The Instagram Generation
What happens when a society that values image over substance meets a medium dominated by the former?
“The medium is the message.”
Or so goes the famous saying from media scholar Marshall McLuhan, widely regarded as the father of media studies and one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. McLuhan was famous for quips like these, often misunderstood as they were. “The medium is the message” means we can glean more from the effects of a new medium on society — say, television — than we can from the messages distributed via that medium.
McLuhan defined “mediums” as “extensions of man,” and he considered everything from the television to the light bulb to be mediums. He also believed these media had clear effects that were ignored in favor of the medium’s content.¹ For example, people were far more aware of the messages on television — commercials, shows, etc. — than they were of the effects television was having on both them and society. The same would hold true for something as simple as a water bottle. Most people would focus on the contents of the bottle as opposed to the effect that being able to carry water around with you at all times would have on society, even though the latter is far more profound than the former.
Cell phones are another example. It goes without saying that in spite of laws prohibiting texting while driving, countless people do so every day, sending everything from greetings to gossip. That people are killed by texting and driving, however, has nothing to do with the content of the messages being sent and everything to do with the medium being used to send them — mobile phones — without which texting and driving would not exist.
In 1967, McLuhan published his second book with the intended title, “The Medium is the Message.” In a stroke of serendipity, however, the intended title was misprinted as “The Medium is the Massage.” McLuhan — eccentric as he was — loved the mistake, and opted to keep it. He found it appropriate, given that he believed each medium massaged society, working it over, leaving no part untouched or unmoved. Were he alive today, McLuhan would’ve seen an increase in fatal crashes from distracted driving — and consequent laws and regulations to curb it — as part of the cell phone’s massage. The same would hold true for AT&T’s campaign to end distracted driving, “It Can Wait.” Unsurprisingly, the campaign focuses not on the medium, but rather on the messages sent through it.
Here’s McLuhan again:
…societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media with which men communicate than by the content of the communication. All technology has the property of the Midas touch; whenever a society develops an extension of itself, all other functions of that society tend to be transmuted to accommodate that new form; once any new technology penetrates a society, it saturates every institution of that society.
McLuhan passed away on December 31st, 1980, at the age of 69. Though he is gone, his work remains prevalent. 21st century media, after all — the Internet and social media, specifically — require new diagnoses.²
I am 23 as I write this. Those of my age were born at a unique time; we are some of the last to have lived in a world without cell phones, social media, or the Internet (meaningfully). The Internet did exist when I was born, but what I remember of it is deeply detached from what I know it to be now, sold as it was to me in middle school as a cesspool of useless information and arbitrary connections alongside prowlers, scammers, viruses, and spam.
I remember far too many lectures from primary and middle school during which we were accosted by “experts” who were more concerned with the perils of chatrooms than with what the Internet had the power to become. This wasn’t altogether unusual; advice from non-experts is nearly all I remember from those years — advice on the Internet, advice on sex, advice on drugs, all of which was devoid of the nuance that would’ve painted an accurate picture. It could all be boiled down to one word: Avoid. And though the black-and-white presentation of the issues was frustrating, the reason they were presented as such is simple: during those years, it wasn’t getting ahead that mattered — it was not falling behind.
As we got older, though, the opposite became true: advice shifted from how not to fall behind to how to get ahead. Everyone, it seemed — counselors, teachers, parents, family — peppered us with ways to seem creative, smart, passionate, and all those other buzzwords adored by people profoundly adept at ignoring the role of randomness in determining outcomes. And of course, all of those characteristics are worth pursuing in their own right, but that wasn’t how they were presented. Rather, they were sold to us as means to vault our applications just high enough to escape the cacophony of competition below. That is, of course, until the competition caught up, and those buzzwords became so diluted by the understanding of their signaling power that they lost all meaning entirely.
The irony here should be apparent: we were not so much being inspired to become creative or passionate as we were being shown ways to signal that we were one of the two — or better, both. It didn’t appear to matter whether or not we’d ever truly experienced the rush that accompanies creativity, or the bliss that is a complete lack of need for approval when immersed in the throes of passion. All that mattered was if it looked like we had. It was, in many ways, sickening; for years, we existed full of nothing but shortcuts to anything worthwhile; everything with an agenda, and never your own. It was also simply economics: in a society as massive and complex as ours, institutions that rely on vetting out the best talent — colleges, companies, banks — use signals of reality, as opposed to reality itself, to determine who makes the cut.
That we were gifted Instagram after years of being conditioned to emphasize the cosmetic was almost poetic; if all of the obsession with it was a stick of dynamite, then Instagram was the spark at the end of the fuse.
