It came at a rather poignant moment. I was hanging out with my friend from school, chatting while watching a movie. I had whipped out my phone and was casually scrolling through my timeline. She said it in the midst of a double-tap, “I don’t get Instagram. It’s overrated and lame.”
I maintain my position as someone who firmly believes in the phrase “to each his own.” I respect others’ opinions. We can agree to disagree. But still, ouch! As a regular user of the app, as an account holder with over 900 photos (something I am not sure if I should be proud of or concerned about), and as someone who delights in filters and feeds, that comment hit me. Why? It sounds ridiculous, but with as little fear as possible of being stereotyped as another “typical social media obsessed teenager,” I have to say that I actually really, really like Instagram.
Cultural critics have bemoaned the rise of social media. Editor of Spiked Online, Australian columnist Brendan O’Neill believes that “the web has become a cacophony of commentary and confessionalism, a congregation of shrill individuals dying to share their half-formed views, their feelings, their pain, their holiday snaps, their cats.” Sometimes, when faced with the onslaught of #OOTDs and heavily edited Starbucks take-away cups, I ask myself, “how much substance does Instagram add to my life?” The argument my friend presented me with is that Instagram is yet another shallow platform on which users idle their time—a lot of time, might I add, considering the 75 million account holders who are active on the site daily. Kodak’s Eastman and Strong would scoff at this mish-mash of amateur “photographers.” Instagram prodigies like the Jenner sisters, posing with their Range Rovers or seeing celebrities at exotic vacation destinations that the average person may never have heard of, reflect how social-networking platforms perpetuate unrealistic archetypes of the “perfect” lifestyle. There is a reason my brother chose to Instagram the pair of coveted Nike dunks he received for his birthday when my parents finally decided to splurge. There is a reason I posted that picture of my family dining at a swanky restaurant after my graduation ceremony. It’s all about branding oneself. Each image adds up to a collective profile, a projected portrayal of who we wish to be, or at least who we wish to be known as. The question is, are we truly reflecting our idealized personas or are we sealing ourselves in superficial electronic deception? While it is true that, more often than not, Instagrammers post only their proudest moments and try to portray themselves in the most positive light, I have come to personally find this phenomenon faultless. Humans are fallible. Nobody’s life is flawless, despite how put-together we appear in each photograph. It is myopic to believe that a teenager sharing a picture of a fancy handbag she worked overtime through summer to buy for herself is equivalent to the social media site promoting materialism, greed, and self-centeredness. Similarly, it is foolish for one to assume that having a collection of picture-perfect pictures means that one’s life is devoid of moments of disappointment or despair. Because I recognize that no one’s life is such. My Instagram account simply reminds me, when I’m feeling down, that there are times worth celebrating (at least with my followers).
The close-knit Instagram community delights me. 200 million strong, each cameraman cannot be treated like a brother or sister. Still, I feel a strong human connection when stumbling upon photographs of somebody holding up a trophy at a state competition. “Visiting” picturesque foreign cities through the lens of a stranger’s camera, I realize how large the world is, yet how much a part of it I am. However, while a picture paints a thousand words, there is much veracity to Malcolm Gladwell’s argument that if social activism is condensed to a hashtag, it will encourage political commitments that are very broad and very shallow. This could be seen from the countless re-grams of Michelle Obama’s solemn expression while holding up a card reading #BringBackOurGirls. With political motivations so clearly strung to such pictures, the thought of these images spreading like wildfire is worrisome, especially when not all of those Instagrammers are clear about Boko Haram or the complications of foreign involvement in Nigeria. Yet, the difference between Instagram and comment feeds, rant blogs and multi-user chat dungeons is that, while the Web sometimes provides a mask of anonymity for irresponsible free expression, Instagram gives a face to the individual. Content creation is rising and Instagram drives impressive engagement. The #NoH8 movement and uploads of determined Saudi women behind the wheel reveal how a simple picture can empower entire communities.
In his article “The Meaning of the Selfie,” actor James Franco proclaims these shameless self-portraits as unrestrained self-expression, confidence in an individual’s distinctiveness. Instagram has given birth to the era of the selfie. Whether it is angling one’s iPhone front camera towards good lighting or making duck-faces (we all have to admit, at one point in time we actually did this), I find nothing narcissistic, conceited, or controversial about the selfie. It is true that our fast-paced shrinking world is a very visual one. Each day we are faced with a towering tsunami of twit-pics and Snapchats. While Instagram, like other social media sites, may be a tool for users to embellish their online personalities, I find something very raw and authentic about the selfie. I agree with Franco’s interpretation that the selfie is the new way of looking someone right in the eye and saying, “Hello world, this is me.”
“You are not special,” insists Wellesley High teacher David McCullough at the school’s 2012 senior graduation ceremony, “because everyone is.” My Instagram account is a representation of my individuality. I am proud that these are my photographs, moments, and ideas that I can share with others. So maybe I will admit right here that perhaps I am a “typical social media obsessed teenager,” but I have my reasons. And, to my friend who doesn’t get my double-tapping habits, I hope that maybe my defense of Instagram has convinced you otherwise; if not, another one of @vksaysmerde ‘s impassioned rambles is always available. But first, let me …
O’Niell, Brendan. “Don’t blame the web for our urge to blab” – Telegraph Blogs. Web. 30 July 2013.
Franco, James. The Meanings of the Selfie (The New York Times). Web. 26 December 2013.
Smith, Craig. 75 Amazing Instagram Statistics (June 2014). Web. March 6 2014. Available at: http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/important-instagram-stats/#.U47mD17-v1o