Isolating, But Not Isolated: How Instagram Influencers Are Creating Their Own Imagined Community in the Age of COVID-19

Post by: Anatoliy Gruzd, Lilach Dahoah Halevi, Philip Mai, & Rebeca Chacon Cabrera

What constitutes “a community”? Traditionally, a community is defined as a group of people living together in one place. However, with the rise of the internet and social media, the notion of what is a community in today’s society has changed. The COVID-19 outbreak has brought this change front and center.

For millions of people around the world, the pandemic lockdown has been a difficult experience to endure. Gone (temporarily?) are the perennial debates about how much screen time is too much screen time. To cope, many have turned to social media sites to connect and build their own version of Anderson’s “imagined community.” People, including online influencers, are using social media sites such as Instagram, to share their bread recipes, new workout routines along with their fears, passing thoughts and experiences while in quarantine.

Despite privacy concerns, Instagram remains a bright spot for Facebook. With 500 million+ daily active users, Instagram is a space for users to share highlights of their personal moments using engaging photos and videos. It is the 5th most popular social media platform in the world according to Hootsuite (following Facebook, YouTube, Whatsapp and WeChat).

This post examines how Instagram influencers (with >75K followers) and verified accounts from around the world are using the platform to stay socially connected while being mandated to practice physical distancing. We are focusing on public figures, celebrities and influencers because of their outsized reach and their ability to normalize behaviors for their followers.

Just since the start of the year, there have been over 1 million public posts by influencers and verified accounts on Instagram related to COVID-19, generating nearly 3 billion interactions (CrowdTangle, 2020). (See Fig. 1)

Figure 1. The number of user interactions on Instagram over time in response to COVID-19 related public posts by verified and influential accounts (with >75K followers). Source: Crowdtangle
Figure 1. The number of user interactions on Instagram over time in response to COVID-19 related public posts by verified and influential accounts (with >75K followers) between Jan 1 -Mar 21, 2020. Source: Crowdtangle

Summary Results

To explore how influencers are using Instagram while “social distancing”, we collected and analyzed 36,578 Instagram public posts mentioning the hashtag #SocialDistancing between February 1 and March 21 , amid the COVID-19 global outbreak.

Based on a topic modelling technique called Latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA), a method for unsupervised clustering of disparate text, we identified the following clusters of topics discussed in the 36K posts:

  1. Personal experiences and leisure activities,
  2. COVID-19 information and expression of support for healthcare workers,
  3. How to keep business afloat while #SocialDistancing,
  4. Pets, hikes, and memes: A lighthearted take on COVID-19,
  5. International Influence of #SocialDistancing: The case of India and Indonesia.

Though the majority of interactions on Instagram can be viewed as “lightweight” (e.g., likes, shares) and “parasocial” (via weak ties with friends and strangers), the results show that by using Instagram many users are able to stay socially connected, even in times of self-isolation. In short, the hashtag #SocialDistancing is a misnomer, by using Instagram, people are in fact socializing and strengthening their community; they are just doing it online.

The remainder of this post will provide more details about our data collection, analysis and results.

Data Collection

Excepts for essential workers and their families who are bearing the brunt of this pandemic, lockdown orders are great equalizers. Celebrities and influencers are subjected to the same social distancing requirements as their fans and followers. Once the WHO officially declared COVID-19 as a pandemic, many Instagram influencers pivoted to creating COVID-19 contents in support of #SocialDistancing.

To explore how Instagram is used by influencers (with >75K followers) and verified accounts while social (physically) distancing, we collected and analyzed 36,578 Instagram posts that included the hashtag #SocialDistancing shared between February 1 and March 21. The dataset was collected using Crowtangle, Facebook’s public content discovery and analysis tool. All non-English posts were auto-translated using Google Sheets.

Topic Modelling of Instagram Posts

Using a topic modelling technique called Latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA), we first identified the following 10 topics discussed by Instagram influencers in the 36K posts on #SocialDistancing (listed in descending order of prominence):

  • Self and family
  • Healthcare
  • Streaming (e.g., music, podcasts, films)
  • India
  • Books and art
  • Outdoors activities
  • Online delivery (e.g., food)
  • Indonesia
  • Pets
  • Gym

To further examine the context in which these topics are mentioned, we turned to an interactive visualization called LDAvis to zero in on emerging topics. See Figure 2 below, where topics are displayed as numbered circles in a two-dimensional space. Topics (circles) that are located closer to each other or overall are related. The size of the circle represents the topic popularity in the dataset relatively to the other topics. A live interactive version of this visualization is available here

Figure 2. Clustering and overlap of the top 10 #socialdistancing topics on Instagram.
Figure 2. Clustering and overlap of the top 10 #socialdistancing topics on Instagram.

