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The Bleak Reality of the Instagram Experience (thewalrus.ca)
130 points by pseudolus 18 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 87 comments

In the early days of Instagram I had an idea for a bot that would tag photos with the approximate value of the things in them. The scenes mentioned in the article wouldn't really be 'taggable', but someone's fancy dinner or handbag or car certainly would. The beauty of it would be to distill what Instagram is about (living an enviable life) down to a very obvious message. If it worked the next step would be to include a "league table" position, eg "Your post is the 10,500,312th most expensive on Instagram."

I think I just enjoy ruining other people's fun a bit too much.

I suspect you'd find you'd created a monster of gamification, and would end up with a KLF-style pile of burning money at the top of the league table.

Hilariously Ad posts on instagram now will let you click items in the image and get their price. Half way there. :)

It's sort of like the photo captions in a fashion magazine, where they list all the clothing items the models are wearing and their price.

I've seen good comparisons between instagram and sears catalogues.

So what else are you supposed to post about besides living an enviable life that people are going to look at to fantasize about ? It's like I remember some charlatan psychic being interviewed who said that all people care about is "when they are going to get paid and when they are going to get laid".

rich kids of instagram/the internet already did this(and has been very much coopted). they didn't rank people but you know what they were doing

I love this idea. I'm sure some people would push back on it but most want people to know whatever they are showing off cost.

What the article seems to sidestep (as does society-at-large, it seems) isn’t so much the artifice of an experience or its documentation, but the motivations of the people involved.

In other words, we seem to have arrived at a stage where vapidity is not only tolerated or accepted but encouraged, lauded, and rewarded.

Thus an entire economy has been built atop of an “influencer” cargo cult (and too few seem at all concerned about it.)

I would suggest we've been encouraging and rewarding vapidity for much longer than Instagram has been around. The problem is Instagram has sped up the feedback loop and dramatically increased the audience of such behavior.

I kinda hate most centralized forms of social media we currently have. I deleted my Facebook account a year ago, my Twitter handle 6 months ago and my Instagram account 4 months ago.

That said, I can't help but marvel at the spectacle of Instagram. There's lots of fun examples of the crazy impact Instagram has on society, but here's a couple of my favorites off the top of my head:

The two women who tried to smuggle suitcases full of cocaine into Australia, so that she could fund their glamorous Instagram-worthy lifestyles: https://www.thecut.com/2016/08/woman-documents-vacation-on-i...

The whole Fyre festival debacle. I have only watched the Netflix documentary, and I know that it itself is flawed - given that it was produced by the same company that got the Instagram influencers to sell the Fyre scam in the first place. But actually that meta layer of craziness just gives me yet more schadenfreude :)

>In other words, we seem to have arrived at a stage where vapidity is not only tolerated or accepted but encouraged, lauded, and rewarded.

Have you ever been to a museum or an art gallery? We've spent most of our history coveting bits of shiny metal and exotic fabrics. In 18th century Europe, the pineapple was a highly prized status symbol; people would rent one just to have it in the background of their portrait. We're a cargo-culty species of status-obsessed idiots. We always have been, and we probably always will be.

Conspicuous consumption is not new by any means. You sell a $10 lamp by putting it on a $100 table. Here's a quote from a 1992 research paper:

"The spending patterns of the pretentious members of the baby boom generation, or yuppies as the media called them, contributed much to the materialistic image of the eighties. According to a Newsweek cover story, yuppies are defined as those people born between the years 1945-1960 earning over $40,000 in a professional or managerial position (Andler, 1984). Conspicuously consuming a variety of status symbols, yuppies sought not only to impress others, but also to express themselves as members of an elite professional class.

Although yuppies comprised only 4.6 million, over half of the 76 million baby boomers were found to act like this unique group (Marketing News 1985; Rice 1989). Yuppies' well publicized consumption patterns provided a distinct template for other generations to emulate as well. Common status expenditures as defined by this group included BMW automobiles, cellular phones, Rolex watches, ]aft apartments (Andler, 1984), CD players, and designer clothing (Belk, 1986)."


The celebration of beauty, fame, fashion, and influence isn't a new thing. It's as old as human history.

