All the world is an Instagram grid, and all the people are merely posing
In July 2010, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger made the first-ever Instagram post. His shot of a random marina marked the birth of an app that will rule our generation, but, ironically, it also breaks every unwritten rule our generation has created when posting on Instagram. The tilted angle of the marina, the somber Instagram filter and lack of caption betrays the typical Instagram shot you would find today.
That same day, roughly two hours later, Krieger made the second-ever post on Instagram—a candid shot of co-founder Kevin Systrom working, aptly captioned “Kevin hard at work.” Today, this photo would not make it as a sufficient post, much less an Instagram story. There are many unwritten rules of Instagram, but perhaps the most important rule of all: photos are not just posted, but curated for a purpose.
There is no envy or storytelling involved in Kevin being “hard at work.” Whereas in 2010, Instagram shots were grounded in spontaneity—a careless selfie or blurry shots of frozen yogurt—they are now a polished portfolio of our lives. The photos we choose to post add to a narrative about ourselves, and funnily enough, most of us seek to share the same narrative: that our lives are awesome. After all, the proof is in the Instagram feed.
More than ever, our curated and real lives are constantly intersecting. The politics of Instagram have affected the way we derive enjoyment. Memories are created solely for an Instagram shot or memories are whittled down into a pretty shot “good enough for the feed.” These come with the anxiety that if we don’t post, the memory of a good night vanishes as a private memory instead of public evidence of a fun time.
In response, a burgeoning campaign to “Make Instagram Casual Again” has surfaced, calling for a return to the landscape of Instagram in 2010—posting on a whim, a form of “digital anarchy” where you post whatever you think is cool, “without trying to impress anyone.” However, the good intentions behind it inadvertently aestheticize authenticity. Posts casual in nature do not signal a return to authenticity. And if we are not careful, making Instagram casual may become as much a trend as it is a movement.
Influencers have hopped onto the trend of making Instagram casual as well, abandoning one aesthetic for another. Content marketer Lexi Carbone remarks that “everyone is trying to be more authentic” since after all, “you don’t want to see the same girl standing in front of a wall you’ve seen thousands of times. We need something new.” The movement of making Instagram casual signals our value in authenticity in the photo-sharing app, which some influencers have picked up on.
But before we re-negotiate our posting habits on Instagram, we need to acknowledge that truly returning Instagram to a “casual” state means relinquishing some control.
The power of Instagram no longer lies in just the connectivity it provides, but also the control it gives us. As a photo-sharing platform, Instagram offers a hard-to-argue-with visual narrative about our lives and also serves as a point of reference, cutting through small talk and allowing the photos we choose to speak for ourselves. Most of all, it gives us an omniscient control over our lives: all the best moments replicated into neat, square grids.
The problem with making Instagram “casual” again, as Stanford University student and lifestyle blogger Maddie Rose points out, is that casual Instagrams are just another version of what we have now: “While before it was apparent that someone was working to portray their life in a certain way, now you can barely tell if what they are showing you is real or fabricated.”
For example, there was a trend to use the photo-editing app Huji Cam, with 16 million downloads, to edit high-quality photos taken on an iPhone to photos reminiscent of a grainy, digital camera. Although photos in a casual feed may appear to be less curated and diverge from the “life is awesome and here’s proof” narrative, it feeds into a different kind of aesthetic—that of mirror selfies and photos taken at grocery stores
There are many parallels in the effort to make Instagram casual and the app’s landscape we have today—and branding polished photos as disingenuous and grainy, candid photos as authentic just represent another set of unwritten Instagram rules. Within these two modes of posting, the mindset of curation instead of spontaneity remains. We cannot undo the more toxic aspects of Instagram by disguising our largest unspoken rule: Sometimes we post because we have something to prove.
Making Instagram casual does not mean that we should give up polished photos to establish a popularized sense of authenticity. To truly make Instagram a casual place, first we need to write our own rules.
Written by: Renee Wang — firstname.lastname@example.org
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