Two recent works—Olivia Sudjic's debut novel, Sympathy, and Ingrid Goes West, a film starring Aubrey Plaza—take Instagram as their subject, and through very similar plots and points of reference, they depict the app as something less like a platform and more like a precipice. Sympathy follows Alice, a rootless college graduate who moves to New York from England and, in the absence of any real family, friends, love interests, or career goals, becomes obsessed with a Japanese writer named Mizuko Himura who teaches at Columbia. After discovering Mizuko by chance and compulsively researching her background online, Alice latches onto the idea that the two of them are "Internet twins." Soon, Alice becomes so absorbed in what she perceives as the narrative of Mizuko's Instagram account, "moving through her pictures…like a termite…scrutinis[ing] captions," that she begins to lose herself in it. When she realizes that she also knows Mizuko's boyfriend, Rupert, from a trip to Japan, her interest turns to paranoia, thinking it seems "likely that I was a pawn in a vast conspiracy." She decides she must meet her, and with some dedicated Instagram sleuthing, orchestrating the encounter is a literal piece of cake: Mizuko posts an aerial shot of a male hand next to a pastry and geotags the café (conveniently nearby), and Alice seizes her chance. She knows Rupert must be present at their first encounter to give her an excuse to say hello, and she recognizes the watch as his from Mizuko's other photos.
From there, in both Ingrid and Sympathy, the plot is exactly what you might come up with if someone told you to write a story about Instagram. Both sets of women become weirdly fast friends, the obsessives' having cheated intimacy by knowing their targets' likes, dislikes, and interests in advance. Along with some easy layups—Mizuko and Taylor both read Joan Didion; Taylor forces a mechanic to take her photo from several painful angles in order to get the best shot; there's a moment when Ingrid, feeling ignored by Taylor and her friends, screams, "I BROUGHT SOME ROSÉ!"—both works are stippled with weightier references to Instagram culture in the form of metaphors that aim to explain how easy it is to slip from "the real world" into the fantasy in and of our phones.
At its core, Instagram is really just something to look at, an effectively endless catalog to flick through while you wait for something to happen to you.
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As Sympathy and Ingrid Goes West show, it also makes stalking unprecedentedly easy. In both, meeting the Instagram idol is not so much a quest as a formality, a matter of gaming the app, and in both the distribution of narrative reflects this: The conflict rests in the protagonists' paranoia that they will not be able to keep the friendships they have conjured; they think there must be some catch.Luckily, they have both glommed onto women for whom the allure of sycophancy is enough to excuse—or obscure—increasingly bizarre behavior, at least for a while. From the moment Alice meets Mizuko, the latter cheerfully goes along with the former's suggestions to prolong their time together; on their first evening out, they end up in Mizuko's apartment and stay there for days on end, playacting an intimate friendship, ordering delivery and sleeping in the same bed. During their extended sleepover, Mizuko and Rupert break up, and Alice is able to capitalize on Mizuko's vulnerability, positioning herself as necessary support in Mizuko's life and space. Though Mizuko is clearly addicted to her cell phone, she allows Alice to confiscate it on the grounds of preventing her from texting Rupert. (Alice actually does it because she fears Mizuko will tire of her if she has access to the phone's endless distraction—and because she wants to snoop through it.) Ingrid and Taylor become similarly fast friends, though a series of uncomfortable moments make clear that Ingrid does not fit into to Taylor's sunny lifestyle. All this is made possible by Mizuko and Taylor's self-absorption. At one point, Alice sprays herself with Mizuko's perfume; Mizuko tells her she smells nice; when Alice asks, "What of?" Mizuko replies, "Me." After a night of drinking and taking drugs in Joshua Tree, Ingrid tells Taylor, "You are by far the coolest, most interesting person I've ever met," though they have only known each other for a couple of days and Taylor is extraordinary only in how boring she is. Taylor replies that Ingrid is a "really good friend."
On their surface, both works function as an effective skewering of the self-centered object of admiration—the transparently vain Instagram influencer who says she is a "photographer" but really makes her money because "sometimes brands pay me to post things online" (Taylor). To these women, friendship—or the social-network term "community"—is only valuable inasmuch as it permits the continued glorification of the individual. (That's clear enough from the number of self-portraits they post.) But Sympathy and Ingrid Goes West also cannily demonstrate how Instagram relies on a feedback loop of self-absorption that is more complicated than mere symbiosis between influencer and platform. Besides anonymity, there are few ways to post on any social-media platform without being self-promotional—in posting, the user implies that she believes other people should know or care about what she has to say, and even items that seem altruistic or socially conscious have the added benefit of making the user look altruistic or socially conscious. The same paradox applies to obsession, which, despite centering on a cool, interesting other person, is a deeply self-absorbed enterprise. Alice's develops her fixation on Mizuko because she believes Mizuko is like her, and in Mizuko she sees a model for how she can become someone who is not "a loser with no friends who had no business being in New York, let alone sitting with [Mizuko] in a bar." Ingrid also wants to build a self out of pieces of someone else, and after acquiring some crucial gossip from one of the several reasonable male voices in the film, she reminds Taylor that when the latter arrived in Los Angeles she was "lame and basic and you had no friends…you were just like me." As both these women know, acquiring an influential friend is the first step to becoming influential oneself.
On Instagram, you can be totally boring and pointless as long as you "own it," or portray your boring pointlessness as somehow intrinsic to your self.
While reading Sympathy and watching Ingrid Goes West, I realized I wanted to look up the fictional characters on Instagram. I wanted to see for myself whether Mizuko and Taylor seemed to me worthy of obsession (I suspected they did not), and I wanted to see if Alice and Ingrid had exhibited any telltale signs of impending nervous breakdown (I suspected they had). I wanted to do this because I wanted to judge them, to place myself in relation to them and, ideally, come out above. Knowing there was nothing I could do to sate this horrifying desire, I felt trapped, so I took out my phone, and I learned that a woman I have never met had acquired yet more quirky home furnishings, that a woman I have met three times was on vacation in Massachusetts, that a friend was trapped in a bar bathroom, and that a woman I used to work with but rarely spoke to was probably going through a difficult breakup. I admired the succulents decorating an expensive clothing store in Copenhagen and scrolled through the photos from a wedding in upstate New York. It was boring and pointless, and I felt boring and pointless looking at it. No other social network has done more to normalize anti-social behavior, and no other social network represents better the current moment, an era in which the obviousness of our problems seems to have no effect on our ability to solve them.