How academics can make an impact on Instagram

By Posted in - Academics & Instagram on February 19th, 2020 0 Comments A illustration of the Instagram logo. Text reads "How academics can make an impact on Instagram".

As an academic, we understand if you haven’t used Instagram until now.

It is not as widely-used in academic circles as Twitter, and its emphasis on visuals can feel challenging.

You might have considered Instagram in your personal life, maybe even dabbled a little. Or you might have rejected it entirely because you don’t see it as a place to discuss research and learning.

However, now that Instagram has overtaken Twitter in popularity, with over 600 million more users, it could be worth a second look.

We would never push a social media platform as a “must have” for everyone. It would entirely depend on your goals and audiences.

But you might be interested in seeing how other academics and institutions have navigated this image-led platform to spread their message.

Perhaps, inspiration will strike.

1. Share with the public

Instagram can be just as effective as Twitter for public engagement.

It’s simply a matter of choosing the right compelling content.

Enter Daniel Kempf, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History, at the University of Liverpool, and self-styled medieval monster-hunter.

Daniel posts striking imagery of medieval monsters – we’re talking horns, teeth, claws, wings, fins, quills, and tongues. Unsurprisingly, these images have captured the public’s attention.

Screenshot from Damien Kempf's Instagram page with images of medieval monsters.Daniel says, “The majority of my exchanges on social media are with non-academics, which I find particularly rewarding given that my aim in posting medieval images on Twitter and Instagram is precisely to reach out to people who are not specialists and would not otherwise encounter these images.”

Daniel’s efforts on Instagram have been rewarded with a following of over 100 thousand people.

2. Engage with your students

If you specialise in a visual discipline, then you can use Instagram to test your students.

Dr Vikas Shah has mastered the platform. When he isn’t teaching clinical radiology at the University of Leicester, he is moonlighting on social media as the X-Ray Doctor. Vikas posts genuine x-rays to test his radiology students – or any radiology students, for that matter – challenging them to diagnose the patient based on what they see.

A series of Instagram Story slides of x-rays.More recently, Vikas has embraced Instagram Stories, an increasingly popular feature, now accessed by over 500 million users daily. With each swipe, another element on the x-ray is revealed, culminating in the diagnosis.

Vikas explains, ““My knowledge of the platforms and their new features enables me to exploit them for the benefit of learners. My learners come from a variety of professional backgrounds and countries, often with poor access to formal education, and the ability to provide open access to knowledge is my primary motivation.”

3. Champion your peers

Tom rocks maths. Tom rocks Instagram.

Mathematics rock star, Dr Tom Crawford from Oxford University, shares the spotlight with his students and colleagues on his popular Instagram channel.

It is a generous approach that allows his peers the opportunity to present their research to his personal audience, who they might not have been able to reach otherwise. It also generates even more great content for Tom’s channel, so he doesn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting himself. Win-win!

Some great examples include Dr Hannah Fry using maths to catch a serial killer, and student Kai Laddiman explaining the link between Perfect Numbers and Mersenne Primes. Yep, that one went over my head too.

Even without a large following of your own, there is still value in cross-posting content between your own channel and those of your peers. It will allow you to pool your audiences and generate more followers as a result.

Collaborate to accumulate.

4. Pioneer a movement

Every so often, a hashtag lands which inspires a movement.

#ShareYourEars. #TakeOffTheTape. #KnowYourLemons.

As an academic, you can do the same.

Two academics from the US, Dr Paige Jarreau and Samantha Yammine, wanted to challenge stereotypes about scientists being white, male, and standoffish.

Paige and Samantha undertook research into whether they could humanise scientists, and increase public trust in their abilities, by encouraging scientists to post selfies at work.

#ScientistsWhoSelfie was born.

Screenshot of Instagram posts for the #ScientistsWhoSelfie hashtag. The hashtag has been used almost 19,000 times, producing all manner of inviting and exciting visual content of scientists with plants and fossils and laboratories and animals.

This has raised public awareness of academic research being carried out across the globe, whilst also changing public perceptions of scientists:

“We found that scientists posting self-portraits (“selfies”) to Instagram from the science lab/field were perceived as significantly warmer and more trustworthy, and no less competent, than scientists posting photos of only their work.”

5. Showcase your department

Looking to attract students and staff to your department?

Instagram is the platform for you.

Popular with younger demographics, you will find prospective undergraduates, postgraduates and early-career academics scrolling through their Instagram feed every day. It is therefore the perfect place to share rich content of your staff, facilities, and learning environment.

The College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham recognised this opportunity.

They used Instagram’s vertical video feature, IGTV, to share an immersive, one-shot tour of their campus art gallery. Inspired by Vogue Magazine’s 73 Questions series, the first-year tour guide, Jess, answers 61 questions about her time studying at Birmingham, all whilst leading the viewer around the art gallery.

Her answers are entertaining, poignant, and authentic. They provide a very convincing argument for studying History of Art at Birmingham. The backdrop of beautiful Renaissance artwork doesn’t hurt either.

We hope these examples have offered you some inspiration should you wish to get started on Instagram. If you feel that your academic department, school or college would benefit from social media training, or a full social media strategy, then we would love to hear from you. Say


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