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When Comics Become “Literary Salons” on Instagram

The Example of Été: Between Production Constraints and Issues of Appropriation
Quand la bande dessinée « tient salon » sur Instagram. L’exemple d’Été, entre contraintes de production et enjeux d’appropriation
El Cómic en Instagram. El ejemplo de Été, entre limitaciones de producción y cuestiones de apropiación
Nolwenn Tréhondart
Traduction de Daniela Ginsburg
Cet article est une traduction de :
Quand la bande dessinée « tient salon » sur Instagram [fr]

Résumés

Scènes littéraires et artistiques émergentes, les réseaux socionumériques sont investis par des écrivains, artistes, amateurs mais aussi par des institutions et industries culturelles, curieuses d’expérimenter des pratiques narratives renouvelant les formes de médiation avec les publics. Tel est le cas de la bande dessinée numérique Été, co-produite par la chaîne publique Arte et la société de community management Bigger Than Fiction, et originellement parue sur Instagram durant les mois de juillet et août 2017 et 2018 à raison d’un ou deux épisodes par jour.
Empruntant une démarche sociosémiotique s’intéressant aux processus de négociation engagés entre dispositifs techniques, producteurs-concepteurs culturels et récepteurs, cet article se propose de questionner les formes d’hybridation entre des logiques de création et de narration issues de la bande dessinée et des stratégies de production, de circulation et de réception propres à la plateforme Instagram. L’analyse de l’énonciation éditoriale des pages-écrans d’Été est articulée à une enquête empirique permettant d’éclairer, dans un premier temps, les contraintes de production et de représentation présidant au processus de création (deux entretiens menés avec des concepteurs d’Été), et, dans un second temps, de soulever certains enjeux d’appropriation chez les abonné·e·s-lecteur·rice·s par l’analyse des contenus des commentaires placés en vis-à-vis des illustrations, complétée par une enquête par questionnaire (quatre-vingt-dix réponses).

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Notes de l’auteur

“Literary Salons”, to use the expression of one survey respondent: “It’s like a little literary salon, we explain ourselves to one another and try to see why someone else thinks differently” (Female, librarian, 25-34 years old). See the end of part 3, “Issues around appropriation by follower-readers.”

Texte intégral

  • 1 See "author's note" at the beginning of the paper.

1Digital social networks represent emerging literary and artistic scenes in which writers, artists, and fans are actively involved, as are cultural institutions and industries interested in trying out new narrative practices that create new forms of mediation between creators and audiences1. The example of the digital comic Été (Summer), published in the form of posts and stories on Instagram by the public television network Arte

22during the summers of 2017 and 2018 seems to attest to the existence of a group of readers interested in the digital fictions that are currently evolving in conjunction with online sociabilities3. This experimental endeavour has been very successful: Éte has garnered three hundred sixty-eight likes, thirteen thousand comments, and has more than ninety thousand followers.

  • 4 Roberto Casilli (2019: 64) defines platforms as “multi-faceted mechanisms that bring various catego (...)
  • 5 “GAFA” is an acronym referring to the major American web companies: Google (whose parent company is (...)

3But, writing for “digital social media” (Robert 2017) such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram means that author-creators must square their work with the various “editorial” policies and rules for moderating and formatting content that govern these platforms4, which claim to have “collaborative” economies (Bouquillion & Matthews 2010). On the one hand, social platforms give creators access to software tools that encourage creative expression (Allard 2017), and they act as intermediaries between producers and users by facilitating access to content. On the other hand, they create tensions and resistances by adding layers of mediation, the supposed neutrality of which “conceals hierarchical structures and relations of subordination” (Casilli 2019: 67). At the 2018 Conference on Digital Books (Assises du livre numérique), Éric Scherer, a guest speaker and director of Innovation at France Télévision, discussed the ambivalent relationship between the cultural industries and GAFA5:

GAFA are frenemies: they are both our friends, allowing us to reach new audiences, and our enemies, grabbing attention and profits.6

4In this article, I explore zones of conflict and dialogue between GAFA, cultural creators, and user-readers, by documenting the processes of negotiation that occur “between artists, engineers, technical systems, and participating or active audiences” (Fourmentraux 2016), through the example of the comic Été, which originally appeared on Instagram. Focusing on several levels of analysis, I will investigate the forms of hybridization that exist between, on the one hand, logics of creation and narration that emerge from comics and, on the other, logics of production, circulation, and reception that are specific to the Instagram platform.

5After situating Été within the emerging field of digital comics, I will describe the various methodological approaches I have used, which belong to a broader socio-semiotic theoretical framework. I combine analysis of the editorial enunciation marks (Jeanneret & Souchier 2005) found on Été’s screen pages with an empirical study that sheds light, first, on the production constraints and representations that govern the process of creation (drawing on two interviews with the creators), and second, on issues of appropriation by follower-readers, through analysis of the comments they have posted, which appear alongside comic panels, and their answers to a survey that I conducted (sample size of 90).

1. Studying Été Through the Lens of the Emerging Field of Digital Comics

1.1. Genesis of the Été Project

  • 7 On its website, presents itself as an “agency for narrative products,” which of (...)
  • 8 See Arte website (accessed on 30 August 2020).

6Été is of interest to me because its modes of production demonstrate a logic of professionalization at work in the field of comics, and thus illustrate strategies of hybridization between public companies, the private sector, and digital industries within a still-experimental genre: the emerging editorial field of digital comics. This work, which originally appeared on Instagram in the summer of 2017, was co-produced by the company Bigger Than Fiction, an audiovisual production company and communications agency specialized in the narrative possibilities offered by social media7, and the public television network Arte France, which, in parallel with its audiovisual business, has developed an editorial line that supports experimental digital productions. On its website8, the network promotes its proactive approach to guiding and supporting the creation of digital works that “use social networks as vectors for creation, distribution, and conversation.” The goal is both to better “understand the grammar specific to these platforms” and to attract young audiences, who tend to avoid traditional television channels. The project was also financed in part by grants from the City of Paris and the CNC New Media aid fund, which are designed to support authors and producers working on digital-native projects.

