Kairos 19.3

Instagram, Geocaching, and the When of Rhetorical Literacies

When you see a social media post, do you ever wonder what led to its composition? This webtext explores what we can learn by attending to the when of rhetorical literacies in social media...

Wayfinding: Geocaching and Literate Activity

At dusk on a clear autumn evening, Louise, a 32-year-old second-grade teacher, sits in her car, parked a good distance away from the entrance to the kind of big-box store found in many mid-sized American cities. In her left hand is a smartphone; in her right, a GPS receiver. She responds quickly to a text message from a friend before switching to her phone’s geocaching application. She spends a minute or so scrolling through recent logs for the cache she hopes to find shortly. Looking briefly from her phone to her GPS receiver—then, looking over her dashboard and double checking her intuitive, material sense of the digitally rendered coordinates—she hops out of her car and casually walks over to a large light pole anchored in a concrete base, lifting the plastic cover at the bottom of the pole. The mundane, functional cover hides the large bolts and nuts of the light pole assembly, and it also hides a 35mm film container that is the object of Louise’s hunt. She grabs the cache and lowers the plastic cover. As the sun sets behind the big box store, Louise holds the container between her thumb and forefinger, away from her body, the auburn glow of the sky an incongruous background for the quick photo she snaps with her smartphone. Back in her car, Louise opens the film container and signs the log that she finds inside—physical proof that she has indeed found the cache. She also logs the cache digitally on her smartphone app, then uploads her photo to Instagram with a brief description (which will then autopost to both Facebook and Twitter). She walks back to the light pole and hides the cache once again. By the time she returns to her car, she has three new notifications on her phone: two Instagram likes and a Facebook comment…

Louise’s experience demonstrates the rich continuum of self-sponsored rhetorical literacy practices involved in geocaching (Louise is a composite persona based on data discussed in this webtext). In finding this cache, she navigates through everyday interactions with her friends, through mundane material spaces, through specialized network spaces (the geocaching community and the complex network of global positioning satellites and receivers), through the liminal, crosshatched space of the cache container, hidden in plain sight, and through three social media spaces where she documents her efforts and where she invites different kinds of exchanges from diverse groups of family, friends, and acquaintances. As rhetorically literate practices (Selber, 2004), Louise’s movements through these varied spaces involved both planning and deliberation before the find, and reflection and persuasion in social networks after. And through these movements, she coordinated and transformed (Hart-Davidson, 2013) varied and complex communication flows, her intuitive sense of material spaces, and their potential for geocaching activity.

When exploring how people use social media, it may be tempting to consider a given network space or service as the crux of analysis (Bruns, 2011) or as the initial impetus for social or political action (Lotan et al., 2011). Such approaches are tremendously valuable, but they may unintentionally obfuscate complex rhetorical literacies that both precede and extend beyond social media participation—the kinds of self-sponsored literacy practices that mediate Louise’s geocaching experience. In this webtext, therefore, I consider the “when” of rhetorical literacies by exploring individual and aggregate posts in the popular photo-sharing service Instagram as meaningful pivot points along broader continua of literate activity. In this way, social media participation is seen as a nexus and fulcrum from which scholars and students of writing and digital rhetorics may trace literate activity both backwards and forwards—to see social media as one public component in a host of self-sponsored writing and rhetorical practices.

Geocaching plays on the logics of both treasure hunting and hide-and-seek: Geocachers create and cleverly hide containers in both urban and rural environments, all around the world. After doing so, they create cache names and descriptions—often clever and ingenious discursive efforts that subtly play on cache characteristics, spatial nuances, and historical contexts—and upload this information, along with coordinates in latitude and longitude, to a public website accessed by other geocachers. Moreover, geocaching is a fundamentally visual activity: its foundational premise is that there are hidden potentials in what we see (and choose not to see) every day, and that the invisible may become visible through a geocacher’s acumen. In this way, geocaching has always been accompanied by photography and videography; a given cache description will sometimes include a visual hint, and geocachers have relished visually documenting their finds without spoiling the experience for others. In short, by tracing the social media participation of geocachers we can see how the when of a given Instagram photo is but one component of a broader continuum of literate activity. More important, we can also see how reading and writing practices deeply condition and frame visually intensive social media participation, where such literate practices are not always obvious.

The primary organization behind geocaching’s public presence is Groundspeak, based in Seattle, Washington. Groundspeak hosts and displays data on over 2.2 million active geocaches around the world, and coordinates the daily activity of over 6 million geocachers through the website Geocaching.com and affiliated mobile applications and data services. In addition, Groundspeak maintains an active and increasingly sophisticated social media presence; while Facebook and Twitter accounts are essential components of their strategy, Groundspeak has developed particularly savvy YouTube and Instagram accounts. A key reason for Groundspeak’s effectiveness in visually intensive social media applications is the underlying quiddity of geocaching as an inescapably visual activity. A geocacher is constantly on the hunt for opportunities to make the invisible visible, and to uncover the previously unseen and overlooked interstices of everyday life. Photography has been an essential facet of the geocaching experience since its inception, and the sophistication of contemporary mobile phones coupled with the wide reach of social media services such as Instagram has led to an explosion of visual compositions about geocaching.

In July of 2013, Groundspeak capitalized on these trends by announcing an Instagram campaign called #31in31. Geocachers were charged with (a) finding at least one new cache each day for 31 consecutive days (during August 2013—hence 31 finds in 31 days) and (b) documenting and sharing their finds on Instagram using the #31in31 hashtag. The incentives offered to geocachers for participation were minimal (for example, cachers received a new digital “souvenir” or badge each day that they logged a find), but the larger goal of promoting and celebrating the activity during the month in which International Geocaching Day occurs was motivation enough for a large number of cachers. As I was already involved in an ongoing project studying geocaching and geocachers, I decided to archive all public Instagram posts using the #31in31 hashtag during the challenge period (the particulars of this project are described in more detail in the Methods section).

