As a blogger and someone who reads a lot of style, travel and lifestyle blogs, I’m keenly aware of the way that people romanticize their online personalities.
On the most basic level, this actually makes sense. After all, no-one wants to share or see a photo of you when you’re in a depressed funk and at your worst or when you just woke up (looking nothing like Beyonce). It’s kind of like how they say ‘dress for the job you want, not the one you have.’ Why not Instagram the life you want?
At its best, social media is an aspirational representation of how we’d like our lives to appear and at its worst, a completely staged distortion of reality.
As it often does for me, Instagram can serve as inspiration: to remind us of the beautiful things that we might incorporate in our own lives, of the places we might travel to, or the photography that we like to look at. But the potential for harm is in the sameness of the images people end up sharing – their insistence that what they depict is what a good life ought to look like.
(To be clear, I’m speaking about a certain subset of social media posters that often, but not always, includes bloggers and Millennials – the kinds of people I come across most often.)
There’s so much pressure among this group to be doing something share-worthy, something that photographs well. And so we end up seeing the same kinds of highly-stylized photos as everyone tries to prove they’re interesting by following a suggested checklist of what to do with your life: vacation often, eat out, have artisanal cocktails, drink only coffee that has latte art, etc.
These are all great things, many of which I do, but 1) I can’t help but notice they’re all require a financial commitment and 2) it’s all become one big game of anything you can do I can do better.
Vacation photos are no longer just vacation photos. Now, you might spend half the day perfecting an underwater handstand or a complicated yoga pose on an empty beach until you get the money shot. And considering that Instagram “experts” often use a ton of filters and additional editing apps, I can’t help but wonder where they find time to actually relax.
In a sense, this is just another iteration of the age-old discussion about how media portrays beauty and success. But I think the reason social media makes the problem feel more immediate is that it’s so ubiquitous and the barrier to entry is so low. Anyone can snap a photo and post it to Instagram or Facebook, which makes it more in your face when more people feel compelled to direct and produce their shots and portray a false version of “daily life.”
As we buy into our own false sense of self-importance, we curate our lives to look like the people on TV and in magazines. The average Jane can now become “internet famous” through an endless variety of avenues from blogger/ Instagram or YouTube celebrity to author to brand ambassador to model.
In the social media ratings game, notoriety is earned by those who spend the most time capturing, editing and sharing their experiences.
The other problem is the desire to not be left out of what “everyone else” seems to be doing.
Two summers ago in NYC, MOMA had lines around the block as people tried to get into its Rain Room installation. The experience, which included a simulation of rain that somehow managed to detect the human body, was captured all over Instagram.
Before I went, I was already mentally planning my own Instagram photo. But when we got there and discovered that people had started lining up at 5am to get in for what was maybe 15 minutes max, not the promise of a few Instagram likes just didn’t seem that important.
The thing is the world is so small on Instagram (and don’t get me started on Pinterest). Despite how it might appear, no, not everyone is eating at In-N-Out Burger.
No, not everyone is eating avocado toast.
Recently, I even saw a restaurant being advertised as “built for Instagram likes.” In fact, there are websites designed to curate the sorts of experiences that might look good in that little filtered square frame.
An Eventbrite survey found that Millennials would rather spend money on experiences than material items, but not surprisingly, this desire is driven by FOMO (fear of missing out). that they would rather spend money on them than most other things. Brands and event managers are now trying to tap into this mentality by including “experiential activities” that Millennials can’t help but share.
But truthfully it’s boring when everyone is doing the same thing.
In fact, the lack of diversity in the images that are popular on platforms like Instagram or Tumblr has been parodied by many others and has even inspired social-conscious memes like “Carefree Black Girl.”
I’m not knocking Instagram – I use it more than any other social media platform and love looking at other people’s photos. I just take it for what it is.
I once had a friend tell me that my life looked so glamorous. It was a little hard to believe not only because it’s so far from the truth, but because I felt exactly the same way about her.
My photos show a specific side of me. They’re a mini highlight reel of my life. They include the moments I’ve deemed share-able and fit for public consumption, but they don’t begin to show who I am fully.
The problem with the “Instagram Life” is that I fear some people have trouble distinguishing between what’s real and fake, and even when we can tell the difference, many of us still feel compelled to match what we perceive as some kind of standard.
Instagram is great for capturing little moments and sharing them with the world – but in my experience, the best memories are often created in those in-between moments: a good laugh at a random joke that can’t be captured, the car ride on the way to some photo-worthy event, the nights when you’re curled up on the couch with your guard down. It’s basically the stuff that happens when you’re too busy to record.