Lately I can’t seem to have a conversation without stumbling into a heated debate over the photo sharing platform Instagram, which invariably ends in someone liking me a little bit less. Millennials, of which I am one, foster conflicting opinions about almost every other social media site — from Facebook’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink content, to Twitter’s polarizing 140 character format — but there remains little debate over “The Gram.” With a user base of over 300 million and growing, even the self-identified luddites stand in baffling solidarity with the app.
As a disclaimer I’m not a social media fan generally (shocker), but to me Instagram is the nails-on-chalkboard of all social media. It is glaringly the most disturbing of the bunch, feeding on our desire for validation and voyeurism more than any other platform. While Instagram is notorious for its deluge of fancy photo filters, the filters on the product experience itself are what really make the difference. Specifically who you follow and the content you consume. Instagram filters out the clutter of other social media sites to create a user experience that feels exceptional and elite. But the same things that make it feel superior, also make it the most toxic.
On Instagram, the sky’s the limit in terms of who you can follow. It’s not cluttered with acquaintances like Facebook. Similar to Twitter, you can curate your own social experience by following only those you find interesting and filtering out the rest. And seriously, who wouldn’t rather see Beyonce selfies than that strange dude you haven’t spoken to since 2001? I’ve noticed with greater frequency, that when a famous person is mentioned in conversation, people are eager to add that they “follow them on Instagram”, with an air of authority and intimacy. You can connect with anyone and their world becomes yours.
This closeness with the people you most admire invites an unnatural amount of comparison, and invariably self doubt. The result is a desire to compete. This isn’t inherently bad, social competition arguably fosters a healthy dose of ambition. The problem is that the “goal” in this scenario is almost always a false reality. The photos are personal so they don’t seem altered, but of course they are. Instagram makes it so easy. People post only the best, paying careful attention to make everything look just right, and warping the perception of real life. The ability to slap on filters and turn a shot of unshowered dudes into the epitome of sun-kissed bliss makes everyone clamor for the ever-better image.
What exacerbates this further is Instagram’s focus on image-only content. Text can and often is directed at a subject other than oneself, through the sharing of news or third party information. Images, on the other hand, cannot help but imply the self. One cannot be removed from the image that they post, they are inherently tied in some way to that experience. Images beg for comparison between the viewer and the creator in a way that the distribution of information does not.
One of the core tenants of social media is “sharing”, a term that has become grossly misused. According to Google (sorry Merriam Webster’s) to share is defined as “to have a portion of (something) with another or others.” Like many other things, tech has corrupted this word to the point of distortion. The misuse, though, is arguable much more pronounced for images than other forms of content. When you share an an article you are inviting someone to join that same experience, the reading of the article. You feel it’s a worthwhile activity and want others to enjoy it with you. When you share a photo, however, you are simply showing people the experience you are having. You are not sharing it. There is satisfaction in sharing, there is pride in showing.
The inclination to broadcast positive experiences inherently hollows that experience. Every moment of significance, whether you end up posting it or ultimately deem it unworthy, is turned into a potential piece of content, no longer considered through your eyes only but also through the lens of how others will react. However subconsciously, the joy of the moment becomes tainted and conflated with the joy of the sharing, specifically the receiving of positive feedback, the anticipation of likes and comments. It’s becoming harder to untangle the moment from the sharing, and so without the latter the former is diluted.
We post the icing. The pic with of the picnic on the nice day with the person we’ve been dating. We don’t include the fight we had the night before or the unbearably dull conversation or the fact that the sandwiches were basically inedible. That’s the good stuff, the funny, real, stuff you laugh at and learn from. But we don’t “share” that, we hide it. When we constantly expose the self for the approval of others we risk doing so until the self on its own remains shaky. In the extreme, the self is lost, as Joan Didion brilliantly details in her 1961 essay on self respect.
Some of the more refined Instagram users say that it is not about recognition, The Gram simply allows them to share and view art. I am not qualified to define art, far from it. But I think it’s safe to say that the bulk of posts on Instagram are not it. Ultimately it comes down to how we use the platform. There are certainly cases where things of exceptional beauty are shared, or a larger messages are being communicated. More often than not, though, it is the mass production of the likeness of art for the sake of social recognition
Of course there’s nothing wrong with snapping a photo of something worthwhile. And of course it can be highly entertaining and can be inspirational at times. But ultimately the Gram is just another time-sucking social media app like all the others, only with better filters.
You can like me a little bit less now.