Through geocaching, then, the continua of rhetorical literacies may be seen in full relief. In other words, practices of literate action that both precede and extend beyond a geocache discovery (and its announcement on social media) are a fundamental part of the activity for many geocachers. Extending the work of Stuart Selber (2004) beyond the constraints of online environments to account for the fact that online environments now move with us, I argue that components of design, evaluation, and social action central to Selber's concept of rhetorical literacy may be fruitfully examined through social media, and through the temporal facets of social media participation in particular. Exploring when we choose to post images to social media is a line of inquiry very much tied to one's lived experience and the mediation and intermediation of several genres and forms of literate practice that ebb and flow over time. In geocaching, these whens become momentarily apparent through social media: Each Instagram photo of a geocache container emerges from a nexus of several other genres and rhetorical mediations—from navigating and evaluating cache descriptions on a website, to signing the cache log and interacting with friends on Twitter. Seen this way, and appropriating Selber (p. 147), a simple Instagram post is suasive, intentional, reflective, and socially actionable—facets of situated practice that emerge from and condition temporally significant participations in literate activity.

This webtext includes theoretical and methodological details that help frame these and other findings about the when of rhetorical literacies displayed by geocachers on Instagram. Specifically, my own theoretical perspective is situated within the scholarship of writing, activity, and genre research (WAGR). Findings are derived from a study of over 3,700 public Instagram posts by geocachers that were collected over a period of five weeks in the summer of 2013. Using qualitative content analysis (Krippendorf, 2012), I found several clear patterns of Instagram activity among geocachers, and I discuss these patterns through three overarching themes that emerged from systematic analysis of the dataset: place matters, people (and animals) matter, and matter matters. This webtext, therefore, contributes to the field in three ways: first, I argue that by focusing on the when of literate practice researchers and students of writing and rhetoric may come to better understand the role that social media plays as a pivot in broader continua of self-sponsored composing. Second, I foreground the role that writing plays in visually intensive social media. Third, I model content analysis, a methodology that may be appropriate for scholars of writing and rhetoric who choose to work with visually intensive social media.

Frameworks and Theoretical Perspectives on Literate Activity and Geocaching

Sitting in her car, just before attempting to find a geocache, Louise casually and deftly navigates through an array of literate activities. She is an experienced geocacher and an early adopter of smartphones, their many applications, and the social networks that rose to prominence through their use. If we were to sit in the passenger seat and observe Louise for the few moments before her find, we would see the following actions (and more): responding to a work email; exchanging text messages with a friend; liking a post on Facebook; responding to a reply on Twitter; navigating to the geocache description in her smartphone’s geocaching app; reading previous logs for the cache; reading the cryptic hint for the cache; deliberating about the hint and interpreting its meaning; navigating to the coordinates on her GPS receiver; responding to another text message; looking out for non-geocachers while trying to appear innocuous; waiting for the opportune time to make the grab; reading a new reply on Twitter, etc. Louise moves through these actions seamlessly, with tacit understanding of her various devices and applications. If we are to systematically study and understand the kinds of actions that have become tacit for Louise and other geocachers, we need theories and approaches that help us carefully attend to the actions she makes, the times and spaces in which she makes them, and her individual and social motivations for doing so. From this perspective, the context framing an action that seems routine and mundane—a simple Instagram post depicting her geocache find—may become quite complex very quickly.

Drawing on John Law’s (2004) assessment of qualitative research in After Method, Clay Spinuzzi (2009) argued that “the work of qualitative research is messy and unstable until the work of inscription stabilizes it” (p. 264). By inscriptions, Spinuzzi (drawing on broader sociocultural theories that have been applied to writing) is referring to the many texts that may be traced in qualitative research, and that help frame research findings. In the brief moments we might spend observing Louise before she finds the geocache, we might see her work with a variety of inscriptions: for example, text messages, emails, tweets, cache descriptions, GPS coordinates, Instagram descriptions, and the cache log. As researchers, we would use our own inscriptions to make meaning from (and thus stabilize) her actions, including, for example, field notes, coding schemas, analytic memos, and member checks. But qualitative studies of visually intensive social media are doubly unstable. For example, even though the field of rhetoric and composition has long been interested in the writing practices that mediate many Internet communities and social media services (from Banks, 2006, through Jones, 2014), the textual artifacts that drive social media participation are still sometimes difficult for qualitative researchers to systematically archive and study, partially because the scope of potential datasets may expand rapidly. Accounting for the work of inscriptions is further complicated by the prominence of visual media in popular contemporary applications and services such as Instagram, Pinterest, and Vine. In this study, I attempt to bring the stabilizing inscriptions of qualitative analysis to a predominantly visual object of study with a clearly bounded dataset, and in the process, to explore how a geocacher's inscriptions and images, manifest through a host of rhetorical literacies, mediate and condition visual sharing and presentation.

Scholars in rhetoric and composition have explored several forms of social media participation from a variety of theoretical and applied perspectives. For example, studying alternative workspaces (Pigg, 2011; Spinuzzi, 2012) has led scholars to consider the ways in which social media applications extend and mediate where, when, and how contemporary professionals work. Explorations of networked writing in online communities and in social media have led scholars in our field to consider the development and presentation of digital identities (Banks, 2006; Rice, 2009). And specific studies of social media have revealed the many ways in which writing and rhetoric frame and reframe experiences and interactions in a variety of contemporary social media spaces (for example, see Ferro, Divine, & Zachry, 2012; Jones, 2014; Potts & Jones, 2011; and Stolley, 2009). Finally, case studies have also explored the viability of online writing to foster and sustain communities (McNely, 2010, 2011; Santos, 2011) and they have delineated multimodal means of composing online (Davis, Brock, & McElroy, 2012). In sum, our field has developed (and continues to develop) rigorous, fruitful analyses of the increasing role that social media and digital writing plays in everyday composing—in professions, in academe, and in personal, self-sponsored literacy practices.

