#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on Instagram - Nora Lauff MA New Media and Digital Culture Supervisor: Tim Highfield | ...

 
#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on Instagram - Nora Lauff MA New Media and Digital Culture Supervisor: Tim Highfield | ...
#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on
 Instagram

 Nora Lauff
 MA New Media and Digital Culture
 Supervisor: Tim Highfield | Second reader: Esther Weltevrede
#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on Instagram - Nora Lauff MA New Media and Digital Culture Supervisor: Tim Highfield | ...
Abstract

This thesis provides an insight into how highly followed vegan on Instagram perform
their vegan identity to their online audience. Set within frameworks of identity
performance online, Instagram as a platform enabling performativity first and foremost
through visual content and veganism as a growing movement in form of lifestyle
changes, this study aims to outline vegans’ posting behaviour in relation to how they
publicly identify a vegan online. To do so, the most recent 100 posts of ten different
vegan Instagram users were studied using the Google Vision API to analyse and
categorise visual content, and Voyant Tools to make sense of written content in form
of post captions. This study concludes that vegans on Instagram portray an overly
positive, partly idealised version of veganism to their audience, likely in an attempt to
dismantle existing negative stereotypes around vegans, but probably also related to
the platform specific community norms of Instagram.

Key words:

Instagram, veganism, identity performance, self-presentation

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#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on Instagram - Nora Lauff MA New Media and Digital Culture Supervisor: Tim Highfield | ...
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1: Introduction

 1. Veganism and its rise to popularity……………………………………….. 5
 2. The role of social media……………………………………………………. 6
 3. Research questions………………………………………………………… 7
 4. Previous research…………………………………………………………... 7
 5. Research structure…………………………………………………………. 8

Chapter 2: Theoretical framework

 1. Identity performance………………………………………………………... 10
 1.1. Impression management…………………………………………… 10
 1.2. The reflexive self in post-traditional times………………………… 11
 1.3. Identity performance through lifestyle choices…………………… 12

 2. Identity online………………………………………………………………… 13
 2.1. Performing the self online…………………………………………… 13
 2.2. Anonymous vs nonymous identity performance………………….. 14
 2.3. Microcelebrity…………………………………………………………. 15

 3. Veganism as a lifestyle……………………………………………………… 16
 3.1. Motivations to go vegan…………………………………………….. 16
 3.2. Different levels of veganism………………………………………… 17
 3.3. Communicating veganism…………………………………………... 18

 4. Studying Instagram…………………………………………………………... 19
 4.1. Self-identity in photography…………………………………………. 19
 4.2. Curating the self on Instagram……………………………………… 20

Chapter 3: Creating a methodology to study Instagram

 1. Selecting Instagram accounts………………………………………………. 24
 2. Chosen accounts……………………………………………………………. 26
 3. Employing digital methods for textual and visual content analyses……. 28
 3.1. Instagram scraper…………………………………………………… 29
 3.2. Visual analysis: Google Vision API………………………………… 30
 3.3. Textual analysis: Voyant Tools…………………………………….. 35
 4. Limitations…………………………………………………………………….. 37

Chapter 4: Results and Findings

 1. Follower numbers, username, “bio” and profile picture……………………… 39
 2. Instagram photos: visual content………………………………………………. 45
 2.1. All photos…………………………………………………………………. 45
 2.2. Women’s vs men’s photos……………………………………………… 56
 3. Instagram captions: textual content……………………………………………. 59
 3.1. All captions……………………………………………………………….. 59
 3.2. Women’s vs men’s captions……………………………………………. 62

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#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on Instagram - Nora Lauff MA New Media and Digital Culture Supervisor: Tim Highfield | ...
4. To summarise……………………………………………………………………. 66

Chapter 5: Discussion

 1. First impressions: differing vegan identities………………………………. 68
 2. Visual and textual content………………………………………………….. 70
 2.1. Food as “tool”……………………………………………………. 70
 2.2. The body as reflection of veganism…………………………… 74
 2.3. Vegan lifestyle as enjoyable and aspirational………………... 76
 2.4. Evoking an emotional response using animals………………. 79
 2.5. Self-promotion…………………………………………………… 82
 3. Vegan identity performance on Instagram……………………………….. 83

Chapter 6: Conclusion and Further Research……………………………………. 87

Bibliography…………………………………………………………………………….. 91

Appendix………………………………………………………………………………… 98

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#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on Instagram - Nora Lauff MA New Media and Digital Culture Supervisor: Tim Highfield | ...
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
 1. Veganism and its rise in popularity

The Vegan Society, the oldest, still active society on all things veganism, defines
veganism as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and
practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any
other purpose” (The Vegan Society). In other words, people following a vegan way of
life adapt their diet, as well as other consumption practices such as shopping, with the
goal to eliminate anything connected to potential animal cruelty from their lives.
Starting out with dietary practices, this means that vegans will not consume any meat
or fish, as well as animal by-products such as dairy, eggs, or even honey. Fashion-
wise, for instance, they will also avoid buying anything that contains animal-derived
materials such as wool, leather or silk. Lastly, the lifestyle even extends to cosmetics,
as vegans will avoid any products that may have been tested on animals. Veganism
in itself is thus acted out through “what one does (and does not) eat, consume and
purchase” (Greenebaum 132), rooted in personal choice and practice.

