This summer I’ve been sharing pictures on Instagram. It’s a new platform for me and while I love it for its scrolling gallery format, I dislike some things about how it’s used.
Visually-led, Instagram puts emphasis on showing, and specifically showing-off, more so than verbal media. I find words encourage deeper analysis and opinion which is why I’ve enjoyed Twitter for many years. It’s not that imagery can’t do those things, but it’s not easy. It’s a skill that artists and designers hone. And it’s not hugely prevalent on Instagram as far as I’ve seen.
I’m fascinated by how both people and brands use it, knowingly or not, to express values. Instagram is more directly connected to image-building than other platforms. This is often completely contrived, driven by a commercially-led strategy. But for most individual users it’s more organic and subject to wider culture forces.
Embarrassment of riches
Many of my followers (those I don’t know) are in their 20s or younger, from all around the world. Now of course I’m aware of the prevalent selfie culture but this is my first proper foray into Instagram. It saddens me to see so many of these people casting themselves quite so seriously as models exhibiting their physiques. Here on holiday I’ve witnessed Instagramers in the flesh carefully making these pictures too.
Why is this? Speak to Generation X-ers like me and they’ll comment: how are they not embarrassed?
Twenty years ago young people, my peers, aspired to be home-owners. Even home builders. The ultimate status symbol for my generation is the open plan kitchen with island, bi-fold doors and stylishly turned out children. On display, this too is pretty embarrassing. Try watching reruns of Grand Designs.
But for many young people now, home ownership is a pipe-dream. And parenthood less appealing. This cohort is drawn to other attainable status symbols to express their achievement. Social media galleries play a role in filling that space. These are their real estate. And so too are their bodies. If you can’t invest in a kitchen extension, you can still make changes to your self through weight-loss, body building, grooming, and tattoos, and share the results.
Body image as professional tool
For me, there’s something more than a little uncomfortable about it. A surge in enthusiasm for sport and fitness has to be good, for health, for society. But damaging values around personal appearance are being normalised.
Feminists of the twentieth century surely never imagined that equality meant everyone being scrutinised for their appearance, objectified and sexualised. And willingly too? Not so long ago ‘glamour’ modelling was associated with the sex industry and exploitation. But they are here in abundance, posing boys with the pecs and pouts and perfectly shaped eyebrows. In the professional sphere too, professional accounts and networking groups. Bloggers who pertain to have expertise but undermine it with constant shots of their behind. Can this be good? Body image as a professional value? I’d rather be judged on my abilities.
Every image tells a story
Today more than ever, we need to be aware that every image is political, with a small ‘p’. It projects values, it communicates. None are neutral.
It’s a reflection of my own politics that I always found aspirational imagery distasteful, when it was about homes, kids and cars. Even more so now it’s focussed on personal appearance with benchmarks derived from Hollywood, Vogue and porn. It’s not that I don’t appreciate visual beauty, its the unquestioning herd mentality. And the pointlessness of valuing looking good over doing something good.
I can’t help feeling that partially-clad Instagrammers aren’t really flaunting themselves so willingly. They’re driven by social pressures, pressures that are crushing young people, destroying confidence and mental health. Either that, or it’s unimaginative commercialism. Sex sells and they’re turning followers into revenue. Or are they actually hoping to be discovered as models? Either way, it worries me as my children approach their teenage years.
Knowing what you stand for
I’ve been using Instagram to share highlights of my travels, in part for myself in place of a photo album. For friends who know me and know these places. And as something of an experiment to see who on earth might follow me.
Yes, I’m absolutely showing off. Is it any different?
I hope that it’s more than conspicuous consumption. They’re not the most innovative or critical images, but simple observations and explorations in light, colour and composition; nature, landscape, art and culture. Small moments of meditation and delight. I hope its more than mindless self-congratulation and affirmation. I hope that I’m thoughtfully expressing some positive values: what I find beautiful, uplifting and interesting in the world, with the aim of delighting others.
Writing this has certainly made me think about it. It’s made me think about how powerful images are in telling a story. How very many choices we have in what we publish. And how easy it is to succumb to cliché. Or worse.
Mine is a personal account. But for brands in particular, and for independent professionals, the key thing is to know what you’re about and what you stand for. Don’t just follow the herd.