Research has also focused on networked infrastructures and their relationships to digital writing and rhetorics (DeVoss, Cushman, & Grabill, 2005; Rice, 2012; Rickert, 2013; Spinuzzi, 2008). Indeed, Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, and Jeffrey Grabill (2005) focused explicitly on the when of new media writing by making plain the infrastructures that support such work. They argued that much of the extant scholarship on new media writing focused on the what and why of such practices, but that few researchers had attended to the when, in part because the infrastructures supporting new media may be invisible (DeVoss, Cushman, & Grabill, 2005, p. 16). Focusing on the when of new media writing, DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill (2005) argued, promotes an analytical lens that foregrounds “the materiality of such media,” bringing forth “the often invisible issues of policy, definition, and ideology” (p. 16). And a focus on the when allows researchers to trace how infrastructures of composing emerge and can be made more visible (DeVoss, Cushman, & Grabill, 2005, p. 22)—how the often invisible material tools, networks, and spaces of digital composing participate in and shape specific instances and practices (in other words, the what and why). DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill (2005) contended that “even though infrastructures are always already the conditions in and through which we interact, compose, and think, we often don’t need to think about them” (p. 34). This foregrounds the exigence of attending to the when of rhetorical literacy, of seeing it as something that is not isolated but patterned in and emergent from a broader networked infrastructure of previous and ongoing literate activities.

Though DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill’s ideas were published in 2005, the temptations to focus on the what and why of social media remain strong. But again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such perspectives; we need them, and they do valuable scholarly work. Just as DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill argued that attending to the when of new media writing would complement approaches to the what and why, I too argue that attending to the when of everyday rhetorical literacies enacted in social media complement perspectives on the what and why of such spaces. Attending to these whens as they shape a specific post in a service such as Instagram may lead us into richer infrastructures of writing, rhetorics, and technologies. Louise’s photo-sharing (and autoposts to Facebook and Twitter) reveals some of these infrastructures: tools and technologies such as a smartphone, a GPS receiver, a pen, and specialized smartphone applications; material spaces such as the parking lot and Louise’s car; networked spaces of the geocaching community and friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter; and the hybrid space (Swarts & Kim, 2007) of the cache and container—a liminal, hidden fold that becomes a reality only when material and networked spaces are brought together to reshape the ordinary (see also McNely, 2014).

Such infrastructures have been productively explored in our field as topoi specifically for their temporal dimensions. For example, Jenny Edbauer’s (2005) focus on the public distribution of rhetorical suasiveness considered the when as a crucial component of “distributed emergence,” as well as “an ongoing circulation process” (p. 13). Writing, she argued, “is distributed across a range of processes and encounters” (Edbauer, 2005, p. 13), and attention to distribution inescapably foregrounds temporality. For Edbauer, the lived experience of rhetorical literacies—the unfolding, processual nature of everyday rhetorics—is simultaneously situated in time and space and potentially unbound, loosened from temporal constraints, emergent in new contexts in and among new audiences. More recently, Laurie Gries’s (2013) work explored temporality in similar directions by tracing the circulations of digital images. In a manner similar to Edbauer, Gries (2013) explored how “images conceived as events can be studied as a dynamic network of distributed, unfolding, and unforeseeable becomings” (p. 335). By tracing circulation, Gries (2013) attempted to delineate a series of whens from unfolding continua—moments in which a digital image is appropriated, re-envisioned, and re-distributed, changing that image’s epistemic and ontological import in networks of ever-expanding audiences (p. 335).

In short, by simply asking “when does a particular photo-sharing opportunity emerge and what happens after it does?” we may explore infrastructures and practices of rhetorical literacies—networked and material, visual and verbal—that unfold along broader continua of practice. These infrastructures and their potentials are now commonplace for more people than ever before. William Hart-Davidson (2013) has noted that the tools, technologies, and practices that were once almost exclusively the domain of experts in technical fields are now a part of our everyday lives and activities—in work, learning, and leisure. Brad Mehlenbacher (2010, 2013) has similarly pointed out that distinctions between work, leisure, and learning have blurred, and have led to the collapse and intermingling of these contexts. I have argued (McNely, 2014) that these trends have fostered the use of knowledge work tools, networks, and practices for forms of knowledge play. In knowledge play, the networked spaces, devices, and social contacts common to knowledge work are coordinated and transformed (Hart-Davidson, 2013) in the service of leisurely pursuits. Knowledge “play” also connotes movement or action, as the practices and spaces of knowledge work play out in new ways. And the same communicative devices, applications, and networks often mediate both knowledge work and knowledge play at nearly the same time. The contexts between work and leisure collapse as relationships between colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and online contacts become blurred. These ideas are not specific to geocaching, and they are affecting several forms of everyday rhetorical literacies (particularly in social media spaces). But geocaching is a prototypical example of knowledge play, and is therefore an ideal activity for exploring the when of rhetorical literacies in social media.

In addition to the research on social media in rhetoric and composition detailed thus far, my study was also strongly shaped by the theoretical framework of writing, activity, and genre research (WAGR). David Russell (2009) argued that WAGR represents a synthesis between rhetorical genre studies and sociocultural approaches to practical activity. WAGR foregrounds keen attention to situated practice—to the mediated action of everyday activity (Shipka, 2011)—the specific places, times, and resources that shape (and participate in) forms of knowledge work and play. WAGR research attends to rhetorical and technological literacies in a robust way, tracing the everyday tools, genres, and environments of activity: the very things we might see by spending some time geocaching with Louise. WAGR, then, is particularly suited to qualitative studies of knowledge play, and of social media as a component of other forms of writing and rhetorical practice.


