Instagram’s launch eight years ago ushered in a new revolution which would perhaps rival Facebook in its impact on our way of using social media. The concept was simple, banal almost - you’d take a picture on your phone, add a filter, and then share it with the world. Although the app may have become increasingly glossy since its inception, with its sleek typeface and sophisticated photo-editing options coming a long way from the days when its pages were littered with shoddily-lit, sepia-hue selfies, the basic premise has always remained the same. Aside from a few modifications and additions (namely the Snapchat-inspired 24-hour stories), Instagram has never changed its core purpose.
The app has become so closely intertwined with our current society that it’s easy to forget its profound effect on our way of relating to others. Instagram shifted social media into an increasingly phone-dominated, concept-centred, instant-visual focus, turning us all into mini-storytellers who could document our everyday existence and transpose mundane realities into parallel lives. We suddenly had a digital picture book at our disposal to share with others. As such, over the course of the app’s existence, we’ve seen the development of an “Insta-life”, one independent from our own. It’s hard to succinctly express what the “Insta-life” is, but anyone who stays on the app long enough is bound to notice or inadvertently participate in it.
The “Insta-life” is really just a reversal of the app’s basic function. Instagram was supposed to imitate (or document) life, but life eventually came to imitate the app. Countless influencers will base their entire existence around delivering share-worthy, high-quality content, travelling to exotic faraway locations or exclusive restaurants to take the best possible picture for their thousands, sometimes millions, of followers. Even normal users have ended up modifying small parts of their everyday life for the sake of that elusively “perfect” photo. Be honest with yourself - how many times have you ordered a dish you didn’t like, dressed up when you didn’t have to, or even met up with a friend, just for the sake of an Insta-worthy snap?
So what are we to make of the “Insta-life”? Well, there’s no denying that, in its own way, it has brought some good. In a world still riddled with division, prejudice and hate, Instagram has provided a borderless platform where we can all become global citizens, free to be who we want in whatever way we desire. Your page is your very own space to use as you see fit, and you can remove any negativity coming its way - comments on your posts can be deleted at your wish. Like all social media, Instagram allows us to express our identities in a public manner without having to do so in person; but Instagram still remains unique. In no other app do you document your life in such a personal way, which is why other social media brands haven’t generated anything quite comparable to the “Insta-life”. Facebook, for instance, is more about cultivating friendships, Twitter about expressing opinions, while Snapchat is too temporary. In a sense, Instagram provides a comfortable space to be and expose yourself within the privacy of your own home. And for people who may be shy, introverted or otherwise insecure about themselves, it can prove a highly liberating tool.
But much like in real life, the “Insta-life” has ended up developing subtle hierarchies which lurk beneath the app’s anarchic, digital-utopian surface. The unspoken power of the “like”, the follower count, and the verified symbol all serve to silently segregate Instagram’s users according to their so-called influence and prestige. As such, on the basis of the size and engagement of their following, members end up finding themselves relegated to various “Insta-classes”. It would be too easy to say this all “doesn’t matter”, and while I certainly agree that it is wrong to link one’s self-worth to online status, the connection between the real and digital life has become too seamless for one to dismiss Instagram’s social dynamics. For several higher-profile users, likes and followers translate directly into actual revenue, as advertisers will agree to pay influencers at varying rates to have products promoted on their page. For many others, however, they translate just as equally into anxiety and low self-esteem, as people will end up placing much of their confidence on their online presence. In an app where users are increasingly devoted to conveying a perennial joie de vivre, the “FoMO” (“fear of missing out”) phenomenon becomes a very real side effect of the “Insta-life”.
But even more problematic than the way in which the “Insta-life” can damage self-esteem is the way in which it can give us the false illusion of possessing it. On Instagram, every part of our image and identity is carefully controlled. Photos can be filtered and doctored to precision, selfies Facetuned to blemishless perfection, and pictures picked to highlight the most exciting parts of our existence. The “Insta-life” is merely the shimmery iceberg-tip of our messier everyday realities. Any popularity we may receive on the app is generated by a mirror image of ourselves. The “Insta-life” may provide a comfy outlet to boost our self-confidence, but we are ultimately still hiding behind a digital screen, with no need to confront the uglier challenges of everyday life.
And so we come back to the original question: are we to view the “Insta-life” as an exciting and liberating form of self-expression, providing us with a platform to creatively expose our life journey, or is it all a giant masquerade behind which we hide our deepest fears and insecurities? The truth ultimately lies in both, rendering it a modern-day paradox simultaneously boosting our self-esteem while silently undercutting it. Instagram is neither the life-affirming digital answer to all our insecurities, nor is it some kind of malicious mirage. Rather, it stands as an amplifier, giving a public face to our innermost feelings and attitudes. Our behaviour on the app is essentially a magnified reflection of the way we would wish to live our lives, which inevitably involves a complex mixture of emotions. For most of us, insecurity and confidence have secretly danced hand-in-hand since the day we were born - all Instagram ever did was put a spotlight on their tango.