Even though veganism thus goes against the consumption of meat and dairy or leather
goods, practices enrooted in modern society as “normal,” often making vegans appear
like “the odd one out” amongst other people, the cruelty-free lifestyle has reportedly
experienced a growth in popularity. In 2016, The Guardian published an article in
which was stated that over the last decade alone, the UK had seen an increase in
vegans by 350% (Marsh and Guardian readers). More recently, other sources even
pointed out how “experts are predicting veganism [to] go mainstream” in 2018
(Molony) as more and more people develop an interest in the lifestyle. Such claims
could, for one, be supported by the increasing availability of “vegan consumer goods”
(Greenebaum 137), ranging from meat and dairy substitutes to plant-based leather
alternatives. Since following a vegan lifestyle may thus become progressively easier
to implement in every day with more information on the overall subject of animal
cruelty, as well as wider choice in vegan products becoming available, veganism is
slowly experiencing a shift to becoming more mainstream and socially acceptable.

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#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on Instagram - Nora Lauff MA New Media and Digital Culture Supervisor: Tim Highfield | ...
2. The role of social media

In regard to the rising popularity of veganism, the movement is apparently one “driven
by the young” and heavily influenced by social media (Marsh and Guardian readers).
Editor of Vegan Life Magazine Maria Chiorando addresses the importance of social
media in the context of veganism as well, as she comments, “I think social media is a
huge driver of veganism and this may tie into why it is more prevalent among younger
people” (Meager). One of the reasons for this may be the way in which traditional
media, as opposed to new, often user-generated media, portrays veganism or vegans
overall. More often than not, “old,” mainstream media promote “negative stereotypes
of vegans” (Bosworth 20), something Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan even call
“vegaphobia,” in so far that the lifestyle is discredited by making it seem unattainable
or even entirely impossible, sometimes even resulting in the ridiculing of the practice
or the people participating in it (qtd. in Bosworth 20). The negative and potentially
wrong representation of veganism in traditional media thus represents one of the
reasons why people may turn to the internet as a form of “mass self-communication”
to research veganism or find like-minded people within the lifestyle. In this case, the
online world allows people to be autonomous in their practices and shaping of opinions
as they go against societal norms of consumption or everyday practices (Castells qtd.
in Bosworth 21).

Linking the internet, and more specifically social media to my personal experiences of
finding out about veganism and communities built around it, the online world impacted
my change in diet and lifestyle tremendously. Social media platforms such as YouTube
or Instagram, for example, played an essential role in how I perceived veganism as a
“newcomer.” By watching videos, reading posts or scrolling through photo galleries, I
was able to gather information related to veganism ranging from food (recipes, tips on
food replacements, restaurants) to health (medical studies), the environment
(documentaries) and even animal cruelty (documentaries, short clips). On top of that,
seeing how others identifying as vegans implemented a cruelty-free lifestyle in their
everyday practices, evoked a sense of community and belonging for me as I became
aware of how many others were interested in or already following a vegan lifestyle.

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#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on Instagram - Nora Lauff MA New Media and Digital Culture Supervisor: Tim Highfield | ...
3. Research questions

With social media playing an important role for people interested in veganism or those
already implementing the lifestyle in their everyday life, how is the cruelty-free lifestyle
represented on social media platforms? As Chiorando mentions veganism to likely be
more common amongst “younger” people, how do platforms popular amid this age
group allow individuals to perform veganism online? With Instagram users, for
example, being made of by “young adults” for larger parts (Silva et al. 124), how do
vegan Instagram users portray their vegan identity on the visual-centric platform?
Differently put, this research project sets out to answer the overarching question of
how vegan identity is performed on Instagram. In an attempt to answer this
overarching question of vegan identity performance on Instagram, the following sub-
questions will allow for a more detailed study: what kind of image of veganism is
represented by Instagram users identifying as vegan on the platform? How is
veganism represented as defining part of these users’ identity? More precisely, what
kind of visual or textual content do vegan Instagram users share on the platform, and
which aspects of the lifestyle are highlighted the most by them? These sub-questions
will first and foremost be answered based on content analysis, while the overarching
question will allow to draw conclusions on how vegans perform their identity on
Instagram.

 4. Previous research
Veganism as a whole, in part including the communication of it online, is not a new
object of study in itself. However, more often than not, studies on veganism that were
conducted within the field of humanities typically explored veganism from sociological
and cultural perspectives, with the dominant research method being that of participant
interviews and focusing on vegans’ offline practices for the most part (Cherry, ‘It’s Not
Just a Diet’: Identity, Commitment, and Social Networks in Vegans; Greenebaum;
Bosworth). The way in which veganism and vegan identity is communicated has
typically been restricted to the “physical world,” with less of a focus on its
communication online (Bosworth 21), particularly in relation to content shared by
vegans on social media platforms.