Methodology and Methods

Observing Louise as she geocaches and deriving findings about her particular rhetorical literacies would generate an ideographic account of her situated activity—a focused portrait of the written and visual composing that both conditions and stems from the when of her Instagram post. This would be valuable, but our applications would be limited. Perhaps new geocachers behave quite differently from Louise, or perhaps geocachers in Norway or Germany might have different methods for finding and documenting the same kinds of caches that she finds in the United States. Ideally, we would be able to spend an afternoon with all of the geocachers who participated in the #31in31 challenge, but practically, this would be extremely difficult (and impossible without a large research team). But by using the methodology of qualitative content analysis to study a corpus of Instagram posts we can learn about the kinds of patterns that are shared by Louise and other active geocachers.

As Clay Spinuzzi (2003) has argued, methodologies entail the theories, values, and aims that motivate and guide research methods, the specific ways in which phenomena are investigated (p. 7). In order to study the use of Instagram among geocachers, I brought together two complementary methodologies: WAGR’s perspective on writing and genre in practical activity and Klaus Krippendorf’s (2012) qualitative content analysis, an approach to generating and analyzing nominal data that has been widely applied in studies of visual phenomena (see Altheide & Schneider, 2012; Bell, 2001; Neuendorf, 2002). Content analysis is fundamentally concerned with the relationship between a particular message (such as an Instagram photo) and its context of use (such as geocaching). WAGR and content analysis are complementary methodologies because the former helps delineate continua of rhetorical literacies in everyday practice, while the latter helps researchers systematically explore how images (or messages more broadly) relate to those everyday practices. Content analysis may be inductive, deductive, or a combination of both. In this study, analysis was inductive—patterns are derived from the particular contexts and activities of the geocaching community on Instagram.

The overarching research question motivating this study was: How do geocachers use photography and photo-sharing services as part of their experience in the activity? Groundspeak’s #31in31 challenge presented an ideal opportunity to collect a clearly defined corpus of photographs and attendant inscriptions that would help me answer that question. Beginning on July 27th, 2013, I collected all public Instagram posts using the #31in31 hashtag. In order to account for time-zone differences among world-wide users and the tendency of some geocachers to post photos several days after a find, I continued collecting posts through September 5th, 2013. Though Instagram allows users to post both photos and short videos, I made no distinction between the two modes in my data collection or analysis. Instagram posts were archived in the following manner: (a) I created a custom feed, based on the query “#31in31,” in the Instagram photo viewing service Webstagram; (b) I then archived posts resulting from that feed in the database program DEVONthink. Using DEVONthink’s HTML archive format (which preserves Instagram likes, comments, descriptions, hashtags, and date and time data), I collected over 4,000 individual posts.

In order to prepare the corpus for analysis, I removed posts from users who subsequently deleted their accounts and posts that were not germane to geocaching (a modest number of Instagram users following a new fitness routine occasionally used the #31in31 hashtag during the collection period). This resulted in a final dataset of 3,756 posts from 541 individual users. While it is difficult to determine the home location of each Instagram user, the corpus includes place names, GPS data, languages, and photo captions from geocachers in the United States, Germany, Spain, Finland, Norway, the United Kingdom, Denmark, France, Belgium, and Sweden. Analysis began with preliminary inductive coding of 10% of the corpus, starting with posts dated August 5th to ensure that geocachers were fully immersed in (rather than “preparing for”) the #31in31 challenge. Coding was exclusive; upon viewing a photo, I tried to determine first and foremost the compositional intent and focus of the photographer by simply asking: What is this photo about? This initial stage of analysis generated fifteen potential codes. The second stage of coding examined an additional 20% of the corpus, beginning with posts dated August 18th. At this stage of analysis, I tested the viability of the initial set of fifteen codes while remaining open to emergent possibilities. After coding 30% of the dataset, however, four codes were collapsed in two superordinate codes and two other codes were eliminated, resulting in a schema of nine codes (see Table 1).

Table 1. Coding schema applied to geocachers' Instagram posts in the #31in31 chalenge.

Container (CON)Code as CON posts that explicitly foreground a cache container, or that place the container in a prominent position among other elements (e.g., in focus, in the foreground of a wider scene, etc.).1,048 (27.90%)
Placemaking (PLA)Code as PLA posts that place clear emphasis on a wider scene. These could be shots of mountains, streams, or roads, or photos of prominent signage (e.g., landmark signs, Pike Place Farmer's Market sign, etc.). Placemaking posts give context about a particular scene: An image of a skateboard would not be placemaking; an image of a skateboard on the side of a road, with the road stretching into the distance through the desert would be placemaking.852 (22.68%)
Portrait (POR)Code as POR posts that clearly place emphasis on a human or companion animal. If collage posts include a portrait among other elements, give priority to the portrait and code POR. In posts that might be placemaking, but that include a clearly identifiable person, code as POR.804 (21.41%)
Environment (ENV)Code as ENV posts that detail a specific geocaching context or environment. This might include details of the place (e.g., the features of a particular tree), closer cropped images of spaces and places (similar to PLA, but since they contain less contextual information they cannot be PLA). Examples include thick bushes, cropped shots of abandoned buildings, etc.622 (16.56%)
Badges (BAD)Code as BAD posts that explicitly foreground a geocaching badge or a collage that places clear emphasis on badges.208 (5.54%)
Log (LOG)Code as LOG posts that explicitly foreground a cache log, or that place the log in a clearly prominent position among other elements.87 (2.32%)
Trackable (TRA)Code as TRA posts that clearly foreground a trackable (e.g., a geocoin).66 (1.76%)
Tools (TOOL)Code as TOOL posts that foreground a GPS receiver, a screenshot of a geocaching map, or some other technological item or device.49 (1.30%)
Promotion (PRO)Code as PRO posts that clearly promote geocaching as an activity or the #31in31 challenge. These images will be much more polished than the typical Instagram post, and likely originate from the @gogeocaching account.20 (0.53%)

