In the early years of Twitter, a common criticism of the service went something like this: "Why would anyone care what I had for breakfast? And I don't think people need to know every time I go to the bathroom!" The mundane filler of one's life, the quaintly sense-making skeptics argued, was not interesting enough to sustain a virtual community.
Quickly they were proven wrong. Twitter revealed itself to be much more than a repository for inconsequential observations; for better or worse, it became a hub for the publication and dissemination of news, fake news, opinion, ideas, recommendations, jokes, and the whims of the president of the United States. But the function of Twitter was not the doubters' only misjudgment. People actually do care what strangers have for breakfast or when they use the bathroom. The right platform for that kind of information just turned out to be more visual.
Since launching in 2010 with an off-kilter, high-contrast image of a marina shot through a backlit windowpane, the photo-sharing app Instagram has made exponential an argument from Susan Sontag's 1977 book On Photography: "The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing." With more than 700 million users and one million advertisers who post an average of 95 million photos and videos per day, the service has both become a culture unto itself—with its own norms, customs, values, and even a style of dress and cuisine—as well as altered the way its users see, act, and think in the world beyond their screens.
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.
Ingrid Goes West is on-the-nose satire to Sudjic's literary thriller, but the skeleton is the same. Fresh out of a psychiatric ward following an incident that involves her macing a bride at her wedding (she felt she should have been invited), Ingrid Thorburn becomes transfixed by the young blonde Instagram account of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an LA influencer with 267,000 followers, a bearded artist boyfriend, and such insights as "another day, another avocado toast [prayer hands emoji]." Ingrid moves to Los Angeles, inaugurates a fresh Instagram account with a photo of the sunset over Venice Beach, and starts to buy and eat what Taylor posts about buying and eating. (A Clare V purse and Café Gratitude, for the initiated.) Having studied Taylor's account to learn both where she lives and what she loves most, Ingrid steals Taylor's dog in order to later return it and meet her.
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.
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.
Alice describes her first morning in New York as "shocking pink… Mainly I was thinking about the pinkness, the startling colour of it everywhere." Soon after, she goes on a walk and says, "Everything at this point was pretty," and takes her first Instagram photo, "dogwood and sprays of blossom shining on black branches." On a trip to her vacation cottage in Joshua Tree, Taylor confesses to Ingrid that she wants to buy the house next door in order to open a boutique hotel that will be "just like my Instagram but in real life"; it will be filled with everything she loves, and all of it will be for sale. When, during one of their marathon hangouts, Mizuko introduces Alice to Provigil, a narcolepsy drug used off-label to promote concentration, Alice describes the sensation as "selfish tunnel vision." The danger of the pill is that the user can get "stuck" in a task, only able to focus on counting the words in a book instead of reading it or, as Mizuko says has happened to her, applying the same red lipstick over and over until it has "eroded…to the hilt." Though Alice does end up getting stuck, she enjoys what she has locked on to: Mizuko, who begins to look as though Alice has applied the Instagram "tilt shift" editor to her. "Everything else went blurry while she became more arresting, with something like an angora texture at her edges."
"From then on," Alice continues, "we spent days on [Provigil] at a time, going on quests without leaving the apartment—searching for things, counting things, breaking things down."
If such analogies feel heavy-handed, it's because they are. Alice's "selfish tunnel vision" will be recognizable to anyone who has looked up from her phone and realized she has spent an entire hour moving from tagged photo to tagged photo with nothing to show for it but the ability to recite the names, alma maters, and favorite bars of every one of her ex-boyfriend's ex-girlfriend's best friends; a wistful longing for a $325 lamp; and a reinvigorated sense of how cute cats are. But Instagram itself is heavy-handed, and I find it hard to fault either of these works for acknowledging that the most obvious diagnosis is the right one. Though as a whole the service is a unique combination of problems, we have seen them all before. Sontag: Photography "is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power." Mean Girls: "One time I saw Cady Heron wearing army pants and flip flops, so I bought army pants and flip flops." Jezebel: Photoshop is harmful and ridiculous. Many studies: Social media "may detract from face-to-face relationships, reduce investment in meaningful activities, increase sedentary behavior by encouraging more screen time, lead to internet addiction, and erode self-esteem through unfavorable social comparison."
It is not that hard to figure out what will go wrong in a space that combines all these elements, adds the twisted possibility that you could gain money or influence, and subtracts any real purpose. The Instagram interface inherently limits discussion with other users to a non-essential comment section, which people may now opt to hide altogether, and overall it doesn't work as a place to disseminate information or news or political activism the way that Facebook and Twitter do. It is most obviously a platform for selling stuff, but although it allows to flourish the most craven iterations of capitalist feminism, it doesn't even do commerce very well—to buy something you see on Instagram you have to leave Instagram. At its core, it is really just something to look at, an effectively endless catalog to flick through while you wait for something to happen to you.
Watch: Style & Error: the Power Suit
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 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.
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.
Their downfall—which we know is coming from the beginning—is that they have nothing to offer their dazzling new acquaintances beyond devotion and mimicry; they do not understand that, 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. Talking about what you had for breakfast, or how much you love shopping at certain stores and eating at certain restaurants, may indeed mark you as a basic loser in the real world, but on Instagram, as a "photographer," you can fashion these interests as special and unique. (In their ostensible objectivity, photographs, Sontag writes, are "attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality"; they "help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.") In the process, you make other people feel special and unique for sharing them, which they inevitably will.
Reflected in people without status or senses of self, Mizuko and Taylor's fraudulent dullness just looks like insecurity, and the women soon move on, leaving Alice and Ingrid to descend into madness. They wreck their lives, hurt their loved ones, destroy any hope of having further relationships with Mizuko and Taylor, and almost kill themselves. Though both are able to start anew on Instagram, neither is able to break her desire for attention and approval—or, crucially, abandon the app.
Not everyone who uses Instagram has a nervous breakdown, of course, and most people will not become "Instagram famous," a term that aims to qualify a bafflingly contemporary kind of celebrity as somehow less real. But these stories access something realistic in the ways Instagram has changed how many people move through the world. Like a friend who tells you she's stopped reading the news as part of her "self-care practice," the app has filtered "the world's moments" through a self-perpetuating escapist fantasy that promotes blandness, niceness, and selfishness without apology or regret. It has gained its power by convincing its users of its necessity in ways that are both banal—it is now acceptable to seek out certain experiences or spaces because they are "Instagrammable"—and disturbing.
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.