How Instagram creates a disproportionate perception of reality

Christopher Gloger
May 5 · 9 min read
Image 1: Untitled

What is a city trip nowadays worth without an obligatory tourist picture for Instagram? We all know it: we all complain about people taking hundreds of pictures, only to edit, tag, share them on Instagram, only seeing reality through the camera. But at the end of the day, we also end up posting something… For the ‘gram! We share our lives to the world through Instagram, but so do we see the world through it.

But, does social media represent the world we live in? Nowadays almost everybody has a smartphone and an Instagram account. Add to this a constant connectivity to the Internet, 24/7, everywhere we go. Even before Instagram became the mainstream network for sharing pictures, it was one of the most used social media platforms. For example, when researchers analyzed the digital social layer of the Northside Festival in Denmark in 2014, surprisingly Instagram was the most used social media platform compared to Twitter or Facebook, which both had a significantly higher penetration at that time in Denmark.[1] At this time the Story-function has not been introduced to Instagram yet and the general functionality and number of users was smaller compared to nowadays.

Times change. Instagram was founded in 2010 and now had over 1 billion monthly active users in 2018 compared to ‘just’ 200 million beginning of 2014.[2] According to Omnicore, there have been a staggering 50 billion pictures shared to date.[3]

The research at the Northside Festival gave insights on the usage patterns and the digital social layer that is created on top of the physical event by the visitors of the festival that upload content to social media. Also, the researchers related the festival grounds to the uploaded pictures, creating a map of the festival showing us which stages and locations generated the most pictures. They found out that the pictures with the most likes were made backstage. This is where the artists hang out, and the journalists are located as well. The researchers assume that the artists and journalists probably have the most followers online, enjoying generally more attention. This explains why they generate more likes. This shows us though, that the representation of the offline world on social media is quite disproportionate. While many users create content, only a little get most of the attention. As the research already suggests, the main attention is drawn to certain areas of the festival. Moving from a single event to a larger scale, how does this affect the representation of a city?

An interesting study conducted in Amsterdam maps the activity of Instagram posts within the city. The researchers use over 400 000 Instagram pictures that have been geo-tagged and uploaded by over 30 000 users over a period of twelve weeks in 2015. Instagram users can tag their pictures with an already existing specific location, one of the already 30 000 in Amsterdam at the moment of the study or create an own identifier. Using Instagram’s application programming interface (API) for programmers the researchers were able to access posts in bulk. While only about 20 to 25% of all posts were geo-tagged and therefore usable for the mapping-process, the large amount of posts made it possible to create a heat map of the city, indicating the level of upload activities of certain areas.[4] One can see, that the activity is especially high in the touristic areas such as the historical city center and the surrounding canal rings as well as the gentrifying areas around the city center such as Jordaan and De Pijp. Smaller heat clusters further away from the center are around event locations such as NDSM, a former wharf in the North, now used for many festivals, and the football stadium Ajax Arena in the South-East, next to which also the large concert hall Ziggo dome is located. Large venues and events attract a lot of people and are a reason to use Instagram.

Image 2: Distribution heat map of geo-tagged Instagram posts throughout Amsterdam. Hotter colors indicate more posts.

Even though the researchers tried to filter out most of activity of out-of-town visitors, this heat map aligns with the stereotypical Instagram activity and the created disproportion of representation. Visitors will most certainly come to an area of which they have an image in mind. Most likely they already saw these on their Instagram feed. Stereotypes of a place and famous landmarks of course already existed before Instagram, but they are boosted through social media. And while famous locations attract more people, they enjoy more attention online as well. This again attracts more and more online attention and visitors.

Not only can we see a disproportion in representation of people, but also tangible places. According to the research, less than two dozen locations in Amsterdam account for one fifth of all location-tagged posts, compared to the 30 000 possible other locations! On top of the list is the famous Vondelpark, followed by Westerpark, a former gasworks, now being used as a cultural hub for events, startups, bars and TV-production. The unfiltered heat map would probably show even larger disproportions. Top locations are also the Central station, a common entrance point to the old part of town by arrival with train and a landmark for itself, as well as art museums, concert venues and event spaces and night life locations. Interestingly, small establishments such as concept stores, boutiques or independent coffee houses (not coffeeshops!) and restaurants enjoy much more attention than larger companies. The image that is created of a city on the digital layer is not represented accurately through this.[5]

Further, the study also acknowledges the disproportion of representation of people on Instagram. The general attention level is again mainly focused on the ‘famous’ people, as the attention level rises and the user amount drops significantly along the “long tail” of the distribution, which becomes visible with a logarithmic graph with a very long “tail”. Moreover, this small group of people tends to be quite young, around 24, and to a majority female and working in the creative professions. This is not a very good representation of a city’s population.[6]

Image 3: “Weighted indegree distributions for Instagram users in Amsterdam. Edge weights are proportional to the logarithm of the total number of likes and comments between users.” [7]

The image of a city created over Instagram tends to be represented by a glorious, cosmopolitan lifestyle of a few Instagram influencers. Travelling, partying, unique boutiques and coffeehouses seem to represent the ideal life, but also working hard to achieve one’s goals, becoming one’s personal best. We all know it… very authentic. I suppose most people are aware of this, but we do not tend to think about this when scrolling through our Instagram feeds. The researchers point out, that Instagram acts as a filter. We only upload and share content, that we want to share, that we want the world to see. The success of Instagram probably goes back to the editing functions for pictures that were built into the app. Everything is made to appear perfect, beautiful, or if not, then also by intention. But still, everyone talks about authenticity.

