Curating My Life: Musings on Instagram and Online Identity

I posted my first photo to Instagram on December 25th, 2010. I have a hazy memory of that moment — setting up the shot, posting it, and thinking to myself: what’s all the fuss about? Four years and over two thousand photos later, Instagram has become a daily part of my life and, even stranger, part of my identity. Over time I’ve been introduced to others whose life has been influenced and shaped by interactions with the app. What started out as an experiment in sharing daily moments has turned into a collective narrative for over 200 million people around the globe. The implications of millions of people interacting with each other on a common technology platform are far-reaching and a new conversation is starting: one about the shaping of identities and personal memories in an age of instant online sharing.

My first Instagram. At least I “liked” it.

Recently, people have started to introduce me in conversation as “my friend Elyse who has a lot of followers on Instagram”. This fact is announced with a certain awe and pride in their voices, like they know someone important. I almost always smile awkwardly and mumble something about “dumb luck” and quickly try to change the conversation. I’m not trying to be falsely modest, I just question what the worth of this “social media currency” actually is. I grapple and worry that my number of followers sets certain expectations of who I am. I get frustrated by feeling the pressure to show a certain life through my posts. And yet, there’s also a bizarre sense of pride at having my personal creative explorations thrust into the critical eye of an eager audience, of my curated life being approved by strangers.

In August I hosted a week-long photography trip to my backyard, the mountains of Banff National Park in Alberta. I was joined by one of my best friends, and three other people with whom I had mainly interacted online. The idea came about quickly. A series of tweets turned into a Facebook conversation and suddenly a group of near-strangers were spending a week together driving around the mountains. There was an excitement about the event, an eager thinking that relationships started in an online world can suddenly collide and become something more tangible, or at least move offline. I should clarify that it’s not that these friendships didn’t feel real before. In fact, I didn’t feel like I was meeting strangers for the first time, but old friends who just happened to live in far-flung areas around the globe. I knew these people, didn’t I? I mean, I had seen what they posted on Instagram for years. I knew where they liked to eat, their sense of humour, their style, what they did in their spare time, and I even inferred about their relationships and connections to the people around them. Our trip would be more like a reunion than a first meeting. And in many ways the week was like that.

@timlampe and @halfgirl on the first day of our weeklong adventures in Banff.

We chatted. We laughed. We nodded our heads along to our favourite songs as we excitedly drove around exclaiming at the beauty outside our windows and stopping to photograph it every so often. But what became clear after several days in one car with these people were all the things you couldn’t possibly know about someone just from observing a collection of images online. Those little quirks and individual traits are what really attract us to other people and what make up a friendship. Moreover, we couldn’t possibly have known beforehand what each others’ reasons were for being on that trip. In many ways, that week reinforced some of the discomforts I had been feeling about my own interactions and the contradictions in using the app: that there is a difference between what I present online and what I know to be true about myself.

For me, Instagram started out as a personal and creative narrative, a way to capture and share my memories, a visual diary that I use to fervently post all the “real” moments happening in my life. Until they aren’t real anymore. Until they aren’t me anymore. At some point, I question every photo and caption and my insecurities rise up around the number of “likes” I am getting. Is my own story being influenced and changed directly by my relationship with an iPhone app? In discussion with other people who actively use Instagram, there’s a common understanding that what we are doing is curating our own story. “At the time when I take a photo, I know I like it, and I want to share it. But then there are times where I’m almost forcing myself into this. Then […] I question whether I like it or not because I didn’t get the reaction I expected,” says Zach Bulick, a designer from Victoria, BC. Olly Lang, a photographer from London, UK, admits that “there is an initial curation that removes anything that fails to have the right impact, or that I don’t think leaves the right impression”.

From early on, I felt like Instagram was a place I could creatively explore how to represent myself.

