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Do you use Instagram? Chances are you do. And given you’re reading this on a cycling website, cycling probably features heavily in your Instagram experience. And fair enough, too — Instagram is a great way of keeping up with what other riders are up to, what cycling brands are doing, and what’s happening in the sport more generally.
Instagram is also a great way of documenting and sharing your own cycling experience, whether that’s gloating about your #newbikeday, making everyone jealous of your cycling holiday in the French Alps, or simply posting a photo of your bike against the graffiti-covered wall near your favourite coffee shop.
Most of us don’t give much thought to what we post or why — if something seems interesting and worth sharing, we’ll post it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting lessons to be learned from how cyclists behave on Instagram.
In fact, what you post can say more than you might realise about how you view yourself as a cyclist and how you view cycling more generally. And that’s where the work of Dr Andrew Ross comes in. He’s a sociology researcher at the University of Sydney and the author of two recent studies about the use of Instagram among cyclists. Here’s what he found.
If you were going to take a snapshot of how cyclists use Instagram, how would you go about it? Would you identify specific influencers and focus on them? Would you take a scattergun approach and select a bunch of random posts? Or would you narrow your focus and pick from a smaller subset of images?
For his first paper, Ross took the last approach. After considering a handful of the most popular cycling hashtags (with an assist from a 2014 CyclingTips article) Ross and his co-author, Matthew Lamont, identified that the #FromWhereIRide hashtag had enough posts and enough diversity among posts to serve as a worthwhile sample space.
In late 2018 the pair collected a total of 50 posts from that hashtag stream, excluded contributions from commercial or marketing accounts — they wanted to see what the average cyclist was posting, not what brands were trying to say — and then set about identifying the themes present in those posts.
While 50 posts is a mere drop in the ocean, it did allow the researchers to identify five, common, overarching themes.
A striking 45 of the 50 posts sampled contained examples of self-projection — riders sharing an image or version of themselves they wanted others to see.
They used hashtags like #roadcycling and #commuterlyf to show the sub-communities they identify with, and they used geolocation data and hashtags to identify with particular places.
Riders also “projected” the brands they identify with (e.g. Cannondale and Rapha in the example above), likewise any particular lifestyle choices they identified with (e.g. veganism).
Thirty-seven of the 50 posts showed evidence of what the researchers called “embodied practices” – that is, the rider engaging with their surrounding environment in some way.
Most striking to the researchers was the affinity cyclists have for non-urban landscapes. Many images showed natural, undeveloped landscapes, with an absence of traffic — cycling was clearly “a means of escaping from busy, built-up environments.” The use of the hashtag #outsideisfree was common, so too captions like “Escape from the city”.
The researchers also noted the interesting way that cyclists’ posts embodied gender and “normalized imagery of the cycling body.” Images were predominantly masculine, the researchers note, “albeit in a peculiar manner”.
“Men sporting tanned skin, shaved legs, lean torsos, muscular, slender limbs, and extreme muscular definition were common representations of the cycling body,” they write.
Of the 50 posts sampled, a solid 43 spoke to the cultural practices found within cycling. One that stood out to researchers was how seriously many cycling instagrammers take their photography. And not just that many cyclists seem to love the creative expression that Instagram allows — that’s what the platform is for, after all — but how many of the shots were premeditated or choreographed.
“Capturing such images clearly requires pre-planning, coordination and effort, and arguably disrupts the leisure activity whilst the image is taken,” they write.
To the researchers, such a premeditated approach to photography suggests that “leisure cycling practices are partly shaped by their desires to construct attention-grabbing social media posts to be shared in the aftermath of their rides.” Riders want good content that allows them to extend their cycling experience well beyond the time they put the bike back into the garage.
The researchers liken this approach to golf’s “19th hole” — the clubhouse — where the day’s experiences are digested, shared, and discussed.
In analysing riders’ cultural practices, the researchers also noted the positivity and humour that permeated many posts, “suggesting that the cycling social world is partly bound by a collectively shared positive, light-hearted outlook on life.”
But the researchers also note an interesting contrast here — despite the positivity that permeated many posts they also noticed that “embracing physical and mental suffering appeared an important cultural value within the cycling social world.”
Ross and Lamont noted other cultural practices too. They highlighted a strong association between cycling and fashion (particularly when it comes to socks and sock height) plus the presence of food and beverage as a ritual.
“Images of cyclists sitting at cafes and restaurants during or after a bike ride,” they wrote, “particularly to drink coffee, along with hashtags including #bikeforfood and #beer emphasized the prevalence of communal food and beverage consumption as a cycling social world cultural practice.”
