The Instagramization of life

Social media. That’s the general topic I would like to immerse myself in this, once again, short essay. It might become more of a social analysis and critique, using photography and art as examples of how they have been altered to accommodate social media interactions, sometimes sacrificing the artistic intention in favor of universal likeness and acceptance. There is no denying that our social behavior has changed rapidly in the recent years, adapting ourselves in the developing process to these new modes of socialization that the coronavirus pandemic has helped accelerate and consolidate, even though it was not so long ago when we were completely oblivious to what was coming.

Photograph included in my photo project Homeland. Shot in Barcelona, Spain (2017)

I was born in 1990 so I am, what people would call, from the millennial generation. I grew up alongside the advent of mainstream technologies, computers alongside gaming consoles like PlayStation or Nintendo arriving at the personal and private space of the home, or at least the home of those people who could afford them at the time. The internet became available way later. I even had a computer at home without the internet for a few years. How crazy does that sound today? And it was not that long ago. Small, cute mobile phones that were only able to call and send text messages arrived during my teenage years. Internet on phones was not a thing until I was at university! And how has life changed in such a short span of time…

MySpace (Rest In Peace), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, TikTok. In summary, social media platforms. The revolution of socialization. Promises of a new era in civilization. An era in which we would be able to communicate with everyone all over the world. The ratification of globalization. Instant feedback. A bright future ahead of us humans. Sharing knowledge, access to all types of information, the creation of online communities with people just like you, the end of loneliness. Doesn’t this sound like an idyllic dream? That’s what we believed because you just have to be optimistic if you want to progress in the name of humanity. But now that we can analyze it with hindsight, I can’t help but ask myself a question: when (and why) did all go so wrong?

I will not deny that the internet and social media have brought with them positive aspects that have indeed improved our lives significantly. It is true that they have allowed the creation of communication networks that have helped us liberate ourselves and our minds, expanding our knowledge of the world and the realities of others we were not able to reach before without the mediation of third parties like media corporations. They have provided a platform to enhance and distribute important messages from minorities that were demanding and needed to be heard from the privileged social groups for centuries, impulsing a social reflection and restructuring of our social behaviors. In relation to the arts, there is no doubt that the internet and social media have also helped artists, photographers, and small creators to find new audiences, showcasing their work to those who had been excluded from the elitist artworld, making art generally more accessible to everyone, creating a new kind of aesthetics and artistic expressions.

But nothing is too good to be true, and we have to be conscious of the terrible consequences the internet and social media have also generated. Everything has its pros and cons, and we can clearly see what those cons are and how they are developing in front of us without meeting any resistance. The obsessive behavior; the search for external validation from strangers through likes, views, or retweets; the feelings of solitude and social rejection; the adaptation to what is socially acceptable or trendy in the digital world through the sacrifice of our authenticity; the endless comparison to others physically and socially just by looking at their social posts to feed on our personal insecurities; the superficiality and liquidity of social interactions that were supposed to be profound and meaningful; the universalization of our sociocultural selves; the creation and performance of fake, normative personas; the idolization and romanticization of shallowness and frivolity; the commercialization of ourselves; the false idea of freedom.

Social media has become a space in which to perform the new social norms and aesthetics those same platforms brought with themselves in an endless circle that feeds itself with our unconditional help. This idea of the performativity of the self has been implemented for some time, being used in gender studies by Judith Butler or the arts with the raise of performances in the XX Century, from Dadaism’s happenings to Fluxus and Marina Abramović to cite some examples. The performative turn relates to the theatricality of our social behavior, showing or even pretending the traits that are socially acceptable and admirable while withholding our true self, keeping it hidden or just available within the private sphere.

Within the arts, performance has the capacity to transform the spectators into actors, as analyzed by theatre scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte¹. I believe this sentence does not only apply to performance art, but also to what happens to us in social media. We are not just mere spectators of created performative content, but engaged and active users-participants seeking to become actors and participate in the conversation, acquiring the necessary performative skills to “rise up” in the digital social scale in that process. Because, as Fischer-Lichte wrote on an analysis of Marina Abramović’s 1975 performance Lips of Thomas, the ultimate goal of the performance is not that transformation, but to “demonstrate the unusual physical and mental powers of the performers […] to elicit awe and wonder from the audience”¹ (p. 14). As it happens in any social media platform, the performers now named influencers are who matter. The rest of us are just there to reinforce that and preserve their performative behavior.

