The Agony and the Instagram

I find Instagram fascinating…but for a lot of the same reasons why its detractors find it joyless and shallow. Let’s discuss.

The Agony And The Instagram Featured
I find Instagram fascinating…but for a lot of the same reasons why its detractors find it joyless and shallow. Let’s discuss.

Here’s a mildly embarrassing personal truth: Instagram makes me a better person. Not like, morally or ethically. Certainly not physically – I’ve wasted countless hours scrolling through feeds that could have been better spent at the gym. Still, Instagram is a peculiar and effective form of self-improvement. My life is better – richer, broader, more fulfilling – because of that stupid-simple, monstrously mesmerizing little photo sharing app.

Instagram is a small, important reminder that I carry around in my pocket that my life isn’t perfect quite yet. It’s the constant, nagging whisper in the back of my mind that suggests I fly a little closer to the sun. Instagram pushes me to always want more. It’s pure cynicism in pixels, really, and it generates the precise sort of anxiety that drives me to live a less boring life.

Not everybody feels the same way. Some people believe that Instagram (and social media in general, I guess) generates a negative tension between IRL moments and digital representations of them. There are two chief indictments that I often hear levied against the app. They’re both hopelessly overblown, but because they comfortably jell with the available “those damn millennials” narrative, they dictate much of the media’s conversation about Instagram. Let’s discuss.

​The first is that the app facilitates an unrealistic portrayal of everyday events. “Insta-Bullshit”, as the now-defunct Bold Italic called it. Of the two objections, this one has some merit. How brunch tastes has little to do with how it photographs, after all, and if the ‘gram is skillfully composed and artfully filtered, there’s no way to tell. BuzzFeed, tireless void-shouting zeitgeists though they may be, actually put together pretty incisive listicle about this widely-cited Instagram deficiency. Yoga on Instagram vs. yoga in real life, for example. The former photo features a fit woman in a beautiful wheel pose on a pebble beach; the latter, an overweight bro flailing around on a bath towel while his dog skitters around in the corner. You get the joke. Instagram makes it easy to depict real life unrealistically with its idiot-proof, mistake-smoothing filters. Simultaneously, its community (me included) encourages those photos – the rustic #camplife, the #fitspo, the impossibly foamy lattes – by double-tapping them.

Scandal! Clutch your pearls, boys & girls! The app is creating an unattainable lifestyle standard that turns us all into joyless consumers! The horror!

Instagram’s second alleged cultural crime is hinged on the way it “trains” our behavior. When you count your personal validation in likes, it seems completely rational to laboriously photograph anything remotely ‘grammable. Your new manicure, your friend’s hamburger, an #outfitgrid of clothes folded neatly on the ground in front of you – it’s all content, baby. So we seclude ourselves at rooftop parties for a #skyline #selfie; we choose cities to vacation in because they have photogenic coffee shops and art installations. Hell, a close friend of mine went on a diet, but kept posting a backlog of gluttonous food photos the entire time. “Gotta give the people what they want,” he explained sheepishly. Instagram is changing our real-life behavior! It’s ruining our ability to enjoy an experience without documenting it! Clutch those pearls again.

Sure. Fine. Whatever. Neither one of these objections is false, but neither is particularly insidious, either. We’re joyless consumers because we live in a world where dogs can be #brands and advertising is pumped into the water supply. We seek validation because we’re deeply insecure and alone. Instagram has not made us this way. It’s just a mirror of human behavior, and sometimes (most of the time?), human behavior is trite and hollow.

That’s why Instagram – and capitalism, and your picture of eggs Benedict – is maybe a little bit bad. But personally, I find its upside to vastly outweigh the down. In a practical sense, it’s taught me to be a better, more confident photographer. The line of behavioral criticism is a fair one, but it doesn’t invalidate that I’m constantly considering lighting, angles, and framing, which has helped me both professionally and personally. But that’s not it. This app makes my life bigger, broader, and better for the same reasons its detractors criticize it. Those too-perfect vacation shots, those impossibly vivid sunsets, those subtly filtered selfies – these are the photos that push me to get out into the world and look for something that beautiful, delicious, and flawless.

Cheesy? Definitely. But it’s the truth, I think. Instagram gives the lie to the presumed infallibility of authenticity. The app is a 21st-century affirmation of the ancient truth that art should be more perfect than the life it imitates, so as to inspire those who are alive.

Yeesh, that got lofty quick. Let’s bring this back to earth with another mildly embarrassing admission: I get a childish thrill every time one of my ‘grams clock 11 likes in its first minute. That sense of success when the individual names disappear and there’s just a clean, impressive double-digit number that concisely tabulates how “good” my photo was? That’s fun, too.