The truth, then, is this: our generation was raised with an understanding that the image we portrayed mattered more than who we actually were. We believed this not out of some malevolent, externally imposed agenda, but because it was actually true. The result was that nothing we ever did felt organic; instead, everything felt like a checked box. You played sports to prove you were competitive. You took classes to get grades, those wonderful letters that separated friends and induced panic attacks and never really went away and felt like the world for as long as I can remember. You took AP classes because they were decidedly not interesting; they were just faster, and for that reason, better signals of competence. You participated in extracurriculars because if you didn’t, there would be more empty boxes on your applications than there would be on those of your competition. Trips to remote parts of the world were the crème de la crème: proof of your selflessness and worldliness all at once, with the tangential benefit of being foolproof conversation topics and unbeatable application differentiators when placed up against the rest. Life was nothing more than an obsession with the cosmetic, necessitated by the complexity of modernity. For a time, it didn’t appear that things could get worse.
Then came Instagram.
That we were gifted Instagram after years of being conditioned to emphasize the cosmetic was almost poetic; if the universal obsession with the cosmetic was a stick of dynamite, then Instagram was the spark at the end of the fuse. More than that, Instagram is a reflection of the same truth our generation has been getting stuffed down its throat for years: that is, there is more riding on the image you portray than on your actual character.
Instagram is built for our cosmetic, signal-obsessed world. Its business, after all, is driven by engagement, and because engagement is well understood to be eroded by the presence of nuance and depth — two traits that are essential for a complete understanding of anything — Instagram promotes neither. Instead, the platform is filled with memes: simple truths that are as easily illustrated as they are consumed, alongside touched-up (read: inauthentic) shots of individuals, each one a reminder that we grew up in a world in which community service and student council positions were more valuable on applications than they were in real life, and “fake it ’til you make it” really just meant “fake it ’til you die.”
This isn’t to say we’ve never wanted depth; in fact, I think the opposite is true. We crave depth, but we won’t get it on Instagram; its nature doesn’t allow it. This is a part of Instagram’s massage, the entirety of which is, as of yet, unknowable. It is what happens when a society with a penchant for the cosmetic meets a medium dominated by it; it is what happens when the stick of dynamite — having wept for years, primed and anything but stable — meets the spark. The consequence is a drastic amplification of the signal-based society that modernity has forced us to become. If we weren’t already a cosmetic class, we certainly are now.
The “finsta,” or fake Instagram account, offers an important insight into society’s continued evolution into a cosmetic class because it reveals much about Instagram’s massage. Within a finsta, users are liberated from the expectations surrounding their real Instagram accounts. Finstas are characterized by a decided lack of effort; filters are taboo, only to be used ironically. Posting more than once a day from a finsta — a cardinal sin on “real” Instagram — is not just tolerated, but encouraged.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, finstas are especially popular among teens. Some may argue that the embrace of the finsta refutes my point (that Instagram is drastically amplifying our society’s status as a cosmetic class) because it indicates a desire to escape the cosmetic. The irony is this: my point holds, but not because teens want to escape the cosmetic. Rather, it holds because of how they want to escape it: through the creation of finstas on Instagram. Here’s why.
The uncurated, untouched aesthetic of the photos within finstas — even before they were called finstas — came out of what some users saw as a necessity to escape the cosmetic on a medium dominated by it. But once that escapist aesthetic was understood to drive engagement, whether for publications, or writers, or Instagram users — it was then packaged (articles), labeled (“finsta”), and used to do so — and thus lost its authenticity. The finsta, once a teenage cry for help from the clutches of superficiality, was almost instantly repurposed to serve that very master: the cosmetic.
I was compelled, after a trip to a café in Amsterdam, to write a piece called “The End of Authenticity.” In it, I described the repetitive, ubiquitous aesthetic I found in popular coffee shops worldwide:
We appear to have reached a point where ‘authenticity’ has become so marketable that the delay between a trait existing authentically and being identified and reclaimed by the markets is so small that it may as well not exist…Authenticity exists now only momentarily, swept up in hashtags and photographs that alert everyone else to what works so that they may profit until it no longer does, at which point there will be something else.
The finsta embodies the truth illustrated in this paragraph: it is impossible for an aesthetic to remain authentic once it has been shared on a medium like Instagram. Instagram, after all, is fueled by the engagement it garners from repurposing once-authentic traits. More finsta-like phenomena will emerge, but that’s the point. Each one that comes about as an effort to protest superficiality on Instagram will be nothing more than fuel for Instagram’s ever-accelerating flywheel. If we wish to escape the cosmetic, the answer isn’t finstas — it’s abandoning Instagram.
McLuhan recognized this truth: a change in the messages sent through a medium will be but a drop in the bucket in any effort to affect the medium’s massage. A true solution to texting while driving, after all, is not to send different texts, it is to eliminate the medium entirely. And so it is for Instagram.
To be clear, Instagram is not responsible for creating a cosmetic class — that nail was in the coffin as soon as society realized it was more efficient to rely on signals of reality than reality itself. But Instagram is certainly the medium adding the most fuel to the fire. Given that the abandonment of a platform is far more feasible than completely restructuring society, the former, clearly, is our best weapon against society’s continued devolution into a cosmetic class.
¹ McLuhan referred to the light bulb as a “content-less medium.”
² Part of what led to a resurrection of McLuhan’s ideas is his predicting the Internet decades before it was brought to bear.