  • 9 A third season wich is not analyzed here was released in the summer of 2019.

7But it was thanks to the initiative of Camille Duvelleroy, a “screenwriter and director of interactive stories,” that the project first saw the light of day. On her professional website, Duvelleroy recounts her trajectory through digital communication and web fiction at Arte, after studying e-literature at the Sorbonne. The idea for a comic published on social media came out of a discussion she had in June 2016 with Julien Aubert, a producer at Bigger Than Fiction, during an artistic creation residency dedicated to new interactive forms. They contacted various authors and screenwriters in July 2016—in particular, comics author Thomas Cadène, who already had experience in digital creation: between 2010 and 2012 he directed the online series Les Autres Gens [Other People], based on a model of collaborative creation (Falgas 2014). The team then began to take shape: screenwriters Thomas Cadène and Joseph Saffiedine, illustrators Erwann Surcouf (season 1) and Cécile Bidault (season 2)9, and the musician Santoré, who did the sound design. The creative process drew on writing seminars, which included the participation of a community manager from Bigger Than Fiction, who acted as a consultant on Instagram users’ practices.

8Été was an experimental process in the sense that it was initiated by a collective of authors who wanted to explore the boundaries of the comics genre through the lens of the narrative constraints of a social network, but it was also executed and supported by digital communications professionals, and informed by logics of production that were hybrids between those specific to the public and the private sectors. The disappearance of the role of editor from these logics of production, replaced by a new arrival in the field of comics—a “community management” company—should be highlighted here. In this respect, the project illustrates certain current developments that are particular to the nascent editorial field of digital comics, often described as a market searching for structure.

1.2. A Nascent Editorial Field in Search of Legitimacy

  • 10 For example, “turbomedia” has been established as a “genre” that explores the limits of the comics (...)
  • 11 See, for example, the digital comic created by the Museums of Angers, Le Portrait d’Esther, dedicat (...)

9According to Bertrand Legendre (2019), digital comics today represent a vast field of experimentation, in which multiple actors participate: authors who self-publish on blogs and crowd-funding sites10; editors who are still hesitant to invest; distributors and distribution platforms driven by strategies of standardization; and, finally, television companies, public organizations, and cultural institutions11 that support more experimental initiatives, in keeping with the model of the “unique” work of art.

10In this sense, this emerging editorial field presents problematics similar to those that define the field of enhanced digital books (Tréhondart 2016), which is split between experimental works so daring that they struggle to find an audience and logics of standardization that draw on large-scale production solutions. Such divisions are nothing new in the field of comics: Luc Boltanski (1975) observed an “opposition between, on the one hand, an approach... marked by commercial logics and, on the other, attempts to escape the ‘law of genre’ determined by these commercial logics.”

  • 12 Pascal Robert locates this subversiveness in the semiotic tension that connects texts to images and (...)

11It is precisely this tension between a logic of creative emancipation and a logic of standardization that I am interested in exploring in the case of Été, which was born out of an encounter between the medium of comics and the Instagram platform, and which offers an opportunity for the former to revisit its “intrinsic subversiveness” (Robert 201112) through the lens of the latter’s industrial constraints.

12Thus, part of my investigation will focus on negotiations surrounding the possibilities and constraints the platform offers creators, online community moderators, and readers, by seeking to understand how various actors came to be involved in the platform as a site of creation located at the crossroads of economic and technical constraints, ideological influences, and possibilities for creative emancipation.

2. A Plural Approach

13To document these processes of negotiation, I have adopted a socio-semiotic perspective, developed over the course of several years of work on digital books. This perspective combines a critical semiotic approach which takes into account the influence of the medium and the context of production on the process of creation, with an empirical approach which draws on methods from the social sciences (questionnaires, interviews, etc.). Such an approach bears certain similarities to the cultural studies perspective insofar as it uses a multi-disciplinary methodology (analysis of the materiality of communication, individual interviews, questionnaires, analysis of comments, etc.) and adopts a critical point of view that questions how constraints on production influence modes of appropriation.

2.1. “Architexts” and the Materiality of Communication

14All cultural productions are located within a material framework that determines the field of their creative possibilities. In the case of a digital work originally created for Instagram, the application’s design, the aesthetic of its interfaces, the ergonomics of its screen-pages, the user-gestures it imposes, and invisible layers of mediation linked to algorithmic calculations all constitute the materiality of communication that opens up possibilities for writing while regulating conditions of expression. Yves Jeanneret and Emmanuel Souchier call the programmed, automatic forms that govern conditions for writing on the screen “architexts”:

We use the term “architexts” (from archè, meaning origin and rule) to refer to the tools that make it possible for writing to exist onscreen and which, beyond merely representing the structure of the text, govern its execution and realization. In other words, the text is born out of the architext that shapes its writing. (Souchier, Jeanneret & Le Marec 2003: 23-24).

15My socio-semiotic analytical framework takes into account Instagram’s architexts by considering the standardized and normalized framework that the platform offers for creation: for example, the number of images allowed per post, which limits each episode of Été to ten frames, or the chronological display found on the welcome page of the Été.Arte account, which seems to prescribe one direction of reading over another. Far from playing a neutral role in the distribution of content, Instagram acts as an “apparatus” [dispositif] in Michel Foucault’s sense of the term:

A thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid. (Foucault 1980: 194)

16Linking “to a certain form of the exercise of power a certain type of the formation of knowledge” (Foucault 1995: 187), Instagram promotes technological knowledge and values (pleasure, creativity, speed, etc.), which, materializing on the surface of the screen, serve to prefigure usages. Thus, every cultural and media text is subject to “codes” as soon as it interacts with the platform: for example, the speed at which information is circulated and shared may incite users to accelerated reading practices; the foregrounding of space for comments seems to encourage users to participate in discussions. These signs act on the surface of the screen as layers that mediate meaning, transmitting implicit values, norms, and injunctions.

