“Pics or it didn’t happen.” The unspoken rule of the Instagram generation reminds me of Socrates’ paradox on writing. He believed that writing prevented people from truly remembering information (we only know about his views because Plato wrote them down). Similarly, it is a common refrain from the adults in my life that taking pictures prevents me from living the experience.
Who hasn’t done it; judged their best days by the quality of the snaps? Judged how happy they were by how big their smile was in the Instagram picture?
I remember once asking my sister if there were too many, or too few, pictures of my boyfriend on my Instagram account. Surrounded by couples who shared every date night, every gift, every selfie, on their social media profiles, I began to fear for oversharing. She replied that I didn’t have that many pictures of him, but had just enough to show people that we hadn’t broken up.
I remember being very surprised at her answer. Who was looking at my account, checking for pictures of my boyfriend? Who was constantly refreshing my feed and stalking it for information about my relationship? Her comment was a stark reminder that my innocuous Instagram account was viewed, by many, as an extension of my real life. Without the photos posted on social media, my life didn’t exist.
It really made me think: what had my Instagram audience assumed about me? For people I am not close to, who do not know the truth about my life, what does my collection of unstudied pictures reveal to them? I became interested in how perceptions can be manipulated and how my social media presence changes how people treat me in real life.
One of the pictures on my account that has the most likes is a shot of me standing moodily in a field against a dying sunset. It is a beautiful shot of the landscape and I received compliments on my appearance in it. In reality, I had just finished crying, the family member I was with decided it was the perfect moment to take a picture of the sky, and it ended up on my Instagram account because I liked the colors.
One of my best, real-life friends said I looked “miserable” in it, whilst others thought I looked beautiful. Posting some of my other pictures coincided with receiving messages from old friends, who remarked that I was “doing really well.” Were they assuming what my life was like based off some pouty shots on Instagram? Yes, yes they were.
There is nothing inherently wrong with that because it is an instinctive reaction in people to believe what they see. Nobody claims that Instagram reflects the truth, but when you are consuming somebody’s content week in and week out, your perceptions are altered.
I decided to do a little experiment. I documented nearly my entire spring break on social media. I am not a huge photo-taker by nature, and when I am with the people I love my first instinct is not to snap artsy pictures.
I wanted all that to change. What if I intentionally curated the perfect vacation? What if every good moment, every smile, was photographed? What if my friend and I spent hours taking shots of each other in candid poses?
Disclaimer: My best friend and I had a wonderful vacation, regardless of my near incessant documentation. I was surprised to find that taking so many pictures didn’t detract from the fun we were having. In fact, we both really enjoyed curating our pictures and experimenting with new angles and backdrops.
I posted a few Instagram stories every day and a handful of posts over the course of the trip. Worried, I messaged my sister: “Is it too much?” Her response, as always, shocked me. Far from complaining about my posting, she said the stories and posts were amazing and she had received no fewer than 15 messages from mutual friends saying what an amazing time it looked like I was having.
I also received messages, compliments, even passive-aggressive DMs. I couldn’t believe it, how the content was consumed; liked; desired. Nobody laughed at the emojis, the color coding, the captions; at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. People lapped it up. For my other friends, I was having “the time of my life.” I was living a dream holiday and everybody, it seemed, knew about it.
Unlike in the picture on my account that had been taken after I’d finished crying, I genuinely was having an amazing time. I made unforgettable memories with one of my dearest friends. However, although I have never experienced a trip exactly like that before, I have experienced other trips that nobody knew about. Suddenly, by documenting my good time in a carefully curated fashion, everybody thought my life was amazing and that the filtered version of my face was the real one.
I do not believe that my social media presence is an extension of my authentic self. Over spring break, I discovered that it was a game, and sometimes it can be fun. But like all games, it is never real. It is the highlight reel of someone’s existence, filtered and edited to perfection. I worry that not everybody knows it is a game. I am sure that some people really believe what they see, and feel the need to display their own lives through a particular lens in order to portray themselves as funny, or beautiful or thin.
I remember when the Instagram model Alexis Ren revealed she struggled with an eating disorder. I remember when Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr Photoshopped her waist to look thinner. I remember reading about these events because I wanted to immediately send the articles to everyone I knew.
All the girls commenting “body goals” under these women’s pictures should know that beneath the glamour of the social media account can lie a lot of pain. Sometimes beneath bodies and pictures seen as ideal, there exists a carefully concealed struggle with body image and mental health. Sometimes even models whom everyone wants to look like don’t want to look like themselves.
I consume the content of my followers just as my followers consume mine. My little experiment over spring break taught me that Instagram fame and success is an act of creation, curation and imagination. Even though I realize this, it is impossible not to be caught up in the game, even for a second, and mistake it for reality.
What’s the answer? The obvious one is: log off. That said, I don’t see myself deleting Instagram any time soon.