(I wonder if nerds complaining about the vapidity of fashion has also been around since the dawn of human civilization?)

In some civilizations I'm afraid many of them would have been eunuchs. At least there's one thing we can feel good about in the present.

> we seem to have arrived at a stage […]

I don't think today's "influencers" are any different from yesterday's movie and TV celebs - we just now have better way to enable our vapidity.

Before we'd only have our direct entourage to compare ourselves to - now we have the whole world.

I think this phenomenon has always existed indigenously, similar to trends, it is now at a global scale.

Netflix's documentary on the Fyre Festival makes this case well. The Instagram influencers were all that mattered -- the physical festival was hardly an afterthought.

Maybe it's time to revert back to[1], or even create a new service that removes the artificial layer of photo sharing...

A camera app on your phone, that can't access your files, and has no inbuilt filters. You take the photo, and it instantly gets uploaded to the photo sharing service. No editing, no offline photo manipulation. What you shoot, is what what you share. Deleting a previously uploaded photo should be possible, but a deliberately complex affair, to discourage image curating.

I doubt anyone would use this kind of app, but it's nice to imagine something like it existing.


[1] Instagram was originally 'as-shot + filters only' on your phone. Later, they caved and allowed previously shot photos on your camera roll to be uploaded, which led to an abundance of phone photo editing apps, then finally they allowed desktop uploads, and that was the end of what made Instagram different.

Like it or not, Instagram is the strongest platform for photo sharing at this point since 500px never really took off and Flickr is a raging dumpster fire that refuses to go out. I have 2 Instagram accounts that are basically the last vestiges of my social media presence: one for street photography which is a longstanding hobby of mine, and one for more social-media-y stuff and portraits of friends. Instagram, for better or worse (most definitely worse), is the best way to share these photos with a wider audience whether they're selfies or meticulously-edited photos which would otherwise just sit on a harddrive.

Casey Neistat's Beme app did this but for video. It wasn't a success.

It is intrinsic to who we are as humans to want others to see a version of ourselves that we want them to see. It is the reason that fashion and beauty are such large and enduring industries. And so trying to build an app that fights that is never going to work.

You're right that Beme had many similar elements, but IIRC it was focused outwards - you'd place the phone screen down on your chest triggering it to take a video (or the wall to take a selfie)

Demo video: https://youtu.be/mixsze6uJPg?t=101

What's interesting to me is that IG seems to emphasize a very specific form of "curated authenticity" that's distinct from Beme + taking raw video. Maybe IG's the "Based on a True Story" of social photo apps.

In the late 1990s I was part of a group that was thinking about how cameras might be able to sign images so that later editing could be detected. The motive then was connected to using images as evidence. But I guess you could also use it to mark edited images in some way.

Would apps like Instagram be "improved" if retouched images displayed a prominent "FAKE" icon of some sort?

What does "fake" mean? Even if you're taking as-camera images (which have already had de-Bayer and some level of dynamic range and denoise processing, which may be considerable and involve machine learning!), then you can't tell what manipulation has been applied to the scene. You can rent little "sets" for taking photography in. Props and clothes can be borrowed. And so on.

Authenticity is a product, just like any other. And it's increasingly hard to say what it even means in the 21st century.

I don't know the answer to this.

But I always use McDonald's (although any restaurant can be used here) as the core of the conundrum of fake vs. real. Look at a corporate shot of a cheeseburger and compare it to reality. The marketing cheeseburger is the platonic ideal of the product -- it's fresh, perfectly prepared with care with all of the ingredients visible. The cheeseburger on the ground looks like a crumpled napkin in comparison.

Is the marketing cheeseburger fake?

When I look at some of the more image-conscious Facebook/Instagram people, some of them are kinda insane with editing and retouching. My wife has an old acquaintance who produces a highly "optimized" picture at least twice a month. (With substantial retouch to her face and usually other body "enhancements". In the age of Instagram+Photoshop, when does someone cross the line from marketing cheeseburger to fraud?

