The idea of online identity is growing rapidly and now encompasses concepts of visual communication, which is essentially a way of discussing theme, image, and aesthetic. Content creators are utilizing means of visual communication—an element of visual rhetoric—to present an image of themselves to their selected audience. Each choice in color, angle, lighting, order of photos, and more influences the feeling and image of the person. This careful and deliberate choice in image not only allows people to get a general understanding of the individual as soon as they land on their social media feed, it also says a great deal about who the content creator is as a whole. The different tools that can be used through social media have evolved the way people can present themselves, how they want others to perceive them, and overall, who they are as a person. Both online and offline identities stem from one, original, authentic personality.
Through analyzing the works of visual communication, online identity, and self-presentation scholars, and comparing four different YouTuber’s methods of online self-presentation through visual cues on Instagram and YouTube, I will address how curating a social media identity through visual communication has a greater implication on a person’s identity as a whole.
To establish a foundation of online identity, Ilire Zajmi-Rugova addresses the concept of social media identity and how “identity formation as a social concept is being transformed” due to social media (Zajmi-Rugova, 2015, pg. 331). Zajmi-Rugova’s paper on online identity accurately addresses how different social platforms are utilized when an individual is creating an online identity, but glosses over the actual uses of each platform. He sees online identity in the most basic sense of having a digital presence and only expands upon it by bringing in how communication, language, and interactions on the platforms add to one’s online identity. As a result, Zajmi-Rugova discusses something as complex as online identity only through data sets.
Looking at visual rhetoric aspect of the paper, Melissa Johnson and Keon Pettiway are the only authors in the selected literatures who go into the specific aspects of visual communication when it comes to online identity and their greater meanings. The visuals add depth and dimension to any given content. Johnson uses two visual cues— color and typography—to analyze a museum’s cultural expression and projection of African Americans.
Despite its recent publication, Alice Marwick’s paper on online identity in companion to new media is slightly dated as it references the use of MySpace. However, there are concepts that still hold true and translate to today’s forms of social media. While Johnson provides specific cues to how each visual component adds to online identity, Marwick provides a generalized, overarching idea that “identity in social media is often expressed through customization” (Marwick, 2013, pg. 6). Additional, Marwick relates to Zajmi-Rugova’s basic information standpoint when she states, “people often use multiple social sites simultaneously, creating an ecosystem where they maintain the same username and basic information across social platforms” (Marwick, 2013, pg. 6). However, she goes beyond Zajmi-Rugova’s point when she says this cross-platform utilization adds to the complication of ideas of self-presentation (Marwick, 2013, pg. 6).
Jess Reingold (2018), an educator of digital identity at the University of Mary Washington, explains how branding with a theme or interest can help set an individual or business apart from friends or competition. In an interview, she discussed the greater implication of having a visual aspect in an online identity. For example, the landing page of the Instagram profile or website can provide the visitor a sense of who the person is based on the overall visual tones of color palettes, architecture, and other aspects that build-up to the person’s aesthetic look.
While Reingold, a millennial, had a more positive understanding of how an aesthetic through visual cues can benefit an individual, Martha Burtis (2018), another educator of digital persona, presents a more philosophical thought to branding and how it can hinder the natural growth of identity. She states it is “a strong compulsion in human nature to want to control a narrative of who they are” and the current tools through social media allow individuals to control that narrative in ways that others have not been able to in the past. While she believes it is a “charming and powering” idea, she said she worries that it will discourage people, because she has witnessed individuals struggle when dealing with a highly curated and branded social media. Even when trying to change that natural narrative through social media, it can be seen as a “construct.”
Madison Ganda (2014) ties in the concepts of offline and online self-presentation and draws on their differences. Ganda also focuses on how social media impacts the formation of identity, which will be beneficial to my research since both focus specifically on social media identity and its greater influence of identity. Ganda goes beyond Marwick and Zajmi-Rugova’s basic idea of online identity as a social construct by bringing in sociologist Erving Goffman who focalized in human social interaction and self-presentation. Goffman’s claims are applied to modern concepts of online presentation, which the other sources neglect. Lastly, Dieneke Boer (2016) applies similar concepts of self-presentation and online identity of the other sources but lacks the concept of visual communication. Boer further addresses the societal norm and concept of online presentation. Her research is more conceptually applied than other sources.
