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An illustration of a bedroom viewed through a phone with an Instagram-like interface. Sarah Lawrence for Vox

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Instagram is broken. It also broke us.

Influencers and regular users are reckoning with what Instagram has done to them. Now Instagram wants us to love it again.

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

I downloaded Instagram in 2012, in the spring before what would be the worst summer of my life and the best autumn I’ve ever had. I remember them both vividly, sulking at home in the July heat on an air mattress in a sweltering bedroom I shared to save money, convinced my boyfriend was about to dump me.

He did, but it was fine; we got back together a week later, and by September I was studying abroad, city-hopping around Europe with people who would become some of my closest friends.

On my Instagram feed, though, the summer and fall of 2012 are indistinguishable from one another, except for in some photos I am in Brooklyn and others I am in Prague. It is a cohesive, Amaro-filtered grid of Park Slope lattes and Czech beer cans and my smiling face, posing next to friends old and new, with nothing to suggest these two periods of my life felt any different from each other.

Instagram has a way of flattening lived experiences so that my best years look exactly like my bad ones, and that everything seems pretty good, all the time, for everyone. This, obviously, is not how life works for most people, and ever since Instagram has existed experts have debated what seeing an infinite scroll of other people’s happy moments is doing to our brains.

Lately that conversation has gotten louder and more complicated. Influencers, models, and celebrities — the people who Instagram was supposed to work best for — are realizing that they have been made complicit in an app that feeds its users a poison of narcissism and envy and prevents them from ever logging off. They try to reveal what happens outside the camera frame; that no, their lives aren’t perfect either; that Instagram makes them feel bad, too. They share posts about authenticity and honesty and their quiet struggles with mental health that live directly next to posts devoted to toned ab muscles and champagne on yachts, which then makes the whole thing feel fake.

Now Instagram is trying to atone for what it’s done to warp our perception of reality over the past almost-decade. The company is implementing new measures to shield its users from the hard parts, like bullying and body image issues, and trying to build a more “authentic” place for people to share photos and maybe also shop for clothes.

But what’s more authentic than the desire to make your life seem wonderful? Instagram succeeded because it exploited the basest aspects of human behavior until concepts like “authenticity” and “honesty” barely meant anything at all, to the point where even when we do see something vulnerable or “real,” we inherently distrust it. On Instagram, and increasingly in real life, everyone is suspect. Even if Instagram deleted itself from the internet tomorrow, we couldn’t get back what we lost.

Nobody ever thought Instagram was authentic. The first “Instagram vs. reality” meme was uploaded to the internet in 2012, just two years after the app launched.

2012 was also the year that Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars, its largest acquisition at the time, as a way to break meaningfully into the mobile space. Back then, Instagram had 30 million users (it now has more than a billion), and over the next few years it would implement many of the changes that people hated about Facebook: non-chronological feeds and ever-changing algorithms, a seemingly-misguided push into video, as well as some elements it would steal from competitors.

An image posted to themetapicture in 2012 was among the first “Instagram vs. reality” memes.
Know Your Meme

The most famous example is Stories, a blatant ripoff of competitor Snapchat’s core feature wherein users could upload photos and videos to their profiles that would self-destruct in 24 hours. Intended as a corrective to Instagram’s overly curated aesthetic, Stories had existed on Snapchat since 2013, and contributed to the platform’s association with the ephemeral and the goofy.

In 2016, Stories, with the same name and everything, came to Instagram, too. They were supposed to make the app more authentic, with the Stories tab as a place to show the behind-the-scenes version of the finished product that ended up on your grid. People had already built workarounds — “finstas,” private secondary accounts that only a person’s closest friends had access to, were for content that didn’t have to be so serious — but Stories invited everyone on the platform to craft an additional alternate version of themselves, one that wasn’t quite as polished as they were used to being on Instagram, but still curated enough to be shown to everyone they knew. If anything, Stories only increased the barrier for how “like”-able a photo had to be to end up on a user’s grid.

