Instagram Ethnography in Uganda – Notes on Notes

anxiao.headshot.headshoulders.200pxEditor’s Note:  At Ethnography Matters, we love featuring the new generation of ethnographers who are experimenting with innovative techniques.

An Xiao Mina @anxiaostudio is a researcher, design strategist, and artist. She moved to Uganda for a few months to conduct ethnographic fieldwork. Instead of just using a traditional field toolkit (audio recorder, camera, notebook, laptop), An Xiao also incorporated social media apps into her documentation practice. In her first guest post on Ethnography Matters, An Xiao shares with us her methods for using Instagram and Tumblr to live fieldnote

An Xiao plays a central role in leading the ethnographic documentation of global memes. Her most recent talk dissects the political nature of memes in China. She writes about design and people on Core 77.  She has a  beautiful piece on the close collaboration of artists and villagers to save a Chinese village from demolition in Design Observer. And follow her on Instagram (@anxiaostudio) and tumblr for live fieldnotes! 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers



In October and part of November, I had the privilege to live and work in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and to spend additional time in nearby areas such as Masaka in Western Uganda and Oyam in Northern Uganda.  As I was traveling to explore technology use in urban and rural contexts around the country, I thought it would be a great opportunity to practice live fieldnotes on Tumblr and Instagram, a technique I picked up from Tricia Wang’s ethnographic practice.

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I found that live fieldnotes came naturally to me.  I took photos with multiple cameras–a Canon SLR, a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot, and of course my iPhone.  Thanks to Apple’s camera connection kit, I used my iPad to consolidate images, highlight my favorites, and then queue them up on Instagram.  Since I did not have regular internet access either via wifi or 3G, I would wait until I reached home to post them all.  The great convenience of Instagram is that it would then port the images directly to Tumblr and Flickr, where they would be tagged and sorted.

The benefit of this method is that I could write the notes immediately, jotting down first impressions before I’ve had extensive time to process and reflect.  This invariably leads to new thoughts and connections when I look back and develop more thoughtful field notes later down the road.  But I could do this with a private journal as well.  In my mind, the benefit of live fieldnotes is the conversations that they spark.  Inevitably, someone on my Tumblr or Instagram feed makes a comment or asks a question that helps me clarify my thinking.  Even a simple “like” from a number of people indicates a general curiosity about something I posted.

But social isn’t all of it.  The social activity on my Tumblr is noticeably slower than Instagram (i.e., I get a lot less feedback), but there’s a reason I also port my images there.  Although I enjoy Instagram’s new landing page, I find that my Tumblr layout, developed by Nerd Boyfriend Themes, is ideal for making connections and identifying trends with my findings.  The simple spatial arrangements–boxes upon boxes–makes for serendipitous encounters with my data, jumbled together with links and notes I’ve posted or reblogged from the internet.

New York design blog Core77 gave me the opportunity to share some of my live field notes, first on some of my general impressions, and second on technology uses in rural areas.  Doing design ethnography in a new cultural context is both challenging and rewarding, and being able to share my observations online has only helped me in thinking through what I’ve found.

I’ve reposted a few of my notes here:


A stereo outfitted for a memory stick. The stereo reads the music files and displays the song artist and title from themeta data while playing each song. I’ve not read much literature on this, but I’ve now seen USB stick music players in Kampala, Beijing, Manila and even Los Angeles. Enabled by a stereo, the sticks act effectively as a portable music player without the cost and risk associated with a pricier MP3 player. As with iPhone decks, USB-ready stereos also enable a social experience, as people swap in their own sticks with their own music mixes.


I spotted this two-way calculator in Fort Portal, in the west of Uganda. Big calculators like this are quite popular in places like Beijing, as they ensure clarity of price and can even be used for haggling between two people who don’t speak the same language. It was common in China to see the shopkeeper type in a calculation and turn the calculator around to face the client. The client then takes the opportunity to enter a new price. With the calculator above, the opportunity to haggle is lessened.


While spending time in Oyam, in northern Uganda, I saw a number of smart phones being used. This Nokia could play videos and music, display ebooks and of course capture photos, but it’s not connected to a data plan—nor were most smart phones I encountered in the region. Rather, individuals would find opportunities to access an Internet-enabled computer (most often at a net cafe) in nearby towns that do have the Internet, and they would download materials, which could range from Nigerian comedies dubbed in Luo, the local language, to educational materials about agriculture and business. In this regard, Ugandans used the device more like an iPod… which happened to have phone capabilities.


Finding a proper charge can be a challenge on the road. Youth visiting Aber Youth Center in Oyam often use the opportunity to top up their batteries. This power strip is connected to an ICT center developed by UNICEF, and the center receives its power via solar cells on the roof. Most feature phones, like the one I purchased in Uganda, have long battery lives. I often didn’t need to charge for three or four days at a time, and I got so used to this that even now that I’m back in the US, I still forget to bring a charger for my iPhone, which burns its battery quickly in a full day of usage.

3 Responses to “Instagram Ethnography in Uganda – Notes on Notes”

  1. SanNuvola
    December 12, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    It’s very 2.0 and social, sure, but I’d like to remind fellow hipnographers that Tumblr (and Instagram too, I suppose, but I don’t have first-hand experience on this) gives you no guarantee about your data: Tumblr has the right to shut down your wonderful collection of notes and pictures, without even noticing you, for reasons clear only to themselves (that, as specified in their ToS, they are not even meant to clarify). Moreover, once your Tumblr gets suspended, you have no way of getting a backup of your data from the admins, while the pictures remain in the Tumblr archives for, who knows, maybe commercial repurposing or legal accountability. In short, everything you put on Tumblr is there until Tumblr likes it.

    I had almost one year of visual materials and fieldnotes from an online ethnographic project about the chinese Internet and I used Tumblr to collect in a diachronic fashion memes and user generated content. One day, a cute, funny, innocente picture of a naked kid with his dog went viral on Chinese social media and I immediately included it in my tumblr. Hours later, Tumblr suspended my account for child pornography and bestiality and, despite several mails of clarification and promises not to ever post again pictures containing what they defined “animal-child pornography” (that wasn’t EVEN censored by Chinese websites), I still can’t have my material back. Fortunately I kept a backup folder with all the pictures, but the tags and upload dates are lost.

    So, yeah, have fun on Tumblr but do backups. And consider using chinese social media to share stuff, way better than the american fakefreedom.

  2. December 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    lol, nice place of discussion uh?


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