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#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on Instagram - Nora Lauff MA New Media and Digital Culture Supervisor: Tim Highfield | ...
Whilst taking into account sociological and cultural perspectives, as well as findings
from previously mentioned studies, this research project sets out to further study the
representation of veganism online. By using digital methods, I am attempting to
understand the way veganism is performed as a defining part of self-identity online,
and more specifically on the social media platform Instagram. Even though previous
work on vegan identity on Instagram exists (Xavier et al.; van t’ Laar), research has
often been restricted in breadth due to lack of time or available tools (and skills to use
said tools), which is why I am hoping to further research in this area of study. By using
tools such as data scrapers and visualisation APIs, I am hoping to generate a bigger
picture of vegan Identity and its performance on Instagram by having the means to
analyse larger sets of data than has previously been done.

 5. Research structure
To answer the question of identity performance of vegans on Instagram, this research
project takes into account different frameworks based on relevant theoretical
concepts. Firstly, I establish how identity has been studied as an essential part of the
self and one’s self-presentation in everyday life, drawing on works of Erving Goffman
(1959) or Anthony Giddens (1991). In applying a new media angle to my research
project, I then delve into how such concepts on identity formation and performance
have been translated to social media studies and the way individuals present
themselves online. In order to offer a greater understanding of veganism as a social
movement, as well as an alternative lifestyle, I proceed to explain what veganism
entails and what people’s motivations are to participate in it. Following this, I discuss
previous studies conducted on veganism and the way vegans communicate in an
attempt to frame existing debates on veganism which then allow me to draw parallels
to my own research objective previously outlined through my research questions.
Finally, the last part of my theoretical framework addresses Instagram as an object of
study, especially in relation to the importance of visuals in online communication and
identity performance.

Based on these theories, this research project sets out to explore how vegans on
Instagram perform their vegan identity, first and foremost through an analysis of visual
and textual content shared by them, namely photos and their respective captions. In

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#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on Instagram - Nora Lauff MA New Media and Digital Culture Supervisor: Tim Highfield | ...
setting up a method to scrape and analyse said content, the section following the
methodological set up and conduct offer an insight into the results and findings
founded on the visualisation tools implemented. Finally, the last two chapters of this
project discuss the outcome of the study and its potential meaning, as well as draw a
conclusion and setup a base for potential further research.

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#vegansofInstagram: Studying Vegan Identity Performance on Instagram - Nora Lauff MA New Media and Digital Culture Supervisor: Tim Highfield | ...
CHAPTER 2: SETTING UP A THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
 1. Identity performance

 1.1. Impression management

Generally speaking, identity makes up the part of one’s self that is shown to others
and by which one becomes recognisable by them (Altheide 2). Identity is thus what
sets one apart from others and a fundamental part of self-presentation. In the 1950s,
sociologist Erving Goffman published a book on the topic of identity and self-
presentation in 1959 titled The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In it, he
documents his observations and analyses of people’s behaviours and actions in
everyday life and how they present themselves to others. He does so by using
dramaturgy as a means to draw parallels between theatrical performances and
individuals’ performance of the self in everyday life (Gonzales and Hancock 169). In
doing so, Goffman outlines the similarities between actors’ behaviour depending on
whether they are finding themselves on the “front” stage, within the presence of an
audience, or whether they are “back” stage, hidden from the sight of others watching
(Goffman). By using this metaphor, he thus argues that, similarly to the case of actors
in a play, for instance, individuals’ everyday behaviour and actions change depending
on whether they are in public, surrounded by other people, or alone in private. Based
on this analogy, Goffman states that people purposely choose to “project a given
identity” in social situations (Bullingham and Vasconcelos 101), depending on the
social environment they find themselves in at the time (Goffman 18).

One of Goffman’s key arguments is thus that identity and self-presentation are
performative in nature, with the individual’s ultimate goal being that of influencing and
guiding the perception others may have of them (Goffman 26). Goffman calls this
performance of the self “impression management,” and states that it is conducted
through the performance of presentational cues. Moreover, he differentiates between
said presentational cues in that some expressions of the self are “given” by the
individual, whereas others are “given off.” Expressions “given” typically make up direct
and intentional presentational cues, commonly in the shape of verbal communication,
with the goal to convey information about the self to others. Expressions “given off,”
on the other hand, are cues less directly, or even entirely unintentional and

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unconscious in nature (Goffman 14). Although both expressions “given” and “given
off” contribute towards a person’s self-presentation, cues actively “given” tend to make
up a bigger part of it (Ellison et al. 418). It is thence through the implementation of
these presentational cues that the individual forms their self-presentation in front of
others, eventually turning their public identity into a “fact in its own right” and thus
setting it in stone (Goffman 34).

