The Picture is Mightier than the Pen: ‘Cloud Protesting’ on Instagram

Instagram is a popular multimedia sharing forum and content aggregator, with around 20 crore users in India presently. What sets Instagram apart from other prominent “curators of public discourse” (Gillespie, 2010,p-347) is the central site of this study, i.e., the picture or the moving image, which is the primary kind of content that is produced and consumed on it. While it also incorporates hashtags, captions (without Twitter’s 140 character limit) and a comment section, being centred primarily around non-literary content implies that it enables a far greater velocity of content consumption and spread, without a ‘loss in translation’ — while people may not read lengthy captions, or even understand them, images are beyond language and hence accessible to all.

This enables a powerful kind of “meaning production”, one of the two important purposes of digital dissent articulation or “cloud protesting” according to Milan (2015, p-1). The sharing of content through ‘stories’, ‘posts’ and ‘direct messages’, and the articulation of reactions and opinion using the like and share buttons and the comment section, enables the simultaneous building of a very powerful set of symbolic “ingredients” or “resources” such as “narratives, know-how, identities, and solidarity networks” (Milan, 2015, p-5), as well as its “tangible”isation (Milan, 2015, p-6).

Fig 1. Tyler, @tylerstreetart, Oct 2, 2020 Where there is power, there is resistance. Fig 2. . Tyler, @tylerstreetart, Oct 2, 2020 @umar_khalid87

The account of graffiti creator @tylerstreetart is a prominent example of such meaning production and dissemination, primarily through a documentation of wall graffiti, installations, memes and short videos. The account’s art takes a definitive anti-establishment tone. It is aimed at prominent figures in the government or in the allied media, meant to shock and to provoke, and to offer a space for dissenting views — i.e, to produce a “collective identity” for those who engage with it. At times the pieces directly attack a legislation or action by the government (see fig 2.) , while at other times they seek to question a larger ‘reality’ (see fig 1.)

Fig 3. Tyler, @tylerstreetart, Feb 3, 2021 Mann ki baat.

There are numerous questions one can raise about the “politics of the platform” — who is it that finds Instagram a usable medium to engage in such activity? There is a clear class and ideological affiliation of those who like, share, and comment on Tyler’s posts and through it articulate, visibilise and empower themselves. At the simplest level of analysis, Instagram content can be engaged with meaningfully only by those having a particular position in the socio-technical world it belongs to, i.e., having a smartphone and an Internet connection of a certain minimum quality and, in this case, a sense of digital ‘agency’.This is what Milan calls “protesters relying on the products of digital capitalism”, in this case to criticise a ‘neo-liberal fascist regime’ (Milan, 2015, p-5). Tyler’s artwork is produced majorly in Mumbai, and consequently gets first picked up and noticed there. Through his collaborations with other political graffiti artists around the country, and the world, this art gets a certain social currency and a legitimisation of its clear political stance. It therefore occupies a specific socio-material position, carries an “encoded politics and policy”, has a certain “agency”, and is seeking to “modify a state of affairs by making a difference” (Van Dijk and Latour in Milan, 2015, p-2).

Fig 4. Tyler, @tylerstreetart, Nov 4, 2019 Bow down to the queen 💎. Fig 5. Tyler, @tylerstreetart, Apr 30, 2020 I’ve created a monster.

The means through which dissenters talk and spread awareness about this art — viewing, sharing and engaging with it through their own Instagram accounts, thereby publicly affiliating themselves to this art, also point to an evolution in the “outcomes” or “meanings constructed” from it. This is what Milan would call the “digital embodiment and online presence of individuals and groups and their associated meanings,” which needs to be “constantly negotiated, reinvigorated, and updated”, through each post and metric of engagement (Milan, 2015, p-6). Therefore those who engage with Tyler’s posts and follow his account are participating in the reproduction of a certain “cultural-ideological” realm, its affordances, and the connecting of individual disparate events or artworks, to broader, collectively shaped, “personalised yet universal narratives” (Milan, 2015, p-6). In this context, this takes the shape of the unique and personalised association of self with art, in the particular socio-technical arena that is an Instagram account. And at another level, this “meaning construction” of graffiti as a digital representation followed by a space for comments and discussion, versus that of a “live” or firsthand experience — seeing it on a wall or a bridge or public place — builds into it, specific material and political dimesnions — a unique kind of visibilisation. Thus by virtue of Tyler producing such art, rendering it digitally,and it being engaged with through the platform, it occupies a place in the “seamless web” (Hughes, 1996 in Milan, 2015, p-6) where the “social dimension of human action” (the production of graffiti and its digital consumption) and “the material of social media” (Instagram and its affordances) entangle in a continuous “symbolic-yet-material” stream (Milan, 2015, p-6).

Finally the four mechanisms that create “political visibility”, can be found working concurrently in this context (Milan, 2015, p-7):

  1. Centrality of performance: The creation and dissemination of graffiti through @tylerstreetart, which enables it to reach a countrywide, and global audience i.e., simultaneously delocalising, and individualising (through each person’s unique comments, likes and share) the experience of dissent and protest articulated through it.
  2. Interpellation to fellows and opponents:

By deploying creative, timely hashtags, tagging fellow artists and the politicians/actors being lampooned, and incisive captions, Tyler is building a discourse of dissent, being documented through his public, freely accessible account. His followers and non-followers who engage through comments and shares drive this conversation on nearly every post.

  1. Expansion of temporality of the protest:

Since the target of Tyler’s art evolves with each post, so does the nature of engagement. The consistent theme of anti-establishment dissent allows for a temporal and spatial delimitation, while the above mentioned individualised experience through the platform enables diversity. More importantly, the “asynchronicity” of these interactions and posts is through documentation — each post is ‘alive’ and publicly accessible ‘forever’ and with it, the incidents that prompted it also become a ‘cultural memory’.

  1. Reproducibility of social action:

This ties into the idea of “reproducibility” — within this forum, the conversational fire can be constantly stoked, and the more provocative or spot on the art, the more engaged and expanded that conversation will be, and the longer that ‘cultural memory’ can last.

REFERENCES:

Hughes, T. P. (1986). The seamless web: Technology, science,

etcetera, etcetera. Social Studies of Science, 16, 281–292.

Milan, S. (2015). When Algorithms Shape CollectiveAction: Social Media and

the Dynamics of Cloud Protesting. Social Media + Society, July-December, 1–10.

Tyler Street Art [@tylerstreetart]. Posts [Instagram Profile]. Instagram.

Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://www.instagram.com/tylerstreetart/?hl=en

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers

through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Van Dijck, J. (2013). Social media platforms as producers. In T. Olsson (Ed.),

Producing the internet: Critical perspectives of social media (pp. 45–62).

Goteborg, Sweden: Nordicom.

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Gayatri Raman

Gayatri Raman

I am a research inclined student at IIIT -B currently seeking opportunities in Accessibility and HCI research within the larger ICT4D discourse