David Attenborough's Instagram account

David Attenborough: From Naturalist to Instagram Famous

10 minutes to read
Article
Tessa Visser
13/01/2021

David Attenborough is one of the best-known naturalists of the 20th and 21st century. The tremendous amount of popular nature documentaries that he has produced, the books he has written, and his radio show are all part of his enviable career. Attenborough, who is currently ninety-four years old, has been working in this business for the past sixty years and seems unwilling to stop anytime soon. This thought was confirmed almost two months ago when the account @davidattenborough appeared on Instagram (Attenborough, 2020). The question to ask here is: why would Sir David Attenborough – with such a success story and at the age of ninety-four – feel the need to create an Instagram account? 

Why would Sir David Attenborough – with such a success story and at the age of ninety-four – feel the need to create an Instagram account? 

Keeping this question in mind, in this article I will analyze David Attenborough's Instagram account. The theoretical framework used for this analysis consists of two main elements: the Hybrid Media System and its media logics (Chadwick, Dennis & Smith, 2016; Van Dijck & Poell, 2013) and the notion of mediated online interaction (Thompson, 2020).

David Attenborough’s career

Considering everything Sir David Attenborough has achieved, his career could no doubt be labelled exceptional. Attenborough’s career started as a television producer for the BBC. His interest in natural history resulted in his first television production about animals in the wild as well as in zoos, which was called Zoo Quest. And that is where his successful career started. Attenborough remained working for the BBC until 1972 and then resigned to continue to work as a freelance producer.

Attenborough visited all continents of our planet and produced tens of documentaries, series and films that all focused on the beauty and necessity of the elements of the earth. These nature documentaries are his most well-known pieces.

David Attenborough in his natural habitat

Nevertheless, David Attenborough was not only successful as a film producer; he has also written several books about his adventures and his perception of the natural world (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020). Besides, he has appeared on the radio multiple times talking about his biggest passion: planet earth (BBC Radio 4, n.d.).
 

David Attenborough's Instagram

As the world has become more digitized over the years, new types of media and communication have been introduced. A relatively recent example of such a new media platform is Instagram. The application launched in 2010 had over one billion monthly users in 2018. Whereas the application firstly started as a platform to share pictures with your (virtual) friends – also called followers – one can now post pictures, videos, ‘stories’, ‘highlights’, ‘IGTVs’ and ‘reels’. The possibilities are endless for communicating with other users. You can follow them, comment on their posts, tag them and send them private messages.

Alongside millions of others, Attenborough felt the urge to create his own Instagram account. And just like the rest of his career this move was an enormous success.

As mentioned before, Sir David Attenborough’s success is undeniable. However, all the imagery he has produced, books he has written and radio appearances he made were, apparently, not enough for him. Alongside millions of others, Attenborough felt the urge to create his own Instagram account. And just like the rest of his career this move was an enormous success. His account @davidattenborough, managed by two of his colleagues, broke a record right after the account was activated. In a timeframe of four hours and forty-four minutes @davidattenborough managed to gain one million followers, which had never happened that fast before on Instagram. Currently, almost two months later and with his account being de-activated, the counter is (still) on 6.2 million followers.

How is this even possible? How could it be that this old man is popular amongst the young Instagram generation? Why would this man feel the need to create his own Instagram account?

The Hybrid Media System, media logics and interactions

The answer to those questions begin with the acknowledgement that the media field has profoundly changed. Due to the increase of social media platforms the media landscape has changed from the start of the 21st century. Information and communication became dependent on new technological developments.

Chadwick (2016) calls this new media field: the Hybrid Media System. With this notion, Chadwick (2016) wants to introduce complexity in our thinking about the media field, beyond dichotomies like old versus new media. Although it might seem as if old and new media are distinct categories, Chadwick, Dennis and Smith (2016) make clear that this is not the case . In Chadwick’s (2016) theory on the Hybrid Media System, old and new media do not only co-exist; they are interrelated and interdependent. There is a constant flow of interaction between older and newer media logics.

The Hybrid Media System does not only refer to the interactions between old and new media, but also between the actors and their logics.