 1.2. The reflexive self in post-traditional times

Drawing on Goffman’s earlier work on identity and performance of the self (Jacobsen
and Kristiansen 151), sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that questions about the
self and how to act in everyday life have increased in importance as they are “focal
questions” in what he identifies as “late modernity” in the early 1990s (70). As Giddens
contextualises this concept of identity in what he calls “late modernity” or “our present-
day world” (keeping in mind that he published his book in 1991), he argues the search
for the self and one’s own identity, whether portrayed to the outside world or not, has
its origins in Western beliefs centred around notions of individualism (74). He supports
this claim by quoting Baumeister, who underlines that pre-modern times showed less
concern about individuality in people, as “individuality was not prized” (Giddens 74–
75). Using the example of appearance, for example, Giddens states that even though
the way someone looks made up part of their social identity in pre-modernity, it was
not so much related to personal identity (99). In modern times, however, “appearance
[…] becomes a central element” of personal identity (Giddens 99) as it allows for an
individual to either fit in or stand out amongst other people. In this sense, the way each
person decides to appear in front of others is highly individualised and can, for one,
be done so through the changing of one’s appearance.

In line with Goffman’s theory on expressions “given” and “given off” by individuals,
Giddens emphasises that, rather than (exclusively) being influenced by external
influences, “the self is not a passive entity” but is instead rooted in people’s choices
and actions actively crafted on an everyday basis (2). In other words, the self becomes
a “reflexive project, for which the individual is responsible” (Giddens 75). Furthermore,
Giddens points out that this “reflexive project of the self” does not only encompass the
creating of one’s identity, but also the adapting and revising of the self in an attempt

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to create a continuous, somewhat biographical narrative (5). Even though one’s self-
identity can thus be edited and changed over time, these changes still need to be done
within the previously determined framework of the self so as to create a coherent
image that is projected to others.

 1.3. Identity performance through lifestyle choice

Taking this one step further, Giddens proceeds to shift his attention to “lifestyle”
choices, which he defines as “a more or less integrated set of practices which an
individual embraces,” particularly as said practices contribute to the individual’s
formation of a narrative of their self-identity (81). In his article After Identity from 2007,
the academic Jonathan Rutherford also discusses identity formation and performance
in relation to lifestyle choices in applying it to a neo-liberal context. He links it to
economics and consumption, arguing personal identity to be increasingly defined
through the consumption of goods, which can, in turn, affect someone’s societal status
(Rutherford 6). Though Giddens also takes into account consumption practices as
defining identity and self-presentation in relation to lifestyle, he deems it to be wrong
to look at it from an economic perspective solely (81). Nevertheless, he points out that,
whether through consumption or in other ways, lifestyles are not simply something
individuals follow out of personal choice, but much rather because it is somewhat
required of them. In his own words, “we have no choice but to choose” (Giddens 81).
In this regard, self-identity has become increasingly defined by lifestyle choices
(Sneijder and te Molder 621) made by individuals on an everyday basis. Such lifestyle
choices shaping people’s sense of the self and their identity exist in many forms, one
of which could be that of following a vegan lifestyle as introduced earlier. In adopting
a vegan lifestyle, people are arguably seen to be creating a new identity for themselves
in how they navigate everyday life as they differentiate themselves from non-vegans
(Cherry, ‘It’s Not Just a Diet’: Identity, Commitment, and Social Networks in Vegans
20). From an identity studies perspective, veganism thus presents an interesting social
phenomenon to investigate.

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2. Identity online

 2.1. Performing the self online

Theories on identity performance such as the work by Goffman or Giddens have been
implemented in the study field of social media, ranging from studies on online dating
(Ellison et al.) to Facebook (Zhao et al.) or even user-generated online reviews
(Vásquez), generally within the context of Web 2.0 and the rise of user-generated
content (Seargeant and Tagg, ‘Audience Design and Language Choice in the
Construction and Maintenance of Translocal Communities on Social Networking
Sites’). This is in part justified in the claim that self-presentation is one of the two
“fundamental social dynamics” of social media (Seargeant and Tagg, ‘Introduction:
The Language of Social Media’ 5), or, as danah boyd puts it, social media quite literally
allows users to “write [themselves] into being” (boyd). As social media is rooted in not
only promoting, but also relying on user-generated content as one of its “defining
characteristics,” it gives users the freedom to decide what to post or share and who to
interact with, as they can shape the way they are seen by others online (Vásquez 65).
This is in particular done through visual and textual context, since, as opposed to
“offline” identity performance, the online environment makes it harder for things such
as speaking tone or body language to be translated unless for content in video format
(Seargeant and Tagg, ‘Introduction: The Language of Social Media’ 7). Nevertheless,
users online are able to perform their identity in front of an “audience” that is no longer
required to be physically present as said performance can be mediated through the
use of new media technologies (Meyrowitz qtd. in Giddens 84). The sheer activity of
posting or sharing content revolving around oneself online thus comes with the
awareness of an “audience” watching.

In an article discussing identity performance amongst bloggers in the online sphere,
the authors Liam Bullingham and Ana Vasconcelos compare differing opinions on how
“online” identities compare to “offline” ones. Whereas Luiz Carlos Baptista argues
online identities to add layers to “non-virtual” ones, Emmanuelle Vaast recognises
online identities as entirely “new selves” (Bullingham and Vasconcelos 102). Vaast’s
opinion in particular could thus be argued to draw on Goffman’s “front” versus “back”
stage identity as online identities take place in the “front” stage in the sense that people
perform their self the way they want to be perceived, whereas their offline self is less

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performative in nature, thus moving to the “back” stage (Bullingham and Vasconcelos
103). Nevertheless, Bullingham and Vasconcelos point out that both Baptista and
Vaast agree that online environments make it easier for people to adopt a certain
persona, whether it relates to their offline identity or not (102).