This theme was less prevalent than others — seen in just 18 of the 50 posts — but it did highlight some interesting perspectives on how cyclists regard the types of mobility that cycling affords.
Cycling doesn’t just allow mobility by its very nature — that mobility manifests itself in various different forms. Climbing and descending were commonly represented types of mobility. The most prevalent type of mobility, however, was that of cyclo-tourism.
As the researchers write, “the bicycle enables people to temporarily leave their home region and/or provides a means of tourism exploration at a destination region, where mobility afforded by cycling appears the primary source of self-fulfilment.”
The why of cycling
Thirty of the 50 posts offered some kind of representation of the rider’s motivation for cycling. These motivations were wide-ranging, but there was a common thread that kept coming up: “Overlapping senses of exploration, discovery, freedom and/or escapism that cycling can provide.” Again, the hashtag #outsideisfree appeared often.
Other motivations were common too. A desire to seek reward and achievement through physical exertion was a big one. So too the social interaction and cameradie that cycling provides. Even the desire to encourage others to ride proved motivating for some.
“The cyclists’ imagery of themselves and others out cycling through appealing natural and urban landscapes projected an ethos of fun, fitness, and the embracing of an active lifestyle,” the researchers write. “By augmenting such imagery with hashtags such as #rideyourbike, #getoutthere, #activelifestyle, #motivation, and #whyiride, which carry connotations of inspiration, the cyclists’ discourse could be interpreted as attempts to inspire others to ride their bikes or to take up cycling for leisure.”
Ross and Lamont’s general exploration of cycling Instagram might have been limited to just 50 posts but it revealed themes that will ring true to any cyclist who’s spent time on Instagram. A love of beautiful landscapes, of freedom, of camaraderie, and well-earned food and drink — these are the desires that unite so many of us. It’s little surprise to see these values reflected in our Instagram posts.
In his most recent work, Ross set his sights on a more focused follow-up: a research paper specifically about cycling ‘selfies’.
Why selfies, you ask? Why spend time focusing on a medium that’s generally characterised by “shallowness, self-absorption and narcissism”, to quote Ross and his co-author, Michele Zappavigna? Well, it turns out that selfies have actually become something of a fascination for sociology researchers in recent years.
Sure, studies have shown links between selfie-taking and narcissism (particularly among men, it would seem), but as many researchers have argued recently, a selfie can say a lot more than just “look how beautiful I am – tell me how beautiful I am”.
At its most basic, the selfie is a form of self-projection which, as Ross and Lamont noted, allows the user to share the version of themselves they want others to see. But there can be surprising depth to the “subjective self-image”.
Selfies allow us to convey our current mood or cognitive state (e.g. exhausted euphoria at the top of a tough climb). They are a way to document the significance of a particular moment in time (e.g. reaching your destination after a long and gruelling bikepacking trip). And they can be used as a way of showing one’s belonging to a particular group or community (e.g. post-ride selfie with a fellow rider at the local cafe).
But there’s even more depth to the humble selfie when we start to look beyond what we use them to say about ourselves. Indeed, in recent years, many researchers have been intrigued by what they call the “intersubjectivity” of selfies — that is, the way that selfies can be used to articulate a person’s perspective of a scene. This is where Ross and Zappavigna’s latest research comes in.
For their 2019 paper, the researchers again used the #FromWhereIRide hashtag stream as a sample space. This time, rather than grabbing 50 posts from different users, they opened the hashtag feed, looked at the first five posts, then grabbed the first 30 images from each of those users, and considered the selfies they’d posted. As with the first study, it’s far from an exhaustive look at cycling selfies, but it does provide a useful snapshot.
From their sample, the researchers then set about classifying each selfie according to categories proposed in a 2018 paper co-authored by Zappavigna.
The presented selfie is the selfie you’re probably most familiar with — taken with your phone held out in front of you, either in hand or with a selfie stick. Researchers found this to be the most common type of selfie in the posts they sampled, but cyclists’ presented selfies were sometimes a little different to your average presented selfie.
Note how the rider’s face is off to one side and that the centre of the frame is dedicated to the road leading off into the distance? As the researchers write, this sort of selfie isn’t just about the rider — it’s the rider inviting you to “take in the same view, in a sense joining the ride with the cyclist.”
The following image takes this even further — the cyclist’s face isn’t visible. Rather, he’s inviting the viewer to share his gaze; his perspective on the scene.
We’ve all seen this shot: the photo of the cyclist in a lift or in front of a mirror, visibly taking a photo with a phone that’s reflected in the mirror. It’s perhaps the best way of capturing as much of the user in the frame as possible — a great vehicle for highlighting clothing and equipment choices … or just showing others how lean you are.
