Tagging it: Considering how ontologies limit the reading of identity

This paper was written about social media and how the tagging functions of the platforms can affect the meaning of an image. It was written by Linzi Juliano and Ramesh Srinivasan from the University of California. I chose this paper to consider how the textual element on an Instagram post, could potentially shape the meaning of the image that is being posted. I have identified important quotes and sections of the paper that I feel would add to my own research and give me new directions in which to research next.


Social media 2.0 relies on words to describe and order sound, video, and images. Tags are meta-data (‘data about data’) introduced via keywords that help users locate, retrieve, and file information online, in and among websites. Users actively contribute, modify, and add tags as they interact with media objects.

As a photographer, I am already familiar with the concept of meta data; data that is embedded into digital images that describe elements such as the author/creator, the date that it was made and even the camera used to take the image. However a non-photographer, or anyone else that isn’t familiar with this embedded data, would really benefit from this brief description of what it actually is. This reminds me that in my research project, I need to to acknowledge that the reader might not have come across the debates, the terms and the theories that I will be discussing in my research project. Describing and detailing these theories would also demonstrate my understanding of the subject as a researcher and make my research project appear informed and well-founded.


Language, both programming commands and communicative, operates on a system of representation that is at once shared and determined.

Language is what frames the way we understand the world, a system of words that have an assigned meaning in order to communicate. The world is represented linguistically through language, however it’s important to remember that language is not the only way through which the world is represented. Photography and other forms of pictorial art represents the world in a visual manner and audio technology represents the world through sound. Reality itself is the combination of the the audio and the visual, the physical manifestation and the latent existence of what is described and represented through language. Communication is shaped by the subject it is discussing, the people who are communicating and the context in which this communication takes place. It is important to consider that as communication is made through language, that moment affects the interpretation that is made, as the speaker and the listener enter a two-way process of trying to give and receive information as accurately as possible. The Internet can be problematic because it is contextless, the conditions in which a user made an Instagram post can’t be experienced by the eventual viewer of that image, which means the meaning can be changed. Because the Instagram post can consist of visual, linguistic and sometimes audio material, the way through which it communicates meaning is split and layered. It would be possible for a viewer to only consider the image and not read the accompanying caption and vice-versa, it would also be possible for a video not to be seen and heard as moving image if the user does not choose to activate it. There are many debates that I have become recently engaged with around the problematic nature behind photography and the relationship with the concept of naive realism. Representing reality is a problematic idea, both through language and through imagery, it is this relationship between these two methods of communication that makes Instagram a really interesting platform to research.



The use of keywords assumes that images, including those of people, can be accurately and universally described, by a supposedly diverse, dynamic group of users.

Yet we also pointed out that tags catch the mediatized object in a ‘cultural freeze-frame’, imposing static contextualizations, showing future users how to read the image, and, by referring to the codes performed by material bodies, associate that categorization with the lived experience.

As Lisa Nakamura wrote in her book of the same name, ‘cybertype’ is a term used to refer to a strain of techno-utopian identity categorization. This term applies to both computational and cultural stereotyping.

This set of quotes describes the nature of tagging in a digital context and in relation to the use of tagging in accordance with the research material of the paper. The first quote highlights the problematic optimism of the keyword, which becomes the tag, to be able to describe the entirety of reality and to be able to communicate this reality to a vast diversity of users, who each understand the world in a different way. The second quotation acknowledges the problematic state in considering the post as a fixed entity, one that will not be read away from the context it was created in. However due to the Internet being so fluid, it is very possible that an image posted on Instagram could re-emerge in the future, whilst the surrounding environment would claim the post to contain current material, the content itself could be dated and inaccurate due it being seen out of its time. The third quote has introduced a new term to me and is one I believe I will use in my research project, when discussing the textual element of Instagram. The term ‘cybertype’ aims to describe the futuristic, utopian categorization brought about by the era of digital technology. The idea that a concept as complex as identity (in the case of this paper) can be flattened and split into a number of words, is very problematic to me, as identity itself is a concept that is fluid and always changing.