 2.2. Anonymous vs nonymous identity performance

In line with Goffman’s argument that people’s behaviour changes according to the
social setting they are finding themselves in, studies on identity performance on social
media concluded that online users’ behaviour is similarly affected by the “nature of
setting” of the online environment (Zhao et al. 1817). Studies on this subject mainly
differentiated between anonymous and nonymous (non-anonymous) online
environments, as users of anonymous online settings such as chat rooms, were more
likely to slip into specific roles, however close to their “actual” selves, than users of
nonymous sites or platforms (Zhao et al. 1817). With the rise in popularity for typically
more nonymous platforms like Facebook, users are more likely to present their online
identity closer to their non-virtual one, as the nonymous nature of the social media
network constricts “the freedom of identity claims” (Zhao et al. 1818). Whilst both
anonymous and nonymous online platforms thus allow for a certain degree of
performance of the self, anonymous ones appear to allow for greater freedom to do
so.

One way or another, social media, in general, allows for a highly selective process
when it comes to self-identity, as it is driven by “self-mediation,” with users being in a
position to decide what expression they want to “give” in curating their identity into
being (Khamis et al. 196). Thus, similarly to offline identity performance outlined in
Goffman’s work, people are able to highlight parts of their identity perceived as more
desirable by themselves, whilst hiding potentially less desirable aspects at the same
time (Zhao et al. 121). This selection and editing process ultimately marks online
identity as “always under construction” and thus never fully “finished” (Helmond 22),
as the very essence of social media revolves around posting and sharing new content
and updates.

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2.3. Microcelebrity

Whereas offline identity performance is founded on the physical presence of others
making up the “audience,” online identity performance is reliant on others visiting a
user’s profile or users being part of the same network in general, differing in nature
based on which social media platform is being used. Whether this online audience
consists of network connections such as “friends” in the case of Facebook, or
asymmetric networks such as “followers” on Instagram (Hu et al. 596), online users
are likely to be “keenly aware” of being seen by others as they partake in “mediated
self-presentation” (Gonzales and Hancock 171). Hence, just as constructing an
interesting, appealing and coherent narrative (Giddens 5) of oneself in “real life” may
make a person more attractive to on-watchers, creating a “compelling narrative” online
can lead to a growing audience (Khamis et al. 196) as increasingly more people
become interested in others’ mediated selves online. In this sense, the self on social
media is more likely performed to be consumed by others, rather than serving as a
tool to look back on the self over time (Khamis et al. 196).

Especially platforms making use of previously mentioned “asymmetric networks” in
relation to type and size of audience of users’ persona such as Instagram, allow
individual users to gather high amounts of followers within a relatively short time span.
In this sense, the audience observing a person’s identity performance online can grow
in the form of follower count, turning the high number of followers or high engagement
on the social media profile overall as a form of success or at least acceptance of the
user’s performed identity (Khamis et al. 197). As growing a large audience online is
thus conceivably easier to do in online environments than in non-virtual life, the lines
between performer and audience, or “amateur” and “professional,” are easily blurred
(Seargeant and Tagg, ‘Introduction: The Language of Social Media’ 3). A person’s
“success” in attracting a large audience online is thus not dependent on their expertise
knowledge on a subject, for instance, but rather on whether or not their self and the
narrative they create around themselves is recognised as interesting to others. These
types of people who perform their online persona to a large audience online, and
potentially gain attention through it, are what Alice Marwick calls “microcelebrities”
(Marwick, ‘You May Know Me from YouTube: (Micro-)Celebrity in Social Media’)
Though such microcelebrities typically start out as “everyday users” with no intent in

 15
commercialising their self (Abidin n. pag.), they are normally known or even famous
exclusively within “small, niche networks,” as their persona is niche-specific, allowing
them to keep the narrative of their mediated self coherent (Marwick, Status Update:
Celebrity, Publicity & Branding in the Social Media Age 117). In the case of some
social media platforms, such as Instagram, these microcelebrities are also known as
“influencers.” As the term suggests, these highly followed or engaged with online users
having attained influencer or microcelebrity status may be perceived as
knowledgeable by their audience, with the potential to affect or even change the way
their “audience” or followers acts or behave (Cambridge Dictionary). As previously
mentioned, however, this perception of being knowledgeable does not necessarily
stem from being an “expert” in what the purvey of themselves online. Rather,
authenticity and consistency in the way influencers present themselves to their
audience are what makes them stand out and reliable for others.

In some cases, the audience may identify with the performed persona of these online
influencers as they sympathise with them based on shared opinions or cultural
practices (Seargeant and Tagg, ‘Introduction: The Language of Social Media’ 9). In
agreeing with what a highly followed user shares online, people making up the
audience may thus relate to them, creating a sense of togetherness as they identify
with the influencer and what they represent (Seargeant and Tagg, ‘Introduction: The
Language of Social Media’ 9). Against this background, Instagram users identifying
with veganism and performing this identity on their social media profiles not only shape
the way others perceive them through the lens of veganism but might also influence
their audience’s behaviours and practices. In some cases, the way vegans on
Instagram present themselves to their audience may also inspire others to look into
the alternative lifestyle and potentially adopt it themselves based on the image
provided by certain users.