None of this solved the Instagram vs. reality problem. A summer 2018 viral Twitter thread by the writer and podcaster Tracy Clayton illustrates how people were still taking and sharing nice-looking photos from terrible periods of their lives on Instagram all the time, and it remains the case a year-and-a-half later. The exception to the rule are people who use Instagram as an artistic outlet for mental anguish — the writer Jamie Lauren Keiles has written about their “depressiongrams” where they posted photos of pill bottles, psychiatric hospital bracelets, and ambient late-night DMs, and even then Keiles noted that these images too were constructed.

So what exactly are all these constructed images doing to us? While it certainly bears less responsibility for threatening global democracy than its older sibling Facebook, Instagram is linked with damaging the mental health of teenagers and young adults. A recent survey of almost 1,500 British young people showed that Instagram was considered the worst social media network for health and wellbeing, associated with higher levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. It is a platform perfectly suited to exacerbate school bullying and negative body image, and as anyone who has spent as little as 10 seconds scrolling through it can attest, one that thrives on the endless ability of human beings to compare themselves to others and be found wanting.

Over the past few months, Instagram has been trying to atone for its sins. In July, it announced it would implement anti-bullying measures, including comment warnings that detect offensive or “borderline” content as a user is typing and prompt them to reconsider before posting, as well as a “restrict” option that would allow users to identify their bullies without outright blocking them, since blocking can be seen as an escalation of conflict. In September, Instagram said that it would begin restricting promotional posts about dieting products and cosmetic surgery so that users under 18 can’t see them.

And as of November, Instagram is testing hiding likes in the US, after a series of tests in other countries. Users will still be able to see how many people liked their own photos, but no one else will be able to view that number. Though some believe the move heralded a death knell for influencers, many influencers themselves support the change. Instagram will still be Instagram, and the same people will still have influence.

“We want everyone’s experience on Instagram to be intentional, positive and inspiring,” a Facebook spokesperson told me in a written statement. “We’re increasingly making decisions that prioritize the well-being of our community over our business — for example, reducing pressure on Instagram by hiding likes. We will continue to work alongside experts to develop new features in this space, like time management tools, whilst continuing our efforts to lead the industry in the fight against online bullying.”

While generally put forth with positive intentions, these overdue measures ignore the fact that no matter how much Instagram would like to be viewed as a place users feel good about visiting, its entire existence is predicated on reminding people that other people are having more fun than they are.

There is a kind of reckoning happening right now. Popular influencers and average users alike are confessing how their relationships with Instagram have hurt them. Some acknowledge a kind of ownership over their part in perpetuating Instagram’s feedback loop of terrible feelings. Even professionally hot, young celebrities — Gigi Hadid, Hailey Bieber, Madison Beer, and Kaia Gerber — have all posted photos with the same phone case that blares “Social media seriously harms your mental health” much like a surgeon general’s warning.

In a piece for Refinery29, Eliza Brooke refers to this as a “pivot to anxiety” at a time when speaking openly about mental health has become significantly less taboo. While for some it may be a refreshing turn towards transparency, the more cynical view argues these posts aren’t really doing anything to subvert the worst parts of Instagram. “Even the most well-intentioned personal posts engage the same mechanics and reward systems that make Instagram toxic,” Brooke writes.

Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell’s communications department, recently conducted a study of the relationship of 25 influencers to what they perceived as “authenticity.” There are academic terms for the balancing act between performing a lifestyle worth aspiring to and still convincing followers that it isn’t an act at all: “calibrated amateurism,” “calculated authenticity,” “curated imperfection,” “aspirational ordinariness.” None of these concepts is new.

When Dale Carnegie wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936, he offered the same advice of being as sincere as possible while strategically pursuing your own gains. But on social media, there’s an expectation that even if you know what you’re seeing isn’t “real,” it should be.

Instagram wants its users to know it hears them: The enigmatic algorithm, an eternal source of agony for influencers, has begun to favor more “realistic” content. Naturally, this has led many influencers who built their following crafting idyllic-looking lives to now show a smidgeon more chaos and candor in their photos in service of chasing the tweaked algorithm, which is still fundamentally the same one that made everyone feel terrible about themselves to begin with.

