Metapictures and visual media analysis

By: Chan Ji
On: October 4, 2021
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About Chan Ji


Using digital methods to analyze social media has become an important approach. When dealing with different formats of data (text, image, moving image, video) gathered from social media platforms, specific methods have been developed for processing and analyzing certain data. In the article Visual media analysis for Instagram and other online platforms, Rogers presents approaches and methods for image analysis and provides demonstrations of how image collections analytically arranged as metapictures can be starting points for research projects.

Metapictures are defined by Mitchell (35) as “pictures about pictures–that is pictures that refer to themselves or to other pictures, pictures that are used to show what a picture is.” Rogers (1) refers to metapictures as arrangements through which collections of pictures are grouped, framed and displayed in a manner that “enables critical reflection on them”. Also, metapictures are outcomes of direct visualization, that is, images in a metapicture remain in their original format rather than being simplified into graphical primitives (Manovich 41), which allows close reading into individual images as well as observing overall patterns and structures.

Rogers also specifies techniques of grouping arrangements as:

“image reuse, image trends, image vernaculars, dominant image, image presence, image quality, image staining (or tarnishing), image circulation, image engagement, image associations, image removal and feed competition.” (Rogers 2)

Inspiring examples are presented for each approach and technique regarding image analysis on social media platforms and web, such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, 4chan and Google Image Search. 

I’m especially interested in the cross-cultural image analysis mentioned in the article through which the same articles in different Wikipedia language versions are compared (Rogers and Sendijarevic). Inspired by this approach and Rogers’s demonstrations on Google Image Search, I conduct an experiment of searching same topic or event on Google Image Search as well as Baidu Image Search (the most used search engine in China) to compare the differences in search returns. 

As indicated in the image below, I search Meng Wanzhou (Chinese: 孟晚舟) on both search engines and collect the first 15 returns. Using the dress color and style as an indication of different events and dates, I put images together as a metapicture. 

Search Meng Wanzhou on Google Image Search and Baidu Image Search

Meng Wanzhou is the CFO of telecom giant Huawei, China’s largest privately held company. She was arrested at Vancouver International Airport in 2018, accused of employing a subsidiary to facilitate business activities in Iran in violation of U.S sanctions. Her arrest not only infuriated China and complicated the situation of the U.S-China trade dispute, but also strained relations between China and Canada and fuelled international tension (“United States Seeks Extradition” 388). Thus, after three years of negotiation, Meng’s deal with the U.S Department of Justice and later returning to China has attracted attention both from domestic media of China and media from other countries, which is why I choose Meng Wanzhou as the search keyword. 

Even with only 15 images, the differences between the two sets of images can be discerned clearly. Two-thirds of the images from Google Image Search depict Meng leaving British Columbia Supreme Court after she reached a deal with the U.S Department of Justice. Whereas the set of images from Baidu Image Search shows more diversity, depicting Meng in several different events. This difference suggests that for people outside of China, the deal or the event is the core of their attention and their interests in Meng. But for people in China, their interest in Meng begins long before the deal and her homecoming.

Images from Google Image Search also mostly depict Meng’s face and upper body whereas images from Baidu Image Search tend to show her whole body. This difference was likely caused by Chinese people’s, especially young females’ fascination with Meng’s dressing and appearance, which is said to be carefully designed to reflect her self-confidence, dignity and wealth (Geng). As an icon of successful female in China, Meng’s every appearance in the public domain always results in intensive discussion on several social media platforms, such as Weibo, WeChat, RED and Douban, which leads me to think of the possibility of conducting cross-platform research on image vernaculars. Such research may examine how different platforms communicate or present images of Meng Wanzhou in different styles.

Although the examples I give are not well-thought-out and complete studies that conform to academic research requirements, these examples fully demonstrate the inspiration brought by Rogers’ emphasis (2) on using metapictures in visual media research. Manovich (47) claims ten years ago that direct visualization methods will be adopted by researchers in the fields of humanities, media studies and cultural studies as an important tool. Rogers proves Manovich’s claim to be true with a detailed introduction on approaches and techniques of using metapictures. Rogers also emphasize using “visual arrangements as starting points rather than culminations of investigations”. This statement admits the limitation of metapictures as methods, since revealing patterns and structures by a metapicture is not always enough. Other analysis or research methods are needed to help with interpreting the metapictures.

Geng, Yuan. “Huawei princess Meng Wanzhou’s fashion style.” ELLE China. n.p. 2020. Beijing. 3 October 2021. <>.

Manovich, Lev. “What is visualisation?.” Visual Studies 26.1 (2011): 36-49.

Mitchell, WJ Thomas. Picture theory: Essays on verbal and visual representation. University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Rogers, Richard, and Emina Sendijarevic. “Neutral or national point of view? A comparison of Srebrenica articles across Wikipedia’s language versions.” unpublished conference paper, Wikipedia Academy, Berlin, Germany. Vol. 29. 2012.

“United States Seeks Extradition of Huawei Official Charged with Violating Sanctions Against Iran.” American Journal of International Law, vol. 113, no. 2, 2019, pp. 388–393., doi:10.1017/ajil.2019.14.Wikipedia. “Meng Wanzhou.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Oct. 2021.

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