An important effect of the hybridity of the media system is the unequal distribution of power. As a result of constant flows of information, there exists an unequal distribution of power, which directly affects the actors’ agency. To be more precise, the Hybrid Media System does not only refer to the interactions between old and new media, but also between the actors and their logics. According to Chadwick (2016), media logics are “bundles of technologies, genres, norms, behaviors, and organizational forms” (p. 4). So, the hybridity of the media system is the result of the interactions between the old and new media logics (Chadwick, Dennis & Smith, 2016, pp. 4-8).

Van Dijck and Poell (2013) make a distinction between mass media logic and social media logic. Mass media logic is the logic behind old media (often called mass media). Mass media like television and radio had a systematic way of sharing news, which was the result of specific strategies and tactics. Because mass media was so dominant in society, it was the only media logic out there.

Mediated online interaction is characterized among other things by many-to-many interaction and thus facilitates dialogical communication.

With the rise of social media came new media logics. Van Dijck and Poell (2013) refer to these logics as the social media logic. They state that “social media logic refers to the processes, principles, and practices through which these platforms process information, news, and communication, and more generally, how they channel social traffic” (p. 5). They also claim that “over the past years, social media logic has gradually infiltrated mass media logic, sometimes enhancing it, sometimes undercutting or replacing parts of it” (p. 11). Media logics have thus changed with the development and expansion of social media (use) (Van Dijck & Poell, 2013).

With the development of social media and its new media logics, new ways of communication were possible. Thompson (2020) coined the term ‘mediated online interaction’ to describe the ways in which people (are able to) communicate due to social media. Mediated online interaction is characterized among other things by many-to-many interaction and thus facilitates dialogical communication. Social media needs to be understood as a tool for creating a network of individuals (Thompson, 2020, pp. 6-10).

Understanding David Attenborough’s Instagram account

David Attentborough's appearence on Instagram can thus best be understood within this new socio-technological context. Instagram with its own social media logic has become a crucial platform within the hybrid media system. It allows Attenborough to reach out to new audiences in new ways.

Attenborough’s account contains twenty-seven posts of which twenty-two are videos. The most watched video is his very first post, which has been viewed over eighteen million times. In this video called ‘Hello Instagram’ David Attenborough introduces himself to Instagram, which is a new form of communication for him.

Instagram with its own social media logic has become a crucial platform within the hybrid media system. It allows Attenborough to reach out to new audiences in new ways.

Looking from the perspective of the Hybrid Media System, the entanglement of different media logics become clear in this video. In the video he says: “I’ve been appearing on radio, television for the past sixty years, but this is my first time on Instagram” (Attenborough, 2020). David Attenborough doesn’t only remind his followers about his mass media-era in this video but does it multiple times throughout his account. Herewith he reminds the viewers of his former work in mass media culture. Also, this makes clear that he makes use of different media logics, which portrays the contemporary interconnectedness of these logics.

 

The reason for Attenborough's success on Instagram is in itself an example of the hybrid media logic as Chadwick (2016) calls it. Attenborough's insta-success is of course rooted in his success as a mass media face. Even more, his appearence on Instagram is not only connected to his goal to save the planet, but also to promote his new documentary.

David Attenborough's new film: A Life on Our Planet

In almost all of the video posts on his account David Attenborough talks about his new film: A Life on Our Planet.

He , however, doesn’t only talk about his film; his account is characterized by short clips from his new film, captions that promote his film, and other people promoting the film on his behalf. Besides, the link to the film’s website is mentioned in the biography of the account. The documentary is a Netflix original and Netflix plays a crucial role on Attenborough’s Instagram account. I will highlight one post in particular which shows the interconnectedness between his Instagram and his Netflix film.

 

In the ‘Ask David Attenborough’ video different ‘groups’ of people like world-famous celebrities, nature experts and activists, ask him questions about his experiences and about nature and climate issues. His answers are provided with snippets from his new film, amongst the questioners are Netflix actors and Netflix is tagged in the video’s description.