The most interesting thing is that everyone has a different idea of how personal their online identity is. Chris Amat, a designer from Calgary, AB, is adamant that he has “a very distinct separation” between work and his personal life: “I have gotten countless emails from young followers who claim that I am living the dream and they want to know how they can do the same thing with their life. The reality of my Instagram is far from the real world.” Amat’s separation between his online identity and personal life is admirable, and yet, still says a great deal about who he is as a person. Looking through his gallery of images it’s obvious that he is meticulously building a brand for himself, crafting a persona that he uses to sell his work. His young followers don’t see that separation. They look at Instagram as some sort of truth, even when it’s only part of the story. Bulick reinforces this by saying, “I’ve met a few other friends who are really active on Instagram and there’s this impression that everything in life is an adventure and if you’re not fulfilling that adventure, if you’re not taking advantage of that, that you’re failing at life somehow. That’s not ever explicitly said but it can feel [that way]. It’s the ultimate app to entice your fear of missing out.”

There is something about sharing personal moments in such a public way that makes you feel wholly insecure but is also oddly satisfying. Posting something that you find aesthetically pleasing and then being rewarded by your peers in the form of ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ affirms something in your own identity. It’s a critical and delicate balance and one that I don’t always feel comfortable with. There is no way to keep our personal stories from being shaped and altered by an audience’s reception of them. Once an image is available for public consumption, and criticism, it will ultimately begin a feedback loop that, in turn, changes the creator of the image. Each image shared builds upon the last reaction which, over time, subtly changes the image creator’s own identity and view of self.

A pretty amazing view which gave me my most likes on a photo.

This idea has thrown me into crisis. I am a photographer, or more specifically, I am an artist who uses photography. I’ve never called Instagram a portfolio, but everything I am publishing on Instagram is a portrayal of how I want to be seen. Otherwise, why would I post it online? It is, therefore, exactly that: a portfolio of my life. There are other reasons, of course, behind our need to post and share our stories online: being part of a shared experience or sharing important moments with family and friends. However, I can’t help but see all of these other rationales as being tainted by our constant desire for approval. Is this a jaded view to take? Perhaps. This idea of needing others’ approval is not meant to be negative, but intended to suggest that we are driven by a longing to be affirmed by those around us, a need that is intensified by the instant feedback created by online sharing.

In a blog post published by I-D Magazine in June 2014, Ryan White quotes author J. G. Ballard from a November 1987 interview. Ballard, whose writing themes often include “the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments” discusses the ways he sees the future of technology and community unfolding. Ballard is quoted as saying: “we’ll all be simultaneously actor, director and screenwriter in our own soap opera.” Ballard’s sentiment is eerily accurate and, more importantly, touches on the idea of an autobiographical self in the context of new media, especially in Instagram, an app whose whole intention was to be an “instant telegram” for the modern age. Further, Ballard suggests that “in the media landscape, it’s almost impossible to separate fact from fiction.” The lines between our online and “in real life” selves are blurring, so that we hardly know where one begins and the other self ends, where one self is real and the other, as Ballard observes, a fiction.

The popularity of platforms like Facebook and Instagram shouldn’t really be surprising to us. After all, we are obsessed with telling our own stories, aren’t we? In fact, this compulsion might even be necessary to our sense of self. In an article from the online magazine, OZY, Qi Wang explains this:

“Psychologists have found that personal storytelling helps us shape our “selves.” In the process of sharing our stories, we are telling others and ourselves how our unique experiences make us who we are. Our stories, capturing intimate details and our innermost thoughts and feelings, can best separate ourselves from other selves. These other “me’s” serve as a looking glass against which the storyteller establishes him- or herself as a separate, distinct individual.”

The process of sharing ourselves through social media is really just the same as “personal storytelling”. It’s not that this drive is new — after all, stories are older than the concept of time — we are just revealing our stories in a different form, one that is immediate, and ever evolving. We capture, and then share, snapshots from our lives that become a series of clues about our identities. They are more than clues though. They shape a carefully curated, heightened idealization of self. Brittany Staddon, a photographer form Canmore, AB, says that her Instagram account is only in part how she sees herself but more accurately, it’s a reflection of who she wants to be. In my interview with Bulick he tells me that, “a lot of the photos [I post on Instagram] have a memento quality that wouldn’t be apparent to anyone except me.” The collected works speak to the outside world, but also directly about whoever created them.

A really memorable “Instameet” in London with people I had met through Instagram.

