What Revolution Looks Like on Instagram

A computer scientist makes sense of 13,000 pictures taken during the 144 hours that changed Ukraine.

As anti-government protests escalated in Ukraine in February, activists took to Facebook and Twitter to popularize a name for the revolutionary movement. They called it "Euromaidan," after the pro-European bent of the demonstrators and the central square in the capital where they were massing. On both social networks, the watchword mingled with violent images from the pro-democracy uprising—scenes of police officers in riot gear, protesters donning gas masks, buildings ringed by burning tires, and streets reduced to rubble. Kiev seemed a city engulfed in flames.

But what if you had switched social networks? What if your lens for viewing the revolution hadn't been Twitter or Facebook, but something else?

These are the questions posed by Lev Manovich, a computer-science professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In his latest visual study “The Exceptional & The Everyday: 144 Hours in Kiev," Manovich explores the ways in which the photo-sharing service Instagram captured daily life alongside extreme strife during the headiest days of Euromaidan in February.

According to the study, Instagram activity in Kiev differed from that of Twitter and Facebook because “it was not used systematically for communication by protesters, oppositional parties or the government.”

"It offers a different picture than other social networks," the report argues, by providing "a visual account of the life in a city, the desires and imaginations of its people (or at least, people in their 20s), and their actions and thoughts during important social and political events.”

To grasp this less politicized picture, the CUNY professor collected and analyzed 13,208 images shared by 6,165 Instagram users in Kiev between February 17 and February 22.

In aggregate, the result is a mess of confetti-like images.

But up close, the montage is more meaningful. Below is an unfiltered, representative sample of pictures collected on the evening of February 18 (the night when government forces began a crackdown on Maidan protesters). The collection includes familiar Euromaidan images: fire-filled streets, rifle-toting men, blue-and-yellow flags, and so on. But it also includes everyday photos that are interwoven with the exceptional: duckface selfies, pet pictures, wildlife scenes.

Even when Manovich isolated the 10 percent of pictures in his data set that were tagged with some version of the word 'Euromaidan,' outliers like the mirror selfie (column 1, row 4) appear. The ordinary seeps into the extraordinary.

In discussing the theoretical basis for his work, Manovich cites the French author Georges Perec and his 1974 essay collection Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, in which Perec chides the media for prioritizing stories of “the untoward [and] the extra-ordinary.” Shunning sensationalism, Perec sought to capture the “infra-ordinary”—the "background noise" of everyday events in everyday spaces, all of which he could observe simply by staring out of a coffeeshop window in Paris.

Forty years later, Manovich has taken up Perec’s cause and translated it into the digital realm. “For Perec, it was a window in a café; for us, it’s the rectangle on the map defined by longitude and latitude coordinates passed to Instagram API,” he writes.

Images from Kiev, clustered together based on the shared visual principle of “a single subject in the center framed by light background.” (The Exceptional & The Everyday)

But Manovich isn’t just sitting idly and watching an unfiltered world pass by his viewfinder. He's making use of open-source tools to order and analyze the images he’s collected based on either visual principles of composition or quantifiable measures of space, time, and the frequency of recurring words or phrases.

These intentional orderings still produce surprising results. In creating a logarithmic graph of hashtags used by Kiev Instragrammers, Manovich found a glut of tags involving the word 'maidan' and other revolutionary slogans. Yet the chart also includes a cameo from the infra-ordinary world: In the lower left corner is a cluster of tags from a single user on a single theme: ballet. Even with Kiev aflame, someone was dancing.

One of Manovich’s most striking visualizations maps the location of Instagram posts over time. The image below is from February 17, the day before major clashes between police and protesters broke out.

The next image charts the density of pictures over the next five days, as violence mounted:

The bright blue cross at the center of the map is Maidan Square, where a teeming mass of people were scrambling to realize their revolution and document their part in it. Some may have even been taking selfies.