Scholarship: NCA 2022, “Installectual participation”

#BlackLivesMatter, Instagram Slideshows, and participatory sensibilities in Summer 2020

This paper was presented at the 2022 National Communication Association for the Critical and Cultural Studies division in a panel entitled “Algorithms and Public Culture.”

This is a Slideshow about Slideshows

Hello! Thanks for having me. My name is Matthew Salzano, and I’m a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland. My paper today is entitled “Installectual participation: BlackLivesMatter, Instagram Slideshows, and participatory sensibilities in Summer 2020.”

This is a slideshow about slideshows. If you were on Instagram during Summer 2020, you probably encountered graphics like these. Using Instagram’s carousel feature, users uploaded up to ten swipeable images per post to circulate social justice information on the platform.

My paper reckons with how the slideshow “formats” participation, as one particularly notable phenomenon to understand the infrastructure of digital civic life. I ask: What sensibilities of digital participation are being generated in this moment, and how do they enable and constrain coalitional movements for intersectional justice?

In today’s presentation, I identify a sensibility of participation generated by these slideshows that I call an “Installectual participatory sensibility.”

  1. To understand how the slideshow specifically formats participation, I begin by sharing a rhetorical history of the slideshow.
  2. Second, I reveal how users of Instagram slideshows build on these features and format a sensibility of participation.
  3. Finally, I argue that this installectual sensibility, while helpfully attuned to access and information, remains tethered to modes of judgment that tie participation in social justice projects to the metrics that benefit digital platforms, metrics that must be questioned in projects seeking intersectional justice.

I. Rhetorical History of the Slideshow

20-fb738133155a76d66d0711b82f7f3a47-Microsoft PowerPoint 2.0 - About

In the late 19th century, lantern slides technology allowed the projection of photographic images. Lantern shows, featuring a presenter who displayed images along with a lecture or performance, were popular entertainment at the turn of the 20th century. (Examples abound: Muckraker Jacob Riis used lantern slides to tell audiences about the living conditions of New York Tenements. Katie Good has studied how slideshows were used by local newspapers and U.S. schools for citizen education.)

In the 1930s and 40s, two technological developments made these slides even more accessible. Kodak’s Kodachrome color slide and overhead transparencies. By the 60s and 70s, these technologies were widespread and allowed people and organizations of all sorts to hold their own slideshows: churches, offices, home photos, and so on.

PowerPoint, a word now nearly synonymous for the slideshow, arrived in the late 80s to serve office needs. (In the workplace, slides and overhead projectors afforded different purposes. Slideshows could be prepared by a corporate art department to deliver professional-grade slides where as overhead slides could be typewritten or felt-pen-written to give a presentation to a crowd without as much preparation or cost.) PowerPoint creators Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin wanted to create something that looked as professional as the slide with the ease of use of the overhead.

I identify three conventions of the slideshow + speaker presentation. These conventions of the slideshow, crystallized most clearly in the 20th century, will serve as an antecedent and contrast to the installectual slideshows that are the focus of this paper.

  1. Slides invite audiences into a shared community. Each creates a viewing public: a community of people experiencing something together. Texts create publics.
  2. The use of slides can build (or break) ethos. The professor must have a slide to keep the student engaged, the use of the image of a work of art shows the critic’s prowess, the appearance of a slide onto a building projects or disrupts confidence, and the artful use of the slide at home makes one feel like a moviemaker.
  3. The form of the slideshow privileges certain epistemologies. What can be understood by the audience of the slide? The bullet point, the interruption, the image.

Detailing these genres and features of slideshows allows us to see how slideshows format participation.

II. (Re)formatting Slideshow Participation for Instagram

Instagram is both uniquely formatted for slideshow participation and remediates the practice. Three features of Instagram stand out here.

Instagram intensifies interactions of corporate power + slide-making

In 2019, Facebook reported that 500 million users used the Instagram stories feature every day. Microsoft Powerpoint’s dominance meant that corporate tech giant had massive influence on everyday presenters, who were, on average, creating nine PowerPoint presentations per month as early as 1999. But users check their Instagram feeds daily—or if you’re like me, multiple times per day. Both have become a part of the social infrastructure of every day life, but Instagram at a intensified frequency. Plus, Instagram slideshows feed an entirely different corporate profit structure—one predicated on data collection. People rely on Instagram as a primary communication infrastructure while the platform remains invested in its own capital interests—that is, despite being used to build publics, the platform is only invested in sustaining collective life insofar as it generates profits.


Instagram is templatable

Leaver, Highfield, and Abidin identify that aesthetics on Instagram are readily repeated by users to make their content appealing and recognizable to others—that is, Instagram is a templatable logic. Similarly, Slideshow templates have generated innumerable private and public events of massive popularity: not only were traveling lantern shows popular events, but part of Microsoft PowerPoint’s origin story is that developers created automatic content to help users intimidated by blank slides. Instagram’s photographic templatabilty was resonant with—and intensified—the templatabilty of slides.

Privileges the speaker – influencers

Interestingly, much like part of the attraction of lantern slides was the personality of the slideshow purveyor, there are now a number of Instagram influences who exclusively generate slideshows about contemporary issues meant to be shared widely.

These three platform features make Instagram and the slideshow compatible. In June 2020, reporters Emily Stewart and Shirin Ghaffary noted that slideshows shifted Instagram from being an “escape from the real world — and politics” to “the platform for widespread conversations in the United States about racism and how to combat it.” The pandemic changed how users responded to the platform’s demand for constant content to stay relevant on the feeds of your followers. Creating and re-sharing political content on slideshows provided a way to participate on Instagram: while stuck at home, one could create or re-share text-based content.