The key to this performative turn is the addition to another crucial element that is now behind every marketing campaign, social media, and, of course, art: the user or spectator’s experience. Art is all about aesthetic experience, it couldn’t exist without arousing it in the viewer. Otherwise, it would just be a regular object. So this focus on experience is not new to the arts in general, but it is for capitalist companies or “Western bourgeois-industrial societies” as per Dorotea von Hantelmann². Corporations realized they could “produce” and sell an experience “attached” to a certain product as a new form of aesthetics. Life imitates art, once again. The focus shifted from objective production to subjective experience. And we cannot let ourselves forget that all social media platforms (yes, ALL) are capitalist companies who grow through and profit from our exploitation through this same strategy.

Both the performative and the experiential turns have had consequences for art and especially photography. If I as a photographer want to be someone on social media, I have to play the influencers’ game. That’s where fame and fortune are. Just become the person who perpetuates gender stereotypes and hypersexualizes women (and soon-to-enter-the-sexualized-club men) to keep feeding the patriarchal machine. This is what the spectators-actors want to see because that is what they eventually want to become! They believed the false promise of social media without realizing it is a lie, a performance. And alongside social media platforms, we can find other allies to reinforce the unreal reality they are trying to sell us: editing software. They coexist and work together with the assistance of photographers to portray unethical “perfection”: the perfect face, the perfect body, the perfect holiday, the perfect life.

This is why I have no interest in fashion or portrait photography. I am fully aware that there is money to be made and followers to gain but I just don’t want to be the person responsible for feeding and perpetuating the egos of wanna-be influencers whose only goal in life is attention. Furthermore, I don’t want to help to create and to maintain this performative, unreal lifestyles we see on Instagram, the continuation of normative body types while rejecting others, setting unhealthy standards for their “followers” who are eventually going to pay the bill at a cost of their mental health and self-image. I have struggled most of my life with these specific issues thanks in part to the fashion industry and its ruthless portrayal of women during the 1990s and 2000s, so I could never put my camera to contribute to that immorality.

Instagram culture has transcended the digital realm to integrate itself and its social norms into life as we know it, the performances of our digital personas leaking and reaching our non-digital (previously known as physical) world in the pursuit of the meaningful experiences that were promised through social media interaction, regaining the long lost self-love we all deserve by seeking compliments from strangers, reinforcing the false idea of appreciation without realizing the whole inside of us is just getting bigger and bigger and our detachment from reality larger and larger in order to survive the new, digital, immaterial world we have all contributed in its creation, implementation, and perpetuation. As MGMT sang, it is time to pretend.

Pretend the new internet culture has no effect on the way we socialize; pretend it does not provoke mental issues; pretend it does not perpetuate depreciating the self by comparison to others; pretend that we have believed a lie; pretend to be someone else to fit the new social roles; pretend to have a fulfilling experiential life better than anyone else; pretend to ignore the terrible consequences social media has brought; pretend we have not alienated ourselves from the world; pretend photography has not helped perpetuate unhealthy beauty standards that are still among us through social media; pretend we are not products of a globalized society and sociocultural environment; pretend we are free from the social media dictatorship.

The search for an authentic life has been essential to humanity, a search philosophers took as a challenge to uncover. We do not know how to achieve it yet, basically because, like art, it is a subjective idea. But I think social media is not the way, and especially not the sociocultural implications it brings. I feel it actually brings us further away from authenticity into a path of simulation and frivolity. Within the photographic medium, we should be conscious of our role in how social media portrays people, especially women, and take responsibility for how we participate in advertising false standards. We need a new turn. The authenticity turn. Away from gender performance, from social performance, from the importance of cultural capital (read Pierre Bourdieu), and from the capitalization of lived experiences. It is in our hands to restart social media and set us free.

¹Source: Fischer-Lichte, E. (2008). The transformative power of performance. A new aesthetics. Routledge.

²Source: von Hantelmann, D. (2014). The Experiential Turn. In On Performativity, edited by Elizabeth Carpenter. Vol. 1 of Living Collections Catalogue. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center

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Photographer, writer, and artist trying to understand the world

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Ana F. Martín

Ana F. Martín

Photographer, writer, and artist trying to understand the world

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