With 136 million followers, American pop star Selena Gomez is the most popular user on Instagram. This level of fame hasn’t always been easy on her, and she’s been open about her fraught relationship with social media in interviews. Nevertheless, on Instagram she’s rarely dressed down — she almost always presents herself as a star in celebrity mode. This contradiction, between what she says about Instagram and the images she shares, gets to the heart of the problem with all social media platforms. They purport themselves to be avenues of self-expression, and though they may sometimes be, they are always fundamentally commercial endeavors designed to maximize profit.
Asked to define her personal style by American Harper’s Bazaar in February 2018, Gomez responded: “Definitely casual. Even if I’m not working out, I look like I’m working out.” But her preference for gym clothes is not revealed on Instagram, where she is almost always pictured in high fashion and full makeup. Many celebrities use social media this way, and most normal people don’t post pictures of themselves in sweatpants, either.
I don’t think Gomez’ Instagram account would stand out at all were it not for her publicly-stated mixed feelings. As she told Harper’s Bazaar: “I have a complex relationship with Instagram, to say the least… it empowers me in that way because it’s my words and my voice and my truth. The only thing that worries me is how much value people our age place on social media… in a lot of ways it’s given young people, myself included, a false representation of what’s important.”
False representations or not, Gomez is making a lot of money off of her Instagram. For her it is a doubly promotional endeavor — first, she promotes her own music, second, she appears as a model in advertisements for major brands like Puma and Coach, which pay her to post pictures of their products. She is the highest order of influencer.
“The difference between what Gomez says about Instagram and the images she shares, gets to the heart of the problem with all social media platforms.”
Sometimes these advertisements are obvious as above, but often they are not, taking the form of selfies or candid family photos. Her caption on the softly focused image below: “This was the day I was nervous as hell going into @Netflix for the first time to talk about @13reasonswhy…,” a show on which Gomez is an executive producer.
The cozy image with her mother on the right is actually advertisement for Coach. In these photographs there’s none of the artificial physicality that comes with the high-fashion advertisements, in which she lounges around in leather pants, or sits on a bike in high heels on the beach. These images seem real, or realer, at least, than the others, but there is a profit motive behind each.
That Gomez posts advertisments to her Instagram is not surprising, and it would not be particularly interesting, either, were it not for what she said to American Vogue in March 2017. “As soon as I became the most followed person on Instagram, I sort of freaked out. It had become so consuming to me… it felt like I was seeing things I didn’t want to see, like it was putting things in my head that I didn’t want to care about. I always end up feeling like shit when I look at Instagram.”
I wonder, if Instagram can make its queen, who is paid handsomely for nearly every one of her posts, who is celebrated for her loving connection to her fans, and who undoubtedly can attribute some of her success to its promotional power, feel like shit, what’s it doing to the rest of us?
Most people who use Instagram are not influencers and certainly not celebrities. Every time we login to check our feeds or to post a picture, Instagram displays ads and generates revenue. The more often we login and the longer we spend in the app, the more money they make. Instagram is owned by Facebook, a business with a $177 billion market cap. It is one of the most valuable companies in America.
Because Instagram has to something to do with photography and gives us a set of artistic decisions to make (cropping, captioning, filtering), we get the sense that we are expressing ourselves. But Instagram is profit-hungry, and it has made its users hungry for our own profits too, even if our currency is only likes and diversions: we want to see more pictures and to be able to scroll endlessly, even if, as Gomez said, it puts things in our heads we don’t want to care about - trim bodies we don’t have, luxury vacations we can’t afford, families happier than our own.
In her interview with Vogue, Gomez mentioned something else revealing: “I love Kevin [Systrom], the creator of Instagram, and he has gotten mad at me in the past when I was like, ‘I have to take a break from it.’”
In 1977, long before Instagram’s founders were born, Susan Sontag wrote of photography : “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex… Social change is replaced by a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself.”
If that old quote is prophecy it’s no wonder Instagram has such power to make even its queen feel so bad, simultaneously trapped, badly influenced and expressive.
But least she, unlike the rest of us, is getting paid for it.
All photos via Selena Gomez’ Instagram