The slideshow thus provided a formatted guide for political participation on Instagram. One took to a design platform like Adobe InDesign or, created a few square slides, and uploaded them in a carousel post on Instagram. Then, others share the posts on their story, signaling: I read (looked at) this, you should read (look at) this, this is important!

Now, I want to show a few examples to explore what was positive – and what was limiting about this sensibility.

III. Installectuals

Installectual is a double portmanteau: it is both Instagram + intellectual and instant + intellectual. Prioritizing prompt communication and application to current events, installectual work is resonant with the temporality of networked publics (instantaneous) and accessible to a wider audience than even reporting or commentary in a major newspaper (Instagram). Installectual participation draws on the instantaneity and visuality of Instagram to resonate.

Credibility: Authority to open up participation

By relying on the credibility-building function of slideshows, an Installectual sensibility opened participation beyond tired conversations of ‘slacktivism’. 

In Summer 2020, the conversation about slacktivism was animated by a particular incident: #BlackoutTuesday. On June 2, 2020, Instagrammers posted millions of black squares on Instagram, hijacking a social media stunt originally meant to stay within the recording community. As more and more users shared black squares, some started to add # BlackLivesMatter and began drowning out the content on that hashtag, which had previously been a gathering place for information about the movement. The black squares became a key example of what performative activism was—and what not to do.

In contrast, Instagram slideshows detailed what online allyship could look like. @sa.liine’s tie-dye themed “Virtual Protesting 101” provided a guide for how to use Instagram to protest. The first slide offered: “Black people do not need reminders that Black lives matter. Let’s target our posts towards the people that need to see and hear it. Time to use the algorithm to our advantage.” One slide offered hashtags to use in order to disrupt anti-Black Lives Matter content, such as # blueline, # buildthewall, # womenfortrump. And one of the last slides offered guidance on how to do so safely, without identifying people who could be targeted by “the oppressors” who see the images.

The Instagram slideshow takes on the authority of the educational lecture—much like the professor’s slides will be on the test, the influencer’s slides will be the metric for success. Instead of being stymied by a debate about whether or not to post a Black square or encouraging people to go to the streets if they could, these widely-circulated posts simply issued down 10 commandments. Since Instagram images aren’t hyperlink-able like a webpage, the viewer of an Instagram slideshow has to either trust the research of the Instagram user or leave the platform to do their own research on every point being made.

Constraints: Participation, as digitality can render it

The flipside of the slideshow’s authoritative quality is how it prioritizes what is visualized as the truth and deprioritizes what cannot be visualized. In the platformed world of Instagram, Installectual participation prioritizes ‘posting’ as the valuable metric for participation. @ghostdump’s slideshow, “Why the refusal to post online is often inherently racist” has received more than 400,000 likes. The post explains:

If you’re anxious about what your peers will think, or if people will try to fight you, take a look at the people you surround yourself with. If they would fight or make fun of you, they are the problem. They are the oppressor we are trying to educate and get rid of. . . . A refusal to post is, at its core, a refusal to give up your comfort. A refusal to give up your power as a privileged individual. To sit in silence is to let people die.

The post is right to call out the hypocrisy of people who wish for change but are silent and unwilling to call out injustice, and risk being uncomfortable in their communities. But its nexus is on posts: sharing Instagram slideshows! Other posters also highlighted posting as the primary way to break silence and engage in activism.

The priority of posting hides the reality of social change in the 21st century.

First, social change requires more than posting. Posting is meaningless—Sara Ahmed would call it non-performative—if the posts are disconnected from the substantive work of actually changing one’s perspective and behavior, of prompting connections to new communities, and of committing to new practices of participation. Posting can be a way into that – but posting alone is not enough to stop being “inherently racist.”

Second, posting as an abstract rhetorical directive misses the subtleties of context that could make a post persuasive. At the most obvious level, the authoritative tone taken within a perceived community of like-minded-leftists is going to land differently among a group of white supremacists. But in Instagram’s algorithm, who is even to say if the user’s imagined target audience will even see their post? Research group Algorithm Watch suggests text is deprioritized on the feed of many Instagram users. In general, reports suggest that Instagram is not exactly a place where much ideological challenging happens naturally. Our social media connectedness will not solve our rhetorical ills.


Instagram slideshows continue. In the past few months, slideshow creators have been circulating both good and completely false information about protests in Iran.

The recurrence of Instagram slideshows around new issues suggests that an Installectual sensibility is oriented toward further concern. The sensibility has contributed to forming a background expectation that our communicative spaces should generate concern about controversial, political issues. And insofar as that concern has implicated many different social justice concerns—it is generating energy toward coalitional efforts for intersectional justice.

This sensibility should be both deeply exciting and a bit daunting. We can be encouraged that Installectual participation is orienting Instagram toward conversations about justice and civic life, on one hand. The platform is now considered Gen Z’s primary source of news and commentary. The slideshows are examples of a culture rich with information and rhetors who want to arrange it, deliver it, and use it for more invention. But on the other hand, the affordances of the slideshow, especially its remediated form on Instagram, may discourage complex thoughts about process and context. Instead, they seemingly prioritize the authoritative command. As our attentions are being re-directed, let us not lose sight of the opportunity at hand—to see how slideshows may be one part of a thriving rhetorical culture that we can build together.

Related projects

Victoria Ledford and I published a teaching activity in Communication Teacher that might help you use Instagram Slideshows in your class. 

The DH project for my dissertation, the Instagram Slideshow Archive, is publicly available (but still in beta). 

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