Constructing a Narrative from Survey Data

By Eddie López

As a follow-up to my previous post (“Scoping a Dissertation: A Tech and Narrative Lab Story”),  I wanted to post an update here on some of the initial findings from my dissertation work. Granted, it is only a partial illustration of the first part of my data collection design, but even so, I really wanted to share this because of the narrative that has begun to emerge. I think it is pretty telling… and I am also very excited to see where it takes me in the remainder of my dissertation work.

Dissertation synopsis and overview.

My dissertation, Young adult relationship dynamics with Instagram, revolves around the idea that Instagram, as a medium, changes the relationship formation and maintenance process relative to the in-person norm. Moreover, there are characteristics unique to this type of medium that create unintended, negative user-effects. Consequently, this leads us towards the topic of relationship dynamics – both user-to-user, and user-to-platform. 

One of my first goals in studying this topic was to understand the current state of user-to-user and user-to-platform relations. I wanted to set myself a basis for how users currently interact, the type of pressures they may or may not feel, how they feel the platform impacts them, and so on and so forth. 

For this initial understanding, I elected to run a 385-participant survey via the research platform Prolific, and then used RAND’s external survey platform as the survey engine. For reasons not discussed here (though definitely discussed in my dissertation), the targeted demographic was people who were 18 to 22 years of age, were of U.S. nationality, and were current, Instagram users. The survey was built around three main section of questions, with those being “social comparison and dynamics” (presented in a 5-point Likert scale format)[1], “mental health” (presented in a 5-point Likert scale format),  and a series of follow-up questions (presented in a “Yes / No” format). For today’s post, we will be looking at the total participant response via bar graph visualizations.

Agreeing on Instagram’s basis and ability

When thinking about social media platforms like Instagram, I think one of the many attractions to this type of platform is that one’s friends are on it. Consequently, because the platform is a place where your friends constantly are, engaging with the platform allows one to keep up with their friends. It’s a platform set on community.[2]

When asking our participants about this assumption, participants seemed to largely agree. This is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: 5-Point Likert scale response around Instagram’s mission

However, there is a difference to be made between enabling someone to keep up with their friends, and actually allowing people to keep up with their friends; it is a difference of ability versus performance. Thus, we followed up with an additional question around “performance,” and found participants largely agreed that Instagram also did a “good job” in helping them keep up with their friends. This is shown in Figure 2. 

Figure 2: 5-Point Likert scale response around Instagram’s mission execution

So to recap, we have a participant pool that not only agrees that Instagram allows them to keep up with their friends, but also one that thinks Instagram does a good job in doing so. This seems promising, yes? A good ability to keep up with friends is a positive thing?? However, this is actually where our data seems to turn in the opposite direction, and where we begin crafting a more nuanced narrative.

Adding nuance

Despite a good ability to keep up with friends, when asking users about their Instagram experience, I found the data seems to skew more neutral to negative. For example, when asking users whether Instagram had an overall, positive impact on their lives, the response is predominantly neutral. I found this to be quite contrasting to the positive emotions that are often placed around the topic of “friends,” and also thought it was noticeable how the data appeared in a near, bell curve. This is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: 5-Point Likert scale response around “overall, positive” user, life impact.

Unlike the bell curve response around the “overall, positive” prompt, when asked about Instagram’s ability to negatively affect them, participants largely agreed that Instagram negatively affects them at times. This is shown in Figure 4, and again seems to place tension between this response and the responses in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 4: 5-Point Likert scale response around “negative” experience.

Switching from “impact” to “happiness” prompts, users still seemed to show a more “neutral” lean than I would have correlated with the idea of “friendship.” When asking about their happiness when viewing other’s posts, participants showed a slight lean towards “Agree” relative to “Neutral.” However, when asked about their happiness when using the Instagram platform, the response shifted to a predominantly “Neutral” response. These are shown in Figures 5 and 6, respectively.

Figure 5: 5-Point Likert scale response around derived “happiness” from viewing posts.

Figure 6: 5-Point Likert scale response around “happiness” experience when using Instagram.

To be clear, I don’t think these “neutral” to “negative” responses come from a lack of effort on the user end either. When asking prompts around effort put in posts, the data seems to show that participants, as a whole, largely care about how their followers respond to their posts – both at the time of posting, and preemptively. This is shown in Figures 7 and 8.

Figure 7: 5-Point Likert scale response around caring about one’s follower response.

Figure 8: 5-Point Likert scale response around preemptively caring about one’s follower response. 

That being said, when asking questions around expression, we found negative response in the data. This ranged from one’s ability to express themselves on Instagram (which had a right tail skew), to perceived differences between in-person and Instagram portrayals (left tail skew). These are shown in Figures 9 and 10, respectively.

Figure 9: 5-Point Likert scale response around ability to “express” one’s self on Instagram.

Figure 10: 5-Point Likert scale response around Instagram portrayals. 

Lastly, for the final illustrative piece of our narrative, we have the total participant response for whether or not they believe they have a healthy relationship with Instagram. Surprising to me, even with all the negative feedback raised throughout the other prompts, the majority of participants chose “Agree” as their response. This is shown in Figure 11.

Figure 11: 5-Point Likert scale response around having “a healthy relationship” with Instagram.

Condensing it all together, and a glimmer of hope

Condensing the narrative across all our chosen illustrations, I think the presented story is quite interesting. To start, we have a group of people who believe Instagram offers a chance for community,[3] and executes that mission well.[4]However, the platform’s impact on the users is predominantly neutral,[5] and the platform can affect them negatively at times.[6] There is, indeed, an investment into making and sharing posts via caring about their followers’ response,[7] yet there also seems to be issues with expression (i.e., “full expression,” and “different than reality”)[8]. All that being said, the majority feel they still have a healthy relationship with Instagram.[9] Does that not strike anyone else as a little off? Like, that there is more to the story here? 

I think some of the questions that arrive from this are fascinating, especially with regards to some of the nuance in the narrative. However, I also know that nuance is often accompanied by complexity, and thus, the final solution for bettering the user experience may be many iterations away. It may need equal nuance, and will go well beyond the outcomes of whatever I find in my study. 

That being said, I did have one final statistic that I wished to share with y’all… with it being something I consider a glimmer of hope. Out of our 385 participants, 95% of them said they would be interested in a follow-up study. I feel like for any study, this kind of response is abnormally high… and that makes me so, so happy. I feel like it is telling in that a) the participants also see that this is a problem, and b) that they are invested in solving the problem as well. If anything, that will make any future research in this space a little easier to achieve… and also makes me excited to continue to the rest of the data collection process. Dissertation results incoming, one step at a time.

[1] The 5-Point Likert format had the options of “Strongly Disagree,”  “Disagree,” “Neutral,” “Agree,” and “Strongly Agree.” They are represented in the bar graphs, in that order, on a scale of 1 to 5.

[2] As listed on their about page, Instagram states a similar narrative: “give the people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” 

[3] See Figure 1.

[4] See Figure 2.

[5] See Figure 3.

[6] See Figure 4.

[7] See Figures 7 and 8.

[8] See Figures 9 and 10.

[9] See Figure 11.

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