Previous project "Visual biographies in a connected lifeworld"

About the project

With the rise of new communication technologies in the digital realm, forms of communication emerge that are increasingly defined by the use of images. Employing a broad perspective, the research project addresses the question in how far the perception and formation of biographies is being transformed through digitalized visual communication. Do patterns, prevalent in ‘old’ forms of visual biographical construction, e.g. family photo albums, extend onto social media? Or can a fundamental transition, leaving behind conventional practices, be observed? How can these processes be studied with interpretative approaches?

The following sub-questions guide our research:

  • What happens, from a biographical point of view, when pictures are taken with a phone or a digital camera and fed into the stream of social media communication? Which biographical significances relate to these practices?
  • How are biographies constructed on social media by members of different age groups? The project proceeds from Facebook as the platform still most relevant for biographical representation.
  • In which ways do biographies emerge in publics or semi-publics of social media, regarding the relation of postings on different platforms and communication software (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat etc.)? How do participants react to ‘their’ social media biographies when facing them or being confronted with them in various settings (at work, within the family, in the peer group or in the context of the research project)?
  • How do practices of biographical formation on social media differ, in form and content, from conventional verbal-narrative as well as visual construction processes? What types of relations exist between visual and verbal forms of presentation?

Presumably, the identification of continuities or changes within visual biographical formation processes requires a reconstruction of online and offline activities, regarding the use of images as well as their particular biographical contexts.

Our research material consists of:

  • Facebook profiles, while the focus is laid on photo albums as well as corresponding comments, and the ways they are embedded in the chronology of reconstructible biographical events
  • Biographical-narrative interviews with selected persons
  • Collections of analogue images (photo albums and books, collages, dia-shows, …)
  • Brief ethnographic observations of online and offline media usage

A systematic comparison of verbal and visual biographical construction will thus become possible. Image-text analyses of social media content will be compared with biographical-narrative interviews. Through observing these distinct forms of self-representation, differences as well as similarities in the constitution of biographical patterns will be identified. Eventually, relations between different social media can be reconstructed in order to estimate their differing significance for processes of biographical construction.

The research will provide a database for a long-term study. Communicative practices are in constant flux and their impact on patterns of social order, such as the form of the biography, can only be understood on the basis of a long period of time.

The project is funded by the Anniversary Fund of the City of Vienna for the OEAW.