Customization of online identity through visual cues is a societal constructive way of self-presentation online, which allows individuals to control the narrative of who they are. The specific aspects of visual communication add depth and dimension to any given content (Johnson, 2016). While Johnson specifically applies the concepts of visual communication, those same concepts can be applied elsewhere. I will be comparing four different YouTuber’s content on Instagram and a YouTube channel to serve as examples of how visual rhetoric influences the creation of an online identity. Further, the term, “aesthetic,” will be the buzz word used to sum up all the visual cues used on social media.
The four YouTubers
Sarah Belle, Tasha Farsaci, Margot Lee, and Kalyn Nicholson are all YouTubers who post videos regularly in addition to having their own Twitter, Instagram, and website. The four allow for easy comparison because they use the same platforms, but each has a unique style. Additionally, they all live in different parts of the country. Belle resides in Nashville, Farsaci in Southern California, Lee in Syracuse, and Nicholson in Toronto, Canada. Since they all live in different areas with different lifestyles, their interests vary and therefore are simply comparable. Moreover, Belle and Nicholson are outside of the traditional college-age whereas Farsaci and Lee are still attending college which diversifies the age range. The different ways the four YouTubers curate their online identity through visual cues can speak greatly to how visual rhetoric plays a strong role in how they present themselves to their audience and what it says about their identity.
Creation of an Instagram Identity through Visual Rhetoric
Having an aesthetic mirrors the same conclusion as Johnson’s idea on color and typography as identification of cultural expression. An aesthetic consists of a similar color palette, content, lighting, angle, aspect ratio, etc. A vibe can be created from an aesthetic; these elements of an aesthetic speak to a person’s identity and the image they wish to convey. Color is used to identify “people, places and things, as well as classes of people, places and things, and more general ideas” (Johnson, 2017, pg. 356). Furthermore, a color palette and content can speak to their lifestyle and vibe. In figure 1, Nicholson uses the colors pink, blue, green, and generally softer colors to showcase a lighter and breezier lifestyle of travel, yoga, and peaceful nature. In contrast, as seen in figure 2, Sarah Belle uses warmer tones of orange and brown to show the Southern, Nashville charm she promotes. Going beyond color, Nicholson (figure 1) switches the content of every other photo. She is photographed in the photo, then the next photo is a scenic shot, and the photo after that is of her. This switch-off is a deliberate decision she has made as stated in at least one of five “How I Edit my Instagram” videos. Further, this switch off provides a nice balance of content to her profile feed. Belle (figure 2), however, is featured in every single one of her photos which draws attention to her, specifically as a public figure.
Lighting, angle, aspect ratio, and even typography, all speak to a content creator’s personal, unique, artistic element. Lighting can be manipulated with editing tools, but having consistent lighting throughout the photos can make a feed look more cohesive. Tasha Farsaci’s photos (figure 3) are all taken during the day and overall, it looks clean and unified. However, seemingly random dark photos periodically dispersed throughout bright photos may disrupt the flow of the feed which detracts from the overall visual aesthetic.
Angle is another visual cue to consider when thinking and speaking about aesthetic as a creator’s artistic element. Angles highlight different aspects of what the creator is trying to show. For example, Belle and Farsaci, two YouTubers who are in every photo they post to Instagram, we can see how they emphasize different parts of the photo. There is movement in Belle’s poses (figure 2) whereas Farsaci’s poses appear to be staged (figure 4). The movement in Belle’s photos focuses the attention on her clothes. The concentration on the clothes fits her role on Instagram since she promotes the clothing on her Instagram Stories and encourages her followers to go purchase the outfit (figure 8). Contrarily, Farsaci has two poses that she uses, which puts the attention on how she wears the clothes rather than keeping the focus on the clothing items themselves. As stated in some of her Instagram Stories, Farsaci is insecure about her height so her poses aim to make her appear taller, which turns the attention away from the clothes. For example, she consistently is pictured with one leg pointed out to elongate her legs (figure 5). Other poses include her curving her back and kneeling (figure 6), which also make her appear taller. An aesthetic can aid content creators when they strive to establish an image online. All these cues of visual rhetoric which create an aesthetic to an individual’s online identity are elements of who they are.
Typography as a Visual Cue
While YouTube is a video sharing and viewing platform, typography plays a huge role in how a YouTuber establishes their image. Because YouTubers curate their videos using external software, they are able to personalize their content. This allows for more creativity, and more space for their personality to show. In addition to editing style and other visual cues already discussed, typography “also serves as a visual cue of cultural expression” (Johnson, 2017, pg. 356) and typographic elements have “character, spirit, and personality” (Bringhurst, 2004, pg. 99). The type of typography an individual uses contributes to the way they present themselves to their audience. Referring to figure 6, Nicholson uses a typewriter font which makes the typewriting sound when played in her videos which creates a classic feeling whereas Lee uses her own handwriting which emphasizes the uniqueness and personal touch she adds to her videos. There are many visual cues an individual can use to influence the way the audience views them and it can get as specific as typography.