Go further down the rabbit hole on that one; is makeup a form of fraud? Heels / lifts? Push up bras? Instagram has simply accelerated and magnified what already happens in good ol' regular life (and introduced mass distribution of it).

This reminds me of Magritte's The Treachery of Images [1] and Calvin and Hobbe's Photo Lies [2]. All images are inherently lies - colors aren't completely accurately reproduced, perspectives are changed - so what is the threshold for manipulating the subject until the photographed subject should be deemed "fake?"

I think that it lies on a spectrum, that a dolled up cheeseburger could be more fake in the sense that a telephoto black-and-white picture could be less authentic than a color photo taken at a focal length of ~40mm, but it depends on the viewer whether to accept or reject a photo as true.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Treachery_of_Images [2] http://stevestenzel.blogspot.com/2013/12/photography-lies-fr...

“Is the marketing cheeseburger fake?”

I would say yes, it’s fake and probably fraud. You should have to show real products in advertising and not an idealized version.

So many late nights at that McDonalds, and in that area. (Dundas and Bathurst - Toronto). Even this video is an idealization. That corner gets grimy at night. At least it used to around that time. And that burger she bought was not what they look like coming out of there. I have to laugh a little...

At least they don't use waxes in the model burgers anymore. That's a step toward honesty, at least.

> What does "fake" mean?

When my kids asked me why we didn't have a real Christmas tree this year, I told them, "we do have a real Christmas tree. It's made of real plastic and wire."

To me this is like saying, "I'd like TV shows to all be shot live with no editing, and I'd like my books and news articles to be first drafts." I mean there's a place for those things (live theater or SNL, and poetry slams where stuff is improvised), but I certainly wouldn't want the majority of my media to be like that. Editing is more than just removing the ugly and emphasizing the beautiful. It's a way to clarify what point you're making.

No. Would restaurant food be improved if all meals came with "FAKE" sticker, because they do not match the raw ingredients? Even straight out of camera image has been processed _a lot_. I don't really care "how it looked in reality", because what is reality? All that matters is what the photographer wanted to show.

I used to no care as well.

But the world is heavily influenced by all those fake images. People may know something is fake, yet being exposed to it again and again do change their expectation and behaviour.

It's like ad. You think it doesn't work. That you are not that stupid. But eventually, the brute force wins.

It's always interesting when people try to Solve Art.

Art is inherently subjective, and you have to accept that a lot of it just _sucks_.

It's up to you to curate your own taste, and you do that by trawling through the terrible art until you find something that you like.

Both Canon and Nikon offered expensive cryptographic addons for their pro cameras that signed out-of-camera images. It never really caught on due to cost and, more significantly, the acceptance that some postprod as always required ( except for straight-to-press sports shots ).

for younger people, this is already solved by noticing each online system corruption of the image. e.g. some social networks add a greenish tint, other have a bug that adds an also greenish (but stronger) tiny to only the last column of pixels, etc. then by looking at those artifacts you can know not only if it's a repost but for how long it's been reposted.

it's a skill we, older, not so immersed, totally miss.

Maybe include a link from all retouched images to the original.... :-)

That wont work for long. Phone makers are already adding built in "beauty" filters that can't be turned off. [1]

[1] https://www.diyphotography.net/iphone-xs-camera-forces-beaut...

While I'm sure there are phone makers doing that, the one you're linking appears to have been debunked a while ago. [1]

[1] https://blog.halide.cam/iphone-xs-why-its-a-whole-new-camera...

Twitter is full of tales of people using the camera filters on their phone to change their appearance on Tinder, Match etc.

What do you call body dysmorphia when what you see in the mirror doesn't match what you see on your phone in every Instagram/Snap post of yours?

It might be called 'victim of a crime'.

> The term 'deep fake' means an audiovisual record created or altered in a manner that the record would falsely appear to a reasonable observer to be an authentic record of the actual speech or conduct of an individual.

from yesterday's discussion of Malicious Deep Fake Prohibition Act of 2018


Hah, certainly an interesting interpretation of that law. But 'intent' matters as well, and tech corps can always point to A/B testing, usability testing etc to show what we already know: everyone wants to be healthier, handsomer and richer than they actually are. Social media enables this via a constant feedback loop of our human frailties.

yes there's somewhat of a push for hot girls to have vsco links in their bio but for the most part that trend has died

Is Instagram still heavily used by the Hacker News demographic? I'm starting to get a bit older, so I'm not always current, but my impression from my social circle is that it's fading like Facebook. I know a handful of "power users" who post nonsense everyday, but most people I know (myself included) never post at all now.