17In the digital context, the encounter between a work and its audience also depends on decisions executed by algorithms that display and recommend content, the programming criteria of which are accessible neither to consumers nor to cultural creators. These policies for regulation and control, which are dictated by commercial, industrial, and ideological objectives (Cardon 2015), are a source of anxiety for many artists. The photographer Romy Alizée, in a column published in the newspaper Liberation (2018), speaks of an attempt “to control artistic imaginations” and recounts how her Instagram account was suddenly closed because one of her pictures showed a dildo, although the image contained no nudity whatsoever.

18My analytical framework will thus seek to critically examine how a platform’s “architexts,” as well as its “moral economy” (Gomez-Mejia 2017)—the imaginaries, representations, and values it transmits—interact with the production and reception of a cultural product such as Été.

2.2. Production Constraints and Professional Codes

  • 13 Thomas Cadène, contribution to the roundtable “New Forms of Reading and Writing” at the tenth annua (...)
  • 14 Interview conducted by Benjamin Hoguet and published on his website, “L’été se raconte en feuilleto (...)

19According to Stuart Hall (1980: 118), creators working in the cultural industries draw on a “professional code” based on “knowledge-in-use concerning the routines of production, historically defined technical skills, professional ideologies, institutional knowledge, [and] definitions and assumptions about the audience.” In order to analyse the semiotic characteristics of Été through the lens of its conditions of production, I carried out two semi-structured interviews with the creators of the project, so that I could understand their trajectories, motivations, assumptions about the social composition and reading habits of their audience, the production constraints they faced, and their representations of Instagram and of digital reading. I interviewed Camille Duvelleroy, who is both the manager of the project and an “interactive screenwriter” on it, and who recruited the entire production team and oversaw the funding procurement process, as well as Édouard Gasnier, a co-producer from the company Bigger Than Fiction and the “community manager” for Été. These interviews, which lasted two hours each, took place in cafés in east Paris; the first was in April 2018 (before season 2 was released) and the second in January of 2019 (after season 2 was released). These interviews are supplemented by statements by screenwriter Thomas Cadène taken from his talk at the Conference on Digital Books in 201813, and by extracts from published interviews with Julien Aubert, another producer from Bigger Than Fiction14.

2.3. Issues Around Appropriation by Follower-Readers

20According to Jean-Paul Fourmentraux (2016: 7), digital media encourages “processes or experiences shared with an audience, by offering content that is open to a ‘collective experience’ and which makes it possible to create new relations with the audience.” To better discern modes of appropriation by readers, I proceeded in two stages. First, I collected all user comments on the first two seasons of Été and analysed their content in terms of various subjects that gradually emerged: representations of the reading apparatus; reactions to the work; identification with the fictional characters; exchanges with community managers; exchanges between readers, etc. I identified the episodes that sparked the most comments and debate and compiled a list of five hundred particularly active followers. It was to these five hudred that, a few months after the release of season 2 (in November 2018), I sent out a questionnaire, which yielded ninety responses. The questionnaire was organized into five parts (including closed and open-ended questions), and allowed me to gather specific data about the objective socio-demographic and socio-professional characteristics of the respondents (their gender, education level, and occupation) and their Instagram habits, as well as to complement the comment analysis by focusing on the following topics: how readers connect to the act of reading paper and digital comics; personal reading experiences; and participation in the comments sections.

3. The Creation of a Comic Through the Prism of Instagram’s Economy of Signs

21Season 1 of Été focused on Abel and Olivia, a couple who has decided to separate for the summer and take two months of freedom during which to do ten somewhat crazy things they had always dreamed of doing: “go to an X-rated movie,” “consult a shaman,” “blow your paycheck at the casino,” “go to the Louvre on mushrooms,” etc. Season 2 finds Olivia, who has been separated from Abel since the end of season 1, on a quest to find out more about her recently deceased grandmother. She discovers her grandmother’s secret past: a suppressed homosexual relationship during the 1950s.

22

Season 2 trailer
Crédits : Arte

3.1. A Strategy to Conquer GAFA’s Young Audience

23“To transform the platform into a ‘fiction reader for smartphones’”: this is the challenge that, according to Camille Duvelleroy, the creators of Été set themselves, in the hopes of turning Instagram users into readers of comics and capturing the habits of young audiences (15-29 years), who today represent over 72% of users of digital social media networks (Global Web Index, 2018). Duvelleroy, the project leader, explains that their strategy was based on an understanding of social networks as “attention banks” (Franck 2013):

It was frustrating: the projects we launched weren’t finding their audience. But on Instagram, there’s a captive audience [] young people are on it, the audience is there, that’s where you have to go to get them. Once you’re there, you have time to do something. You don’t have to recruit the audience [] People spend thirty five minutes a day on it. So you say to yourself, OK, thirty-five minutes, can I snag two minutes of their attention? And for two minutes, give them something different.(Camille Duvelleroy, interviewed March 2018.)

24As book-reading practices of young people aged between 15 and 29 seem to be eroding in favour of digital social media practices (October 2016), Duvelleroy’s words illustrate the strategies implemented by the cultural industries to “infiltrate” digital platforms and capture young audiences: 41% of Instagram users are under 24, and 35% are between 25 and 34 (Global Web Index 2018).

25This approach banks on the fact that young people’s habits are not yet set in stone, and that they will be open to new narrative experiences. It also goes hand-in-hand with a critical view of digital social networks: by transforming a visual universe such as Instagram, which is mainly oriented towards brands, into a literary and artistic space, the creators of Été intend to both hijack usages and subvert or satirize certain self-righteous imaginaries associated with the platform.

