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We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
—John Ashbery, “This Room”
One unseasonably warm January day, I head to the intersection of Washington and Water streets in Brooklyn. This intersection is not a landmark in and of itself, but rather the framing for a photograph. Washington Street runs perpendicular to the water, pointing north toward the Manhattan skyline and the Manhattan Bridge. It’s a view that makes the heart soar — popularized by the poster for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) — but increasingly, it’s a view to collect.
Groups of friends take turns posing in front of the bridge as it straddles the distant Empire State Building. The young people here are following a map that has already been geotagged by Instagrammers of the past. The “placeness” of the place is not in the cobblestone street below or the towering bridge above, but the intersection’s function as a set of popular photo coordinates.
“How did you find this spot?” I ask a 24-year-old tourist from the Philippines.
“It’s famous,” she says, smiling.
In 1980, French theorist Roland Barthes published Camera Lucida, a slim volume in which he scrutinized his attraction to certain types of photography. An 1854 photograph of Islamic architecture in Granada, Spain, touched him deeply. In the photo, a male figure leans against a crumbling arcade. A palm frond stands erect in the middle distance, and receding turrets suggest a labyrinth just beyond the margins.
“It is quite simply there that I should like to live,” Barthes wrote. The sensation of viewing the photograph came over him as a sort of déjà vu of longing: “It is fantasmic, deriving from a kind of second sight which seems to bear me forward to a utopian time, or to carry me back to somewhere in myself.” Barthes feels like he has been there before. He wants to go there again. “For me, photographs of landscape (urban or country) must be habitable, not visitable.”
On Instagram, the best lifestyle photographs are aspirational — and their contents, although visitable, are visually inhabitable to the extent that they exist in a feed, story, or grid. When done right, they give me the sensation of having seen them in my dreams, as if a certain infinity pool — correctly framed — had unlocked a forgotten chamber in my mind.
But this sense of the “fantasmic” is mostly gone from Instagram these days, as the whiff of consumerism instead trails its most prolific users. The app has been commodified by brands that rely on “influencers” with impressive followings subdivided into marketing categories.
According to Digiday, influencers with 100,000 to 200,000 Instagram followers are sometimes called “power middle influencers,” while those with between a few thousand and 10,000 are considered “micro-influencers.” As of 2017, an Instagram user with 100,000 followers can charge up to $5,000 for posting in partnership with a company, according to Forbes.
A great lifestyle photograph pushes the dream of a lifestyle. But when Instagram influencers sell products and brands, inhabiting their world — however contrived — comes at a price, both literally and figuratively. When everything can be sponsored, suddenly nothing seems authentic. The dream of a fantasmic Instagram is dead.
Perhaps Instagram, launched in 2010, was always a space meant for advertising: visual platform meets burgeoning mobile ad market. However, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has spent the past five years investigating influencers and brands that would otherwise rely on covert product placement to collaborate. Today, these partnerships must be clearly labeled for the consumer, which makes the commodification of Instagram increasingly hard to overlook.
According to Julie Zerbo, founder and editor in chief of The Fashion Law, the first FTC enforcement against a fashion brand on Instagram was in 2015, against Lord & Taylor. The retailer gifted dresses to 50 influencers, then paid them between $1,000 and $4,000 to post a photo of themselves in this dress on Instagram, without proper disclosure. Lord & Taylor ended up settling with the FTC by agreeing to allow the agency to monitor its future endorsement campaigns.
“This is not to say that [the FTC’s] guidelines have not always applied to Instagram; people just weren’t paying attention,” says Zerbo. According to federal guidelines, including the hashtags #ad and #sponsored are usually sufficient disclosures as long as they are clearly visible. Interestingly enough, Instagram’s own “paid for” partnership integration, introduced in 2017 — a line that sits between an influencer’s Instagram handle and the location tag — is not enough of a disclosure alone to comply with the FTC.
In Susan Sontag’s 1977 essay “Photography Unlimited,” she writes:
A society becomes “modern” when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, when images that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.
The same week that Zerbo and I met for tea, The Fashion Law published a post about lifestyle influencers trading Instagram “exposure” for free stays in luxury accommodations — and complaining when hotels pushed back against their demands.
When monitoring the legal issues surrounding Instagram disclosure, as Zerbo does, it’s impossible to enjoy the platform as a purely aesthetic experience. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to be able to appreciate content on a platform that we know is essentially just advertising for brands,” Zerbo tells me.
