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The Insincerity of Instagram

On a school trip to New Orleans, I am clutching a bag of fresh beignets from Cafe du Monde, enjoying the mixture of rain and 75 degree heat that I would never find at home in San Francisco. As I approach the bus to go back to our hotel, I learn that we have been allowed a few minutes to finish our beignets and look out over the Mississippi River. I immediately grab a friend and ask her to be in a picture with me. We ask another friend to take the photo, and she obliges while balancing a coffee and bag of pastries in the other hand. There is a bit of primping, I make sure to stand in a flattering position, and we take a few pictures to ensure that there is at least one good one.

By the time we have finished our photo session, it's time to get back on the bus. I scarf down the beignets (the bus driver has explicitly told us that he does not want powdered sugar getting on the seats of the Greyhound) and immediately start thinking of the captions to use for the photo. I think of the lyrics from “Muddy Water” from Big River the musical, but of course have to use my spotty Wi-Fi to make sure that that song is, in fact, about the Mississippi. My next order of business is to figure out which filter to use on the pictures. I settle on one that de-emphasizes the bright blue hue of my rain jacket, so that the rest of the image won't be upstaged. By the time the whole editing ordeal is over and the photo is posted, I am already back at the hotel. I have spent at least ten minutes on this one photograph.

As the “likes” pile in—the “likes” I have engineered this photo to receive—I start to feel a little bit guilty, then a lot. I have been vocal for several months now about my dislike of this kind of superficial social media posting: The kind where the photo is an end in itself, and not the means to sharing any message or information of substance. The kind where the obsession with documenting an event actually detracts from experiencing the moment. Yet, time and time again I find myself guilty of perpetuating the problem.

I am not opposed to documenting experiences through photographs—often looking at one picture is enough for me to remember an entire sequence of events that I would otherwise have forgotten. However, in an age of social media, the obsession with producing a photo that makes an event look fun, that makes the people involved look glamorous, can be a misrepresentation of the event. The best moment of my New Orleans trip could have been gardening in the Lower Ninth Ward or interviewing a man who had been wrongfully convicted and served 27 years in prison. Yet all any outside person will know is that for a few minutes, I was at the Mississippi River. And, honestly, I never even turned around from taking the photo to look at it.

This fall I wrote a college application essay about how much I would like to un-invent Instagram. Four months later, the app is still on my phone and I’m still puzzling over why it makes me so upset. I love using Instagram to see other people’s artwork or pictures of their cats. I believe that selfies can be a form of self-love. I simply worry sometimes that we millennials have an obsession with seeming cool/interesting/adventurous/attractive that leads us into the trap of perverting our experiences for popularity, rather than allowing ourselves to enjoy the moments as they happen.

I would love to take back the photo I took at the Mississippi and instead have a few extra minutes to appreciate it. I would love to think that I can learn from the regret I feel and push Instagram to the back of my mind. And yet, I still have a strange attraction to that finished product: to those little tiny affirmations in the form of “likes.” 

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1 Comment

What a thoughtful piece ... I sometimes challenge myself to put the phone away and take a "mental picture" of a place or an experience so that I will remember it more fully, rather than simply trying to preserve it (artificially) for social media. Thank you for writing this!

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How to cite this page

Goldberg, Ilana. "The Insincerity of Instagram." 6 April 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 13, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/insincerity-of-instagram>.

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