The researchers found that this sort of selfie appeared far less often than other types, probably because it requires a mirror and the vast majority of riders take photos while, well, riding.
While the mirrored selfie was uncommon among the posts sampled, the researchers did note an interesting derivative — the shadow selfie. Rather than using a mirror to place one’s self in the frame, the rider instead uses a shadow.
The shadow selfie places the rider in the scene in an ephemeral and artistic way, but as with other selfie types, the rider takes second billing — it’s the scenery and the road ahead that’s the prime focus.
As seen above, a photo doesn’t need to feature a rider’s face or head to be a selfie. Indeed, “inferred selfies” eschew faces entirely, and use other body parts to convey a sense of the rider’s perspective.
In the images above, different body parts of the cyclist are visible, and shot from various angles. The effect is that viewers are encouraged to see cycling from different angles — it’s as if the rider is saying “As a cyclist, I am more than my face — I am my body more generally, and I am also my bike.”
As the researchers note, the image highlights the central role the body plays in the cyclist’s identity.
Implied selfies go one step further, removing the cyclist from the frame entirely. Such a post will typically feature a bike that implies the presence of the photographer, without specifically showing the photographer.
The blurred road in the image above heightens the feeling that you’re there, on the bike, experiencing the same motion as the rider — you’re being invited to experience the scene exactly as the rider is.
Taking it a step further again, still-life selfies highlight the importance of the bike as part of the cyclist.
The image above is more than just a shot of a bike in front of a mountain backdrop — the bike can be seen as an extension of the rider, and, the authors write, the photo could be interpreted as “serious cyclists ride up mountains on quality bikes.”
In investigating the posts they sampled, the researchers noted a type of selfie not covered by the existing classification.
In these images, the placement of the technology is a unique and noticeable feature. Taken from a GoPro on the ground, and using a timer, this shot relies on technology to work.
While all selfies require the use of some technology, this type of selfie weakens the link between the rider and the act of taking the photo. It’s not immediately clear that the rider has taken a photo of themselves. But it’s still a selfie — just one that’s only possible thanks to the camera’s timer function.
This type of selfie offers a perspective you simply can’t get with a handheld phone, and perhaps that is what it says most — “I’m trying to do something a little different here; I want to stand out.”
Reflecting on selfies
After analysing their 150 images, the researchers came to the following conclusion: cyclists’ selfies are similar to those taken by non-cyclists, albeit with a few twists.
Faces were often hidden or on the edge of the frame, “which had the effect of directing attention to the background, rather than the foreground, and thus the technology is not as obviously mediating the representation of the self, but of what the cyclist sees ahead of them.”
Where we ride is such a key part of the cyclist’s experience. Often, it’s not enough to simply get out for a ride; we want to get out in amazing scenery, away from the hustle and bustle and the danger of traffic. And when we do, we often want to highlight that experience. We’re not just taking photos of ourselves, we’re taking photos that highlight our perspective of the freedom we’re experiencing and the beauty of our surrounds.
And while narcissism and attention-seeking are part of the equation, these aren’t the only reasons for taking selfies on the bike. As Ross and Zappavigna showed with their analysis of #FromWhereIRide selfies, there’s a surprising amount of meaning behind our posts, even if we aren’t consciously of it. Or as U.S. researcher Robert Kozinets put it in a 2017 paper, “Selfie taking is complex and multidimensional, a cultural and social act, a call for connection, an act of mimicry, and part of people’s ever-incomplete identity projects.”
Ask your average cyclist and they’ll tell you they give little conscious thought to the “why” of what they post on Instagram. Chances are they simply post photos they like or that represent the experience they’ve had. They likely aren’t thinking about how their posts reflect on them as a cyclist, or on cycling more generally.
In this sense, you could argue that dissecting users’ Instagram posts overcomplicates the issue entirely — that it buries the simple act of posting a photo in unnecessary layers of meaning and analysis.
Maybe so. But there is value in digging into what we cyclists do and what our social media habits say about us. The research of Andrew Ross and others offers a valuable perspective on how we cyclists choose to represent ourselves with what we post — with selfies and otherwise — what those posts say about the culture of our sport, and what we value most about cycling.
So, what do your Instagram posts say about you?
Feature image credit
Top (l-r): tragamillas, ebstn96, klara.fischnaller, daanieloss20
Middle (l-r): hotmixfix, ekfer, gabriphotosport, bruce_on_a_bike
Bottom: (l-r): tomridesbicycles, TBC, julien_legendre, vanilde_mtb