Beginning in October 2014, our team at the Center for Critical Public Health set out to investigate how gender overlaps with ideas around alcohol use. Using an interview-based approach, we’ve now interviewed roughly one hundred and sixty 18-25 year-olds living in the Bay Area. As part of our interview schedule, we created a photo elicitation activity, where participants are asked questions based on photographs presented by the interviewer. For the next few months we piloted different types of images, ranging from advertisements to candid images found on open source image sites. We’ve used multiple photos since the start of the project; some were dropped along the way, and a few have been altered to examine specific ideas of interest. The photo elicitation activity has proven to be a helpful strategy for discussing gendered issues with participants who are reluctant to talk about gender differences during the normal question-answer sections of our schedule.
Two items of particular interest were pivotal in designing our photo elicitation activity:
1) Participants gave particularly interesting responses to a Facebook-embedded photo we were using, and
2) Participants were generating a significant amount of discussion around their own social media use.
Since social media seemed both interesting and relevant to so many of our participants, we decided to embed some of our photographs into different social media platforms, creating both an Instagram and Snapchat photos. As the project continued, our discussions regarding participants’ social media use were unique enough that we expanded the interview schedule to include specific social media questions in the open-ended portion as well. The following is a summary of findings that have emerged thus far, keeping in mind that interviews are ongoing and that deep analysis of the data has yet to commence.
Overwhelmingly, the most popular way in which alcohol experiences are shared online is through visual media. Still-capture photos were identified as the primary means of posting, sharing, and otherwise exposing people in one’s social network to alcohol-based activities. While it was acknowledged that this happens across a variety of different platforms, Snapchat and Instagram were highlighted as the two most frequently used social media platforms for sharing alcohol-related experiences online. These standards relate to discourses connected to social risk, social acceptability, and internet culture. Notably, people’s comfort in sharing alcohol-based information varies based on their perceptions of risk, which seem to fall on a spectrum of Facebook (most risky) > Instagram > Snapchat (least risky).
This risk management seems to revolve around the user’s own self-monitoring, as they seek benefits from sharing ‘fun’ information with their social network, while keeping in mind the potential consequences that could emerge if that same network disapproves of that shared information. By posting acceptable information, participants have described these positives results in terms of social capital. Direct positives on many of these platforms include receiving friend requests and gaining followers, and real-life positives discussed were linked to a person’s increased popularity online. On the other hand, by posting material that is seen as taboo by the online community, users expect to receive negative feedback and possible scrutiny by friends and acquaintances alike. These standards seem to be determined by the online cultures that exist for each platform, and each of these were described as unique social environments. How each person describes their standards and protocol is unique, but below is a rundown of each photo we use and some of the themes that have emerged so far.
This section presents the photos used in our elicitation activity, followed by a description of each photo and a summary of many of the responses each has received.
In this photo two female subjects are captured sitting side-by-side, with one holding a glass of clear liquid. Outside of these two subjects, we see other bodies present in the background. The photograph is framed on Instagram, accompanied by a series of hashtags (#drunk #BFF #latergram #nightout #lol #lovelife #happy) and emojis.
Participants often note that the ages of the main subjects are somewhat ambiguous, with many indicating that the two women photographed seem to be teenagers. A few have suggested that the drinks being held are potentially non-alcoholic, but most assume that they are, given the context of the interview and the text accompanying the photo. For the most part this photo has been seen as somewhat typical, and Instagram users have discussed how they frequently see photos like this within their social network.
So, uh, personally I see some of these very often. Uh, people having fun and having fun nights out with, um, alcohol, uh, either being involved in that. So it doesn’t surprise me if I knew these individuals personally. I would assume it’s just another, uh, group of friends that I’m not too close to, that are just having fun on a Friday night or a Saturday night. (076).
Some have stated that if they knew the subjects of the photo they might try to contact them and be included in their drinking plans.
Where you all at? I would like to (laugh) know where you’re at, you know. I want to come, too. You all looking like you’re having a good time, just laughing, just you know. Picture says itself, you’re all happy and you’re having a good time. That’s where I’d like to be is, you know, where there’s a good time and having fun. (079)
Notably, most people will note that if men were photographed their positioning and demeanor would likely be different. Some have gone on to note gendered differences in the use of social media, and relate these differences to greater ideas of gendered alcohol use.
