My precursor is an auto ethnographic study interrogating the way young women seek to perform and represent identity through the construction of an online presence for my younger self.
My research question explores the social implications of the use of the hashtags fitspiration, thinspiration and clean eating on Instagram and Tumblr. At first I hoped to approach an embodied, subjective analysis of the way young women aged 12-25 use these hashtags to perform and represent eating disordered behaviours, however I quickly realised the impossibility of gaining the necessary ethics clearances needed to approach an understanding of the way an especially vulnerable group in society consumes potentially triggering material. Since I am only able to analyse the hashtags discursively in the scope of my final project, I wanted to use my Precursor to exorcise a desire I have to study the lived experience of a group who fascinate and disturb me.
My precursor is a contribution to the field of Digital Anthropology, a research community investigating the way human beings use digital artefacts to represent the human experience. Research emanating from this area commonly comprises ethnographic and auto ethnographic modes of analysis to interrogate how the offline manifests in the online and vice versa (Digital Anthropology 13). An ideal target audience within this community are researchers from the Young and Well CRC, a cluster known for their work promoting safe and healthy online behaviour to young people.
An inspiring piece for this precursor is Crystal Abidin’s digital ethnographic study of Singaporean bloggers, “‘Cya IRL’: Researching digital communities online and offline”. As part of her research practice, Abidin created a Facebook account to interact with the bloggers participating in her study, as well as a personal blog documenting her research journey.
In order to access and be socialised into the blog community, I had to ‘live’ within their shared social space and ‘perform’ as they would. This included adopting communication and behavioural norms just as any anthropologist entering a physical field site would. (Abidin 8)
Through this precursor I have also adopted behaviours I’ve observed as normative in the community I’m studying, particularly in relation to hashtag use, tone, form and emoji selection.
The piece is a valuable exegetical artefact for a research area investigating the evolution of the way young people perform and represent identity. The diary entries are written before a time of readily available methods of anonymously distributing private thoughts publicly online. Moreover, the historical images I have used to form the content of my Instagram account are also an interesting study of the way young girls represented themselves before the invention of the front facing mobile camera and the selfie. Taken together, both mediums used in this project are an attempt to imagine what it would look like if such technologies of extension were available to me at the diary entry’s time of writing.
The artefact is presented within a purpose built website capable of linking out to content on other platforms. As such, the form of the piece is appropriate to a technologically literate research community interested in seeing research presented in an accessible and aesthetically pleasing way.
When I first created this precursor, I developed it as an aesthetic artefact to be studied as a text. I conceived of the Instagram and Tumblr accounts as static objects which would be viewed only by those who understood its purpose in academic inquiry. In putting myself at the centre of this project, I also saw the precursor’s first incarnation as a way of validating and discovering the personal motivations behind my choice of research topic.
But, as I checked back on the profiles after Precursor 1, I was shocked to find that people were actually interacting with the artefacts. I saw an opportunity to interact with this community and test my assumptions about the nature of the posts this audience found engaging.
Before I approach a discussion of my findings from this precursor, I must note the ethical anxieties that came with this project’s development. Each time I saw a comment or a like on one of my posts I felt a pang of excitement at a gateway into new knowledge of the type of posts the community found engaging. But this went hand in hand of with immense discomfort at the strangeness of the deception that achieved that interaction.
Here I was, a healthy 21 year old Honours student posing as my emotionally immature 14 year old self.
I went through a period of in depth content analysis of pro-anorexia accounts situated within the hashtag, thinspiration and found myself unconsciously posting images using similar hashtags. When these images achieved lots of likes and followers a particularly sickly feeling pitched its tent in my stomach as I realised I was achieving these insights by contributing to a movement which daily facilitates and validates eating disordered behaviours offline. This really hit home when an anorexia recovery blog began to follow me. Even though these posts were made in service to research which may hopefully contribute to healthy online behaviours, I was confronted with a dramatic justification of the ethical constraints research at this level must follow, for which I am glad of going into semester 2.
My fieldwork within this precursor also showed me how readily the pro-ana community validate and reinforce eating disordered behaviours by creating online and offline opportunities to connect. It is very easy for the rational mind to view pro-ana with a sense of abject horror and disgust- a feeling I experienced most of the time – but I was quite shocked at how gentle and friendly much of the discourse within the space was in service to creating a sanctuary for people whose behaviour had been rejected by society.
danah boyd writes:
If I have learned one thing from my research, it’s this: social media services like Facebook and Twitter are providing teens with new opportunities to participate in public life, and this, more than anything else, is what concerns many anxious adults. (boyd, 10)
I approached my research with a similar sense of alarmist horror at the new ways young women are interacting in digital spaces. However, I emerge from this study with the view that though the technologies young women are using to represent the human experience are radically different, the behaviours and experiences they are being used to represent are actually the same as they have always been.
This is why something I wrote in 2003 can be repackaged in a shiny new way, but can still gather you up and plop you right back into the moment of its original writing.
To close with a quote from Horst and Miller:
We may employ technologies to shape our conceptualisation of what it means to be human, but it is our definition of being human that mediates what the technology is, not the other way around. (“Normativity and the Principle of Materiality” 108)
Abidin, Crystal. “Cya IRL’: Researching digital communities online and offline.” Limina Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies (2013): 1-17. Print.
boyd, danah. It’s Complicated : The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press, 2014. Print. (case selection preferred by author)
Horst, Heather, and Daniel Miller. “The Digital and The Human.” Digital Anthropology. Ed. Heather Horst and Daniel Miller. English ed. London: Berg, 2012. 3-13. Print.
Horst, Heather, and Daniel Miller. “Normativity and the Principle of Materiality: A View from Digital Anthropology.” Media International Australia 145 (2012): 103-11. Print.