This inductively derived schema was then applied to the entire corpus during a third stage of coding. Table 1 includes the number of instances in which each code was applied, and the overall percentage in which a given code was represented in the full dataset. I remained open to emergent codes, however, and those that did emerge (narration, companionship, and liminality—described in more detail in the Findings section) were deemed components of the broader content patterns reflected in the schema. In order to determine the viability of this schema for other researchers, I tested interrater reliability across 20% of the corpus. The peculiarities of geocaching mean that the schema should not be applied by someone unfamiliar with the norms of the community. This does not mean that a rater must be an active geocacher; instead, a rater must have a general knowledge of typical geocache containers, tools, trackables, and environments. I conducted a fifteen-minute training session with one rater, who was generally familiar with geocaching and who had occasionally participated in the activity in the past. The second rater coded 751 posts; using Cohen’s Kappa to account for agreement by chance, Table 2 indicates that the rater reliably applied the coding schema.

Table 2. Interrater reliability of the nine-variable coding schema.

CodeSimple AgreementCohen's Kappa
Container (CON)97.5%0.941
Placemaking (PLA)98.3%0.951
Portrait (POR)98.7%0.962
Environment (ENV)98.1%0.908
Badges (BAD)99.7%0.979
Log (LOG)100%1
Trackable (TRA)100%1
Tools (TOOL)99.7%0.856
Promotion (PRO)100%1

While the level of agreement is high, it is not entirely unexpected given the generality of the schema and the concentration of photographic activity discernible in the frequency of the first four codes. The most common disagreements concerned the application of placemaking and environment codes. This is also unsurprising, given that both codes attempt to account for material and spatial aspects of a photograph, though to different degrees. Additional disagreements were often a result of collage posts, particularly when collages were composed of equally apportioned images (for example, a four corners collage consisting of four different images and image subjects). Overall, however, the analysis indicates some regular patterns of photographic activity among geocachers during the #31in31 challenge. The corpus also reveals how some of these patterns yield insights about the broader forms of literate action in which many of these geocachers are engaged. In the Findings section, I discuss what geocachers found, what they found worthy of photographic sharing, and what this content analysis reveals about their rhetorical literacies.


Places, People (and Animals), and Things | A Convergence of Findings

Inscriptions (and compositions more broadly) substantially contribute to stabilizing frameworks of many kinds. The written and photographic inscriptions that Louise accesses through her geocaching application while sitting in her car near the cache site (known by geocachers as GZ, or ground zero) help stabilize her understandings of the cache, and her expectations for making a successful find. Her Instagram post about the cache yields another set of findings—a demonstration of her own ability to find the cache, a signal to other local geocachers that the cache is findable, and an impetus for those Instagram followers unaware of geocaching to find out more about the activity. What follows is a convergence of these and other such findings. Within the themes inductively derived from analysis of the #31in31 Instagram corpus, we can discern a confluence of findings that further stretch the temporal impact of geocachers’ photographic inscriptions. In each post, a cache is found or not found, and the when of a given photograph reveals something of the planning, deliberation, and interpretation that led to its composition and public sharing. A find often yields elation, satisfaction, or admiration for the ingenuity of the hide itself. A photographic post about the find shares that activity with broader communities of geocachers and non-geocachers, fostering new kinds of findings in its wake. And, of course, the content analysis itself produces a series of findings about the collective rhetorical literacies of #31in31 geocachers.

In my analysis of geocachers’ photo composing and sharing some key patterns of activity quickly emerged. These core patterns were supported by a series of less frequent but identifiably different composing and sharing practices. The overwhelming majority of geocachers’ Instagram posts involved compositions of cache containers, geocaching places and environments, and portraits of people or companion animals. The distribution of photos across these four predominant codes suggests a general understanding of how geocachers compose and share photographs about the activity. But in order to better understand the when of rhetorical literacies in this situated social media practice, a deeper look at the data and the nuances therein is necessary. Therefore, I expand on the basic findings of the content analysis through three broad themes of geocaching activity: place matters, people (and animals) matter, and matter (the material, tangible things of geocaching) matters. Through these themes, we can see how the when of rhetorical literacies is complex and richly mediated by shifting continua of knowledge play practices, tools, and technologies.

Place Matters

As a fundamentally visual activity, geocaching is immersed in material places and emplacements in the world, and concerned with finding and making those places and emplacements temporarily visible. Most geocachers know this intuitively; an old joke in the community is that geocaching is what happens when computer geeks are told to go outside and play. Geocaching is about getting “out there” and experiencing new places and spaces. Analysis of the #31in31 dataset reveals how this ethos is embedded in geocachers’ photographic practices, and how the ethos is embodied in whens of travel and movement. When placemaking and environment are combined—and both analytic codes represent composing practices that foreground the spatial aspects of geocaching—an emphasis on place represents almost 40% of all posts. A common sentiment in descriptions of such photos expresses the confluence of geocaching, place, and spatiotemporal movement. Many cachers write descriptions indicating that geocaching has taken them to some spectacular new place, to a hidden gem in their own city that was previously unknown to them, or to an iconic place that they now see in a new way—notable whens that reshape how they see the world going forward. Placemaking and environment posts are essentially two sides to the same coin, the macro and micro views of the spaces and places of geocaching.

