Research Question/ Introduction:
Social media is changing society, in more than just the way we communicate with each other. A novel and emergent technology, the impacts that social media has on populations, communities and their opinions is profound, but also somewhat undiscovered due to its revolutionary nature. Never before in history have we seen a phenomenon as broad, as overwhelming and as exciting as this, and with it has undoubtedly brought significant challenges and questions with the way we respond to this innovation.
Hence, I have developed an interest in a phenomenon coined the “Individualisation of Responsibility” (Maniates, 2001), whereby the everyday citizen like you and I feel individually responsible for environmental issues as a result of our actions. As Maniates explains, “when responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society — to, in other words, ‘think institutionally.'” (2001).
At the conclusion of this study I hope to have determined the impact that various posts (as recognised above) from Instagram have on the attitudes and behaviours of university students towards environmental issues. More specifically, the influence that Instagram has on the “Individualisation of Responsibility” in Australian university aged students.
I have spent the last year working in a significantly environmentally focused media industry – with a position coordinating a team of people who are passionate about the environment, and specifically, reducing food waste. Here, I have been exposed to a whole new sector of society, among them are passionate vegans, persistent ‘keep-cup’ users and zero-waste enthusiasts. Most of these individuals are also university-aged students, living and working in the Wollongong region.
I certainly consider myself a part of this demographic, with daily efforts taken to reduce my impact on the planet, and small changes being made in my daily routine to, hopefully, bring positive results. However, in recent times as I have matured as a voter and began to expand my knowledge of the political system, I have noticed two emergent trends in my attitudes. One, that I am feeling more and more guilty every time I have a straw in my iced chocolate or forget to bring a reusable shopping bag to the grocery store. And two, my research into the field has indicated that all my extensive and often expensive efforts to live a low-waste lifestyle are so insignificant when it comes to the grand measure of environmental damage caused by large-scale corporations.
For example, working in an organisation with a focus on food waste, I am highly perceptive to any food that gets thrown away from my fridge. Yet, while I might throw out one forgotten carrot that has gone mouldy, as much as 44 million tonnes of food is wasted annually in Australia (Edwards & Mercer, 2013). And rather than being 44 million tonnes of forgotten food from a uni-student’s fridge, this figure is more closely culpable on large scale corporations such as the duopoly of Coles and Woolworths. As Richards and Devin explain, “the strict “quality” standards required by Coles and Woolworths means that a large volume of food does not reach the supermarket shelves. This is produce that does not meet size, shape and appearance specifications – such as bananas that are too small, or apples that are too red. If producers do not agree to meet these standards, they will lose access to approximately 70-80% of the fresh food market in Australia” (2017).
According to Crowling, “Social Media users in Australia are some of the most active in the world”, with an estimated 9,000,000 monthly active Australian users of Instagram (2018). The 2018 Social Media Report by Yellow also revealed the the largest demographic of instragram users in Australia is 18-29 year oldswho are 66% likely to use the platform.
For this study, I am interested in looking at the way social media has contributed to this phenomenon, and the way in which such environmental posts have contributed to university aged student’s attitudes and behaviours towards sustainable living.
More specifically, Instagram will form the basis of this study. After discussions with colleagues and classmates it was decided that this is the most prolific site for the sharing of environmental images due to its purely photographic and visual nature. I will be looking specifically at posts from the following trending Instagram hashtags (according to best-hastags.com), #ecofriendly #sustainable #zerowaste #gogreen #saynotoplastic #savetheplanet.
Subsequently, I will be studying two different types of posts. Firstly, advertising material for ‘green’ products (for example keep cups, reusable straws and beeswax wraps). Secondly, environmental awareness posts, that is, any image that portrays plastic or other individualised materials as being the cause for environmental concern or degradation. This will be done through a textual analysis of the language used in the captions of these posts. I will select the top 20 most popular posts from Instagram under each of these hashtags and map out any emergent trends in the terminology or phrasing used. What are some of the most common words used in these captions? Is the language more aggressive and accusatory of the individual or encouraging and optimisitic? What kind og comments are found indeneath the images and what kind of interaction are they receiving?
For the second part of this study I will show these same images to university aged students and ask them a range of questions about their attitudes and behaviours towards the images. This will be done in the form of a survey which will be distributed to Media and Communications students from the University of Wollongong.