Instagram filters. Image via Jzollman
Yesterday, The Guardian ran a piece lamenting on the dangers of Instagram. In it, the writer speaks of the grand lie we tell each other by filtering our lives and the unrealistic goalposts of happiness this creates, neatly comparing the fictitious sheen the app provides to that of a scripted reality programme.
I've noticed it's happening more and more, this Instagram malaise; a feeling that it's stopping us from living. But I am from a – slightly embarrassing, if you're looking from the outside in – Generation Y school of thought: I don't think it's ruining our lives at all. In fact, I think it's improving mine.
I really, really like Instagram. It's my roman à clef. At the time of filing copy, my account has reached its 1,779th post. At the time this goes live – who can say? It looks like it might rain tomorrow, so, if there's a grey-ish sky, that's probably a job for Sutro. I'm working at home, so I might experiment with a dicey lipstick mid-afternoon, take a selfie and get Amaro to work her magic on it (she's terribly forgiving). Rustic lunch tableau? Earlybird. Evening in a dark bar? X-pro II, circular tilt shift focus on the fancy cocktail I'll buy if one of my invoices clears. Tilt shift circular focus on my mate's grinning face if it's a pint.
I think it's a shame that Instagram is always spoken about in such reductive terms. We're constantly told that social media is making us less "present" – that we should be looking the sunset, not taking a photo of it. We should be watching Prince sing, not recording him on our iPhone to look at later, in bed, giggling like a maniac. I'd have tried to take a million pictures with a disposable camera from Boots at one time in my life. I'm not sure how having an up-to-date piece of recording equipment to take a visual record is different.
Experience is a multi-faceted thing. We carry radical, real-life memories of an event, but we also hold onto the memories of the memories; photos, songs, diary entries, tattoos, notes in Tipp-Ex on our school exercise books. Saying that recording life negates living life, in 2014, is silly. Doing both fleshes out a story, allowing you to retain the memory for longer.
Instagram doesn't replace moments. It's a photocopier for them.
The moments may be selected carefully, they might be art-directed within an inch of their pixellated lives. But this certainly isn't a concept as new as scripted reality. Instagram is just its modern format. Presenting a curated life to the world isn't a narcissistic invention of 20-somethings with smart phones. People have been recording the most interesting versions of themselves for centuries, and sharing them with an audience.
Look at van Gogh, always trying to show us all how barking mad he was, doing a sad self-portrait with his bandaged ear the minute he was discharged from hospital. Or Frida Kahlo's beautiful self-portraits, always surrounded by carefully selected objects and ephemera that projected everything of who she was. Also, anyone who thinks Andy Warhol wouldn't have lost his shit over Instagram is casting him in strange, rose-tinted light. The man was obsessed with celebrity, with maximum impact, with art-directed realities. He'd have been all over Instagram like hives.
Instagram doesn't replace moments. It's a photocopier for them.
I am very, very comfortable with selecting the best bits of my life and projecting them to the world. I really am. Yes, you can write it off as boastfulness or smugness, but "being real" is something my generation are far too fucking precious about. Everything doesn't have to be "real" all the time. I don't even know what "real" is anymore. If you've done a double take on life recently, you'll know it's all a little TOO real. So many of my generation can't cope with the realness, and are trapped in an inertia of kidulthood; scared of doing anything but getting razzed. The idea that someone like me, a 20-something, is living in some kind of painted, artificial, wanker-y reality because I like the way pictures I take of the sky look when I put them through an Instagram feature, strikes me as something that only makes sense to the old and curmudgeonly.
If I want a dose of "reality" I'll watch the news. I'll check my Natwest online balance, taking a sharp breath as I do. I'll have a look in the window of my local estate agent at the Clarks shoebox-sized flat I will never, ever be able to afford. I'll go to the post office and listen to the young woman who lives up the road crying, with four children hanging off her, about how many years she's been waiting to be housed somewhere with more than one bedroom. Not that Instagram – or any other social media platform – can be a true tonic for these deep, constitutional problems. That's ridiculous. But light relief counts for something. It just does.
These days, I can't help but feel that a bit of escapism isn't just healthy – it's essential for survival. I don't want to just stand like a martyr in the queue for the cemetery. And, even if you use Instagram to laugh at people like me, it's still escapism. You're still using the app for some small hit of pleasure.
My current favourite Instagram account, the best porthole of escapism, is symmetrybreakfast – bio: "symmetry breakfast for my boyfriend and me" – and, when I look at the account, run by a man in Hackney who takes photos of identical breakfasts, I don't think: 'Oh, I wish he'd just been a bit more real, the smug bastard. I wish he'd just shown the two soggy bowls of Cornflakes they had, and then maybe a quick video of the row after breakfast about the skid marks in the loo. That would bring me so much more joy".
No. I find the symmetry satisfying. I've no doubt, too, that these are precisely the kind of accounts that will make people scoff, and find a spectacular waste of time. They're the kind of thing so easily, woefully, dismissed as twattish. But actually, an exacting arrangement of flax seeds on white, billowy rafts of yoghurt brings me – and their just shy of 100,000 followers – tremendous peace. Similarly, looking at accounts dedicated to pets makes me feel warm and tempered. And if you can't find a whiff of joy in myriad pictures of an overweight, greying daschund who looks like a little old shark, you might have something wrong with you.
Back in spring, I had a five-star day for my Instagram page. I must have posted at least ten photos. There was bright sunshine, a new hat, a nice salad, a brisk walk down to The National Portrait Gallery for the David Bailey exhibition. In the final room hung my favourite photograph of the show – Bailey and Dali standing in front of a mirror, huddled together in an original selfie (can't get more "real" than that!), with goofy expressions on their faces. In the background a woman reclines on a chair in a languid, boozy way. Bailey holds his camera up with as much self-awareness as those Instagram photos you see of four grinning friends crammed in the bogs in front of the mirror, one holding an iPhone, recording life as they experience it.
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