3.2. Questioning Instagram’s Ideologies

26Statements made by Édouard Gasnier and Julien Aubert, co-producers at Bigger Than Fiction, demonstrate that they are familiar with the norms and values transmitted by Instagram and the way in which these might shape readers’ expectations. During our interview, Édouard Gasnier explained that the decision to release the series during the summer was based on the idea that Instagram embodies “the summer network.” His frequent use of Anglicisms (“bucket list”, “timeline”, etc.) seems to point to the influence of the English vocabulary that permeates the platform on the process of creation. During an interview published online, Julien Aubert states that:

The goal was to invade users’ timelines. Instagram is the second most-used network in France, people usually go on it several times a day. Audiences publish their lives there, try to embellish them. We know there is a graphic code for Instagram photos, to enhance your life []. We wanted to stick to that image. That’s where the bucket list idea came from, that list of marvellous things that corresponds perfectly to the kind of things people share on Instagram. (Julien Aubert 201715)

27The project also aims, according to Camille Duvelleroy, to question “the network from within,” by bringing provocative art, fiction, and culture onto a platform known for its prudishness. Through a story full of “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll,” the creators sought to titillate the imaginaries and ideologies surrounding this social media platform, in particular the aestheticization of ‘filtered’ everyday life and puritanical policies for moderating content. They imagined a contemporary story that would closely follow current debates in society—season 2 tackles the subject of sexual harassment and uses the hashtag #metoo—in order to remain in touch with the concerns of the younger generations, as well as, in their own words, to “test the limits of the platform”: Camille Duvelleroy asks how censorship can be “hacked,” and attributes to fiction the power to resist ideologies that promote flawlessness and attractiveness.

It’s really the platform ofI only show what is nice, I never post ugly photos, I never say I’m not doing well, and everything is pretty thanks to the filters—but life is more complex than that.” (Camille Duvelleroy, interviewed March 2018.)

3.3. Architextual Constraints: Instagram as an Apparatus for Literary Writing

Fig. 1. Several albums from the Été.Arte account (season 1)

Fig. 1. Several albums from the Été.Arte account (season 1)

Source: Été’s Instagram account (screenshots)
© Bigger Than Fiction/Été.Arte

Fig. 2. Several albums from the Été.Arte account (season 2)

Fig. 2. Several albums from the Été.Arte account (season 2)

Source: Été’s Instagram account (screenshots)
©  Bigger Than Fiction/Été.Arte

28Été’s semiotic codes criss-cross various registers: that of the comic strip, with its panels, speech bubbles, and graphic codes; that of animated film, thanks to the kinetic visual and sound effects that Instagram’s production tools make possible; and that of the platform itself, with its model forms and “frameworks for digitized writing” (Bonnacorsi 2011), which transform the reading experience: for example, the posts appear either in square or vertical format depending on whether they are viewed on the Été.Arte account page or in the “story” mode; the welcome page displays the posts in chronological order in three columns; the symbols of the affective Web (likes and emojis) are visible throughout; and spaces for comments accompany each post.

29The page as a point of reference disappears, replaced by a frame-by-frame mode of reading as the reader swipes through on their smartphone. This encourages fragmented reading, with episodes that can be read independently of one another. This manner of accessing the text without an overview of the whole might go along with an acceleration of reading practices, since the format of Instagram posts limits each episode to ten panels.

30Furthermore, there are two points of entry into the comic, corresponding to two modalities of reception: the vertical format of the “stories” that appear at the top of followers’ feeds, and the square format of “albums” posted to the Été.Arte account as they are released. In “album mode,” readers click on arrows to go from one frame to the next, determining the rhythm of their reading for themselves. In contrast, “story mode” prescribes the temporality of reception. As Philippe Marion (1997: 83) writes when he distinguishes between “heterochronous” and “homochromous” media:

“Homochronous” media is characterized by the fact that it incorporates the time of reception into the emission of its messages. These messages are created to be consumed within a time span that is intrinsically programmed into them.

31This is the case of the Été stories, which impose a reception time on the reader by disappearing after twenty-four hours. The rhythm at which they are read is also dictated: the animated frames appear automatically one after another, without the reader being able to slow them down or speed them up. This form of reading, shaped by kinetic effects, can plunge the reader into spectatorial immersion. The animation effects are slight, however: they create an ambiance or reflect an atmosphere (the countryside passing by, the rattling of subway cars, rustling of trees), but they contain few elements that cause the story to progress. However, in season 2, some passages have full sound—for example, the letter from Suzanne’s grandmother, which is in audio form. Some readers criticized this auditory imposition and demanded that it be put into written form.

32Unlike in “story format,” the pages of the album are read at the reader’s own pace: by sliding their finger from right to left on the smartphone screen, the reader moves the comic strip along frame by frame. This mode of reading is accompanied by hashtags proposed by the creators and comments from readers, which are displayed next to the frames. Certain episodes have attracted over four hundred comments, suggesting a “collective” reading of the text heavily shaped by Instagram’s architextual framework.

Fig. 3. One of Été’s “boxe,” with the comments

Fig. 3. One of Été’s “boxe,” with the comments

Source: Été’s Instagram account (screenshot)
© Bigger Than Fiction/Été.Arte

3.4. An Algorithm that Determines Narration?

33According to Camille Duvelleroy, the final challenge that the creators of Été set themselves was to imagine a “narration connected to an apparatus that the creator does not control.” Architextual limitations are put to the service of authors’ creativity, in the hopes of turning Instagram into a matrix for literary creation:

My apparatus also takes distribution into account, which is part of the narration—that is, where, when, and how I release my content: I cannot separate my narration from the apparatus.(Camille Duvelleroy, interviewed March 2018.)

34Due to frequent changes in the editorial and algorithmic policies of a platform in permanent mutation, the creators were obliged, within a shortened timeframe, to adjust their narrative practices throughout season 1. In March 2017, when the writing phase had already been completed and publication had been planned (frame by frame with up to twenty-three posts per day), the Instagram algorithm changed, adopting the computational criteria used by Facebook’s newsfeed: posts would no longer appear in chronological order on all followers’ timelines, but instead would initially appear only to 10% of them in order to test the level of engagement created by a post. If engagement levels are high, the posts have a greater chance of being shown to more readers.

35This kind of algorithm-dictated narration posed a challenge to the narrative coherence of episodes, since posts containing the frames of the comic could appear on readers’ timelines in a different order to what the creators intended, if at all:

The Instagram algorithm now prevents you from determining the order of your posts. When you’re doing a story you control it, but when you’re on people’s timelines, for us, it’s a real obstacle to reading.” (Camille Duvelleroy, interviewed March 2018.)