In this video, the Hybrid Media System and the hybrid media logic become extremely clear. Through the use of Instagram and his cultural capital as a mass media figure, Attenborough tries to promote his new Netflix film. By ‘using’ influential people who have ties to varying political and media fields he is able to draw loads of attention to his account and thus his new film.

Instagram allows Attenborough to use mediated online interaction to create a gigantic network of people who directly and indirectly promote his work . Hence, by connecting mass media logics and social media logics, Attenborough’s Instagram account could be seen as the embodiment of the Hybrid Media System.

David Attenborough’s online activism

Besides promoting his film Attenborough seems to have a second objective, namely online activism. This becomes clear through the educative basis that can be found throughout his account. In many of his posts David Attenborough explains how planet earth has changed over the years. He talks a lot about the loss of biodiversity, the effects of climate change and other negative effects of people’s behaviour regarding the planet.

Being near nature for almost all his life, Attenborough considers himself a witness of the change that occurred. As an environmental activist he uses Instagram with hopes of educating younger generations about the existing problems and how these problems can potentially be reversed. As Attenborough put it himself in one of his videos: “Over the next few weeks I’m recording messages to explain what the problems are and how we can deal with them” (Attenborough, 2020).

Central to Attenborough’s informative way of communication is hope. Hope for a better future, hope to solve the problems that us humans have caused. A quote from one of his video posts reinforces this idea of hopefulness.

“We have brought ourselves to the very brink of a disaster the likes of which we have never seen before. I witnessed it with my own eyes. But this is not my story, it’s ours, the story of everyone alive now, and it doesn’t stop here. We are all living through these extraordinary times and the final chapter is ours to write. It might feel like a moment of hopelessness, but actually, it can be our turning point. [...] We can yet become the heroes of our own story. We have it in our power. Disaster or triumph… What happens next is up to us.” (Attenborough, 2020)

Embodied as an environmental activist David Attenborough thus encourages his Instagram followers to face the problems there are and to solve these problems, because with the right mindset and knowledge, they can. But why Instagram? As Attenborough explains it: “I’m making this move [to start using Instagram] because as we all know the world is in trouble. [...] But we don’t know what to do about it and that’s why I’m tackling this new way, for me, of communication” (Attenborough 2020).

Central to Attenborough’s informative way of communication is hope. Hope for a better future, hope to solve the problems that us humans have caused. A quote from one of his video posts reinforces this idea of hopefulness.

By spreading his ideas on the natural world with the digital world he is simultaneously combatting junk news on this topic. Similar to his objective of promoting his new film, online activism for awareness and action via Instagram is a logical choice because through the social media logic and mediated online interaction, many people can be reached in a small amount of time.

From naturalist to influencer

So, Sir David Attenborough’s step towards Instagram has been highly successful. He gained millions of followers in a short timeframe and his face was all over Instagram for a couple of days straight. From my analysis of his Instagram account I conclude that David Attenborough needed all this attention for two interdependent reasons: promoting his new film and as a tool for online activism.

Creating an Instagram account is Attenborough’s way of anticipating the powerful social media logic so important in the Hybrid Media System. So, why did Sir David Attenborough feel the need to create his own Instagram account? Because in the contemporary Hybrid Media System – with its hybrid media logics – Instagram is an important platform to share your story with the greater public. Besides being the best-known naturalist of the last century his identity as an Instagram influencer is definitely not inferior.

References

Van Dijck, J., & Poell, T. (2013). Understanding social media logic. Media and communication, 1(1), 2-14.

Thompson, J. B. (2020). Mediated interaction in the digital age. Theory, Culture & Society, 37(1), 3-28.

David Attenborough (@davidattenborough). Instagram photos and videos. (n.d.) Instagram.

Chadwick, A., Dennis, J., & Smith, A. P. (2016). Politics in the age of hybrid media: Power, systems, and media logics. In The Routledge Companion to social Media and Politics (pp. 1-33). Routledge.

BBC Radio 4. (n.d.). David Attenborough: My Life in Sound.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, October 5). David Attenborough: English broadcaster, writer, and naturalist.