Do we make social media, or does it make us?

“According to this {the structuralist} perspective, people don’t ‘think or speak ideas’ or make meanings. In fact, the very idea of a ‘free subject’ is, ironically, a meaning that is produced by a culture, and that controls our thinking and behaviour.” (Danaher 2000, 8)

In the ‘notes’ app on my phone, I try and make a list of everything that inspires me to overthink and get into a spiral of non-stop thoughts. Whenever I read or see an interesting idea or citation, I add it to my list. In this case, I could use the inspiration, so I scrolled through my list and stumbled upon this citation. It came from a book I was reading to better understand Michel Foucalt’s theories, so the name seems obvious: Understanding Foucault (2000). This resulted in me wondering about the idea of structuralism, and how this can be applied to social media as well.

(Post)Structuralism: a short introduction

First of all, what is structuralism? Structuralism is a way of understanding meaning as ‘relational’: “In other words, events, ideas and activities didn’t ‘mean anything’ in themselves – they only made sense when related to other events, ideas and activities.” (Danaher 2000, 7) This structuralist perspective, introduced by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and taken further by Michel Foucault, meant that they started to analyze cultural phenomena differently. Not by themselves, but in their own circles, their own contexts and their own cultures. This also led to the idea that ‘we’, as subjects, might not be as free as we might think we are.

The idea that we do not only speak for ourselves or be ‘free’ of cultural structures is relevant more than ever. We all are trapped within our systems, within our cultures and within our societies. And thus these create our behaviours and influence it in the ways we think and follow. I think this is a very interesting angle to try and apply to social media platforms, that create the idea we are free to say and do anything we want, that the users are free subjects, but that this might not be the case.

Social media is one of the places where most people have the idea that they are free to create and state. Free to create their own persona, their own profile (which is already a very complex ordeal). And within this profile the freedom to comment, create and speak ideas. But are we actually as free as we might anticipate?

Social media through the eyes of a structuralist

This idea that we are always bound by the structures of our cultures and societies reveals something very valid: that we can never be totally free. We are bound to hidden structures of the platforms themselves and also the relation of those platforms to one another and within our shared culture. Social media platforms, in a way, create their own cultures. They have their own rules, their own agency and a way the users have to use them. But also, structures that are underneath the surface. Certain unspoken rules of the platforms, that have specific connotations for groups of users.

Take Instagram for example. On Instagram there used to be this ambition of having ‘the perfect feed’ which for some people involved only using the same filter, or only showing certain pictures of themselves with the same exact face. Or maybe only posting a certain amount of pictures a week otherwise there was the fear of ‘not being relevant.’ All of these ‘ways of doing Instagram’ create their own small culture. You can even be distinguished or excluded from it: “Oh she does not have Instagram” which immediately comes with a certain connotation or judgment, not being present on social media is, in a way, not being present.

Of course, I am exaggerating a bit. But just try and imagine social media platforms as all of these small subculture hubs. These places where people come together, act in a certain way and live their life on the media platforms. The only way to completely understand the way these social media platforms work is to be part of one. Thus, the only way to analyze their influence and significance is by being part of the social media cultures.

Bound to the platform

When we see social media platforms as small subcultures we can see the way they dominate our behaviour. We have to Snapchat this event, we have to post this on Instagram, we have to show our followers! But internally, within the apps, we also have different ways of using it that define who we ‘are’ on the app and define how we are seen by others. With and without knowing we are not as free to post whatever we want, because we always are tied to the underlying structures of the app that, in a way, form our behaviour and interaction with the app. But also our interactions with others through the app.

The app controls a part of how we interact within the apps: through a ‘like’, or a ‘thumbs up’ or a ‘thumbs down’ or a comment. The best example I can think of is Twitter, as a user you are bound to a certain amount of characters, a limit to what you can say. This is a very obvious example, but it shows that when we deal with social media we are always bound to rules of the platform. Not only those on the surface but also unspoken rules the users create for themselves. This is the way structuralism works, we are bound to the structures of our cultures, our societies, and our behaviour is constantly being influenced by them. And so is the case for social media.


Danaher, Geoff; Schirato, Tony; Webb, Jen. 2000. Understanding Foucault. Australia: Allen & Unwin