36The solution came with Instagram’s creation of the “album” format, which makes it possible to compose a post containing up to ten frame-images, and thus to maintain narrative coherence within each episode (although, since the number of frames was limited to ten, the creators were forced to entirely re-write the project just two months before its release). But this change did not mean that follower-readers would necessarily receive notifications of each new episode on their newsfeed, since the algorithm alone decides which content might interest them on the basis of its programming criteria.

4. Issues Around Appropriation by Follower-Readers

37Did readers adhere to the reading pact that was offered to them? How did they perceive the fragmented presentation of episodes, and how did they participate in the collective work of commenting? To what extent did they respond to the injunctions to participate created by the work and its apparatus and encouraged by the community manager? In this final section, I will analyse some of the issues surrounding reader appropriation of Été by drawing on the data I collected—comments, and the results of the questionnaire.

4.1. Profile of a Typical Été Reader

38According to the series creators, who collected data about their readership, the typical Été reader is female (75%) and Parisian (75%), with an average age of between 25 and 34 years old. The data obtained through the questionnaire I sent out provides some more information on social characteristics: of the ninety respondents, twenty-three were students—slightly more than a quarter. A wide range of professions was represented (artisan, nurse, veterinarian, physiotherapist, manicurist, shop manager, logistician, osteopath); but there was a preponderance (more than twenty-two) of professions within the sectors of graphic design, arts, communications, and the digital industries (designer, web producer, social media manager, public relations manager, illustrator, journalist, librarian, photographer, comic strip author, etc.). One reason for this may be that Instagram is used by many within the cultural and artistic professions as a means of communication and a way of showcasing their work. In addition, the majority of respondents held higher education degrees: twenty had bachelor’s degrees; fifty had Master’s; and six were PhD students. These data seem to fit with the results of studies by Evans & Gaudet (2012: 4), who note that the proportion of readers of comics goes up as education level increases, and is highest among white collar professionals.

  • 16 However, a recent survey by the SNE entitled “La bande dessinée, une pratique de premier plan: qui (...)

39On the other hand, the mostly female readership of Été is in contradiction with traditional representations of readers of comics as predominantly male (Evans & Gaudet 2012)16. Eighty-four percent of responses to my survey came from women. What explains the gendered nature of this response? Why were women quicker to engage with and participate in this reading experience? The over-representation of women may have to do with the style of the drawings and the subjects tackled by the work: it is a love story that includes themes such as sexual harassment and feminine sexuality that are likely to interest women in particular. The influence of the apparatus itself is probably also a factor: 50% of Instagram users are women (Global Web Index 2018).

40Moreover, 86% of respondents said they were under 34 years old: 43% were between 25 and 34; 35% were between 18 and 24; 15% were between 35 and 49, and 8% were between 15 and 17 (high school students). These figures match surveys of comics readers (Evans & Gaudet 2012), which show that the practice is most common among young people and tends to decrease with age (after 25). These figures also confirm that the creators of Été were successful in their strategy to capture the attention of a young audience on Instagram.

41Finally, in their survey responses, the readers of Été did not claim to be particularly frequent readers of comics; however, 34% said that they regularly read digital comics in the form of blogs, Instragram “strips,” or comics on tablets. Some demonstrated in-depth knowledge of the editorial field of digital comics and cited the works they regularly read on Instagram (Le monde brûle, Cosmogenèse, etc.). While these responses prove a certain acculturation on the part of Été readers to the emerging field of digital comics, many comments in response to season 1 reveal that readers nevertheless encountered some difficulties in using Instagram as a fiction reader. In response to the first episodes, many asked what gestures they were supposed to use and in which order they should read the episodes. They asked whether they were supposed to start reading at the top or the bottom of the Arte account welcome page, and wondered how to move the story along:

“Ladies, can you explain to me how you’re supposed to read this, is it from top to bottom or the other way around, I’m lost.”
“Hello, how do you watch the video?”
“What do you do to watch the episodes, I just see the titles?”
“Hello! Technical difficulty, I can’t see the animations is my iPhone too old or am I too dumb?”

42The community manager works full-time on the project, patiently guiding readers: “Slide the title image to the right”; “Update the app”; “Follow us to keep up with episodes from day to day.” Over the course of season 2, requests for help became less frequent—no doubt readers had, in part, appropriated the mode of reading for themselves. In the case of season 1, various factors might explain difficulties in appropriation: users were not accustomed to reading comics on Instagram, and no conventions exist for how to do so; some readers were not used to animated formats (video, sound); and finally, the creators’ choice of a complex “palindrome” structure means that one can read the comic in either direction, thus rendering reading more complex by allowing a double system of interpretation (see the post from 27 August 2017).

4.2. The Temporalities of Reading

43Sophie Jehel’s work shows how the strategies of online platforms aim to guide the digital practices of young people; this guidance is often described in terms of hyperconnection, impatience, and attachment to mobile screens.

44The survey responses demonstrate that readers were highly engaged in reading: reading increased in season 2, as 85% of respondents said they followed season 1 in its entirety, while 97% said they followed all of season 2. The vast majority of reading took place nomadically, on smartphone screens. While 90% of the followers said they read episodes the day they were released, rituals of reading varied. Some read new episodes first thing in the morning; others preferred to wait until the calm of evening. Many said they read during down time in their everyday routines (on public transportation, while waiting in the doctor’s office), to overcome boredom. But about a third (35%) said they were “on the lookout” for new episodes and impatiently waited for them to be released around noon: “A co-worker was reading it at the same time as me, and as soon as it was posted, we would let each other know” (female, 25-34 years old, social media manager). The serial mechanism created the feeling that readers had a “date” with the comic, a feeling that sometimes came close to tele-spectatorial immersion, as reflected in the comments of readers who (with irony) expressed their dissatisfaction when an episode was not posted on time:

xxxxx@ete_arte: Can we get a time estimate please? So I don’t have to refresh the page every 10 seconds and can put my phone down 😬
xxxx@lawphotographies: Today’s episode still isn’t online 😨 es una tortura!
ete_arte@legnidelalampe: Today’s episode can’t be posted at 12:30 but no worry, your daily dose of ÉTÉ will soon be delivered;)
xxxx: I so cannot wait until 18h! 😱
ete_arte: Ok, so what if we meet at 18:02 then?
xxxxxx@ete_arte: What’s going on at 18:02?
ete_arte@xxxxxx: Our story will announce a surprise ;)
xxxxx: 15:00. We’ve already been glued to our Instagram feeds for 3 hours. The passengers around me have no idea of the drama playing out. Although the restlessness of waiting is gradually giving way to resignation, the minutes are dragging by like hours and my train trip seems like an eternity. I know my only salvation lies in the latest episode of @ete_arte but I have no idea how long we have to wait to get it.