I’m certainly not the only one for whom Instagram, and an online identity, has crossed over into flesh and blood interactions. I hate to use the term “real life” here because “real life” now encompasses an online personality as much as offline interactions. Online dating is now just dating. “IRL” has pretty much left our vocabularies as quickly as it came. Our perceptions of what is real are changing.

I know of a couple who met through Instagram, starting dating, and as a natural extension of their relationship, documented their new life together through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (and truth be told, there are numerous couples who have met through the app). When he proposed to her two years later, he filmed the entire day and posted it to his YouTube channel. Soon after, their engagement was noticed by The Today Show and various blogs and they were interviewed about their remarkable “21st century love story.” The couple’s combined followings on Instagram total over half a million people who are all intently watching their relationship unfold. Of all the proposal videos out there on YouTube, this one is particularly uncomfortable. Far from being a home video documenting a moment, the video is directed to an audience. It feels staged, making the whole event seem totally disingenuous. How much of the filming is about their relationship with each other, and how much of it is about their relationship with their “followers”? I can’t help but feel troubled by the entire charade and how much the video blurs the lines between personal and public. Watching the video should feel intrusive, right? The fact that, instead, it feels more like a scripted reality TV spot is what makes it all the more awkward. The video is like The Truman Show but the protagonist is holding the camera; it’s Ballard’s “soap opera” prediction playing out in 2014.

Maybe I am being judgemental of a couple I have never met, but when people choose to document so much of their relationship online, isn’t it there for public consumption and critique? Their story isn’t between two people anymore, it’s actually a story of two people plus half a million more. And it’s an important story about how much we are willing to share about ourselves and our relationships with an online audience, and how, in doing so, we might be changing our own realities. Our world is not getting bigger because of globalization, it’s getting bigger because we are weaving a strange new dimension into our relationships with electronic pulses, connecting us across spaces that are no longer merely physical.

The last of my #26inLondon collection, on my way to the airport.

From 2012 to 2013 I was living overseas, in London, UK where I created personal hashtags to catalogue my daily life in London as I saw it: #25inLondon and #26inLondon tidily collected up my images up for me for later. That collection is an important part of my memory of living in a new city, in a new culture, and the photos do document the personal journey I went through over the time I was there. But when I tell myself, naively, that I post images online for myself, for creative therapy, for friends and family, that is only part of the truth. Everything I post is available for thousands of people to see anytime they want. So, this is the real truth: I created a public collection as a way to remind myself of my time spent living overseas but also, subconsciously, to exhibit an image of who I want to be. Instagram is the crisis of living in the spaces of who I really am, and who I want to be known as.

And herein lies the absurdity of Instagram. We look at someone’s collection of images and, like peripheral vision, we fill in the spaces to create a person, an illusion, a mega-self. We think to ourselves that the age-old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, must then mean that a whole gallery on Instagram speaks an entire library’s worth. Even in those instances when the images aren’t “personal”, we imagine what the person who shared those photos must be like. And then there’s the fear that we if we don’t collect our moments, lining them up neatly inside digital whitespace, that they’ll disappear. Bulick echoed this by saying that “there’s a bit of fear about what if I don’t get it back again. But I think if I think about that too much, then I would blind myself to what could be the next thing or what could be the new thing. […] Are you binding yourself to what is present and ahead of you, versus what you experience in the past? That’s what I think about.”

With this in mind, I flip through my Instagram images from the past few years, those that live as an online homage to my life. But these images are static and feel removed from me. What becomes apparent is that my most important memories actually aren’t recorded there. Allusions to them, yes. But the most life-forming moments since December 25th, 2010, the moments that shaped my identity and crafted my current sense of self, are missing. But I can still recall those memories vividly. Dreamlike sequences of kissing an ex-lover in an old library; tears of frustration and loneliness in a London Underground station; crunching through the frigid cold of Alberta’s backroads while the sun dances off the snow around me; a conversation of few words with my best friend, together, hiding in the trees along the Thames; and driving the narrow roads that wind through green Irish hills feeling ageless, timeless, and utterly, wholly myself.

Written in the Documentary Media MFA program at Ryerson.

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