In the #31in31 dataset, placemaking posts tend to evince specific ideals about public presentation and geocacher identity. In other words, placemaking photos are significantly about revealing who the geocacher is to a wider audience through spatiotemporal movements. This may be a tacit presentation, but it is one that is supported by the data nonetheless. A dramatic placemaking post signals to public audiences that (a) geocaching takes one places, that (b) getting to these places is worthwhile in itself, and that (c) the photographer is the kind of person who makes time to experience such places. Therefore, these are identity-constructing posts in at least two ways: first, they establish the spatial milieux of geocachers, and second, they signal that, as a geocacher, the photographer is also an explorer who appreciates the characteristics (beauty, sublimity, uniqueness) of a given place. But if our perspective narrows in on the when of such posts, an even more nuanced presentation of self and place emerges. A dramatic placemaking photo includes rhetorical infrastructures and literacies that are largely unstated: to navigate to the place depicted in the photo, a geocacher leveraged their literacy and understanding of both material and digital networks of relations—geocaching coordinates, geocaching tools, transportation infrastructures both public and individual, and a host of associational inscriptions (digital cache descriptions, logs, and hints, social media posts, and personal forms of communication that may mediate the find).

More important, when a geocacher uploads their #31in31 placemaking photo to Instagram, they are participating in the ethos promoted by Groundspeak (either explicitly or implicitly). Table 1 shows that promotional posts are a mere 0.53% of the dataset. However, promotion was retained as a code in the schema for two reasons: (a) those posts are so infrequent that we may reasonably conclude that geocachers are internally motivated—they do not need Groundspeak’s imprimatur to explore; (b) on the other hand, Groundspeak’s promotional posts in Instagram are predominantly placemaking photos—professionally composed in striking and sublime landscapes, with powerful suasive potential for both novice and veteran geocachers. In short, such posts implicitly promote new whens among followers, new opportunities for rhetorical literacies unbound (Edbauer, 2005). Many placemaking posts from #31in31 geocachers tag the Groundspeak account, a further indication of intentional rhetorical literacies (attempts at persuasion—see Selber, 2004) beyond an individual post, and an explicit identification with the ethos of Groundspeak. Placemaking moves thus align individual geocachers with the photographer—cachers of the polished Groundspeak account, an effort to extend the when of literate action beyond the find, not only within their follower–following community on Instagram, but with the larger community of geocachers represented by Groundspeak.

Where placemaking photos promote a macro view of geocaching places, environment photos bracket that view in the form of specific micro contexts. In geocachers’ environment photos we see flora and fauna, wild animals, insects and spiderwebs, dodgy spaces such as dilapidated buildings or dead ends, and visual signals that a geocache is near. Environment photos are still forms of identity construction, but they are not aligned with the promotional efforts of Groundspeak’s official account in the same way as placemaking posts. Instead, they involve different presentations of geocacher identity: the clever and subversive aspects of geocaching, the quasi-dangerous, or the richly textured and typically unseen facets of place (an inchworm, a deer in the woods, a peculiar strain of mushroom, an abandoned building, etc.). Geocachers who post photos of the caching environment may be less concerned with reaching a broad (potentially non-geocaching) audience and more concerned with identifying cache contexts recognizable to experienced geocachers. In sum, these photos show how a given geocacher is immersed in the activity and all it entails.

Finally, geocaching trackables, identified in almost 2% of the dataset, are about both place and matter. A trackable is an object (often a coin, tag, or special totem) that lives in a geocache, and that usually includes a specific goal for movement to other caches (for example: “move me to Brazil so that I can enjoy Carnivale, then deliver me back home to Nagasaki”). With this goal in mind, geocachers who find a trackable may choose to take it or leave it; those who take a trackable try to move it close to its goal. A trackable can therefore move through the spaces and places of geocaching when its owner cannot, facilitating different geocacher whens and opportunities for rhetorical literacies (for example, by tracing the trackable’s movement via a geotagged map online). Inscribed with a unique identifier, trackables may be traced through the network spaces of geocaching as they move through the material spaces of specific cache containers. Trackables thus “see” both the grand spaces of placemaking and the specific contexts of geocaching environments. However, they live for the most part in liminal spaces—in cache containers when waiting to be found and moved along, and in geocacher pockets, bags, and cars when en route. The when of a given trackable reveals further the extent to which trajectories of literate action are revealed, spatiotemporally, in a simple Instagram photo. The trackable pictured may have traveled to thousands of locations across thousands of miles, and its movement through space may be traced through a series of digital visits and “drops” in the trackable’s online log and map (in the past and future).

People (and Animals) Matter

A little over 20% of all #31in31 posts were portraits—of cachers themselves, of caching friends and family members, and of animal companions (usually, but not exclusively, dogs). Photos of people were ubiquitous, but selfies (self-portraits) were infrequent. We can reasonably conclude that, at least during the #31in31 challenge, many geocachers enjoyed the experience with others, and photographed others as a means of sharing that experience publicly. Geocaching can certainly be practiced individually, but the #31in31 dataset suggests that it is also an activity to share with friends, spouses and partners, brothers and sisters, and children. Attending a geocaching event—another sort of when coordinated around informal gatherings of cachers—counted as a “find” during the #31in31 challenge, and several photographs of grouped attendees further foreground the extent to which people matter to the geocaching community. Instagram portraits by geocachers tell others that geocaching is an activity to share—both in the field and in social media.

