Doing it “for the gram” has become a popular pursuit in the era of social media, and with their incredible plumages and peculiar behaviors birds are a worthy subject for aesthetically pleasing shots.
A recent study, published in the journal i-Perception, decided to delve into the archives of Instagram to work out what makes a great bird photo based on the images’ engagement rates and liking data.
The findings revealed stark differences in performance between bird families and gave the title of World’s Most Instagrammable Bird to a creature that had once been labeled (in a 2004 study) the planet’s most unfortunate-looking bird. For the frogmouth, justice prevails.
To reach their conclusions, the study authors looked at over 20,000 photos of birds (now that’s research I could get on board with) collecting the images’ liking data as they went. They ascertained a system to standardize the number of likes in a way that accounted for the length of time it took to obtain likes rather than taking the posts with the highest likes at surface value. This enabled them to better understand and quantify the bird photos’ Image Aesthetic Appeal and then compared this against the photos’ captions for clues for more qualitative information to understand why images that performed well were so popular.
They found that the color of the avian subjects was a key factor in influencing users to exercise their right to Like and seemed to align with human color preferences outside of bird photography. There were also clear differences between the likability of certain bird families, with the frogmouth and lavishly plumaged pigeons scoring high in the hearts of Instagram users.
“The surprising winner in this ranking is the frogmouth which seems to be a matter of poetic justice, as this nocturnal bird with very distinct facial features was once designated “the world’s most unfortunate-looking bird” (Van Dyck, 2004),” wrote the authors on the paper. “Other birds high up in the ranking are colorful pigeons with decorative plumage, the emerald turaco with its crown-like head feathers and the hoopoe also wearing a distinct feather crown and showing off typical high-contrast feathering.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum sat munias who’s IAA was almost zero, ouch. Seabirds were also found to rouse underwhelming interest, with images of sandpipers and oystercatchers feeding on lugworms routinely underperforming. Who’d have thought birds ripping snot-like, living goo out of grubby shells wouldn’t fare well on a platform centered around pleasing aesthetics?
The influence of color was found to reflect human thoughts surrounding different tones in a wider sense. Colors indicative of health and hope such as blue were a popular plumage for avian fans, while purulent-esque yellows weren’t so popular: two trends which have been reflected in previous studies on human color preferences.
So, beyond defending the frogmouth’s honor, what was it all for? The researchers hope their findings and how they correlate with other research into the appeal of color could demonstrate that Instagram can be a valuable tool for aesthetic research.
“We consider this kind of data especially useful for the analyses of small effects where large datasets are necessary. Furthermore, Instagram users are intrinsically motivated to spend time on the app and interact with photos—and IAA scores are a by-product of such voluntary online behavior which might be advantageous over aesthetic ratings from lab experiments. With Instagram bird photography as an example of application, we hope to motivate future research to implement real-life data in empirical aesthetics.”