Implication of Visual Rhetoric on Identity
When discussing aesthetic, the field of visual rhetoric often leaves out the importance of visual appeal in developing an aesthetic online. In addition, the visual appeal in an aesthetic has also not been associated with identity. Jessica Leardish (2016) claims an aesthetic provides visual consistency and cohesiveness to an individual’s feed. The visual consistency tells an overall story about the content, and ultimately, the person behind the content. Reingold addresses this idea further by stating, “a person can go on the landing page of their Instagram or website and get a sense of who the person is based on the visual tones that build-up to the person’s aesthetic look” (J. Reingold, personal interview, April 25, 2018). Furthermore, while visual cues provide cohesiveness to a feed or page and tie all the individual’s social media together, those same cues can also help the individual stand out from others. The concept of online identity has stemmed far beyond the basic data information an individual provides to include deeper concepts of self-presentation and personality. Therefore, the general idea of identity has changed to encompass this visual aspect of digital presentation.
The deliberate choices in visual cues that can be made by an individual while curating an online identity comes from wanting to control a narrative online. Burtis stated it is a “strong compulsion in human nature to want to control a narrative of who they are” (M. Burtis, personal interview, April 25, 2018). The idea that individuals can control every aspect of how they present themselves online has evolved what an identity is to include these aspects. Before, online identity was not considered when talking about someone’s identity. However, now, an online presence is included in someone’s greater identity.
While social media has expanded the concept of identity, it has also established a societal construct that may have greater consequences on the progression of someone’s greater identity. Now that individuals control the narrative of themselves, Burtis (2018) said a strict aesthetic can hinder the natural growth of identity for better or for worse. An individual might be discouraged in exploring other interests or lifestyles because when they go to post on social media, it does not fit their theme, aesthetic, or the image they have spent so long creating. Zajmi-Rugova adds, “social media identity is regarded as an ‘extension of everyday life and cultural change tool.’ So, identity formation as a social concept is being transformed with new global methods” (Zajmi-Rugova, 2015, pg. 331). There is no real separation of offline and online life anymore. Burtis (2018) states even when the natural narrative and interests change, changing the narrative on social media is a construct. This can be evident in the sudden changes in color palette and overall tone of Nicholson’s Instagram as she goes through the year and life changes. As seen in figure 7, from May 2017 to May 2018, Nicholson went through three visually noticeable phases in life. The photos from May 2017 are a little grungier featuring dark colors, leather jackets, and a badass vibe. Then, the photos become cozier with an orange and grey color palette that fits the October and Halloween season. Now, her photos are more nature based on a calmer color palette of pink, orange, and blue, which conveys a carefree lifestyle. While she keeps the balance of nature and self-photos, the visual cues demonstrate she went through changes in interests. As an individual naturally changes through their life, their choices in visual cues and how they present themselves on social media changes with them.
Social identity construction, and in this case, social media identity construction, stems from Goffman’s work on how an individual controls others’ understanding of who they are as a whole. An individual has the ability to post about their interests, hobbies, books, movies, “blurbs or pictures of activities they engage in as a way to guide their audience into creating understandings of them,” which supports “the idea that people guide others and create certain images and desired impressions of self for others to attain knowledge about them is similar to selective posting online” (Ganda, 2014, pg. 10). While this idea exhibits the basic ideas of social media in regard to content, visual cues are more selective when controlling the narrative online. Therefore, curating an identity on social media networks through visual cues is a controlled presentation of identity.
Visual communication and visual cues are ways visual rhetoric has an influence in how individuals present themselves online. If the goal of rhetoric is to persuade, the deliberate choices made in visual cues serve as a method of persuasion in influencing how an audience looks and understands an individual. Marwick (2013) refers to other scholars to conclude customization on social media through fonts, pictures, and videos is what makes up an identity. Further, “these items become symbolic markers of personal identity” (Papacharissi, 2002) and “the online presence becomes something to be ‘worked on’ and perfected” (Perkel, 2008). As individuals change, the content and customization change to reflect their interests and the life they want to express. For example, the serene tone and features of nature and yoga are tied with Nicholson’s greater identity. The visual cues serve as symbolic, customizable items an audience can use to recognize and identify an individual. Moreover, visual cues are used to persuade the audience the individual has a certain identity which classifies this action as visual rhetoric.