Even more intriguing, however, were the number of portraits featuring animals, often posed next to an open cache container to show that they participated in the find. Animals were the focus in 84 (10%) of the 804 portrait posts; almost all were dogs, though two cats and one lizard were also photographed. One geocacher seemingly shot at least one photograph of her dog each day that she recorded a find on Instagram (though not every day during the challenge). While it was clear that people mattered to the #31in31 geocachers, the presence of dogs, sometimes lovingly photographed, led to the emergent secondary code “companionship,” which could be discerned in portraits of both people and animals. Because people and animals matter, geocaching is enjoyed with companions—sometimes among other cachers at a geocaching event, sometimes with kids, partners, and the family dog, and sometimes alone in the woods, with a caching dog by one’s side.

A similar secondary code, “narration,” is related to these findings: collage posts often narrate the when of an individual’s literate activity in geocaching, tying together photographs of places, cache containers, companions (people or animals), and screenshots of badges or souvenirs. In these posts, a given geocacher essentially creates a multimodal spatiotemporal narrative of collaged photos, a photo description, and relevant hashtags that illustrates continua of several rhetorical literacies involved in geocaching. Sharing these posts in social media frames the activity—the planning, the hunt, the find, the companionship, and the eventual reward (signed logs and badges). These posts are also self-reflexive: they show geocachers reflecting on and constructing public views of their own continuum of rhetorical and technological literacy. They explicitly foreground befores (shots of the environment or place) and afters (smiling friends or triumphant dogs) and then invite subsequent discussions of the narrative on Instagram and other social media sites.

Matter Matters

In describing how place matters, I argued that geocaching fundamentally reveals (and makes visible) material emplacements in the world. Placemaking and environment posts provide views on the way to (or shortly after) a given cache. But photos of containers, the most predominant form of sharing represented in the corpus, evince the tangibility of geocaching. It may help to view this tendency to photograph containers from another perspective. When the hybrid space of a geocache becomes a networked reality for a given geocacher—that is, when she knows a cache is hidden because the GPS coordinates and the digital description have been layered on top of a specific material location—that space becomes crosshatched and fecund with potential (see also McNely, 2014). The geocacher does not know what is there yet, but she knows a “there” exists for her that does not exist for non-geocachers (known as “muggles” in the geocaching community). And finding that hidden space is only one component of the challenge; extracting the container—holding it in your hands—is the embodied and haptic form of knowing that makes the liminal and crosshatched a reality. Indeed, more challenging geocaches may be especially frustrating: a cacher knows the hide is within a few feet, knows that it has been found earlier that day (thanks to logs in networked space), but cannot “make the grab,” cannot lay hands on the object of pursuit.

This dynamic helps explain why so many #31in31 geocachers photographed containers; doing so represents a kind of “proof” that the grab has been made. In coding, I made a decision to prioritize people and animals in photos that also included a container. In other words, many photos that were coded “portrait” in this study could have been coded “container” as well. I stand by this analysis because it represents a more balanced and accurate perspective on the photographic intent of #31in31 geocachers. But it must be noted that the total number of posts that include containers (in portraits, or in collage posts where some other code weighed more heavily) is substantial. And since geocaching is a fundamentally visual activity, touching and photographing cache containers are both ways of “seeing,” of making the previously invisible temporarily visible. Instagram posts that foreground containers, therefore, explicitly visualize that which is crosshatched, hybrid, and liminal.

This liminality emerged as a secondary code related to container photography. In posting about a unique or troublesome container, geocachers are making visible the hidden folds in everyday reality that result from and participate in rich continua of rhetorical literacies. Rhetorics literally make such spaces real; creating a geocache is an act of invention, of taking something ordinary and banal (a street sign, a park bench) and making it extraordinary for the community of geocachers. Containers, like the trackables they often hold, live in the interstices, in two worlds simultaneously. Everyday passersby routinely unsee these spaces and objects—that is, they see no potential there, no fold in the fabric of reality. But an active geocacher sees these liminal spaces; they see certain locales as potentially crosshatched. Even if they don’t know that a geocache lives inside that ordinary light pole they see when parking at the big box store, they know that one could live there, and that understanding of mundane liminality changes the way they view the world. This is the essence of container photography; it is a way of making visible what muggles choose to unsee.

But there are other, more prosaic reasons for photographing cache containers: sometimes they just look cool, interesting, or weird. What appears to be a garden snail or an innocuous acorn is in fact a hollow space filled with a geocache log. What looks to muggles like a series of inventory numbers on an ordinary light pole is actually a flat, magnetized cache container with dummy numbers. #31in31 geocachers often photographed “nano” caches (the size of a medicine capsule, usually magnetic), gigantic containers, and anything else out of the ordinary. And they sometimes photographed the tools that helped them uncover the containers found in the liminal spaces of the everyday. GPS receivers, smartphone applications, and pocket multitools are all objects that matter to geocachers, that help them realize the embodied knowing that they seek.

Finally, photos of cache logs bring the when of rhetorical literacies in geocachers’ Instagram use full circle. Logging a find in networked space through Groundspeak’s smartphone application or on Geocaching.com is a crucial part of the geocacher’s process. And sharing a photo of the container on Instagram is another way of indicating that a cache has been found. But official proof that you’ve made the grab is mediated by traditional pen and paper. To truly count, the trajectory of literate action—however mediated it may be by networked inscriptions before and after the find—pivots on a material log that has been signed by a human hand. For many geocachers, the log is the point; logs, however, tend to be fairly uniform, making them less interesting as photographic subjects. In the #31in31 corpus, therefore, the logs that were photographed most often were extraordinary in one respect: They were blank. An unsigned log typically carries a special inscription: a cell that reads “FTF”—first to find. Signing a blank log (and sharing a photo of that log on Instagram) is a special event: it is proof, now and forever, that you were the first to hold the container. It is another act of rhetorical invention, another when of literate action that shapes all subsequent moments (for no other geocachers who find this container may claim the same). More important, this little but crucial writing event strongly conditions later photographic practice, as few subsequent geocachers will want to focus on a signed log. Instead, perhaps they’ll shoot a sweeping panorama of the place they’re in, snap a photo of a companion, or focus on the container itself.