You know, men wouldn’t portray this kind of scenario on their social media, or it doesn’t happen very often with men, traditionally. I think that two men drinking a beer or a glass of whiskey or something — not having all these hearts and hashtag BFFs and LOLs and Love Life, happy things — I don’t think that any of those would be present. So, it’s hard to make that jump, just because I think that it would be very different. (081)
Although most users seem to acknowledge its common use, Instagram has shown varied responses in terms of protocol, as some people see posting alcohol-related photos as acceptable while others share the opinion that Instagram’s social network is too broad to feel comfortable sharing that information.
With Instagram, everybody can see it, especially if it gets like, over a million likes. If you get over a million likes, it’s on Instagram’s front page for the picks of the week and Instagram’s most popular pictures. Like, as soon as you log on, it’s on the home page, so like, if this was like — if these were minors and they weren’t able to drink right now, this would be a big no-no — bad, bad. That would be bad. (140)
This seems largely dependent on the participant’s own use of the platform, with some talking about scenarios where family members and professional networks follow an individual, and others only discussing photo sharing between friendly peers.
The next image shows two male subjects sitting on a lawn, with three 40 ounce bottles present. While both subjects are looking toward the camera, one is drinking while flipping off the camera, the other has a bottle in his left hand and another placed between his legs and has one eye shut part way. It should be noted that the subject with the two bottles also has his hands wrapped in clear tape, and that the picture is accompanied with large blue text reading, “40 Oz. to FREEDOM”. The photo is embedded as part of Snapchat, which is most clearly recognized by the time wheel in the upper right-hand corner of the photo.
While most have described this photo as fitting for the Snapchat platform, it typically elicits much stronger responses concerning the safety of the subjects compared to the last, and almost all participants have noted that the subjects look heavily intoxicated.
Yeah, they both got 40’s and they are stupid drunk. Like the dude in the green shirt is clearly drunk as fuck. I don’t know why he’s got plastic wrap around his hands. But yeah, even then, I just don’t like seeing people drunk, ‘cause it’s not funny or cool. It’s just like, sometimes — it’s funny to the people that are posting it, ‘cause they know what’s going on. But I’m not gonna sit here and watch 250 seconds of people doing stupid shit. ‘Cause there’s no context. (089)
The photo becomes especially problematic when participants have been asked to imagine the subjects being female, reflecting a general consensus that women are more vulnerable to victimization when intoxicated.
Yeah. I feel like these guys can handle themselves, you know. Like oh, they’re okay, you know. No matter how drunk they are, you know, they’ll, they’ll make it somehow. But if it was girls, you know, just two girls drink-, getting drunk in the park, I’d be pretty concerned, yeah. Again, it is definitely a double standard, but you know, I’m sort of being — I’m just trying to be reasonable, when I see that. I hope it’s not somebody I would know, this drunk. Or if it was, I’d be with them, you know, drinking with them, taking care of them. (071)
Around half the participants have recognized the drinking activity as Edward 40 Hands, a game where participants tape a 40 ounce beer to each of their hands, and cannot remove the tape until the bottle is empty. Others who did not recognize the tape were confused and assumed that the subject is holding a clear plastic bag or plastic wrap. Not all Snapchat users see this as typical to their personal use of the platform but most acknowledged seeing a photo like this as being plausible, and claim that people seem more willing to share photos and videos of riskier behaviors because of the temporary access others have to this information.
Yeah, of friends, if it’s funny, if it would be funny and stuff. ‘Cause Snapchat is just, it’s not really — it’s just shown, and you know that it’s gonna be gone after a day, 24 hours. So then, you don’t really care. And you do it for audience. Like, like you want to entertain the people that you have on, so. (067)
When asked for their response to seeing two young women in the photo, participants often indicate that they would be surprised to see two women playing Edward 40 Hands, noting that because women typically have smaller bodies and a lower drinking tolerance it would seem unusual. Women were also talked about as being susceptible to harsher judgement online, and that there exists a double standard for male drunkenness compared to female drunkenness.
Participant: I think it looks legit. Um, (hesitates) I don’t know. For some reason, I know that they’re probably like being wild, wild night or whatever. But um, I just see it as they’re having fun, and it’s acceptable. But I feel like if they were girls, they would get judged more.
Interviewer: How would you think people would judge them?
Participant: They’re gonna be like, um, probably like oh, what’s wrong with her? Does she have her life together? But for men, it seems like, it just appears to be having fun like that night. But the next day, they’re gonna be fine. I feel like they were more judged if they were like girls. (095)
Some participants note that this view of Snapchat as “temporary” is somewhat misleading and that Snapchat actually stores all shared information on their servers for days before finally removing it. Overall people seem to have fewer issues with seeing these kind of posts on Snapchat over other platforms, and describe it as an “anything goes” online share space.
