This post is a continuation of Instagram’s Monster; Part 1. This mini-series explores our relationship between real life, our selves and social media. There is a heavy focus on selfies and Instagram. Although not pinup or vintage related, I wanted to use my academic skills to start a discussion about how we use social media and it’s effects on us. After using Instagram for several years, I have started to notice changes in myself and my behaviours around the platform which haven’t always been positive. This series aims to bring issues to the surface and hopefully provide a bit of information about our relationship with social media. As much as I love pinup and vintage, I still live in the real world and such topics hold an interest in me (blame the anthropology degree).
Once an Instagram user has taken the perfect selfie or photograph, they are faced with multiple ways to edit and further construct their image. Instagram filters are representative of several different analog photography styles in order to transform the appearance of the image and artificially age or alter the lighting and colours of the image. It is estimated that just over half of all uploaded Instagram images have a filter over the image (Knibbs 2013).
A 2012 study by Lisa Chandler and Debra Livingston explored digital photography’s merging with encoded film effects on Instagram. ‘Visual signs of memory, age, time, place, medium and substrate can be combined to generate a simulacrum of analogue authenticity, allowing the creator to feel that they have produced something distinctive through the image’s creative imprecision’ (Chandler & Livingston 2012). The filter function can adjust the light and colour of an image to replicate Polaroid, Kodachrome and other types of film. The ‘simulated authenticity’ of the filters available take visual precedence over the content of the user’s selfie; as the filter is the last effect added in the Instagram upload, it has the ability to change the look of a user’s image, which could be different from their original intention.
Many of the filters on Instagram replicate old and weathered photographs including discolouration, scratches and digitized dust in order to convince users that their image has earned the weight of time (Crouch 2012). Although filters add the appearance of time, the images themselves have no connection to the past and instead repurpose the past to encourage users to generate digital praise about other user’s images in the present (Wendt 2014). Wendt argues that users who compulsively produce selfies are driven to find an ideal version of themselves by combining images of themselves with various filter which mimic film photography’s appearance; thus they are attempting to find the perfect version of themselves in every decade of the 20th century (Wendt 2014).
As many of the Instagram filters give the illusion of age, it can be argued that Instagram users could be seeking nostalgia. Jurgenson refers to this as ‘nostalgia for the represent’ arguing that the content of an image or a selfie can obtain emotional and sentimental value in the present by borrowing from aesthetics of the past (Jurgenson 2011). Jurgenson says this occurs in an ‘attempt to make our photos seem more important, substantial and real’ (2011). Keller furthers this idea by arguing that nostalgia ‘triggered desires that provoked consumerism’ and that the ability to make Instagram images nostalgic encourages users to reproduce and self-consume images to ensure that ‘the product of ourselves will not run out’ (Heimann 2012, Wendt 2014). Wendt argues that users apply nostalgic aesthetics to selfies to distract themselves from the inevitability of extinction. Instagram, therefore, promises electronic immortality (Wendt 2014). By dissociating oneself from time with the use of the filter function, one also can disassociate themselves from the reality of death. Filtered images also give the impression of ‘cheating death’ since the ageing process of viewed in real-time.
The portrayal of the self that users project through Instagram is constructed to be an idealized and consumerist lifestyle. It is very rare to see unedited selfies and many images of the face and body are stylized to portray a unique and structured form of the self. Many selfies include products and branding which can promote a highly fashionable lifestyle; items can include clothing, food or drinks (such as Starbucks), accessories, makeup and grooming techniques or other similar things. The accumulation of such items and the portrayal of a happy and consumerist lifestyle appear to be prized on Instagram and accounts of fashion bloggers, avid-travellers, makeup artists and clothing designers are extremely popular. Digital platforms such as Instagram allow one to portray the kind of lifestyle and identity they wished they have; one is able to be who they want to be, rather than who they actually are. Turkle argues that the digital and online construction of one’s identity is totally in control by the user; the introvert can be outgoing, and the blemish-prone can be perfect skinned (1999).
The attraction of the Instagram app to many it’s users is the filter option as it allows users to create a more aesthetically pleasing version of their selfies. Filters are able to blur out small imperfections and also brighten colours (such a blush, lipsticks and body contours). However, Instagram users may feel that a filter is not enough to create the perfect version of themselves; therefore, multiple photo editing and enhancing apps have been created as a supplementary to editing the perfect selfies. Apps such as VSCO Cam, BeautyPlus, Beauty Camera, InstaBeauty and Perfect365 all allow users to digitally alter and enhance their selfies. Common options include smoothing out, brightening and toning skin, removing blemishes, slimming the face, enlarging the eyes and some apps even allow you to add digital makeup. Some larger profiles even tell their followers how the edit and alter their images using certain apps and sometimes programs such as PhotoShop and LightRoom. Although they are honest about the fact their images are edited, their overall audience will still over time get used to their perfected image and start to believe it’s real and normal.
