The Visual Turn in Social Media: Seeing Ourselves Through Technology

Building upon McLuhan’s concept of ‘medium is the message’, the digital environment, the way we use media, and the surrounding culture of media platforms is ever-evolving. As the way we use and draw meaning from digital media changes, rifts between users and non-users appear due to misunderstandings/conflicting vernaculars. Understanding the effect of emerging vernaculars on wider society and culture is essential for digital literacy.


Older generations have a problem with the way Generation Y and Millennials use technology for work, study and everyday life (Venter, 2017), resulting in an impression of superficiality, disrespectful and narcissism, reinforced by culturally conflicting vernaculars. The funeral selfie is the epitome of vanity, conceit and disrespect (Meese et al., 2015, p.1818).


In previous decades, photography primarily served as a special remembrance tool, however with the advent of digital photography, its primary function shifted to communication, sharing moments, maintaining social connections or relationships and for identity formation. Social media platforms have their own conventions and logics created by both the architecture of the platform and user’s appropriation (Meese et al., 2015, p.1819), thus there is a reconfiguration of contexts for communication, self-expression and culture production.


Let us first look at conventions arising from the architecture- Instagram has no communal space for public convergence and participants are restricted to posting on their own accounts (Meese et al., 2015, p.1819). These posts are collated into similar groups via hashtags, contributing to a perceived vanity, insensitivity and egotism, however these are necessary architectural functions.


The functions of this architecture give rise to vernacular conventions derived from user appropriation. Participants use Instagram as a means of social connection and self-expression. Meese et al. found that the majority of #funeral selfie posts had captions conveying the sorrow of the occasion and remembrance (Meese et al., 2015, p.1822), eliciting comments of support and condolence from followers. Therefore, the funeral selfie is about expressing grief, context of identity and as a means of ‘presencing’. Milne (2003) describes presencing as “the degree to which geographically dispersed agents experience a sense of physical and/or psychological proximity through the use of communication technologies” (Milne, 2003). Presencing also serves two functions other than grief support- the expression of identity, and a digital equivalent of signing the register.


Therefore when we analyse the funeral selfie through the medium, it is clear the funeral selfie is a digital extension of traditional cultural grief expression and ritual. Our generation is more connected than ever and remains more so than older generations. The environment we are connected in is continually evolving new cultures and conventions, therefore continual analysis is necessary for digital literacy and understanding socio-cultural relationships.


Word Count: 436.

Reference List:

Meese, J., Gibbs, M., Carter, M., Arnold, M., Nansen, B. and Kohn, T. (2015). Selfies at Funerals: Mourning and Presencing on Social Media Platforms. International Journal of Communication, 9, pp.1818-1831.

Milne, E. (2003). FCJ-010 Email and Epistolary technologies: Presence, Intimacy, Disembodiment. The Fibreculture Journal, [online] (2). Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2017].

Venter, E. (2017). Bridging the communication gap between Generation Y and the Baby Boomer generation. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, [online] pp.1-11. Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2017].


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