45The survey responses also point to an intensification of temporalities of reading. Some readers said they enjoyed the serial dynamic which, paradoxically, obliged them to “slow down”: “It slows down our frantic consumption which is too fast, you have to be patient, there is time to digest the fact that they’re dealing with important current issues” (female, illustrator, 35-49 years old). One survey respondent compared reading on Instagram to reading on paper: while the latter allows you to read everything in one sitting, the former “makes the suspense last, and at the same time it’s more accessible because it’s free” (female, student, 18-24 years old). Various readers find that reading Été fits perfectly with “short attention spans on social networks. It’s easy to get into it even though it’s broken up” (female, student, 25-34 years old); “You can read any part of it by breaking up the story” (male, radio producer, 25-34 years old). Readers appreciate having a choice between different modalities of reception: “You can watch an episode from time to time, or catch up on it all at once” (male, web developer, 25-34 years old). This type of representation of the reading experience is frequently found in surveys on practices of digital reading, as Sylvie Octobre explains (2017):

Cultural spaces-times are deprogrammed, multiplied, and individualized (with increased possibilities for on-demand consumption that are not confined to the programming schedules of broadcasters), which affects modes of reception and how tastes are constructed: being able to consume whenever you want is quite different from the experience of earlier generations, who had to patiently wait until their favourite programme or cultural spectacle was broadcast.

46In contrast, some survey respondents reported feeling scattered and like they had lost their points of reference: “lack of connection between episodes” (female, logistician, 25-34 years old); “difficult to follow the narrative thread” (female, doctor, 25-34 years old); “the feeling that I’m missing something I need to fully understand the story” (female, student, 18-24 years old). As one female reader put it: “I often didn’t understand the connection between episodes, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t super-focused and I watched the ‘story’ in between two other ‘stories’ that had nothing to do with it” (female, student, 18-24 years old). This comment echoes a common criticism of digital reading: for Alain Giffard (2011), digital apparatuses rule out any sustained reading of a text by providing a “medium-oriented reading” characterized by constant solicitations from the medium, which are likely to disorient readers.

4.3. Favourable Representations of Instagram

47Certain readers’ remarks also appear to testify to the sometimes-dissonant hybridization between two semiotic and narrative universes that are a priori quite distinct: that of the fictional world of Été and that of the Instagram platform. How does one read fiction in an environment in which the omnipresent “storytelling” of brands permeates every reading experience? Interpretations of a work such as Été are also shaped by expectations connected to its apparatus of communication. This hybridization was foregrounded by one of the screenwriters of Été, Thomas Cadène, at the 2018 Conference on Digital Books, when he portrayed Instagram as an apparatus that produces micro-fictions, unlike Twitter, which according to him is more suited to discourse and argumentation:

Instagram is the summer network, the one we’re least likely to give up on during the summer, because we want to show off how tanned we are. On Instagram, we all act like screenwriters. On Twitter, we construct a discourse, but on Instagram, we construct the story of a life17.

48This view seems to be shared by survey respondents who perceive Instagram as an apolitical platform that encourages constructive exchanges, while Twitter is accused of fanning the flames of conflict. During season 2, many followers proved willing to “play along” and join in, responding positively to the many playful prompts placed at the end of stories: competitions, surveys, and riddles that encouraged them to give their points of view on certain topics, or carry out the heroine Olivia’s investigation along with her. Several stories ended with the promise of a mystery guest who would appear in a subsequent episode: the French actor Guillaume Canet when the heroine arrives at Cap Ferret; the French singer Julien Doré during a game of pétanque. Many followers seemed happy to engage with these playful strategies, which encourage them to take part in Été’s production and circulation process—these episodes sparked on average more than four hundred comments, whereas others generated only sixty.

Fig. 4. The episode in which Julien Doré is the mystery guest (season 2)

Fig. 4. The episode in which Julien Doré is the mystery guest (season 2)

Source: Été’s Instagram account (screenshot)
© Bigger Than Fiction/Été.Arte

49Survey respondents found that these participatory activities made it possible to “maintain immersion in the fiction” (female, student, 18-24 years old) and “give the impression that you can control the story by having an effect on the writing” (male, radio producer, 25-34 years old); although some said they would have liked “something more collaborative” (female, student, 18-24 years old) and “to really have a say in the choice of storyline” (male, engineer, 25-34 years old). In the end, many spoke of their enthusiasm for a fiction that opened up new horizons on Instagram and “is something other than selfies” (female, student, 18-24 years old).

“Hooray for this original use of Instagram” (comment).
“Something new on social media” (comment).
“Now I know I can go on Instagram not only because I’m bored, but to read” (female, student, 18-24 years old).
“Instagram is no longer only for circulating something that exists in reality but makes it possible to create, in a new way, a form of art that has existed for a very long time” (female, student, 18-24 years old).

50This novel use of Instagram benefits the platform, the plasticity of which allows it to play the rewarding role of breeding ground for artistic and literary productions. The creators’ initial plan to call into question a prudish ideological universe revealed, instead, the apparatus’s formidable capacity for adaptation and adjustment (Jeanneret 2014). Respect for the norms and rules of Instagram is ensured by the editorial mediation of the community manager, who censors posts that divide the community, answers practical questions, and creates a space for exchange and discussion that humorously mobilizes the language and vocabulary of Instagram users. During our interview, Édouard Gasnier confirmed the importance of a strategy of “complicity” that aims to gratify readers by systematically “liking” or responding to all their comments. Sylvie Octobre writes (2015: 24):

As part of the democratization of cultural production in the digital era, community managers, gatekeepers, and other webmasters play the role previously played by institutions that transmitted, selected, improved, and structured information in order to create communicable, exchangeable, transformable, usable knowledge.