These apps can be viewed through Kristeva’s idea of abjection. The abject focuses on the ‘human reaction to a threatening breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other’ (Felluga 2011, Kristeva 1985). The abject must be eliminated in order for the self to stay within the borders of the living and not cross over to the dead (Kristeva 1985). Abjection revolves around the rejection of images such as corpses and bodily fluids; filter and editing apps supply users with the ability to remove wrinkles (signs of the body aging and decaying) and blemishes (pus being a non-desirable bodily fluid to display). All these editing apps make users selfies appear youthful and flawless, supporting the idea of remaining as part of the living. The creation of the perfect selfies through multiple facial editing apps once again creates the illusion of the perfect lifestyle and reiterates the perfect version of the self through Instagram. By applying idolized beauty aspects, Instagram users are able to construct their selfies to appear more how they wish they look in real life; thus separating reality and fantasy further.
As mentioned in Part 1, some users are being mocked and ridiculed because they over-edit and filter their images. This can be extremely damaging if those accounts wish to grow an organic following and promote a healthy body and mental image. To come across over-edited to the point the subject no longer ‘human’ looking, can really isolate them from their fan base. Can they really promote self-love, acceptance and a positive mental state if they can’t even come across as honest in their images? After spending many years on Instagram, there has definitely been an increase in over editing on the platform where other blogs have even started to name and shame ‘influencers’ who are coming across as over-edited and fake. It’s always the account owners choice what they do to their images and they are always in full control; I personally think that appearing over-edited and beyond flawless is more damaging than showing a blemish or two. It’s removed the ‘relatability’ and the truth behind the image; if an influencer is advertising a product but they’re being untruthful about their image, are they being honest about what they are telling you?
There’s nothing wrong with editing an image, but it is the obsession to look perfect all the time that can be damaging. Many users of Instagram, especially young girls, can start to prefer their filtered and edited images over their actual appearance which can, in turn, lead to mental health issues, low self-esteem and sometimes plastic surgery. Instagram is teaching us that to become ‘insta-famous’, we must be perfect and produce a perfect life that is both consumer-driven and aesthetic. I know personally, I have seen many adverts in my Instagram and Facebook feed advertising preset edits in order to make all my photo look similar to each other. My life isn’t just one hue so I’ve never felt the need to buy such an editing feature but increasingly, more and more users are changing their images to fit a certain look and feel and eliminate anything that doesn’t fit perfectly. I can’t help but wonder if we are losing more of our selves then we realise.
Did I request thee photo to hashtag me selfie?
Upon the final uploading step on Instagram, users are able to add a caption underneath their image as well as hashtags (#). Hashtags can be considered a form of metadata as “they have the ability to append linguistic signs to an image (or other data object), to facilitate its classification, archiving, retrieval and indicate provenance (authorship, ownership, conditions of use)” (Rubinstein & Sluis 2013). As a type of metadata, hashtags on Instagram can be used as a tool that allows users to assign keywords or phrases to their images as well as browse for similar images. Some of the most popular Instagram hashtags include ‘love’, ‘instagood’, ‘me’, ‘cute and ‘tbt’ (throwback Thursday).
#Selfie on an Instagram user’s image can bring about several different meanings. The hashtag is able to function as an image, action or a self-referential pronoun. It is also able to function as a means of self-categorization as well as confirmation of one’s identity to themselves (Wendt 2014). On the user’s profile, #selfie refers to the users themselves, outside the user’s profile, the hashtag becomes part of the #selfie group and community (Wendt 2014). Yang, Sun, Zhang and Mei researched hashtags through the medium of Twitter and argued that the ‘community role of a hashtag presents in its functionalities to identify a community, form a community, and allow users to join a community’ (2012).
This idea is held within my own vintage and pinup community. I often see people use hashtags such as #pinupgirl #vintagegirl and #moderndaypinup which brings together people of similar interest. I know some accounts have found me through these hashtags but also that Instagram will link similar accounts to people’s interests in order to share more users on the explore page. The same can be said with the Instagram hashtags, for example, if a user were to hashtag ‘makeup artist’, (#makeupartist) or ‘college student’, (#collegestudent), other users from within those communities are able to reach out and connect. In addition, the above researchers also argued that ‘hashtags serve as both a tag of content and a symbol of membership of a community’ (Yang et al. 2012). However, some Instagram users wish to solely promote themselves, as opposed to being part of a community when using #selfie, to do this, they include hashtags such as ‘follow’, ‘like, and ‘tagforlikes’ for self-promotion (Wendt 2014).