The shift in visual culture that Sontag so astutely described is detected not only by people like Zerbo, but also its participants. In the past, Instagram has been critiqued for its visual monotony, manipulated backgrounds, and airbrushed bodies. Critics of lifestyle Instagram lament that it is oversaturated with similar images, that these images are Photoshopped beyond recognition, and suggest it might be better if we only follow our friends anyway. I say lifestyle is done. Kaput. After all, these images no longer live up to the philosophy of what a photograph should be.
In 2017, blogger Sara Melotti called out Instagram influencers who all travel to the same photogenic ‘hotspots’ only to take a picture, turn around, and leave. She had this revelation at one such hotspot, the Tegallalang rice terraces in Bali, when her fellow Instagrammers showed no interest in sticking around after their shot.
Collectively nicknamed the “Instagram mafia,” these groups of emerging influencers gain followers by gaming the platform’s algorithm — liking and commenting on each other’s posts solely to increase the photo’s ranking in the newsfeed and on the “Explore” tab.
“If you don’t play dirty on Instagram, you don’t grow. I haven’t been playing any games since May ,” Melotti tells me. Instead, Melotti — who left the fashion industry due to its similar superficiality — is focusing on her project Quest for Beauty, which portrays the unretouched women and girls she meets in her travels.
Melotti’s travel Instagram now comes with an important caveat: These photos are closer to art than reality, she says, and this is not my real life. Still, she Instagrams. Her account is a soft parade of blush and turquoise landscapes, from the step wells of Jaipur to the waterways of Venice — a city that is poised to self-destruct at the hands of its own photographability.
Last year, writer and former Interview editor Chris Wallace wrote for The Awl about his experience Instagramming Venice. “No place is more receptive to the projection of a past or a fantasy, no place more welcoming to the romantic than Venice,” he wrote. The entire city is a trigger for Barthes’ fantasmic: “In order to orient myself, to weave new memories into a matrix with the places I’ve known before, I’ve obliterated a past, or at least, altered it, turned it into a shrine to itself. Like an Instagram post. Or, like Venice itself,” Wallace writes, unsure whether he is inhabiting a city, a memory, or an archetype.
I felt this sensation myself when I visited Venice for the first time last fall. But I was mourning, too — struck by the tenuousness of everything I saw, knowing I was complicit in hastening its demise. “Don’t look now, but Venice, once a great maritime and mercantile power, risks being conquered by day-trippers,” reports the New York Times. “The city’s locals, whatever is left of them anyway, feel inundated by the 20 million or so tourists each year.” It’s safe to presume that these tourists are coming to take photographs and that these photographs will be posted on Instagram.
Like Manhattan, the islands that make up Venice are forecast to succumb to sea-level rise should global warming continue apace. However, according to Salvatore Settis, author of If Venice Dies (New Vessel Press, 2016), “The most dreadful danger for a city now is loss of memory. By loss of memory, I mean not forgetting that we exist, but who we are.” The population of Venice is in steady decline, without much industry to tempt younger generations aside from the all-encompassing tourism and accompanying selfie sticks.
“I truly think Instagram will contribute to ruining countries,” says Melotti. She was recently in Delhi, India, with a photojournalist friend. He wanted to show her the “little oasis of peace” where he used to eat his lunch and look out over Old Delhi’s spice market two decades before. Much to his surprise, the secluded building was now an Instagram hot spot. “He was so sad,” says Melotti, “We stayed there for an hour, and we saw 20 tourists who came and took the picture in the same spot.”
Melotti also took a photo but shared it to commemorate her trip to India for ActionAid Italia, a human rights organization. “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” the caption reads.
“Today everything exists to end in a photograph,” Sontag wrote in her collected essays On Photography. “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it — by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.” By posting photos on Instagram, we are certifying these experiences for others. But we are also certifying a lifestyle: what we wear, where we sleep, the food we consume. “Instagram food is almost always something to be obtained, rather than cooked or created,” writes Amanda Mull on Eater. “The posting of a particular item signals both affluence and leisure.”
According to John Berger, the genesis of lifestyle content was not photography, but European oil painting. “A certain type of oil painting celebrated merchandise in a way that had never happened before in the history of art,” Berger explains in his oft-referenced BBC special Ways of Seeing. “Merchandise became the actual principle subject of these works. Eating is a pleasure, but these paintings cannot be eaten.” He goes on to explain how this celebration of merchandise evolved to become advertising as we know it today: images that speak more to the viewer’s sense of self than the product’s merit. The alpha and omega of modern advertising is that we want to be the person with the thing pictured more than we want the thing.
