The Exceptional and The Everyday

Over a few days in February 2014, a revolution took place in Ukraine. How was this exceptional event reflected in user-generated media shared on Instagram in Kyiv? What can visual social media tell us about the experiences of thousands of people and life in their city during a social upheaval?

While other researchers and journalists have used quantitative analysis of social media during social protests and uprisings, this is the first project to focus on Instagram. Using Instagram public API (see Constructing the Dataset section for details), we collected all publicly available Instagram images shared during February 17-22, 2014 in the central part of Kyiv. The area was centered on Independence Square, the key place of protests and confrontations with government forces. The collection resulted in 13,208 images shared by 6,165 Instagram users. The images were tagged with 5,845 unique tags.

We used open source and our own custom software tools to analyze the images along with upload dates and times, geo locations, and tags, and visualize them in different ways. To compare the patterns during the days of the Revolution with a more normal period, we also downloaded over 400,000 images shared in the same area of Kyiv after the revolution between February 24 and May 14, 2014.

When news outlets report on events such as uprisings, wars or revolutions, they typically show us only the events taking place in particular areas – demonstrations, clashes with police, etc. – as opposed to everything else that is going on outside these areas. This makes sense since news is there to inform us about things that have global political and economic importance (for example, who will govern Ukraine next and how this will play into European and global geopolitics). As a result, when events of this scale are taking place, in media reports they stand in for the whole city or a country. Nothing else is visible at these times. For example, if we are to look at news images of Kyiv published during Maidan (the name used to refer to this Revolution) events, the whole city reduced to what was taking place on Independence Square.

But if we consider all Instagram photos shared during the same days in central area of Kyiv that includes the Square, a very different picture emerges. Outside of the most intense days and the areas of protests, you would not even know that something political was happening. People post selfies and other photos of their lives, they dress up getting ready to go out, and take photos of cultural events. The images of Maidan clashes, political slogans, and burned cars and buildings appear right next to everything else. People continue their lives and post their “likes” as on any other day. The exceptional co-exists with the everyday. We saw this in the collected images, and this was our motivation to begin this project.

In presenting this analysis, we have no intention of downplaying the importance of 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, the heroism of people who made it happen, and the work of everybody else who supported Maidan movement. Nor are we saying that most people in Kyiv who shared images on Instagram during the events had no interest in politics, just because they posted photos of something else. Intentions and interests of a person can’t be guessed from a single image. And the same image can mean different things depending on what else is next to it. What we do want to do is to explore the things that are usually left out from the brief news reports – the everyday, and its relationship with the exceptional, as it is reflected and staged on Instagram.

For journalists, social media is a window into what took place. Thus it becomes important to identify who posted what and who among them was a real participant. The web users who can be verified are treated as additional sources of news. While we fully respect this approach and understand its practical usefulness, we wanted to do something different:

in this project we approach social media as its own reality, separate from the “real” reality on the ground. 13,208 geo-tagged images from one area shared on Instagram over six days with their 21,468 tags in three languages (and hundreds of thousands of words used in descriptions) paint their own fascinating picture.

This picture is not a “photo” of social reality. Instead, it can be compared to a modern painting. It contains some references to the world outside, but it is not its realistic copy.

Our goal is to “see” this picture dispersed between all images, tags, time stamps, and geo-locations.

To do this, we explored all this data in as many ways as we could and then selected what we feel were most interesting “views” of this picture.

Six Days in Kyiv

To make the following discussion understandable, we first briefly summarize the events of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution:

EuroMaidan movement started with public protests on November 21, 2013. Protests continued during the following months. The center of protests was Independence Square in Kyiv. After the passing of the anti-protest “Dictatorship laws” by the votes of the MPs from Party of Regions, Communist Party of Ukraine and a number of independent MPs on January 16, many protesters were facing criminal liabilities and punishment for the participation in the Maidan protests or any association with it.

On February 17, 2014 the “Law on amnesty of Ukrainian protesters” was passed. However, the conditions of the “Law on amnesty,” that seemed unacceptable to many protesters, were not met; thus, some of the seized administrative buildings were not vacated and the streets were still blocked. The night before the 18th, Right Sector political party and Maidan People's Union called all concerned citizens to take a part in "peace offensive."

In the morning, tens of thousands of demonstrators were attacked by police. After a day of fighting in a few areas in the city, police launched the attack on Independence Square at 8pm. But by midnight, 20,000 people still remained on the square.

Government closed the metro and blocked main roads. According to one report, 30,000 were now at the square, preparing for more confrontations.

Another day of fighting between the protesters and the police and Berkut (special government forces). During these days, 103 protesters and 13 police were killed.