Because of the overlapping nature of some of the topics discovered using LDA, we have grouped some of them together to form five higher-order categories of related topics. Click on each category listed below for more details and examples. 

1. Personal experiences and leisure activities

In the age of COVID-19 social distancing, Instagram influencers frequently share about their and their families’ experiences and struggles during the COVID-19 outbreak (cluster 1), as noted by the multiple familial references (i.e., “kids”, “family”, “husband”, “mom”, “motherhood”) and feelings of uncertainty (“anxious”, “anxiety”, “uncertainty”, “crazy”, “scary”). Most of these posts, however, are framed in a positive and hopeful light. Instagram influencers often cite being “grateful”, “thankful”, or “loved” for the circumstances they are in, and encourage others to remain safe and healthy, as well as practice social distancing. 

For example, @headwaterskayak shared that he had to let go of his staff that worked for his kayaking business amidst the COVID-19 epidemic. But he also reiterated that “…we are stronger together so please share what you’re up to with us.” Although @headwaterskayak’s business had unfortunately faced some unexpected difficulties, he remained hopeful and encouraged his followers to share their own experiences and engage in a dialogue around COVID-19.

In addition, these posts also promote ways for people to distract themselves, including streaming media (cluster 3), reading books or creating art (cluster 5), and working out (cluster 10). This is shown by the overlapping areas of the circles (i.e., topics) in Figure 2; a greater amount of area shared between two circles represents a larger overlap in topics of conversation. 

Both individual users (e.g, @filmtourism) and companies (e.g., @Billboard) actively recommend streaming music, movies, and TV shows as a way to pass the time while staying at home. In line with these recommendations, it seems that such leisure activities have become more popular since the COVID-19 global outbreak began. In Canada, for example, the number of minutes spent on music streaming sites has increased by 31% during the pandemic (ComScore). It could be that passively consuming media – whatever form it may be – is one strategy people adopt to cope with the boredom and isolation of social distancing.

Others have suggested alternative activities that at their core promote self-improvement. For example, @mandy described her transition from public group exercises classes to working out from home. The Instagram account @livingfoodz additionally advocated cooking at home and finding different ways of exploring your creativity, whether it would be through poetry, reading, or musical performance. Apart from serving as a distraction from current events, these activities aid others in bettering themselves.

2. Sharing COVID-19 information and expressing support and solidarity for healthcare workers

Given the novelness and deadliness of the COVID-19 virus, people are highly motivated to gather and share all available information about how to protect themselves from the virus. Within the conversation labeled as healthcare (cluster 2), Instagram influencers have shared information about how COVID-19 is spread and can be prevented, expressed gratitude towards healthcare providers, and have helped to amplified the personal experiences of healthcare workers.

Instagram users @Fox10Phoenix, @ultrabz, and @iamsuracity used their platform to share some tips for getting through the COVID-19 pandemic. @Fox10Phoenix discussed what activities are safe to do during social distancing and what activities we should be wary of. @ultrabz emphasized the importance of staying home, washing your hands, and remaining supportive during these uncertain times. And finally, @iamsuracity explained that since symptoms often don’t appear for many days after contraction, limiting social contact and hand washing as some of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce the spread of the virus.

Numerous Instagram influencers expressed their gratitude and support for the healthcare providers on the front line of this pandemic. For example, users @whatshesaid___ and @demi.runas thanked healthcare providers for all the work they’re doing to contain the virus and urged people to practice social distancing and proper hygiene to lift some of the strain off these healthcare providers. Healthcare workers, @drelisabethpotter and @josephnaim, have also shared their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic and assured users they’re taking precautions to ensure the safety of their patients (e.g., limiting appointments and screening patients prior to visits).