51A connection is created that makes it possible to ask readers—with humour—to “like” posts in order to make not only the creators but the algorithm happy:

xxxxx: Impossible to like this post, it’s too sad! 😢
ete_arte@xxxxx: Do it for Suzanne and Claude. And the authors. And the community managers And the Instagram algorithm 😉
xxxxx@ete_arte : Ok I’ll like it for the algorithm then 😜

52It was thanks to the constant mediation of the community manager that readers were able to play this role of opinion shapers, which was so crucial to the success of Été. Thus, to the question “What was your motivation in writing comments?” some answered “the possibility that the CM might respond” (female, teacher, 35-49 years old); “Potential interaction with the community, as well as with Été itself, since (I find) the authors are pretty close to their community” (female, student, 15-17 years old).

4.4. “It’s Like a Little Literary Salon18

  • 18 To quote the expression used by one survey respondent: “It’s like a little literary salon, we expla (...)

53Although one of the creators’ goals was to pique a platform known for its puritanism, not one scene was censored by Instagram, whose capacity for interpretation turned out not to be up to the task of detecting graphic sexual allusions or salacious plays on words. However, readers responded, questioning the systems of values transmitted by the series. Analysis of comments on season 1 shows that the authors were frequently challenged: they were criticized for reproducing gender stereotypes (unfaithful hero, overly wholesome heroine) and propagating an outdated view of couples:

I find this view of couples and of love really reductive and sad. In any case, I hope these two idiots will have learned a few lessons and that they will have some real adult conversations together, after being separated and acting like kids for the whole summer!(Comment)

54In season 2, the heroine was criticized for her “unfaithful” and “selfish” behaviour, with some comments going so far as to call her a “whore,” and claiming that she deserved the online harassment she was receiving. Although collective self-moderating had regulated such debates until then, the community manager was obliged to delete certain posts in order to remain in compliance with community rules.

55In the case of some debates—over female sexuality, the vegan movement, hunting, the risk of cancer from topless tanning—the implicit critique that the creators had hoped to address to the moral order of Instagram (in particular, of its puritanism) ended up turning against the Arte brand, the authors, and even the fictional characters themselves—as if these characters were as “real” as users’ profiles. Gradually, a miniature society emerged, a space of online sociability, where the expression of norms and values demonstrated representational interferences between the apparatus of publication on the one hand, and the apparatus of fiction on the other: on several occasions, the community manager had to specify that the Été account is a “narrative,” not “informational,” one. At a conference19, the author Thomas Cadène described how he experienced these heated debates:

There were times when we were completely overwhelmed by the comments. Sometimes they were problematic. Because of the piecemeal publication of the story, readers don’t have an overall relation to the work, but rather to each moment: characters are judged in the moment, but not when the reader has come to the end. This creates some confusion. We were accused of sexism because readers responded in the heat of the moment (as if they were watching a movie). The work was judged from day to day, and as authors we didn’t see that coming, that people would react intensely. We were accused of promoting certain behaviours when they were the characters’ behaviours. (Remarks made during his talk at the 2018 Conference on Digital Books.)

56While some readers found that the proliferation of comments created a toxic atmosphere, many touted the collective reception created by the communal reading experience as a model of intelligence:

“It’s cool to be able to read together, in the same way that it’s cool to watch a TV series with a friend and to wait for each other to watch an episode.” (Female, web editor, 34 years old.)

57The system of comments, displayed alongside images and integrated into posts, encourages the emergence of a collective system of interpretation, similar in some respects to the register of fan fiction. The experience of individual and personal reading goes along with intense debates over the construction of meaning. For some followers, enjoyment seems to come as much from the debates and shared experiences made possible by discussions of content as from reading the series itself. They congratulate each other on their collective efforts to come up with interpretations and their success in reaching a consensus, despite the vigour of the debates. In the eyes of readers, Instagram is transformed into a “literary salon,” where a “transmedia, additive, and collaborative culture of making” develops, promoting, according to Sylvie Octobre (2016: 87), skills such as “the ability to pool information; the ability to share and compare systems of values by defining ethical stakes; the ability to create connections between disseminated information; the ability to express one’s interpretations and feelings.”

“I’m curious how I would have interpreted the comic if I had approached it from just my own point of view, without many likes and comments.” (Female, student, 18-24 years old.)

“It creates a different view of events, whether I agree with it or not.” (Female, illustrator, 35-49 years old.)

“It’s striking to see that a lot of people seem to act as if they’re watching a movie, they experience the emotions at the same time as the characters, you feel an exchange happening.” (Female, student, 18-24 years old.)

“What’s really cool is that now reading the comments is as important as the episode.” (Female, web editor, 25-34 years old.)

“It’s like a little literary salon, we explain ourselves to each other, we try to see why someone else thinks differently.” (Female, librarian, 25-34 years old.)

“It lets you come up with hypotheses about what happens next.” (Male, engineer, 25-34 years old.)

Conclusion

58Through the values they transmit and their innovative formats for writing, digital social networks play a role in shaping our mediatic, artistic, literary, and cultural imaginaries. The example of the comic Été has allowed me to show how the social network Instagram can be actively used by cultural institutions and cultural industries as an apparatus that “both materializes constraining factors and generates appropriations, interpretations, and actions” (Fourmentraux 2010: 137). My analysis, which is inspired by social semiotics, has focused on three areas: production constraints, the materiality of communication, and issues around appropriation by follower-readers. These different focuses have allowed me to highlight processes of negotiation and adjustment from the work’s conception to its reception.