Consumption was implicit in portraits of wealthy Europeans, although not the primary focus. “These paintings did not directly celebrate what was buyable,” Berger says, “They were records of the confidence of those to whom ownership brought confidence.” Equally, the lifestyle Instagram post is an image that celebrates a way of living more than a particular product. Writing for Jacobin, Adam Stoneman calls Berger’s theory “the spectacle of pleasure,” completely divorced from “taste or enjoyment.” Like a plate of food staged for a photograph alone.
No matter how aspirational the shot, once it turns into an ad, it takes the viewer out of the moment. They are no longer scrolling to inhabit, but to be marketed to. Jay Owens, digital media analyst and research director at audience intelligence platform Pulsar, points to a specific Instagram format that has gone from viral to commodifiable: a man’s girlfriend “leads him” around the globe with her back to the lens, their hands grasped in the foreground. “It’s a visual designed to enable the viewer to feel like they are in the image,” Owens says. The framing of the photo is inherently participatory, but it appeals more to our envy than our imagination — fitting, as the format itself has netted the couple behind it 4.5 million followers and partnerships with brands like Renaissance Hotels and S7 Airlines.
Surely, the loss of the fantasmic is not without consequences.
“If I was a brand [choosing] that way to advertise, I would be scared to lose all my money in bullshit,” says Melotti. An anonymous social media executive tells Digiday, “We threw too much money at [influencers] and did it too quickly.” Another says, “The backlash is starting.”
The quest to quantify pleasure takes me to the midtown office of Neuro-Insight, a Melbourne-based market research firm that uses neuroscience to measure the effectiveness of ads, and counts Facebook, Google, Coca-Cola, and Condé Nast among their clients.
Pranav Yadav has been the CEO of Neuro-Insight U.S. since he was 25. He designs all his own clothes, and on the day that we meet he is wearing a dusky-blue suit and polka-dot socks. In a studied gesture of office hospitality, Yadav brews us both perfect espressos. He perches his glass on one of the small crests of a tufted leather sofa. I notice how badly I want to Instagram it.
I’ve gone to Yadav to find out whether Barthes’ fantasmic has any equivalent in marketing. I want to know whether the brain perceives an influencer’s sponsored images differently from their other posts. But Yadav starts me off with two cautions: He himself is not a neuroscientist, and most of what one reads about neuroscience overstates what is possible to know from the brain.
“We can look at different physiological measures, like what is the brain allowing to go into memory? What is the brain finding personally relevant? Is the brain emotionally engaged? Is that emotional engagement positive or negative? These are the things we can actually tell about the brain. The other things, like love and lust, these are not things neuroscience can distinguish for you,” Yadav says.
Memory is at the heart of Barthes’ theory of second sight. By Barthes’ standards, the fantasmic photo must appeal to something familiar in our mind. But by Neuro-Insight’s standards, the goal is the creation of new memories, as long as they include some branding. “We determine the effectiveness of an ad by whether the branding message or the key message went to long-term memory or not,” Yadav explains, “It correlates with sales. Which is why we can actually call it effectiveness.” Recollection, or our past memories, could be a factor in the brain’s determination of relevance — but an advertisement doesn’t have to be personally relevant to be memorable.
Neuro-Insight has yet to run a public study around influencer advertising, but Yadav says any form of marketing will lose effectiveness when it’s overdone. Because of this, the early days of Instagram were actually better for advertising. “The platform was lending itself to the brand in a way that people weren’t aware that they were being advertised to,” he says. Regulation and disclosure is good for the consumer but worse for the Instagram experience.
“By definition of it being an ad or marketing, it totally interrupts the pleasure,” Yadav says.
Berger calls rampant “personal social envy” the natural counterpoint to glamour. The late theorist Mark Fisher, in his book Capitalist Realism (Zero Books, 2009), explains how this envy is the scaffolding beneath consumption when consumption (a lifestyle, commodified) is performed for the “big Other.” The big Other, a term originally used by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, is “the consumer of PR and propaganda, the virtual figure which is required to believe [the spin] even when no individual can,” Fisher says. Influencer content is made with the big Other in mind. Though you and I may know that we are being marketed to, the big Other does not.
“I don’t know that the audience is influencer-fatigued, exactly,” says Owens, because — for better or worse — the average user still trusts the influencers they’ve chosen to follow, even if they’re increasingly skeptical about influencer authenticity overall. “Some people say, ‘I don’t care if this post is sponsored, because I trust this girl’s aesthetic, I trust her taste, that’s why I followed her in the first place,’” says Zerbo.