3. Keeping small businesses afloat while #SocialDistancing

The call for social distancing have been devastating to local businesses. People are justifiably hesitant to leave their house to go to grocery stores, restaurants, and other public places with crowds of people, but this in turn has decimated many small businesses that are dependent on community support. To keep afloat, some small businesses – particularly, restaurants – have started offering delivery services.

Several Instagram influencers have promoted small businesses (their own or someone else’s business) that can deliver their goods (cluster 7). For instance, @cbs6 posted a list of restaurants, breweries, coffee shops, and bakeries that offer pickup or delivery services. The hashtags #shoplocal, #supportlocal, and #supportsmallbusiness were also common within the conversation around delivery services, demonstrating people’s support for local shops. The support portrayed on Instagram is also reflective of an increased use of delivery services; the number of visits to online food, grocery, and retail sites and applications has significantly increased since mid-February in several European countries (source: ComScore).

4. Pets, hikes, and memes: A lighthearted take on COVID-19

Pet instagram accounts also joined in on the Instagram #SocialDistancing conversation with more lighthearted posts (cluster 9). Instagram accounts dedicated to people’s pets are quite common, and typically these accounts can gather large followings. As of late, these accounts, such as @thegoldensrule and @maltese_puppy_teddy, have shared pictures of their pets with captions promoting social distancing from the perspective of the pets.

Similarly, some users have shared pictures of them outdoors (cluster 6), often with their pets, advocating for the benefits of spending time outside and getting fresh air (e.g., @omandthecity, @angelapaul). Despite recommendation of staying home, some influencers do venture into nature as a way to cope with government imposed self-isolation.

We also identified the use of memes to lighten the subject of the COVID-19 outbreak and the hardships of self-isolating at home. Memes have been a source of comedic relief for some users, including @wearemitú who posted a meme about moms being too loud at home, and @realpettymay0 posting about rekindling a relationship with an ex during quarantine. While underlying these memes are people’s need for social connections when socially distancing, the use of humor can help alleviate some of the anxiety associated with COVID-19.

5. International influence of #SocialDistancing: The case of India and Indonesia

According to Facebook’s advertising platform audience estimates, India and Indonesia are among the top 5 Instagram countries, each with a potential reach of 80M and 57M users, respectively. So, it is not surprising that numerous #SocialDistancing posts originated from or referenced India (cluster 4) and Indonesia (cluster 8).

At the time of our data collection in March 2020, the pandemic situation in India and Indonesia was escalating. On March 24th, the Indian government enacted a 21-day lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19, resulting in 1.3 billion people banned from leaving their own homes (source: Global News). Indonesia, on the other hand, has had one of the highest COVID-19 fatality rates in the world (source: DW). As of the end of March, there have been 157 confirmed deaths as a result of COVID-19 (source: Indonesian Government Site).

Instagram influencers – both individual users and news organizations – in India and Indonesia shared the news, and mentioned social/physical distancing and maintaining hygiene as preventative measures of getting infected by COVID-19. In India, both news Instagram accounts (e.g., @thequint, @popxodaily) and citizens (e.g., @talesofthatpashminagirl) emphasized that social distancing and obeying the curfew imposed by the government will help flatten the curve of the COVID-19 spread.

Due to the rapid growth of infected citizens in Indonesia, Instagram influencers – for example, @liputan6 and @cnnindonesiatv – also urged people to practice social distancing. In fact, we identified several hashtags widely used in the conversation around Indonesia directly related to social distancing. These hashtags include: #dirumahaja (just at home), #lawancovid (against covid), #jagajarak (maintain a distance), and #cegahcorona (prevent corona).

Conclusion: Instagram use while #SocialDistancing

In this time of self-isolation, more and more people are turning to Instagram to cope and stay connected.

Our exploratory analysis suggests that the hashtag #SocialDistancing is a misnomer since by using Instagram, people are in fact socializing; they are just doing so online. Though it may not be the same as seeing someone in person,  given the circumstances, social media platforms like Instagram provide users with a means to isolate, but not be isolated.

Most interactions we observed can be categorized as “lightweight” (e.g., likes, shares) and “parasocial” (via weak ties with friends and strangers), we believe that over time they may lead to the formation of stronger ties among like-minded individuals. This is because both influencers and those who follow them, interact regularly via the use of the same hashtag, #SocialDistancing. By doing so, users are likely to develop a sense of community, even if only “imagined”.