59First and foremost, Été seems to reflect the quest for structure of the emerging sector of digital comics. The sector is characterized by hybrid alliances (between professionals from the realms of public radio and television, digital communication, and comics), and comic book editors are still unlikely to take the risk of investing in it. The project also reveals the emergence of strategies of competition and co-operation between cultural and digital industries in order to attract young audiences and shape their habits. Analysis of how Été was written, read, editorialized, and distributed, taken in conjunction with its creators’ discourse, demonstrates the power of the Instagram apparatus, which obliges creators to subject their creative process to algorithmic decisions and to the platform’s digitized editorial frameworks. But such relations of power are far from being reducible to a monolithic relation of domination20, insofar as they are reworked through the editorial mediation of the community manager as part of a strategy to reclaim and orient users’ practices.

60While the creators have a positive assessment of their experiment, which succeeded in captivating the public and finding an audience, we might wonder about the project’s sustainability in the absence of institutional funding. Season 3, which was published in summer 2019, was created under the auspices of a new funding mechanism after the departure of Arte, which only funds new experimental projects. Left alone at the helm, the production company Bigger Than Fiction called for contributions from follower-readers to cover the costs of a third season, and was able to raise 30,000 euros through the crowdfunding platform KissKissBankBank. This opens new lines of inquiry into the emergence, within the digital realm, of new forms of legitimacy and recognition in the editorial field of comics, as well as the development of a collective system of interpretation by follower-readers in light of their financial involvement: as co-producers, will readers demand greater decision-making power over the narrative?

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Notes

1 See "author's note" at the beginning of the paper.

2 Season 2 was translated into English; it did not encounter the same success as the French version.

3 Within this new playing field of literary creation we may also cite Léon Vivien, an “archival” work of fiction centered on a character who was a teacher and died on the battlefield during World War I, and who recounts his life as a soldier “live” through Facebook posts. This work was created in 2014 by the Musée de la Grande Guerre de Meaux in partnership with a communications agency. The story, which is based on archival documents, reached over 60,000 readers in eight weeks and has been recognized for its pedagogical value and is often used by history teachers (accessed on 30 August 2020).

4 Roberto Casilli (2019: 64) defines platforms as “multi-faceted mechanisms that bring various categories of value-producing users into relation.”

5 “GAFA” is an acronym referring to the major American web companies: Google (whose parent company is now Alphabet), Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. An “M” is sometimes added for Microsoft (GAFAM).

6 This quote is taken from the summary of Eric Scherer’s opening speech at the tenth annual Conference on Digital Books, organized by the National Publishing Union, on 3 December 2018 (accessed on 30 August 2020).

7 On its website, Bigger Than Fiction presents itself as an “agency for narrative products,” which offers to help the producers and distributors of stories engage their audience on the web through original experiences (accessed on 30 August 2020).

8 See Arte website (accessed on 30 August 2020).

9 A third season wich is not analyzed here was released in the summer of 2019.

10 For example, “turbomedia” has been established as a “genre” that explores the limits of the comics form on the basis of imposed technological constraints. See the Turbo Interactive portal, founded by Balak in 2014 (accessed on 30 August 2020).

11 See, for example, the digital comic created by the Museums of Angers, Le Portrait d’Esther, dedicated to artworks pillaged during the Second World War (accessed on 30 August 2020).

12 Pascal Robert locates this subversiveness in the semiotic tension that connects texts to images and the storytelling effected by the materiality of the page.

13 Thomas Cadène, contribution to the roundtable “New Forms of Reading and Writing” at the tenth annual Conference on Digital Books, 3 December 2018, Novotel Paris (accessed on 30 August 2020).

14 Interview conducted by Benjamin Hoguet and published on his website, “L’été se raconte en feuilleton sur Instagram,” 11 June 2017 (accessed on 30 August 2020).

15 Interview conducted by Benjamin Hoguet and published on his website, “L’été se raconte en feuilleton sur Instagram,” 6 November 2017 (accessed on 30 August 2020).

16 However, a recent survey by the SNE entitled “La bande dessinée, une pratique de premier plan: qui en lit? Qui en achète?” (2017) shows that 53% of those who buy comics are women, with an average age of 41, and who belong to high-level socio-professional categories.

17 Thomas Cadène, contribution to the roundtable “New Forms of Writing and Reading,” at the tenth annual Conference on Digital Books, 3 December 2018, Novotel Paris (accessed on 30 August 2020).

18 To quote the expression used by one survey respondent: “It’s like a little literary salon, we explain ourselves to each other, we try to see why someone else thinks differently.” (Female, librarian, 25-34 years old). See below.

19 Thomas Cadène, contribution to the roundtable “New Forms of Writing and Reading,” at the tenth annual Conference on Digital Books, 3 December 2018, Novotel Paris (accessed on 30 August 2020).

20 In a call for papers, “The Cultural Industries and the Conquest of Platforms,” Jacob Matthews (2018) calls for nuancing the discourse that claims there is a monolithic relation of domination between GAFA and the cultural industries.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Several albums from the Été.Arte account (season 1)
Crédits Source: Été’s Instagram account (screenshots)© Bigger Than Fiction/Été.Arte
URL http://journals.openedition.org/bssg/docannexe/image/493/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 185k
Titre Fig. 2. Several albums from the Été.Arte account (season 2)
Crédits Source: Été’s Instagram account (screenshots)©  Bigger Than Fiction/Été.Arte
URL http://journals.openedition.org/bssg/docannexe/image/493/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 306k
Titre Fig. 3. One of Été’s “boxe,” with the comments
Crédits Source: Été’s Instagram account (screenshot)© Bigger Than Fiction/Été.Arte
URL http://journals.openedition.org/bssg/docannexe/image/493/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 145k
Titre Fig. 4. The episode in which Julien Doré is the mystery guest (season 2)
Crédits Source: Été’s Instagram account (screenshot)© Bigger Than Fiction/Été.Arte
URL http://journals.openedition.org/bssg/docannexe/image/493/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 173k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Nolwenn Tréhondart, « When Comics Become “Literary Salons” on Instagram »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 7 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 novembre 2020, consulté le 24 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/bssg/493 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/bssg.493

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Auteur

Nolwenn Tréhondart

Université de Lorraine/Centre de recherche sur les médiations (Crem)

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Droits d’auteur

Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods

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