As the way individuals use the online platform changes, it is important to consider the evolving techniques people use online and what that says about their greater self. My research takes it further than other sources by focusing on online visual cues and influences of visual rhetoric. Other sources featured in this research focus either on the presentation of self or the general customization and idea of online identity and only one scholar specifically focuses on how visual communication affects the overall atmosphere of a place. My overall analysis adds value to the field, because it adds examples of current and popular social media aesthetics, creating an image online, and how to get popular on social media. While Boer’s thesis and my research are similar, Boer narrows in on the hipster and fashion culture whereas my research touches on how specific interest cultures may influence the way an individual posts content online. My analysis is also more current than the established research done even though it has only by a few years. The way people use online tools changes rapidly and as a result, research in this field becomes dated quickly. Moreover, some sources do not address how visual cues can serve as visual rhetoric. They understand the influences of visual communication but do not address the concept that is occurring.
In studying this topic, I found there was a lack of qualitative studies. In-depth research can be done to see if the image the audience reaches is what the individual wanted to be perceived and their decisions in visual cues translated to their audience. As of May 2018, there are roughly 15,400,000 videos on how a YouTuber edits their Instagram photo. However, the YouTubers rarely address why they edited the photo in the way they did besides the fact they liked the way it looked. Furthermore, the anthropological nature of my research and topic speaks greatly to how human culture is developing with stronger controls in narrative through online tools.
Throughout this research, I have found what scholars say about visual communication and the concept of online identity lines up with the choices of self-presentation of the YouTubers I follow. Visual cues such as lighting, angle, color palette, and content are all elements of visual rhetoric when it is used to persuade an audience to think a certain way about an individual and who they are. Curating an online identity through visual cues is a way of visual rhetoric that feeds into an individual’s online persona and evolves the way we think about the greater concept of identity.
Figure 1. Kalyn Nicholson’s Instagram feed. This image illustrates the aesthetic, color palette, and other elements of visual communication.
Figure 2. Sarah Belle Elizabeth’s Instagram feed. This image illustrates her aesthetic of warmer tones of orange and brown in addition to other elements of visual cues of angle and content.
Figure 3. Tasha Farsaci’s Instagram feed. This image illustrates lighting, an element of visual communication.
Figure 4. Tasha Farsaci’s Instagram feed. This image illustrates her poses and angles.
Figure 5. Tasha Farsaci’s Instagram photos. These images provide a better look at how she poses.
Figure 6. Kalyn Nicholson’s YouTube typography (left) and Margot Lee’s YouTube typography (right). These images compare two different methods of using typography on the same platform.
Figure 7. Kalyn Nicholson’s three Instagram feeds throughout the past year. These images show changes in aesthetic from a year ago to Halloween to now.
Figure 8. Comparison between Sarah Belle Elizabeth’s Instagram photo and Instagram Story. These images show how she uses her Instagram to promote her clothing.
Boer, D. (2016). The Construction of an Online Identity.
Burtis, M. (2018, April 25). Personal interview.
Bringhurst, R. (2004). The elements of typographic style. Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks.
Ganda, M. (2014). Social Media and Self: Influences on the Formation of Identity and
Understanding of Self through Social Networking Sites (Unpublished master’s thesis).
Portland State University. Retrieved April 24, 2018.Goffman, E., 1959. The presentation
of self in everyday life, New York: Doubleday.
Johnson, M. A., & Pettiway, K. M. (2017). Visual Expressions of Black Identity: African
American and African Museum Websites. Journal of Communication, 67(3), 350-377.
Learish, J. (2016, May 18). How To Create A Theme For Your Instagram Feed. Retrieved April
23, 2018, from https://www.bustle.com/articles/161198-what-are-instagram-themes-5
Marwick, A. (2013). “Online Identity.” In Hartley, J., Burgess, J. & Bruns, A. (eds), Companion
to New Media Dynamics. Blackwell Companions to Cultural Studies. Malden, MA:
Blackwell, pp. 355-364.
Papacharissi, Z., 2002. The presentation of self in virtual life: Characteristics of personal home
pages. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 79(3), pp.643–660.
Perkel, D., 2008. Copy and paste literacy? Literacy practices in the production of a MySpace
profile. In K. Drotner, H. S. Jensen, & K. Schroeder, eds. Informal Learning and Digital
Media: Constructions, Contexts, Consequences. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars
Publishing, pp. 203–224.
Reingold, J. (2018, April 25). Personal interview.
Zajmi – Rugova, I. (2015). Online identity (Master’s thesis, AAB College). Pristina. Retrieved
April 24, 2018.