The cultural representation of alcohol consumption through social media data

Kamyar Hasanzadeh, Peixuan Liu, Jarkko Salminen, Arla Selin

In this study we examine alcohol usage through social media. With visual, spatial and temporal data available we study what, when, how and where people drink on Instagram. This tells how people want their drinking to be perceived. We compare our observations with alcohol consumption statistics obtained from National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL). Through social media, in this case Instagram pictures, people construct collective imagery of alcohol consumption. This imagery affects norms, namely, what is consider normal and accepted.  People easily perceive others drinking more than they in reality do which creates pressure to drink more. (Ridout & Campbell 2014.) This creates a vicious circle. In the end people drink more, post more drinking pictures on Instagram, which make others to drink more and post more pictures.

There are many positive values people attach to alcohol consumption. It can have, for example, a social value when it connects people and make interaction easier, or a value of personal well-being when it offers an easy way to relax after a heavy workday. However, drinking alcohol has negative outcomes especially for personal health. The problem is not only the 10% of population which consumes close to 50 % all alcohol used in Finland. Also constant medium usage have negative health outcomes on personal level and national level. (Karlsson, Kotovirta & Tigerstedt 2013, 30.) Although people in Finland attach positive values to alcohol as a part of the culture, drinking habits have traditionally been considered problematic and not least because of the human suffering and economic losses that drinking causes for the society.

In the following sections we focus on where people drink (space), why they drink (values) and how and when they drink (activities).


Where people drink according to social media

People drink pretty much everywhere. However the amount of Instagram photos related to drinking varies throughout Helsinki area with a considerably higher concentration around central areas. 

We were also interested to see the distribution of bars in Helsinki area and investigate how it as compares to distribution of Instagram photos showing people drinking.

As it can be seen in these maps on the right, there is a high density of bars in Helsinki center. There are also several other hot spots through out the city. However, the Instagram drinking photos appear to cluster in two spots: one at the very center of the city, and the other around Kallio area. Kallio is a popular hangout for the city resident with a lot of bars throughout the area which are generally more reasonably priced compared to more centrally located bars. However, bars and restaurant which are more centrally located (e.g. near Kamppi, Punavuori, Esplanadi), are deemed more reputable and to be of higher class. This could explain why there is a higher concentration of drinking photos posted in central areas compared to Kallio; simply because these are fancier places and Instagram users are arguably more interested in present a better version of themselves on this social media. 

This can also be seen in the distribution of Instagram photos which we identified as depicting fancy drinking’. These include photos which clearly show use of more expensive types of drinks. The map here illustrates the percentage of photos identified as fancy’ of all drinking photos.

While drinking at bars seem to be most concentrated on central areas, this map shows that drinking at home and private spaces is dense at several location in throughout city. The map also shows that most outside public drinkings happen in the Eastern side of Helsinki center. This area clearly overlaps Kaivopuisto which is a popular park for gathering, picnic, and public events. 

We also looked at the movement of individuals throughout city for the purpose of drinking. The map shows a general trend of movement toward city center. This finding  is in line with the rest of our observations regarding a high concentration of drinking in central Helsinki areas.


What are the activities connected to drinking?

We examined activities with tags and data provided by Instagram. We tagged photos by few different aspects as the type of the drink, is the picture taken inside or outside and in a private space or in public, is there only one person or a group of people, and so on. We also valuated the fanciness of the drink and the atmosphere, so we could separate ordinary drinking and more elitist drinking habits.

With the data we were able to study quantitatively how the photographed drinking is divided during the year and between the weekdays and hours. There is a clear evidence that wine in its many forms is the most popular drink presented in social media although beer is the most consumed alcohol in Finland. The majority of the pictures were taken in social circumstances such as during a party or a gathering with friends. The alone taken pictures usually represented relaxing in a beautiful environment, a fancy looking drink or they were selfies with a intention to tell the others here I am”. Moments of real loneliness were seldom represented. 

Charts to visualize our findings.

Changes in yearly basis,

First, we studied how alcohol consuption is divided by the year and the which weekdays are the most popular ones and is there differences of quality of consumed alcohol by weekday. We found out that surprisingly Friday was more popular than Saturday as a partying day. Estimated 30 percent of represented drinking did happen at Friday.

Second, we tested how many pictures represented drinking alone or together with someone. Nearly 60 percent of the pictures had social context and imaged parties and celebrations, or dinner with friends and family. Food was also in a major role in the pictures and there was seen a connection between wine consumption and food.

Third, we compared  our findings with statistics provided by National Institute of Health and Welfare (Terveyden ja hyvinvoinnin laitos, THL). We found out that the numbers weren’t congruent between social media data and national findings.
There is a large difference seen in numbers of wine and beer consuming. Wine is over-represented in the social media which can be explained by its more respected status as a luxury item. The most consumed beer in Finland is lager made by big national breweries and therefore they may not be felt worthy to be photographed.
The differences between real consumption and and consumption represented in Instagram. The largest difference is seen in numbers of wine and beer consumption.

Places of drinking were also divergent when over 50 % of drinking was represented in restaurants and bar albeit THL reports that 77 % of drinking happens at home. This means that most of the drinking is not represented in social media and the image that social media gives, is biased and usually only the good parts of drinking is pictured. This finding was even more clear among women, when they represented only one percent of drinking in private space.

Gender Preferences

Men showed more Instagram photos taken in private location than women. Female, however, posted more pictures with alcohol while in public location and restaurants and bar. Surprisingly, though people show fewer interests in showing themselves on social media while they were in private location, we notice that man posted more photos in private drinking situations than women.