This linguistic classificatory control privileges certain interests over others and emerges only out of localized, popular, and (by proximity and immersion) powerful interpretations of what is important or legitimate.

The models cannot fully model ‘themselves’ (if at all), rather they are modeling their ability to fit the categories assigned to them.

What these quotes pick up on, is that according to the popularity of some looks or identities, that the marginalized are in danger of becoming more so, because of the way the Internet favours the content that is searched the most. This in turn either reinforces or creates the notion that a popular identity is more legitimate than an alternative one. In the case of this paper, girls are uploading pictures of themselves to a site in the hope of having their identities and bodies approved by other users of the Internet, therefore it could be damaging to their self esteem if their contribution is deemed to be unimportant. In addition to this, instead of the viewer making their own assumptions about the subject in the image, instead they are reading the tags assigned to the subject and evaluating how well they align to the ideals promoted by the language used to describe them. Whereas the most important phenomenons are probably those that can’t be explained by a set of succinct terminology. The representation of the subjects are potentially being limited by the framework of the accompanying text. This is definitely a concept I need to consider when addressing the textual component of Instagram.


The site maintains raced and gendered codification, strengthened by participant-commodification and simultaneously creates a limited notion of alterity.

The part stood out for me as it described the idea of the subject commodifying themselves in order to fit into this set of cultural tags. It is almost as if the tags are categories that are assigned to the subject in the photograph in order to sell themselves to the most appropriate viewer. Despite the aim of this tagging system to make content become more searchable in an Internet that appears to be saturated, it changes the dynamic to resemble that of a market place. Self-branding and selling the self as a commodity is a neoliberal concept, there is the danger that the subject conforms to neoliberal ideals without even realising it.


There is little to no contextual framing besides the button that begins the process: ‘play’. Once begun, the viewer(s) stream through random connections and performances of spectacular mediatization.

These random, rapid connections do not contextualize or tag, and therefore the power of encounter is left more or less intact.

The paper then goes on to explain that there are strategies to avoid the problematic framework of tagging, that embraces and attempts to replicate the physical experience of the encounter in a digital context. The example given by the paper is Chatroulette.com, as the quotes above explain, the communication on this chat website is unframed. The users do not experience each other through the reading of limiting singular terms but instead the conversation begins instantly. The participants of this communication take on the role of actively asking questions and seeking answers in order to find out more about the identity of the other. However Chatroulette doesn’t work in the same manner as Instagram, although Chatroulette could definitely be considered as social media, the framework is very loose and the participant engagement is quite large. The user has to be committed to the experience of the conversation and has to dedicate quite a significant portion of time to it. Whereas on a platform such as Instagram, the involvement of the user doesn’t need to be longer for a second, the app can be neglected and revisited over the period of a month or year. The conversation in Chatroulette needs to be tended to in the minute, once that moment has ended, there is no guarantee that the users will be able to find each other on the site again, if they didn’t exchange details. The structure of Instagram although according to this paper it could potentially limit the full expression of identity, it does actually help the user cultivate longer-term relationships with the accounts that they choose to follow. It allows the user to search for accounts they already follow in order to access them quickly and in turn it makes the user themselves easily searchable for the users that follow them. The tension between findability and unhindered identity expression is a relationship I should and will consider in my research project.


Overall this paper has been really beneficial to my research project as it has allowed me to consider the textual element of Instagram and how it could affect the meaning of the image. In this case, the paper examined how tagging can potentially limit the expression of identity, as it suggests that identity itself can be flattened and expressed in a series of linguistic terms. The nature of the Internet to favour the popular content also means that those images tagged with terms that aren’t deemed to be popular, are at risk of being branded as unimportant and illegitimate. This paper has exposed the tension between the framework of social media to allow users to be able to find other users and other content, and that of the users own identity expression. This relationship is very interesting to me as a researcher as it builds on the ideas discussed in photography in relation to the image and text, how as an artist, you need to consider how the textual element of your work (if you choose to include it) will shape the way it is interpreted by the viewer.


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