Not only does the attention flow to a limited number of places and people, but interestingly, the researchers differentiate between several clusters and scenes in Amsterdam. This also applies to other places. This points out that we only see what we want to see. We follow people and content that we like, to which we feel familiar with. We follow and live after distinctive, so-called tribal identities, all with their own traits and imaginaries. Online communities such as Instagram enables a next level of expression and filters the attention to the distinctive urban tribes or groups.[8] The researchers in Amsterdam were able to create a subset of heat maps for different clusters, all with different distinctive heat points and thus points of interest. This shows us, that depending on our interests, we also get a different image of a city on the digital layer.

At this point I want to point out the work of Broadie et al. who analyze the concept of consumer engagement in virtual brand communities. This describes the interaction between consumers and a brand or other members within an online community. The conceptualization of consumer engagement reveals several dimensions of engagement and the researchers point out that engagement is interactive, so both-ways, and generates different levels of engagement intensity and states among consumers. While the consumer generally engages the brand with the need of information or an object of interest, the engagement can evolve to a two-way communication with other members of the community. This has consequences when value-creation is perceived, including: enhanced consumer loyalty, satisfaction, empowerment, connection, emotional bonding, trust and commitment.[9]

I find this insight important because this shows us how we interact online with others, engaging in points of interest and then even evolving to becoming a part of a community. While the research conceptualizes brand communities, this can also be applied to tribal communities as well. Generally, brands also make use of these tribal communities, engaging within them. The concept is referred to as tribal marketing.[10] The best example with Instagram is how we follow and engage with brands over their pages but also influencers, who represent certain tribal traits and promote brands that fit the tribe. We generally trust influencers more; it feels more personal and closer than a brand. Consequences that Broadie et al. point out, and especially intended by brands.

The importance of this insight can also be related to the disproportionate misrepresentation online. As pointed out before, through Instagram, and other social networks, we only get a filtered view on reality which is disproportionate. Further, building on the involvement, trust and commitment we have for tribal communities and especially influencers, brands can use this to market themselves and alter our perception on these brands, again also disproportionate.

So, what can we learn from this? Well, we saw that the digital layer that is created on Instagram only represents a small number of places and people. Attention draws attention, and thus the representation becomes more and more disproportionate. Further, not only do we filter out what we want the world to see, but we also only see what we want to see by following influencers and pages that we are interested. We trust them. Brands can use this trust. This shapes the way we perceive these brands but also through the filter a city and a certain lifestyle. As long as we keep using the social web, this will continue. Of course, most of us enjoy using Instagram and social media, but we should keep in mind, that our perception is heavily altered and that nothing is purely authentic.



[2] ‘• Instagram: Active Users 2018 | Statista’, 2019 <> [accessed 4 May 2019].

[3] ‘• Instagram by the Numbers (2019): Stats, Demographics &amp; Fun Facts’, 2019 <> [accessed 4 May 2019].

[4] John D. Boy and Justus Uitermark, ‘Capture and Share the City: Mapping Instagram’s Uneven Geography in Amsterdam’, RC21 International Conference on “The Ideal City: Between Myth and Reality. Representations, Policies, Contradictions and Challenges for Tomorrow’s Urban Life” Urbino (Italy) 27–29 August 2015, 2015, 1–20 <>.

[5] Boy and Uitermark.

[6] Boy and Uitermark.

[7] Boy and Uitermark.

[8] Núria Arbonés Aran, ‘Capturing the Imaginary: Students and Other Tribes in Amsterdam’, 2015.

[9] Roderick J. Brodie and others, ‘Consumer Engagement in a Virtual Brand Community: An Exploratory Analysis’, Journal of Business Research, 66.1 (2013), 105–14 <> .

[10] Arbonés Aran.


Image 1: TheDigitalArtist. Free copyright. Published on<a href=”;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=3198093">Pete Linforth</a> auf <a href=”;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=3198093">Pixabay</a>

Image 2: John D. Boy and Justus Uitermark, ‘Capture and Share the City: Mapping Instagram’s Uneven Geography in Amsterdam’, RC21 International Conference on “The Ideal City: Between Myth and Reality. Representations, Policies, Contradictions and Challenges for Tomorrow’s Urban Life” Urbino (Italy) 27–29 August 2015, 2015, 1–20 <>.

Image 3: Boy and Uitermark.

All rights reserved to the respected owners. Published images are shared with permission or owned by the author.

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