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The many faces of Instagram

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Almost exactly a year ago, 18-year old social media star Essena O’Neill, with a little over half a million followers, told the public she would be leaving Instagram because it was promoting “contrived perfection made to get attention.” Two months later, Ed Sheeran joined her, stating that he wanted to stop seeing the world through a screen. The portrayal of social media, especially Instagram, as an “evil” is one that many of us have already experienced, whether it’s through celebrities like the ones aforementioned, or through our relatives who are constantly lecturing us to “get off our phones and interact with real people” at the dinner table. And in all honesty, we probably should get off our phones more often and take the time to participate in dinner table discussions. But in spite of all of these notions, I’m here to say using Instagram is not a bad thing. And so yes, if you want, please do post that overly edited picture online.

I recognize that we have a tendency to constantly villainize social media without taking a moment and putting arguments into perspective. A few nights ago, I overheard a conversation about the Internet being “too narcissistic” and arguing that nothing on it is really “real.” But as I think about it, I realize that there are so many platforms that promote the same “narcissism and fakeness” that are never questioned. What about all those albums on your shelves with pictures of you? Would they be considered narcissistic? What about those photography companies that took your yearbook pictures and politely asked you if you want to spend more money to erase your acne? Aren’t those options still available?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say that because x and y are narcissistic and fake, it’s okay that Instagram is as well. But what I’m pointing to is, like those photo albums and photography companies, the main purpose of Instagram is not to be self-centered. Instagram itself labels its purpose as one that can “allow you to experience moments in your friends’ lives through pictures as they happen. We imagine a world more connected through photos.” And as a user, I can say that is exactly what it is.

The majority of the time that I spend on this platform is to browse through and keep up to date with the lives of my peers. As a college student, I know it becomes difficult to keep in touch with friends from home because of homework, extracurricular activities and my social agenda in college. And when I do stay in touch, it is only possible to with one or two of my friends, regardless of being interested in seeing how most of my friends are doing. However, through Instagram, I can be informed of what most of my friends are up to in a span of minutes.

In order for this sharing to be possible, there is no denying that self-image comes into play when presenting our own lives. But having an online profile with some of our best pictures does not translate into narcissism. For instance, many people use Instagram as a method to build up their reputation and express their passions. Take any make-up artist. At first glance, their profiles might seem incredibly egotistical with an array of close ups. But anyone can quickly recognize that it can serve many other purposes — whether it’s to help others with ideas for makeup looks, serve as a portfolio for employers or simply express to the world their love for make-up.

But for most users who are not spreading a cause, Instagram also serves a purpose other than narcissism: to help identify ourselves when networking. Rather than being all about how great the Instagrammer thinks they are, it prompts the question: How can I best represent myself online so that those who don’t know me can get a glimpse of who I am? For those interested in design and art, that might mean having a well planned-out Instagram theme filled with color edited pictures. For athletes, it might mean sharing photos of themselves playing multiple sports. For some, it might even serve as a way to find themselves. According to an article in The Guardian, Carmin Fishwick states that Instagram “allows people to test different identities and find a comfortable place in society” without any repercussions.

However, I do think there are a few aspects of Instagram we should be wary of. As O’Neill constantly emphasizes, we shouldn’t try to emulate what we see online. Instagram is meant for sharing, not for comparison. What we need to recognize is that we do put time and emphasis into our profiles. We do in fact “up the brightness and contrast” in our pictures to make them more visually appealing. We also need to recognize that changing brightness or living in a certain VSCO edit, is simply not possible in the real world. Instagram is about appreciating other people’s work or maybe being inspired by it, but not to duplicate it.

As for O’Neill’s argument about the “contrived perfection” that Instagram promotes, I would question how much Instagram plays into ideas of perfection versus the influence of society’s standards. We have the freedom to follow who we want on Instagram. We have the power to make anyone “Instafamous.” We have the power to choose what we like or dislike. Instagram is simply a platform through which we can do so.

So does that mean that Instagram promoted this “contrived beauty” and body image standards, or we did? I think the answer lies in O’Neill’s use of Instagram as a platform to spread the message that her photos took time to create. This shows that while Instagram can be used to promote this idea of “contrived perfection,” it can also serve to refute this message.

So where does that leave us? I personally believe that we should continue posting the content that we love and our best versions of ourselves, whether it’s an overly edited picture of a tree, a picture of the dinner you just spent hours making or a nice photo of yourself. But be honest about whatever you post, and just like any other piece of work: Applaud the creator for their work and effort, but don’t try to recreate it.

 

Contact Medha Verma at medhav ‘at’ stanford.edu.