The final photo caries contains the most visual information of the three, being a screenshot of someone’s Facebook newsfeed. The photo of interest captures a scene of a woman lying on a public bench in a supine position, arms limp, head turned away from the camera, with her feet being the only parts of her body touching the ground. The audience can clearly see bottles next to her, and the dark lighting suggests that it was taken in the evening or early hours of the morning. There are also two or three figures out of focus, walking in the background. Posted by “Corey Smith”, the image is accompanied by Corey’s comment, “LOL steph had a little too much fun last night…”.
Compared to the first two, this image has been the most consistent in eliciting strong reactions for participants. First, most participants have seen Steph as overly intoxicated and have expressed concern for Steph’s safety.
Like, why would you — I don’t know. I would be like — I wouldn’t want myself to be seen like that, and it’s dangerous. Like, I would be so worried. Like, did you leave the girl there? What happened to her? Is she okay? Is she like, you know — yeah, I’d be worried if that was my friend. (073)
Many of the same participants see Corey’s actions as inappropriate, and claim that he should have helped Steph get off the bench rather than take a photo of her.
Um, this dude, uh, I guess he just — to me is, I don’t see shit funny about it. Like especially, like if that’s your friend, like I don’t know, seen in a friendly light. Uh, I mean that’s just his thing or whatever. He thinks it’s funny. I mean, he might just took the picture, and then took her home or whatever. But I mean, it appear to me, just that’s just not how it should end. (079)
This shaming of Corey does not happen without an acknowledgement of the photo’s greater context. Some claim that they would feel comfortable with the photo if they knew that he and Steph had a close relationship, although most interpret that Steph is unable to consent to her photograph being taken and see that as an issue. The fact that this photo is presented on Facebook should also be taken into account, since most of our participants have stated that Facebook is generally more risky. These participants worry about whether Steph’s family and potential employers have access to this photo.
And the fact that you posted it on social media— Like, my momma ain’t— My momma ain’t never even seen me like, this drunk. You know, just speaking from a female point of view, like, my momma ain’t never seen me like, that drunk. And you gon’ post this on social media for everybody to see? But you supposed to be my partner. (019)
“I mean, nowadays, like, yeah, employers don’t do anything without checking your Facebook and all your media, which is crazy, but it’s true. I don’t know. I’ve seen all these people that have all these crazy like, drunk night on there, and I’m just like, Are you crazy? Like, I barely post a picture of like, a normal one of me on Facebook, let alone a drunk one. So, like, whoa.” (067)
It should be noted that the majority of participants indicate that the same photo would be more humorous and less taboo if the subject was male instead of female, reflecting both the acceptance of male intoxication and notions of risk for women.
Interviewer: What if the roles were reverse, assuming that Corey is a guy?
Participant: Yeah, it would be funny.
Interviewer: It would be funny?
Participant: It would be funny.
Interviewer: Why would it be funny then?
Participant: Because Cory can protect his self and he doesn’t — he has male body parts, not woman body parts. Like, this is inappropriate because like, there is all type of creepy guys out there. Pervs and just sexual predators and all type of weird stuff, what if she was just sitting here, just laying like this and she came across one of them and they just molested her or did some type of weird stuff to her? It’s not cool. Now, Cory — Cory seems like, ain’t nobody gonna mess with Cory, it’s a guy. (140)
Generally speaking, participants believe that posting a photo such as this on Facebook is problematic, but disagreement exists between those who see it as taboo and others claiming that these types of photos are typical for the platform. Some have mentioned that in their younger years seeing alcohol-based information and pictures of intoxicated friends was somewhat acceptable, but that the Facebook community has grown to the point where a higher level of self-monitoring is now necessary. Others state that as young adults they’ve undergone a maturation process where they are more careful about their online image.
Yeah (laugh). Um, since I’m in an age where like lots of people are trying to get like real jobs, uh, for the first time or whatever, I’ve noticed that there’s less sort of — there are fewer pictures of that sort of thing on social media. And people might get upset if somebody posted a picture with them in it. (075)
This overlap between alcohol use and social media use has proven to be a topic with rich and varied data, and it seems that the most difficult task will be figuring out which areas of interest to focus on. As we move forward, further questions about online cultures and people’s reasoning behind their use of these online platforms must be addressed. With data from 200 interviews, there are many voices to highlight and figuring out the best way to represent emerging, and often contradictory, themes will be a challenge. There is also a lot to be said about photo elicitation as a qualitative method, and it’s undoubtedly deserving of further discussion.