“What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to process subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture,” Fisher writes. Instagram was never really a blank slate for artful content. It was always destined to be commodified, because that’s what content creators (us) are conditioned to do. We can’t divorce a lifestyle from its economic underpinnings, so we might as well see them laid bare by the FTC.
The room I entered was a dream of this room…
So begins the poem “This Room” by John Ashbery. At Yale, a project called John Ashbery’s Nest is an interactive digital record and 360-degree online tour of Ashbery’s house in Hudson, New York. (That Ashbery died in 2017 adds poignancy to the project.) Ashbery’s poem embodies both memory and loss — the familiarity of something known and the excitement of something yet to be experienced. It’s the appropriate starting point for a proto–virtual reality project like Yale’s.
The Instagram user might similarly say:
The dish I ate was a dream of this dish.
The city I visited was a dream of this city.
The outfit I wore was a dream of this outfit.
In the post-lifestyle period, the ability to inhabit a photo will depend more upon the technology of the platform than the substance of the image. Given that early lifestyle Instagram offered a fantasy of habitation, virtual reality (VR) is the natural next step toward exploring the aesthetic potential of envy.
Neuro-Insight has done some in-lab studies with VR headsets but hasn’t released any findings. I ask Yadav about the possibility of advertising against our own memories in VR. Wouldn’t the most effective lifestyle ad trigger our long-term memories and create new ones?
“You could be looking at an image of your childhood bedroom and be activating both sides of your memory at the same time — recollecting what you have and creating a new one for right now,” he says. But Yadav doesn’t know what will happen to brands if or when the novelty of VR wears off — let alone what will happen to the fantasmic.
“What I am portraying is just fairy tales,” says Melotti, speaking of her travel Instagram account. These “tales” include a shot of her on the Venetian island of Burano, perched beside a canal lined with colorful houses. (The caption explains that she woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get a photo without other tourists in the background.)
As Venetian bureaucrats mull over charging admission to central tourist areas, the question is not whether photogenic cities like Venice will become Disneyland for Instagrammers. That moment has already passed. Now we must consider whether there is any space in technology for Barthes’ second sight — something that can “bear [us] forward to a utopian time, or…carry [us] back to somewhere in [ourselves]” — when a person can no longer simply photograph their desires but also format and monetize them. Whichever platform lifestyle content migrates to, money is sure to follow.
What would be the motives behind a virtual reality Venice? Would the hoards stay away from the physical city’s lagoon, only to turn the psychic damage of the big Other on themselves? In lieu of projecting our fantasies onto the city, a simulation would project its fantasy onto us — transforming “tourists” into the captive consumers that brands need them to be. “The fact that capitalism has colonized the dreaming life of the population is so taken for granted that it is no longer worthy of comment,” says Fisher.
“The effectiveness of photography’s statement of loss depends on its steadily enlarging the familiar iconography of mystery, mortality, transience,” Sontag writes. The accumulation of photographs is a fairly decent distraction from the fact we’re all going to die — deathstyle just doesn’t have the same ring.
For users of Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, an immortal record of our self already exists in the form of the personal data collected by these platforms. In 2000, when Facebook was just a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, two scholars popularized a word for this parallel self: data double. “The public is slowly awakening to the profits that are being made from the sale of their data doubles,” read the British Journal of Sociology, “One consequence of this recognition has been the further commodification of the self.” Users accept privacy trade-offs in exchange for platforms that publicize lifestyle. Ironically, the precision with which this data is collected makes for a more authentic picture of a user’s life than a well-posed photograph.
The post-lifestyle period has consequences for our content, as the line between certifying an experience and advertising a product has never been so thin. Lifestyle photographs do not offer the sort of immediate pleasure to the consumer that Barthes experienced looking at the arcade in Granada. They can only offer the promise of pleasure at a price. But the post-lifestyle period also has consequences for our personhood: Even posting a lifestyle photograph ourselves puts us at risk of being marketed to.
Does the lifestyle photograph exist to please me, or do I exist to consume it? Will my data double go on supporting influencers even after my personal enjoyment is long gone?
Today, the intersection of Washington and Water streets in Brooklyn is a destination in service of a photograph, a place whose placehood relies on its ability to certify experience. A place fated to share space with the inauthentic.
As I scroll through the most recent photographs geotagged there, they all blend together — except for one caption, which gives me pause. It reads, “Never been more homesick…for a city that isn’t even my home.”