How to Use Visual Media Analysis for Social Media Research

Abstract

Digital life is suffused with images. ‘Visual social media’ platforms like Instagram revolve around uploading and tagging images, while on other social media, images constitute some of the most engaged-with content. Given the significance of images online, visual media analysis has become a burgeoning area of social media research. In this guide, we provide a set of ‘recipes’ for analysing online images using analytical software. The type of visual media analysis we introduce revolves around the concept of the ‘metapicture’, and the approach, ‘metapicturing’. A metapicture is a picture of pictures that allows both close and distant reading by displaying the images and organising them as a visualisation. Metapicturing is situated between visual methodologies that rely mainly on interpretation, as in art history, and information design or visualisation, where images are often transformed into data. The following sections describe four recipes for visual media analysis that output metapictures, including key software tools that enable the analysis. The first is visual attribute analysis, which arranges images according to their formal properties, such as hue. The second, visual vernacular analysis, overlays top-ranked images per platform, allowing for a cross-platform analysis showing the image style typical of a platform. The third, visual trend analysis, displays how the imagery associated with a particular online space or discourse changes over time. Finally, image-network analysis displays the relationships between images and what is associated or linked to them, such as keywords, hashtags, reactions, and emojis.

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