 3. Veganism as a lifestyle

 3.1. Motivations to go vegan

Adapting a vegan lifestyle is typically outlined by three main motivations; health, ethics
or preservation of the environment. Even though, as defined by The Vegan Society,
veganism entails cutting out all animal-based products from one’s life, the lifestyle may

 16
be perceived differently based on an individual’s motivation to change their
consumption practices and overall lifestyle to begin with. “Health” vegans for one, may
implement an animal-product-free diet to improve their health and overall well-being,
but in doing so do not necessarily protest the buying and wearing of animal-derived
materials or different types of products tested on animals. Similar to “health” vegans,
people adopting a vegan diet or lifestyle for environmental reasons will cut out animal
products from their diet but not necessarily from their overall consumption, dependent
on whether they deem materials such as leather to be more sustainable than plant-
based imitations. Lastly, those choosing a vegan lifestyle from an ethics perspective,
live an animal-product-free life founded on political and ethical beliefs against animal
cruelty in all aspects of life, sometimes even expressing “anti-establishment” beliefs
(Greenebaum 130–31). Whatever the motivations of someone publicly identifying as
vegan are, doing so does always comes with some kind of “declaration of […] identity,
morals and lifestyle,” making self-identifying vegans stand out amongst non-vegans
(Greenebaum 129). In terms of self-representation, self-identifying vegans thus find
themselves in a position of having to edit and adapt their public selves in line with their
lifestyle changes as they question and ultimately go against meat-eating, for example,
something that is often perceived as “cultural norm” (Cherry, ‘It’s Not Just a Diet’:
Identity, Commitment, and Social Networks in Vegans 9). Overall, no matter what kind
of external influences vegans encounter, the success of the lifestyle is primarily based
on changes in everyday habits and practices conducted by each individual personally
(Bosworth 9), regardless of what others may do or not do.

 3.2. Different levels of veganism

In relation to differing reasons and motivations for people to identify as vegan, the way
they perform it as part of their public self may vary. One of the main studies on
veganism referred to often in academic work, is that of Elizabeth Cherry dating from
2003, where the author conducted a study with a large group of participants, self-
identifying as vegans. One of Cherry’s main findings was that, even though all
participants identified as vegan, an overall distinction became noticeable in how the
participants presented themselves and performed their vegan identity in everyday life,
and particularly in public. Overall, Cherry categorises the participants into “punk”
vegans and “nonpunk” vegans, with the former being associated with more “militant”
veganism, putting a strong emphasis on fighting animal cruelty and being publicly

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outspoken about it, whereas the latter type of vegans showed to be less outspoken
about their vegan practices in presence of others, and especially non-vegans (Cherry,
‘It’s Not Just a Diet’: Identity, Commitment, and Social Networks in Vegans). Relating
this to motivations behind why one may become vegan, the author also pointed out
how punk vegans were largely motivated by ethical reasons, whereas nonpunk
vegans leaned more towards the health reasoning, outcomes in line with studies
stating health and ethics to be the main drivers in veganism (Radnitz et al. 32).
Drawing on similar conclusions in her study on authenticity in relation to veganism,
Jessica Greenebaum differentiates between self-identifying vegans “who ‘eat’ vegan
[…] and those who ‘live’ vegan” (131).

What proved to be problematic in this case, was that nonpunk vegans appeared to be
less “strict” about their vegan practices, as they in part still purchased non-vegan
products in the form of clothing or cosmetic products, or even ate animal products on
occasion (Cherry, ‘It’s Not Just a Diet’: Identity, Commitment, and Social Networks in
Vegans). In this sense, nonpunk vegans were for the majority of the time not adhering
to the official definition of veganism, encompassing the cutting out of animal-derived
products in all aspects of life, a common point of critique by punk vegans in
discussions about differing approaches to veganism throughout the study (Cherry, ‘It’s
Not Just a Diet’: Identity, Commitment, and Social Networks in Vegans 41). In this
respect, the question may arise whether the category Cherry defined as nonpunk
vegans actually falls within the category of practicing veganism based on The Vegan
Society’s definition, as “veganism is more than a diet: it is a philosophy and ethics”
(Greenebaum 129), and nonpunk vegans generally regarded veganism as more of a
diet than an overall lifestyle.