An agreement between the protesters and the president calling for constitutional reform and new elections was reached. Soon thereafter President Yanukovych and most of his ministers fled the city.

Former President Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison and she addressed over 100,000 people on the square. By February 23, transition towards new temporary government is underway.

The brief summmary of February 18-22 was compiled from the following Wikipedia articles:
2014 Ukrainian revolution
Anti-protest laws in Ukraine
Time-line of the Euromaidan
List of people killed during Euromaidan.

Why Instagram?

The word euromaidan (the name for the popular movement in Ukraine which led to the 2014 Revolution) was first used as a hashtag on Twitter. Protesters and their supporters actively employed Twitter and Facebook to organize the gatherings and demonstrations and communicate news to the outside world. The protesters and other opposition parties made most political announcements on Facebook, which has approximately 3 million users in Ukraine in February 2014 (J. Dickinson, “The Revolution Will Be Live-streamed: Social Media and the Maidan,” presented at SOYUZ Symposium, Havighurst Center, 3/1/2014. Unpublished). “EuroMaydan” page became the most-liked Ukrainian page on Facebook (with 300,000 likes as of 7/16/2014). Even more people in Ukraine were using VKontakte - the largest social network in Europe with English, Russian and Ukrainian as official languages.

In comparison, Instagram had significantly less users in Ukraine (according to data, VKontakte is third top web site in Ukraine, right after Google’s international page and Ukrainian page. Facebook is no. 6, Twitter is no. 2, and Instagram is no. 56. Data retrieved 7/27/2014). However, despite its smaller size in Ukraine, Instagram gives us a unique view onto the days of Ukrainian 2014 revolution. As a global network organized around photography, it offers a different picture than other social networks: a visual account of the life in a city, the desires and imaginations of its people (or at least, people in their 20s), and their actions and thoughts during important social and political events. (The data on demographics of Instagram users around the world is not available. Our research on Instagram selfies in New York, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Bangkok and Moscow showed that at least among people posting selfies in these cities, the largest numbers were in their mid-20s. See: L. Manovich, M. Stefaner, M. Yazdani. D. Baur, D. Goddemeyer, A. Tifentale, N. Hochman, J. Chow. “Selfiecity.” New York, February 2014).

Examining images and data we collected, it appears that unlike Facebook and Twitter, Instagram was not used systematically for communication by protesters, oppositional parties or the government. Our image set is not dominated by a few power users posting disproportional numbers of images. And the images themselves are quite varied - we do not see a few images repeating endlessly. Therefore, although we will never claim that Instagram picture of the Ukrainian Revolution days is “objective,” it is at least representative of interests and experiences of significant numbers of people. Thus, its relatively small user base in Ukraine in February 2014 makes it more, as opposed to less, useful for research.

Constructing the Picture

What can we see in the world if we only use social media content such as Instagram photos and their metadata (descriptions, tags, locations)? Analysis and visualization of large samples of social media can provide an alternative to summaries of the events presented by historians, individual journalists, or groups of writers (e.g., collaboratively authored Wikipedia articles). This is especially true for the visual summaries of the events. Instead of only a few views we now have many thousands and millions of separate views.

Of course, often these are only fragments and bits too short to articulate a full statement - but often they are not. And with images, the results can be particularly interesting, since even a single image can contain much more information than many Twitter posts put together.

While media outlets also personalize their reports by interviewing some of the participants and then including parts from these interviews into their report, it is not the same thing. The diversity of perspectives by tens of thousands of participants can be much larger than that of only a few who were interviewed.

Combination of computer data analysis and visualization can help us to juxtapose these perspectives. We can then find commonalities and differences, and discover typical as well as unique perspectives. But we have to remember that as any other visual media, data visualization is not neutral. By organizing images and data in particular way, we can tease this or that pattern. Some patterns may be given too much attention, while others may remain hidden.

For example, organizing all 13,208 images shared by 6,165 Instagram users strictly by their date and time creates a visualization where the exceptional and the everyday are dramatically juxtaposed. At the same moment as one person shares a photo of the demonstrations, another person is posting her portrait, and yet another is posting a photo from a party the night before. Such a “film” created by projecting thousands of images taken by thousands of people over a large city area onto a single linear time dimension creates a picture of extreme fragmentation, perhaps even more intense than the modernist collages of a city created hundred years earlier. But it is important to remember that this particular picture is not “native” or “natural” to Instagram in general, or the use of Instagram by people in Kyiv during Maidan effect. It is the result of our systematic decision to organize Instagram images shared by thousands of individuals in particular ways.