I am an Instagram user, just as you are and much like you I’ve noticed that my life has entrenched itself into this app. With a press of the “profile” button, I could see the display of what I want my hundreds of followers to consider to be my legitimate development. I don’t regularly talk to hundreds of people. If anything, in a single day I probably talk to a handful of close friends, maybe a past acquaintance to catch up. Or maybe I check up on family or people I’ve worked with to see how they’re fairing in these insane times. Yet, I return to this app and communicate with a void of countless people, which I honestly couldn’t have a substantive conversation with if we, by chance, met on the street.
This truth is reliant on our image culture that forces us to model… well models. Celebrities, snapchat influencers and child actors have shown us what is an acceptable public image, and I feel the pressures of social media have forced us to copy the behavior we’ve seen on magazine covers and movie trailers. No one is to blame for this (besides maybe our parents who let us watch countless hours of tv), and no one is innocent of it. Let’s face it, not many folks are reliant on print media and books for their main source of information about the world. Books are expensive, many people in this country can’t read English and getting news on social media is way more accessible than getting a newspaper subscription. Though countless books on public discourse have detailed the perils of receiving all media through our phones and TV screens, who is there, really, to say that this is a shameful reality, it is our major form of communication. The main way we interact with culture. With emojis and pictures that last ten seconds, we live and breath images that tell our friends and followers stuff we feel they should know.
In recent weeks, the murders of countless Black people by police officers have been brought to light, along with many voices advocating for large-scale change in how (if at all) communities should be policed. Petitions are being shared, links to donations are being posted and great works and videos by Black people have been spread to bring awareness to the many perils that plague the United States designed to hurt Black, brown and indigenous people. Though, as a Black user, waking up to murder and violence on the app has been exhausting, it is refreshing to see so many great resources being shared by other Black people and our allies. It has also been refreshing to finally have some cohesion on the app, reminding me that our profiles and posts are coming from real, learning, people and not a series of disconnected frames of captured and manicured memories. In more recent times, I’ve noticed that some users (primarily white people) are returning their feed to how it was before Black Lives Matter was a global conversation. These posts are relatively sparse, and honestly funny to see how some are incapable of “reading the room” and getting the clear sense that vanity is on hiatus. This is not only testament to those people’s feelings (or, rather, their lack-there-of) around the movement, but also of Instagram’s faults as an app to be used for a universal movement.
It’s not lost on anyone that people make money on Instagram. I remember a scene from the Netflix reality show “Too Hot to Handle”, a show based on the striking images of the cast, where one woman remarked on her disregard for the final cash prize because she makes so much money from her Instagram profile. Instagram is a platform where targeted advertisement brings in billions for the universally beloved Mark Zuckerberg, his friends and various businesses and campaigns that benefit from the clicks and views the platform provides. These commercials are given the same amount of space as, say, a selfie would occupy. The Washington Post account could post about an article on the current status of the crisis in Yemen or about the latest covid-19 death toll. This amount of space is also then available to you for your dog photos. All of this is in an attempt to consolidate as much information into a swipe on your phone, so you stay on the app and click on and watch the ads that get in the way. In doing so, tragedy, celebrity news and updates from our friends are given to us in one calculated gift: entertainment. So Mark Zuckerberg, his friends and a handful of kind-hearted campaigns and companies could get their fill.
Obviously, this is a bleak assessment of this app. I’ve also described the app as having an agenda, and I want to make it clear that all media does. The New York Times, for all its prestige in the public eye, has an incentive to publish material that wouldn’t, in any way, dissuade readers from discontinuing their subscription. This is true for all subscription-based media and its effects are often hard to notice at a glance. Instagram, in many ways, is a subscription service. We pay them by watching ads, allowing them to use our data to make better ads and complying with their user agreements so their reputation is not tarnished by individual actors. I’m making it clear that I feel like what I’ve described is wrong in the first place (and I feel like you should, too).
But, I still used the app. Even when I read a post on a headline about the children in prison camps on the southern border next to a selfie from someone I don’t know next to a celebrity posting their dog next to another tragedy next to an ad next to another selfie next to a meme next to another tragedy; this goes on and on until I get bored and leave the app, to return 30 minutes later when I get bored again. This is turning tragedy into a commodity. The app gives you a package filled with horrible news, entertainment and advertisement to guarantee you keep swiping. This is an enormous time suck and has affected the way we perceive the news and the institutions around us, leaving much of the damage already done.
Now, in a time where vanity should surely be a second thought for many of you (again, namely white people), I beg that you recognize the gravity of this moment and stop posting selfies. Not only does it show those around you that you do not care, allowing them to feel lighthearted about the situation as well; it creates an app where Black tragedy is being accompanied by blatant and damning negligence. This renders the important places to donate, petitions to sign and other learning mechanisms a form of bleak entertainment, or “tragedy porn”, to contrast with the bright and baggage-less posts from privileged users. I just cannot stand idly by and let this happen. So many people have been unlawfully killed by a country that already pays them little mind. Too many of these stories have already occurred and too much nightmarish history has happened for people to allow the advocacy of Black people and our allies to be tragedy porn.
Instagram is a very difficult place to conduct a global conversation about Blackness and Black lives, but it is possible that it becomes a place where the advocacy for disenfranchised and targeted groups becomes its first concern over vain demonstrations of oneself. I hope anyone who reads this knows I am not explicitly talking about anyone in particular, but rather a general want for things to go back to normal. I also hope that those reading this do not think I am stepping up onto a moral high-horse and preaching the truth for mindless users to listen and comply. I am also guilty of allowing tragedy to accompany my substance-less posts. I want to stress that in participating in this app, I feel that we all are.
And let’s face it, this pandemic, its economic and political implications and the lives affected and lost from it are going to change how this country functions for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, as activists continue to flood the streets and demand justice for the countless Black names lost by the police, the way we talk about race and see ourselves in our communities will be different for the foreseeable future. Let’s take a hard step together and shed our profile’s aesthetics and tell our followers that we will put our own personal image second to the greater movement. Instagram can be a healthy place where we achieve a fruitful balance, but we have to recognize the space we are filling up and ask ourselves if this is contributing to the betterment of those of us who are underprivileged and have already had that decision made for us.