 3.3. Communicating veganism

Beyond differing motivations for self-identifying vegans, Cherry also investigated the
way in which vegans may or may not experience a sense of community, typically in
the form of social networks between themselves and other self-identifying vegans. She
even goes so far to state that some vegans (usually those categorised as “punk”)
created a kind of “collective identity” as being vegan, forming a network based on the
same beliefs and practices (Cherry, ‘It’s Not Just a Diet’: Identity, Commitment, and
Social Networks in Vegans 23). While punk vegans found out about the lifestyle

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through friends, music or even punk subculture, founded on beliefs centred around
animal rights, nonpunk vegans learned about the cruelty free lifestyle by means of
personal research (Cherry, ‘It’s Not Just a Diet’: Identity, Commitment, and Social
Networks in Vegans 56). Punk vegans were thus shown to be surrounded by a
stronger social network founded on common beliefs regarding veganism than nonpunk
vegans (Cherry, ‘It’s Not Just a Diet’: Identity, Commitment, and Social Networks in
Vegans). In relation to how “strictly” punk versus nonpunk vegans adhered to
veganism in relation to The Vegan Society’s definition, social networks arguably play
an important role in how consumption behaviours are influenced (Kennedy) as Cherry
notes that having other vegans “in one’s social networks” affects the practices of self-
identifying vegans (Cherry, ‘Veganism as a Cultural Movement: A Relational
Approach’ 165).

In an era where creating and sustaining social networks has become increasingly
easier through the presence of online spaces in the form of social media platforms,
vegan “offline” networks can now be easily translated to the online environment. Self-
identifying vegans wishing to read, see or watch content created and shared by other
vegans, are now able to do so using keywords or hashtags on social media platforms
such as Facebook or Instagram. However, as outlined previously, the way in which
veganism may be performed as part of the self tends to vary in non-virtual life, raising
the question whether this phenomenon also takes place online and moreover, how so.

 4. Studying Instagram

 4.1. Self-identity in photography

Whether online or offline, self-presentation and performance of the self can take on
different forms. In the non-virtual world, what Goffman described as presentational
cues, can be performed through tone of voice or body language, whereas online
environments require textual or visual information to be shared about the self.
Photography featuring the self is one way identity performance is facilitated, with the
camera becoming the tool with which self-identity is affirmed (Caldeira 142). Whereas
usually, the presence of other people would make up the stage on which a person
may perform their identity, in the case of photography, the photograph itself can act

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as the stage “allowing individuals the performance of their preferred image of
themselves (Caldeira 142), which then may be looked at by others. According to José
van Dijck, this is particularly the case due to changes in photography over the last
couple of decades, as the focus of photography has moved to the individual, making
it one of the main outlets in which self-presentation can be performed (60). By being
able to change the way a person presents themselves in a photograph, notably
through changes in posture or facial expression, they are able to direct the way others
perceive them. According to Brian McNely, this shaping of others’ perception of the
self through imagery is both “strategic” and “self-reflective,” putting the individual in a
position of control in how others see them (2), making documentation of the self
through the means of photography highly performative in nature.

Similar to non-virtual self-presentation practices, communicating the self through
visuals on social media also requires the presence of an audience (Schreiber 147).
Even though the majority of the most popular social media platforms such as
Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feature visual content to some extent, the way in which
it is presented through the platform’s design still differs, resulting in each platform
attracting different types of audiences as well. By equipping the smartphone with a
constantly improving high-quality camera, “photography is placed [at] the centre of the
everyday experience,” with apps like Instagram facilitating the sharing of visual content
with others (Martin qtd. in Caldeira 135). Unsurprisingly, Instagram has established
itself as “the most popular photo capturing and sharing application” since its launch in
2010 (Hu et al. 595), with a total of 800 million users at the end of 2017 ('Instagram
active users 2017). With some opinions stating that the online platform purposely
“exists for people’s [self-promotion],” (Sheldon and Bryant 90), it thus represents an
interesting object of study based on which identity performance can be investigated.

 4.2. Curating the self on Instagram

Social networking sites in general, revolve around the individual user and their
interaction with the site in an attempt to share, post and update content about
themselves (Ellison et al. qtd. in Bakhshi et al. 966). In the case of Instagram, this
sharing of the self is primarily encouraged through the curation of photographic or the
occasional video graphic content, further supported by the option to accompany the
visual with a written caption so as to give contextual information to the shared photo.

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In line with boyd’s statement that social media allows people to “write themselves into
being” (boyd) Instagram, in particular, could be seen as a platform allowing its users
to curate themselves into being primarily through the sharing of visual content. This
“curation” of the self does not only take place in users’ individual posts which appear
in their followers’ news feed and ultimately create a “photo gallery” on their own
profiles, but already in the way they present themselves through choice of username,
profile picture and profile description, commonly known as the Instagram “bio.”
However, while choosing a username presents the condition under which people may
sign up for the platform, the name they choose for themselves, alongside what they
do or do not display in their profile picture or description, is up to them. In this sense,
such affordances allowing users to customise their profiles are “understood as
potentiality” (Schreiber 146), even if they are typically followed by most users and thus
recognised as the normative way to engage with the platform (Stanfill 1060). Additional
options in the profile section, such as including links to external sources like websites
or other social media profiles, further allow users to connect their Instagram selves to
other (online) parts of themselves. Following how users thus decide to present
themselves in the profile section of their account, photographs users decide to share
on their accounts then build the base upon which their narration of the self is
constructed (Caldeira 143).

