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While our world seems all too dystopian in the era of COVID and the general chaos that is 2020, Instagram insists utopia is alive and well. We scroll through our feeds to see a world altogether different from our own, as if somewhere beyond, an alternate reality exists. Even though we see illness and unrest on the news, smiling faces and pretty colors in neat little squares are on our phones. It’s jarring, even grotesque, to notice this disconnect — to both observe and participate in a tacit whitewash of reality.
So why do we fabricate a world that is only half authentic? Evidently, we want to appear better than we are (likely) feeling right now. It’s a thin veneer and we’re probably well aware that singular posted moments of happiness and glamour aren’t entirely representative of our actual lives. However, the self-advertising appeal is unresistable, partly because we competitively seek to prove that we’re just fine despite the world falling apart around us. But also on some level, to console ourselves.
Within the COVID-era social void, Instagram offers an alluring sense of belonging and connection. These are, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, among humans’ greatest urgencies after all. To see our friends, even just on a screen, numbs the pain of isolation at least superficially. Moreover, Instagram provides validation we crave. Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman affirms that stability is contingent on self-esteem, but it cannot be mastered like levels “until you’ve ‘won’ the game of life,” as Maslow’s scheme suggests. Rather, Kaufman contends that the hierarchy of needs is more like a sailboat in which connection and self-esteem constitute the boat itself, and which must continuously navigate “a vast ocean” of life. In other words, as we sail, we repeatedly attempt to overcome our insecurities to achieve steadiness. And for many, positive affirmation online feels like the way to do it.
But this dependency quickly morphs into obsession and addiction. We go to great lengths to “do it for the gram,” some literally sacrificing their lives for it. Since 2011, more than 250 people have died from selfie-related accidents just to capture postable moments.
Clearly, Instagram goes beyond addiction. It’s a way of life — a religion. It influences how we live and who we chose to be. The content we post is nothing short of prophetic; we’re telling stories and creating narratives through appealing photos to convince others we are attractive, desirable, content, okay even though times are tough and we may not be. We’re delivering the message that we have a good life — that we have chosen “the good life” and will lead “the right life” — according to some divinely ordained cultural standard.
Jesus, Mohammed, and Abraham sought followers to further their faithful missions. And our objective isn’t so different from theirs. We draw attention to ourselves to gain a following because it lets us know our lives are important. Posts amassing many likes are treated as gospel and individuals with many followers are worshipped. Through these life affirming statistics, of course, we believe redemption is possible. As a result, we preach about ourselves in the name of convincing others that we are acceptable.
Most impressively, our ability to persuade holds immense power. Following the rules, we can change how others perceive us. And if we can convince others, we can convert them. Instagrammers partake in mob mentality through blind faith. They solidify an unwritten Instagram scripture we are to follow, and full disclosure, I’m following it too – even if I’m not sure why.
We have created complex rules and taboos that accept some and reject others. In a non-spiritual fashion, Instagram religion doesn’t welcome everyone into its community. Those who don’t conform are heretics while pious posters are rewarded. But why is it a sin to post a picture the masses don’t find “aesthetic?” Why do I have to wear less clothing to receive more praise?
This system of purification seems antithetical; a platform designed expressly for connection makes us feel ostracized or even more isolated than we already are. The line between religion and cult seems to be a fine one. But the prospect of disaffiliation is equally threatening; for many right now, it’s one of the only ways to stay in touch with others.
One of the biggest problems here is that we have profound goals which we are trying to achieve within a superficial system. Let’s face it, we are young and we just want others to like us, maybe even love us. We want to talk to friends. We want to relate to others and be told what we care about matters. Even if we are just angsty, these are healthy human feelings. So when we emotionally and psychologically invest so much in a fundamentally inhuman system and try to distill these sentiments into likes and follows, we close our apps feeling unfulfilled. Likes simply expose whose attention we have caught in the moment, but aren’t necessarily signs of faith or loyalty. And followers are certainly not disciples. We’re all just preaching to each other — only sometimes convincingly, and even so, the conviction isn’t necessarily lasting or profound. The old cliché may still be right; a picture is worth a thousand words (or a thousand likes?). Nevertheless, a thousand words isn’t nearly enough to sum up a person or a life.
What we should realize, then, is that we’re sacrificing ourselves on the wrong altar. Instagram is religion gone wrong. It divides more than it unites and encourages competition rather than support. Instead of arriving at self-acceptance, we repeatedly give others power to validate or reject what we find valuable. We’ve lost track of the fact that Instagram is exactly what it sounds like: instant. And instants only. Instants are important, but they’re far from life in its entirety. We shouldn’t let mere snapshots dictate our self worth or expectations. Believe it or not, Instagram won’t grant us salvation. Our generation needs to internalize this sentiment in order to reassess our priorities. To get in touch with everlasting fulfillment or a true sense of belonging, we should turn away from the dogma. Being iconoclast will be more rewarding in the end.
Serena G. Pellegrino ’23 is a resident of Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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