The perfectly crafted Instagram post is dead, but its replacement — the Instagram post that looks like it hasn’t been crafted at all — often requires just as much effort to produce. Sure, the aesthetics of “authenticity” might now be explicitly encouraged by the Instagram algorithm, but true authenticity, which on Instagram would have to amount to a kind of constant, unfiltered live-streaming of one’s life, has never been its purpose.

“Every couple months we hear that we’re finally rejecting these codes of performativity,” Duffy says. “There’s this idea of a post-authenticity age — like, we’re all in on the game. We all know that no ideal, true, pure quality of authenticity really exists. So why don’t we focus on another ideal?” But what would that even be?

Here is the thing about Instagram: Even when you know it isn’t real, that social media is a highlight reel of people’s lives and you shouldn’t compare yourself to anyone else, that it’s a trap and it will only make you feel bad about your life, which is overall probably a perfectly fine one, Instagram still has real, material consequences. Being good at Instagram is a ticket to more likes, more followers, more tiny hits of dopamine and ultimately more fame and money; a platform to launch a creative project and sell it, to be able to live the life we’re supposed to want.

“That’s something I keep trying to wrap my head around,” Duffy says. A lot of the idealization of the Instagram influencer, she says, has to with the fact that people have always glamorized the kind of fields — music, art, media — wherein you theoretically get paid to do what you love. As the saying goes, if you do that, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

That’s a lie, of course. The reality is that getting paid to be yourself means that you are always working, and therefore your work self, your Instagram self, festers into your actual self until the version that many thousands of people are supposedly paying attention to becomes much more important than the living, breathing body who built it.

Your Instagram self, then, has to become one that’s palatable to the greatest number of people possible. On a platform that rewards follower counts above literally all else, you have to be everything to everyone — pretty but not too sexy (nipple ban!), successful but not too envy-inducing (lest others find you unrelatable!), authentic but not too real (no one wants to hear about your marriage problems!).

All this has contributed to the underlying fact that as much as Instagram is a place where bullying, harassment, and hurt feelings are rampant, it has also become profoundly boring. In our endless quest to chase the Instagram algorithm, now that we know what it wants from us — authenticity, supposedly, but mostly just the aesthetics of it — we resort to only the safest content, the things we know will convince people to double tap. We stay in our lanes; we adhere to the personal brands that have become happy little avatars for a life that everyone else thinks we’re living.

In doing so, we’ve also become distrustful of anything we see, even the stuff that’s pushing back against Instagram’s unpleasantness. When Olivia Muenter, a body positive fashion writer with nearly 19,000 Instagram followers, wrote a confessional post about how influence and authenticity were often at odds, the first comment I saw read: “Can’t tell you how many posts like this I’ve read recently about authenticity etc. and I get to the end and it’s sponsored by like deodorant or pre-made smoothie bowls or something. I’ve come to expect it.”

Her post wasn’t sponsored, but in truth, I’d been prepared to see the same thing: a veneer of “realness” to gloss over the only real thing about the post, which is that it was a business deal. Instagram has created a universe where even the most intentionally authentic posts look fake, where we believe everyone participating is only there for money and clout.

Even if we are all only on Instagram for money and clout, which I don’t think is true for the vast majority of users, how bad would that be, really? On TikTok, the video app that many in Gen Z prefer over Instagram, users regularly include in their bios something to the effect of “just tryna get famous,” which, ultimately is a lot more authentic than admitting that sometimes your three kids make life difficult or that you feel sad sometimes. Who doesn’t?

No matter how many new features or policies it implements, Instagram won’t ever become a bastion of realness and authenticity. If anything, newer social media platforms will become more like Instagram. As the stakes for each user rise with each new follower and set of eyeballs, and as they become increasingly entwined with identity performance, the more boring — and untrustworthy — everyone else will be. The Instagram problem persists.

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