Differently put, the social media platform allows its users to “narrate everyday life and
practice” (Carah and Shaul 82). With the introduction of new elements such as
Instagram “stories” in 2016 (Instagram), the app even allows for “live” updates,
similarly customisable due to editing and filtering options. However, as Instagram
worded it themselves in one of last year’s press releases, stories were introduced to
allow the app’s users to share “all of their moments – the highlights and everything in
between,” potentially placing “stories” in less of a “curated” setting, encouraging the
sharing of more unedited or “raw” content (Instagram), which in turn is only available
to view for 24 hours, making it ephemeral in nature.

Yet, considering Instagram’s mission statement as the platform having become “the
home for visual storytelling,” with an emphasis on a passion for creativity from its users
(The Team), the platform targets individuals who not only want to capture and share
photographic content but also edit it. This concept of editing an image to one’s liking

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before posting it on the social media platform is especially supported through the
presence of in-app editing. This in-app editing of images featuring basic editing options
such as adjusting brightness or contrast, or more advanced options such as the use
of filters, invite the user to carefully modify the image they are about to share, creating
what Zachary McCune describes as “personal craft culture” (39). Just as people would
change or adapt the way they act in front of other people in “real” life in order to provide
a certain image of themselves, Instagram allows its users to carefully alter an image
they are about to share on their profile, available to be looked at by other people. In
this sense, Instagram has become one of the main apps allowing “identitary
dramaturgy” of the self, often in the shape of curating an idealised image of the self
online (Caldeira 155). By being selective on what to share and what not to share on
the smartphone app, users thus have the possibility to present themselves in a light
that is perceived as favourable to them and which may lead to positive reactions by
their audience.

Even though imagery of the self in the form of “selfies” for one, has proven to be
popular amongst Instagram users, both in relation to people posting photos of
themselves, as well as user engagement on such photos, literally showing oneself in
the visual content does not act as the only way of identity construction within the app
(Caldeira 146). Instead, users may also choose to share photographs of objects or
their physical environment in an attempt to create an “identitary narrative” shaped by
their lifestyle choices and practices (Caldeira 155). They thus make decisions on “how
to capture, edit, and circulate” imagery narrating “their lived experiences,” using the
app as what has been called an “image machine” (Carah and Shaul 71) and an outlet
to present themselves to others online.

Whether the audience accepts the user’s performance of the self or not through the
shared imagery, can then be recognised in the “feedback mechanism” of the app.
Receiving a “like” on a recently posted image can thus offer “a small form of quick
validation,” alongside positive comments, whereas the lack of “likes” or presence of
negative comments may indicate the audience’s disapproval of the shared content
(Caldeira 153). Based on this feedback mechanism, users can thus gain an insight
into how others perceive their online identity on the app specifically and adapt it as
needed to guide the impression others have of them. However, even though this

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feedback mechanism in the form of likes and comments is available for anyone using
the app, engagement and interaction on one’s own profile and content shared is
affected by whether or not the user chooses to keep their account “private” (i.e. they
specifically choose who has access to their content) or “public” (i.e. anyone can access
their content, both in-app and using an online browser). Even though Instagram
accounts are “public by default” (Bakhshi et al. 967), users are able to change their
privacy settings so as to be in control of who can access their content. Whether a user
chooses to share their self to an open public or only a distinct group of people within
the platform, their awareness of who can or cannot be watching them shapes the way
in which they may decide to present themselves to others.

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CHAPTER 3: CREATING A METHODOLOGY TO STUDY
 INSTAGRAM

 1. Selecting Instagram accounts

Given the nature of this research project and its focus on individual identity
performance, the analysis of vegans’ identity performance on Instagram has been
conducted on a pre-defined set of Instagram accounts, making up a set-in-stone,
stable data corpus to evaluate. Based on my own experience and online research, it
has become evident that a lot of vegan-related Instagram accounts (or online content
on the topic of veganism in general) revolve around food, resulting in highly followed
vegan-related Instagram accounts being food-centric, with no clear indication or
representation of the user behind the account. Whilst I am aware of these accounts
existing and arguably being popular amongst users interested in veganism, and the
food aspects of the lifestyle specifically, this research project focuses on identity
performance of individual users through the lens of veganism. Thus, only highly
followed vegan-related Instagram accounts clearly owned by individual people
identifying as vegan, subsequently building veganism into their personal narrative on
their profiles, are taken into account.

Overall, the selection process of Instagram accounts to be studied in this research
project contained four essential components. First of all, only Instagram accounts that
explicitly included the terms “vegan” or “veganism” in either their username or user
profile description (“bio”) were taken into consideration. In including veganism in what
Zhao et al. consider “explicit identity statements,” in this case in the form of
“autobiographic descriptions” put together and shared to others by the user
themselves (1820), it can be assumed that veganism plays an important role in their
lives and in how they present themselves to others – so much that they deem it
important enough to include in a relatively small section describing themselves at the
very top of their profile. In other words, the goal is to study so-called “organised
vegans,” these being vegans openly identifying as vegan in the presence of others
(i.e. their online audience), with the possible, though not definite, goal of starting a
conversation on the topic and getting others interested in it (Cherry, ‘It’s Not Just a
Diet’: Identity, Commitment, and Social Networks in Vegans). Secondly, any

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