Conclusion and Implications

In this webtext, I have explored the photo-sharing practices of geocachers on Instagram in order to make plain the when of rhetorical literacies in social media. By focusing on the when—as a complement to the what and why—I have argued that individual photos may act as pivots for tracing longer trajectories and continua of literate action, before, during, and beyond the posts themselves. At the same time, I have shown how writing and rhetorical practice shape the photographic composing efforts of users in the #31in31 dataset. Though Instagram is a visually intensive form of social media, where few instances of writing are obvious, I have argued that focusing on the when of rhetorical literacies may lead us to see how writing shapes and conditions visual displays and identifications. More important, following scholars such as Edbauer (2005) and Gries (2013), attention to the whens of literate activity foregrounds the distributive and processual characteristics of participation in social media—on unfolding continua of rhetorical circulations. Finally, I have modeled content analysis as a viable methodology for scholars of writing and rhetorics who may be working with visually intensive social media services. The rise of visual phenomena in social media will necessitate new analytic approaches, and qualitative content analysis may be an appropriate methodology for some datasets.

Of course, this study is not without limitations. The #31in31 dataset represents only the photographic practices of geocachers who participated in the August 2013 challenge, so extrapolating findings to all geocachers on Instagram is not possible. There were likely many more geocachers who participated in the challenge but who simply did not use the #31in31 hashtag in their photo descriptions. Additional posts such as these may have had a significant impact on the tenor of the dataset. And while five weeks of posts provided a sizable corpus of analyzable images, a longer time frame for tracing geocaching activity may yield very different findings. Most important, I did not distinguish between modes of presentation in Instagram. Future studies would likely benefit from analyzing short videos and photos separately.

I argue, however, that the coding schema provided here could be used deductively in future studies of geocaching, beyond a limited time frame such as the #31in31 challenge. The coding schema was applied reliably among two raters, and the general patterns of photographic activity in the #31in31 corpus indicate that other studies of geocaching in visually intensive social media may likewise see high frequencies of container photographs, a focus on the companions of geocaching activity, and an appreciation of the places and spaces of geocaching. Above all, the themes described here tell us something significant about how geocachers view the world through their practices of photographic composing. With this analysis of Instagram photos, we can see some of that world with them, through the social media moments that act as pivots in continua of rhetorical literacies.




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Instagram Images:

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aventyrsmobilen (Photographer). (2013, August 2). Det blev en fantastisk kvälls/nattpaddling ut till #trysunda! #paddla #paddling #kajak #dachshound #geocaching #högakusten. Instagram. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://instagram.com/p/cf0jGWSH1w/

boctok_24 (Photographer). (2013, August 17). Country Drive #geocaching #31in31. Instagram. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://instagram.com/p/dIoqMkR08d/

cachish (Photographer). (2013, August 6). Just push it! Verry nice hide near a roundabout in Borås, Sweden #geocaching #FP #cachish. Instagram. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://instagram.com/p/cqdcuyn0kt/

carineanke (Photographer). (2013, August 11). A new day, a new cache and a new pond… Yes! Instagram. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://instagram.com/p/c4BQ0ahW5q/

chrissymae13 (Photographer). (2013, August 28). #lilgeocacher #geocache #geocacher #geocaching #getoutdoors #groundspeak #find #findit #cache #playthegame #funfind @gogeocaching #31in31 #killingme! Is August over yet?!?!?!? Instagram. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://instagram.com/p/dj1ncTzDKC/

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houseoflove (Photographer). (2013, August 4). Normally I HATE bush caches (typically small boring containers hidden in a bush, exposed public scrutiny while you have to search forever, that are almost always not worth the effort it takes to find them) but this one was pretty dang cool. We found this yesterday with the fam. It’s called TMNT - Donatello and is part of a 4 part series about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Remember that show? Anyways, it was a fun one so I thought I would share our find on Day 3 of the 31 Day Geocaching Challenge. #geocache #geocaching #geocachechallenge #31daygeocachingchallenge#getoutside. Instagram. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://instagram.com/p/cmIwNZkXJJ/

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newk82 (Photographer). (2013, August 14). #FTF #PAT bitches! 2/2 #31in31 #geoQc #geocaching. Instagram. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://instagram.com/p/dBOGhaiZaU/

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stadsalv (Photographer). (2013, August 13). One myst FTF:ed before breakfast! #ftf #geocaching #cachish. Instagram. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://instagram.com/p/c8WUW4JBcq/

tbonecrusher (Photographer). (2013, August 8). Fireflies in a tree while out #geocaching! #fireflies #lightningbugs #31in31 @gogeocaching. Instagram. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://instagram.com/p/cxlPB5P0Yl/

tim_neal (Photographer). (2013, August 13). “There is only one rain cloud in the sky… and it’s raining on me. Somehow I’m not surprised.” -Eeyore #eeyore #donkey #geocaching @geocaching #31in31. Instagram. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://instagram.com/p/c9cVo3KZRU/

wearn3 (Photographer). (2013, September 1). Old growth Douglas Fir #gogeocaching #31in31 #geocache. Instagram. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://instagram.com/p/dtFXHfyVOl/

A Word About Design

As a scrolling, responsive site, this webtext directly supports the central claims of the academic argument, to wit: rhetorical literacies unfold in trajectories and continua of everyday practice. These literacies are often seamless—moving from family, to professional, to leisurely pursuits in a recursive, continuous fashion.

In addition, the photographic interludes between sections are liminal spaces in the webtext, representing the liminal spaces of a geocacher's world. The attentive participant in this webtext will see these liminal stories unfold underneath the primary argument—a different reality peeking through from time to time.