The Revolution Will Be Visualized: 13,200 Instagram Images From The Heart Of Ukraine’s Uprising

144 Hours In Kiev explores for the first time how people use Instagram during a social upheaval. The biggest lesson? The overthrow of their government doesn’t stop people posting what they ate for dinner.


Twitter and Facebook have been the subject of countless studies and think pieces exploring their use in political uprisings, notably during the Arab Spring. But since that time, Instagram has grown up as a powerful platform in its own right with more than 200 million users across the globe and has been largely ignored.


A new analysis led by computer scientist Lev Manovich, a professor at CUNY’s The Graduate Center, changes that focus by diving deep into 13,208 images shared by 6,165 users from the central part of Kiev during several days of the “Maidan” revolution this past February.

A small portion of the 13,200 images from central Kiev, Feb-17 through Feb-22. You can see black and white bands, corresponding to day and night

News reports tend to feature social media imagery associated with revolution, often by following a hashtag or specific accounts. What’s most interesting about the visualization is that it looks at everyone in and around Maidan (or Independence) Square, not just the protesters. The result is a fascinating juxtaposition of protest imagery–the images of fires, angry crowds, and protest signs–with your typical selfies and snapshots of pretty blue skies.

“You have the everyday and the exceptional. They co-exist, but in moments, the exceptional kind of takes over,” says Manovich, who has specialized in visualizing large Instagram data sets from different cities (see past projects we’ve covered, here and here).

The evening of Feb-18, when the government attacked protesters.

The project began in late January, when Manovich, a native of Russia who left as a political refugee, turned a Instagram geographic analysis tool he and his collaborators had been developing to the unrest in Ukraine he’d been following in the news. On Instagram, looking zoomed out at all photos from the area, Manovic says it was “fascinating” and “strange” that, for weeks, it was not obvious that anything political was happening. (In the large visualization, the most notable feature is the six light to dark “waves” that mark day and night).

Close-up, morning February 19th

That changed the evening of February 18, when government forces attacked Maidan Square. Zooming in on the visualization, you can the events clearly. By the next morning, however, again, the unrest was harder to spot. Unusual activity around Maidan Square made up only about one-quarter of images at any time over the approximately five days the revolution took place.

Volume of images shared in central Kiev, 2/17-2/22

“This gives us such a different representation of the city–what people actually feel,” says Manovich, who collaborated with University of California, San Diego, research scientist Mehrdad Yazdani, CUNY art history student Alise Tifentale, and web developer Jay Chow on the work.

Even focusing on Maidan hashtags (in Ukrainian, Russian, and English), while most images are related to the protest movement a few are not–such as the selfie in column 1, row 4 below. In these images, the highest frequency of subjects of images was “crowds,” then “fire or smoke,” “flags,” “other subjects,” “portraits,” and “barricades.”

Most Maidan hashtag photos were related to the revolution. Can you spot the one that’s not?

To Manovich, Instagram is notable because it is still a smaller visual platform. The images are less dominated by powerful accounts, especially government accounts wishing to spread propaganda. In the visualization, which was created by downloading 10 million images a day from Instagram’s public API and “telescoping” to those tagged in the Central Ukraine, each users was responsible, on average, for only one to two photos.

Subject of photos that had Maidan-related hashtags.

He sees social media as its own reality, one that is distinct from the reality on the ground but nevertheless now fundamentally part of the fabric of revolution. “Depending on how you organize these pictures, you can present a very different picture. So what does it mean to construct a narrative out of this data?” he asks. The sprawling project shows, at the very least, it depends on where and how you focus.

Photos of people from dataset

The project website includes many more visualizations and analysis, so you can explore more here. The work will be presented at the second workshop on Big Humanities Data, held in conjunction with the IEEE Big Data Conference later in October.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire