Anxious on Instagram: The Socially Divisive, Sepia-Tinted Display of Cultural Assets

Launched in October 2010, Instagram now attracts something in the region of 300 million monthly users; to put that in perspective, it puts the app ahead of the older and more culturally totemic Twitter.  Given this popularity, you might well ask what Instagram DOES for its users. If we believe the marketing team, the app is “a fast, beautiful and fun way to share your life with friends and family”, but things are rarely so straightforward when it comes to the internet of things.  

‘Friends’, ‘life’ and ‘sharing’ are nebulous concepts in the social media age: ‘friends’ are sometimes people we’ve never met; ‘life’ can be a complex, coded and exhibitionist projection; and ‘to share’ our lives with our friends can sometimes mean flaunting unrepresentative facsimiles of the real thing. This is not a simple activity, nor is it always benign. 

Back in the analogue age of 1972, critic and novelist John Berger analysed the function and effect of artistic production and assessment in his four-part TV series Ways of Seeing.  Curators and critics, he said, tended to praise or criticise a painter on the basis of his technical ability to compose a work – his arrangement of subjects, his brush strokes, his use of tone – but neglected to pay attention to the historical context within which the work was produced and displayed no interest in unpacking a painting’s social function. If we paid more attention to context and function, Berger contended, we would realise that much 17th and 18th century European oil painting had one crude, socially divisive purpose: to parade the subject-patron’s wealth and power by displaying their expensive cultural assets.  (In an unimaginative and self-referential twist, these cultural assets were often oil paintings.)

Social media, we’re constantly told, is a democratising force. Rather than the numerous and largely insuperable technical and financial barriers that stood between a normal person of the 1700s and their immortalisation in oil on canvas, the obstacles standing between most of us and a permanent online legacy are trifling.  For me and every other Instagrammer, the smartphone is a cheap, unlimited exposure camera and Instagram is a free, lightning-quick printing press.  Modern means of digital reproduction give an unprecedented number of people infinite opportunity to capture and share their cultural experiences. And if everybody can do it, surely we no longer have a problem with exclusivity. Right? 

The typical Instagrammer tends to capitalise on three kinds of cultural product: gentrified places, trendy literature and Pitchfork-certified music.Sadly, it isn’t that straightforward. The modern war of social and cultural distinction is far more fluid than the one played by our aristocratic forbears, and many millions more of us are fighting it - but it’s still the same war and Instagram is one of its battlefields, allowing users to obsessively document and broadcast cultural trends around the clock in ways which explicitly or implicitly distinguishes between good and bad taste. The former is appropriated and celebrated, the latter disparaged and marginalised. 

The typical Instagrammer tends to capitalise on three kinds of cultural product, selecting one of the app’s arsenal of filters to lend each a tantalising mystique: gentrified places, trendy literature and Pitchfork-certified music. Without the opaque academic vocabulary of critics and curators of yore, the Instagrammer uses vaguely contextualised hashtags to convey his seemingly effortless cultural awareness, and status-conscious spectators react in one of three ways: they are excited, terrified or irritated. They are excited because their cultural sophistication is indirectly affirmed by their shared good taste, terrified if a post demonstrates their philistinism, and irritated if a post relates to something of which they were aware but failed to post about first.  However, the irritated spectator has an optional consolation prize: he can double-tap his missed opportunity – signing their digital pen-name beneath the image, simultaneously recording both his visit and his cultural awareness – in exchange for a small slice of cultural capital.

In Ways of Seeing, Berger argued forcefully that culture displayed in exclusive ways is difficult to enjoy; debate and education are healthier and more effective when conducted and delivered generously and clearly. Instagram, with boundless community interaction, has the potential to – and often does – serve as an inclusive framework through which experiences are communicated altruistically. However, this new digital realm frequently becomes an arena in which traditional patterns of social stratification play out. 

Assessing the app with Berger in mind, it becomes clear that the corrosive social function of old, analogue exhibitionism continues – and thrives – in this new form. A social media app open to all, with all its potential for democratisation and community-creation, turns its users against one another in a war of pronouncements about things unknown which ought to be known, things not experienced which ought to have been experienced. Some Instagram users pat themselves on the back, reassured that they are either leading or rubbing shoulders with a sophisticated elite; others, low in cultural capital, privately lick their wounds as they reflect on their comparative philistinism. But both groups are engaged in the fraught processes of constant self-affirmation, a constant fight in which the main victors are those who manufacture its munitions: apps like Instagram and the devices that run them. 

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