It’s safe to say Instagram’s recently launched new logo was largely met by resounding cries of ‘hell no’ from the Interwebs. Gone was the iconic, vintagey looking camera, replaced by a rather bland every-app style one. The uproar suggested one thing; that Instagram is a beloved app with a special place in its users hearts. Instagram is easily one of the most interesting social networking sites around today, and not just because of its impressive growth rate and its popularity within the coveted 18 – 35 year-old age bracket.
The true impact of Instagram can be found in the way it plays into the modern cultural forces underway in our societies. For starters, think of online consumerism, the evolving use of technology, the start-up lifestyle, and the desires and fears of Gen-Y. In some way or another, Instagram is contributing to all of these trends, providing a visual narrative of the times. Right down to its updated logo– so on-trend that it generated one of those ferocious ‘love-it-or-hate-it’ commentary showdowns– Instagram more than any other networking site is shedding light on the lifestyle dilemmas we face today.
The highly-visual nature of the platform makes it an ideal tool for exploiting fads, leading to its popularity with businesses and celebrities alike. Instagram has developed a strong commercial edge in its short history and, being a free, intuitive, hyper-connected marketing tool, it is now seen as the go-to platform of choice for upcoming start-ups. It can both save on the costs of traditional marketing techniques as well as dangle the prospect of landing huge celebrity endorsements that would be unthinkable outside of the world of social media. This was the case with the swimwear start-up Triangl that now counts global influencer Beyoncé among its clientele.
Instagram is also opening up typically elitist and closed-door industries by redefining fame and creating new opportunities for engagement. Through building up an audience on social media, it is now possible to make industry leaders sit up and take notice and come to you. Modelling agencies routinely scout for talent on photo-sharing sites like Instagram, with models like @matthew_noszka leading the way in forcing open these new routes to success.
In a broader sense, Instagram is a driver of the story-telling, lifestyle approach to fashion and design; and the app was recognised with a media award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America just last year. Whereas ‘curation’ used to be something mysterious done by intellectuals in galleries and museums, now the term is entering our vocabulary as meaning the personal narration of a person’s consumeristic and aesthetic choices across their social media accounts.
However, the commerciality of Instagram can have a dark side, too. The platform has in the past been subverted to the ambitions of aspiring porn auteurs and entrepreneurial drug dealers. The American-based Coalition Against Drug Abuse describes how drug dealers regularly operate ‘blatantly on Instagram’ by posting pictures of their wares, using instant messaging apps and, in some cases, even posting profile photos and publically broadcasting their criminal activities.
Instagram can lend itself to voyeurism, which has given rise to the cultural phenomenon known as ‘lifestyle envy’. This is the depression we experience when we consider images of a glamorous lifestyle we cannot achieve for ourselves, or what Alex Williams writing in the New York Times described as being ‘suffocated by fabulousness’. Lifestyle envy is compounded by both online behaviours such as the expectation of instant gratification and FOMO (fear of missing out); and by advances in technology, notably the use of filters and airbrushing techniques.
All of this could be pointing to the way in which our priorities are shifting, becoming increasingly marked by conspicuous consumption. The good life is now defined in terms of brands, products and luxurious locations, epitomised by accounts like the @richkidsofinstagram.
But this creates a cycle of cultural pressure. Trendsetters can feel the need to maintain their perfectly-maintained ‘brands’ at all costs by plastering over the truth of how they are really feeling with polished pictures. Australian model Essena O’Neill controversially quit Instagram last year, claiming the platform had made her lost and unhappy. In her last posts, she argued that ‘social media is not real life’.
Users who are trend followers, on the other hand, are made to feel inadequate because their real, human lives fall short of what they can see posted in popular galleries. The most common hashtags for pitching images come back to this idea of longing, dissatisfaction and the need to consume: hashtag porn, hashtag envy, hashtag lust. For all that Instagram is an aspirational place, it can be strangely unhappy at times.
But there are ways to break these cycles of pressure and envy: by rediscovering normality, celebrating diversity and embracing honesty. Some young people on Instagram overcome such problems by operating dual identities: smaller accounts for their friends to follow that allow for their insecurities to be shared; and public accounts for the world at large. Ironically, it is these more intimate accounts that are called ‘Fake Instagrams’ or ‘F’instagrams’, private universes built into the app that reinforce the idea that the real worth of life is to be found in randomness, mistakes and just being yourself.
Celebrities can also help in challenging unhealthy community behaviours. Stars who regularly eschew the filter, like @lenadunham, or get political on body and conformity issues, like @ladygaga, reassure us that is okay to not only go through difficult periods in our life, but also to then share the experience online, get support from our networks and defy our critics in the classiest ways.
Nevertheless, it is hard to know what the future of Instagram will be; and how these cultural trends will play out in the long-term. Instagram does have the capacity to harness the positive aspects of globalisation; and has already facilitated global projects that provide interesting visual stories about urban development and multiculturalism, such as the 24 Hour Project. The documentary value of the app is huge, with the ability to connect us in a more fundamental and consistent way to ongoing issues that are affecting our societies, such as homelessness, mental health and urban gentrification.
Instagram is providing us with a window in which we can look out and scrutinise ourselves, both as individuals and collectively. It can put pressure on us to lead a certain lifestyle, consume certain products and eat certain foods, yes. But it also provides us with a powerful tool for challenging all of this. At its best, Instagram is about discovery; self-knowledge, fresh talent, creativity, new alternatives. The future influencers of Instagram could be any one of us and that is where the real beauty lies.
[ALL IMAGES: Instagram]