Social value, shared culture

Personal space. Finns value their personal space and respect other people’s privacy also in public space. 
Finns standing by a bus stop. Source:

Drinking makes people social. When people drink the personal space loses its significance. When drinking people can approach and get to know each other. Under the influence of alcohol it is culturally accepted to hug, touch and invade personal spaces of others. This norm is also visible in Instagram pictures. When people try to fit in the same picture they squeeze together. The radius of people’s personal space is short or nonexistent.

Events. On Instagram people can also be part of events, holidays, graduation parties, birthday parties, music festivals, etc. This can be called ritual aspect of drinking, namely, drinking as socially regulated, ritualistic action (Törrönen & Härkönen 2016). Alcohol connects not only friends but also strangers. Celebrating together creates feeling of being a part of something bigger.

Shared hashtags. There are hundreds of culture specific hashtags that people use in Finland. There is often sincere humor which everybody can understand. Hashtags can refer to, for example, drinking home alone in underpants (#kalsarikännit), going outside to drink with bag full of beer (#pussikalja) or hopefulness despite hangover (#uuteennousuun).

Getting drunk as a collective experience. Getting intoxicated is part of social ritual of drinking. Alcohol transforms introverts to extroverts. It creates and strengthens bonds. After a night of drinking together people become true friends. Being drunk, losing control and fooling around is not considered usually as an embarrassment. Instead it is a source of funny stories and things to remember together.

Negative consequences of alcohol consumption.

Glorified drunkenness.

Instagram pictures can create a glorified image for intoxication-oriented drinking. Being drunk with friends is socially accepted and even expected in some situations, but being drunk alone is usually considered abnormal. Moreover, for young people heavy drinking almost every weekend is considered normal. However, if this behavior continues far to the adulthood it is considered as an alcohol problem or even addiction. Alcohol is no more an enabler of positive social value but it starts to cause social problems such as isolation, exclusion, loneliness and depression. Negative sides of alcohol use are not visible on Instagram although we know they are common.

 Social and cultural distinction

Ordinary drinking. People in pictures which represent social value of alcohol use do not aim to distinguish themselves as above’ others but they enjoy relaxed sociability and value ordinariness (Törrönen & Maunu 2005). They often consume traditional regular Finnish beers such as Karhu, Karjala, Lapinkulta or Koff.

Alcohol as distinction. However, people do not always use alcohol to create bonds but to create distinctions (Törrönen & Simonen 2015, 1152).  For this purpose people use rarer products to show on Instagram. These can be, for example, single malt whiskies, champagne, fancy looking drinks, micro brewery beers etc.

Atmosphere of a picture as distinction. Distinction can be created also through other things than expensive, rare or exclusive products. Special location (such as sailing boat), beautiful landscapes (from roof of a building), mouth watering dishes, expensive clothes or accessories (Louis Vuitton bag and wallet) can create a special feeling or atmosphere which is used to emphasize status of the user. Alcohol is not part of ordinary social but more special situations. Also pictures themselves can be polished and aesthetic (colors, composition). This creates an aestheticized image of drinking

Ideal European drinking habbits.

Finns are drunkards’ is a popular stereotype among Finns themselves. According to a common discourse, Finns should become more European in terms of use of alcohol, they should Europeanize’ and civilize (Tigerstedt & Törrönen 2007). This is though to require drinking better and more expensive products, in other words, emphasizing quality instead of quantity. However, also drinking more expensive, exclusive and European’ products create problems in terms of personal and public health. Alcohol affects people similarly regardless of the price or cultural value of the product consumed. Aestheticized images of exclusive drinks and atmospheres create glorified image of drinking.


Instagram enables creation of glorified imagery of alcohol consumption. Especially adolescents and young adults are exposed to images of drinking on Instagram. They are learning the social and cultural norms related to alcohol. Drinking alcohol by adolescents and young adults is associated with, for example, automobile crashes, injuries, decreased academic performance, fighting, property damage, broken friendships and unprotected sexual intercourse (Anderson 2007). 

Instagram is used for advertising by alcohol brands. It is an image machine that captures and calibrates attention”(Carah & Shaul 2016.) There is plenty of scientific evidence that advertising alcohol affects drinking habits of adolescents and young adults (Hastings & Angus 2009; Anderson & al. 2009; Smith & Foxcroft 2009). Positive images of alcohol make youth start drinking earlier and increase the amounts of alcohol they consume.

Instagram is also used for campaigns that aim to educate people on negative outcomes of alcohol drinking. These campaigns are created by organizations such as The Federation of the Brewing and Soft Drinks Industry (Panimoliitto) and The Finnish Grocery Trade Association (Päivittäistavarakauppa ry). The campaigns utilize hashtags to capture people’s attention. These include #kohtuullisesti (moderately), #kännissäoletääliö (you are an idiot when drunk), #elämäonparastahuumetta (life is the best drug) and #olekoutsi (be a coach). These hashtags are spread by people using Instagram.  One problem is that instead of promoting a healthy lifestyle, hashtags are used ironically. Using #kännissäoletääliö can be used to represent drunken fooling around as humorous and funny. Should the campaigns use pictures that depict the dangers of alcohol drinking like pictures in the side of cigarette packages?

Chancing alcohol culture is difficult. Traditionally advertising of alcohol in magazines, TV and events has been easy to constrain but Instagram creates a new challenge. The ways of educating people should be developed in the future to better compete with advertising and positive, glorified representations and imageries of alcohol consumption on Instagram.


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