments section. Is this picture sharing becoming a new media extension of the traditional campaign bumper sticker?
The value of a bumper sticker to political engagement is great, similar to the worth of canvas signs, banners and other items used to present political messaging to the public or show support for a candidate or party. These tools give an idea a physical presence within a space, in which we encounter and interact with it. The bumper sticker, as an artifact, is static. Yet, once the bumper sticker is placed on a vehicle, it goes wherever the vehicle goes, sharing the message it presents with whoever encounters it during travel and upon reaching its destination.
In a recent HuffingtonPost article on “bumper sticker politics,” Benjamin Knoll, a government professor at Centre College, shared his dismay for bumper stickers. He says that as a result of abbreviated media, “politicians are encouraged to over-simplify issues and speak in soundbites by the news media and a voting public with a very short attention span.” He says these “soundbites” provide the content for bumper stickers. And Robert J. Samuelson, an op-ed columnist at TheWashingtonPost, sees bumper stickers as a medium we use “to define ourselves and announce our various identities to the outside world.”
Picture sharing, specifically via the Instagram application, seems to be a bit more dynamic than the bumper sticker as a means of sharing political messaging and identity. The user can assign his or her own political meaning to just about any image with the use of a caption, and with the increasing popularity of Internet memes, the message can be contained within the image itself. The comment section provides a space for discussion, and with instantaneousnotifications to mobile devices, users can engage in discussion in near real-time.
Instagram’s digital “bumper sticker” gives us the space that Benjamin Knoll longs for. Where soundbites and bumper stickers may not suffice, users and those within their networks have opportunities to share their political positions, ideas and interact with each other. There is two-way communication, not one-way message delivery. Picture sharing gives ideas a visual presence in the digital and mobile spaces, and a scroll through any Instagram user’s timeline shows that such is true for political ideas.
Instagram users share their political alignment and candidate support, not just with the images they share, but also with the meanings they attach to these images and the discussions they engage. In comparison to the bumper sticker, picture sharing seems to be a bit more encouraging for the democratic process, giving the user a space to visually identify his or her position creatively and with the agency to better explain it. It provides a space we do not have in traditional media to further develop ideas as they are disseminated to various networks through these technologies.
So is Instagram the new political bumper sticker? In a sense, yes. But because it’s digital, interactive and social, it’s offering news ways for candidates and voters alike to engage in the election, taking the concept of the bumper sticker so much further.
Deron Hogans is a graduate student in the Communication, Culture and Technology program at Georgetown University, studying the relationship between media and politics. He is also a strategic communications professional with interests in culture and brand management. Connect with him via Twitter, @DeronHogansJr.