Rubinstein and Sluis on their study of Flickr’s tagging system argued that the ‘practice of tagging becomes part of a strategy for self-promotion that allows the individual to rise above the anonymity of most users’ (2008). Holt furthers this argument by noting that the hashtag ‘instagood’ is a way for users to ‘boost their like and comment numbers’ and increase the likelihood that other users will see their images’ (2012). The use of popular hashtags increases the frequency of views and the likelihood of popularity; through the use of these hashtags, users promote themselves above common communities and extend themselves beyond personal networks.
Wendt argues that the identity of a user becomes defined by the locations where selfies are aggregated to and by the frequency with which selfies are produced by users (2014). Wendt furthers this idea by claiming that users that maintain a solid presence on Instagram become quickly fascinated by the promise of pluripotential (2014). Pluripotentiality is when users create numerous images of themselves and selfies whilst assigning numerous hashtags to such images in order to distribute themselves to theoretically unlimited locations. One selfie is able to appeal to multiple platforms bringing the exposure of the user and their account to a wider range of Instagram networks. With celebrities such as Justin Beiber, there is a sense that the Internet can make someone famous within minutes and the idea that fame is within reach becomes an appealing thought to Instagram users. By the promotion of certain images, the correct hashtags and exposure to large numbers of users, Instagram can offer people fame, income and access to commodities. Ubiquity in and of itself becomes a mark of distinction.
As Instagram users hashtag words such as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘self’ in order to be seen, they are still pooled into a collective community that display many different and unrelated images. Tifentale argued that ‘#me becomes part of #us, a virtual community via means of a common platform for image sharing and the uniform image format provided by Instagram’ (2014). Regardless of describing their selfies as part of a means of being individual or a community, Rubinstein and Sluis argue that users may not realize that they contribute to a group identity and are ‘in essence describing their photographs in a way that the computer can understand’ (2008). Instagram encourages users to use hashtags to describe themselves in a way that produces a following or continues a trend. Computer Scientists consider hashtags a failure if more than one user does not pick them up (Wendt 2014). Wendt argues that Instagram deprives users of their individuality when they refer to themselves via hashtags (2014).
Recently, Instagram has also started shadow-banning certain hashtags such as #girl #wcw (woman crush Wednesday) and #asian. Instagram argues that certain hashtags have been used to share explicit content which violates it’s community standards (mainly pornographic content) so certain tags have been flagged and will not show results. Many users have fallen innocent victims to these shadowbans and this has resulted in many photos not receiving much of a wide reach. Although originally, Instagram was a space to share images and pictorial stories, Instagram is now hiding more and more content making certain accounts harder to see and discover. Users who are unaware of which hashtags are banned may use them accidentally which in turn, limits creativity and expression if their intentions were innocent.
Hashtags limit the depth of an image or selfie; although the subject of the selfie could be looking mysterious, peaceful or thoughtful unless the hashtags explain the meaning behind the image, they are overlooked by the viewers and their understanding of the real person behind the selfie is restricted. Hashtags allow users to consume more images, as opposed to contemplating ideas about others (Wendt 2014). Flusser argues that ‘if it is the intention of writing to mediate between human beings and their images, it can also obscure images instead of representing them and insinuate itself between human beings and their images’ (1986). Instagram hashtags have a similar effect on their images as they disenchant an image by breaking down its meaning into smaller pieces or concepts. Hashtags fragment, objectify and dissect elements of images and by extensions of ourselves within our selfies. Users hashtag any and all things and they become small fractions of thoughts, truths, logics and Instagram jargon whilst neglecting the true meaning behind why users have posted a particular image (Wendt 2014). Hashtags inhibit users from analyzing images as pictures with complex layers.
Much like Frankenstein’s monster, who is a combination of different body fragments, Instagram is turning its users into a combination of collective images constructed by account owners. Even our hashtags are fragmented comments on what the image is depicting which further brings about the way we depict and illustrate ourselves on the platform. Our lives on Instagram is made up of carefully edited and selected fragments which only depict a specific narrative to viewers. Through heavy use of social media and especially Instagram, we are creating a different version of ourselves which many are starting to envy and seek to achieve. This obsession is detrimental to physical and mental health as well as our own ideas of who we are. There is a huge pressure to appear a certain way and do certain things on the platform; there is very little originality and authenticity. Even those who argue they are their true selves online do not post unedited or tweaked images which further cements the idea that nothing on Instagram is real and just a collection of images and hashtags which results in more of an online avatar than a true human.
To fully unpack and analyse Instagram would take many more posts as there is so much more to discuss. I am tempted to continue this series in a few more instalments; if you would like me to write more on the topic please let me know.
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Note: This is not a sponsored post. All opinions and thoughts expressed are solely my own and not influenced in any way.