For me now, Instagram is a website, where I briefly check out surgically-altered fitness models doing barbell squats while I'm standing in line at the grocery store. I use the PWA, because the native app constantly freezes on two separate devices and the developers don't seem to care.

I'm stupefied by the idea that this could still be an important part of life for many average adults.

Try being a single dude in your 20s/early 30s without some "social proof" when trying to talk to 30 and younger girls. They will immediately think you are a weirdo for not having that proof that you're not some sort of loner. I personally use ig for posting things that give me a little more edge over normal dudes - my Olympic weightlifting progress, my trips snowboarding/surfing, my cute dogs, music festivals/shows that I got to...it's helpful. but I'm not gonna post on there about the new Jenkinsfile that I spent a week crafting to deploy a 10 microservices for a state machine. RIP Google+, the Instagram for geeks.

Are you joking? I'm 35 and regularly date girls (in SoCal) with an age range of 22 through 28 or so. I have an instagram account which I never use and has about 8 photos on it from years ago. No one ever asks me to show my instagram account and I never mention it. I have tons of "dating success."

So your theory of "social proof" through Instagram doesn't seem valid at all for me. Note: I don't have an active FB account either. So basically, I manage to successfully date many 20-something women with basically zero social media.

Wow things have become easy to gamify for the average guy. Back in the day the girl had to know you from a friend or work and demand real social proof.

With a few well placed pictures maybe a mention from an influencer I can get thousands of girls prevalidated to hookup with.

Someone will come out with an app soon: InstraLife, selects a target account ig account pulls in similiar photos and creates a mirror profile.. also follows most active users from target's profile..

That's... not something I or anyone I know has ever experienced. Maybe they assume you could be weird for some other reason, and Instagram gives you a lifeline? But again noone I know without Instagram has had any issue dating.

I think it says a lot more about you and the people you're interested in, than the people who don't have Instagram.

I think you might be trying to "talk to" the wrong kind (or a very specific kind) of people if they'll only engage with you after receiving some social proof via Instagram. In my anecdotal experience, I've never heard of experienced such a situation.

I use it all the time. I love it. (for reference, 30-yo programmer in NH with photography hobby. Most of my friends are not programmers.)

It's the best way to share art and life updates. Totally better than Facebook for keeping up with friends and seeing what people are doing, seeing their new art, etc.

FB and twitter have too much "noise" in the form of memes and shared articles, so my friends don't write original stuff for me to read/us to discuss like they used to on those platforms. So Instagram has taken the place of the social network where people actually share stuff about their lives/art/experiences/etc, and that's what I want to see.

I find it interesting that an app for photo sharing is considered better for sharing updates with friends, than a service such as Facebook designed for sharing updates with friends.

Similarly I was shocked to discover that people chat on Instagram, despite many good messaging apps.

It’s the networks right? I have friends who organise parties on gist.github.com and that works pretty well... for a certain group.

> It’s the networks right?

Nay, it's the limitations. On Facebook you can share dumb articles from news sites and meme sites, articles that you never read, you just agree with the title. On Instagram it is not so easy to do this, so people share real stuff about their lives instead.

Even if it is a curation, Instagram is at least about my friends, and not about dumb news articles and memes. (Facebook was not always that way, I used to love it when it was essentially a book of open letters to friends. Alas, article/meme just turned it into an even-worse reddit.)

> It's the best way to share art

Right, first off the quality of pics on IG is abysmal, not even talking about the aspect ratio limitation. And on top of that you have to search very hard to find actual og content on instagram, everyone is copying the trend of the week/month thinking they're hip [0]. It's like watching straight to DVD movies for their artistic value.

There are two kind of people on ig:

- narcissistic people who live through their projections, seeking approval from strangers / acquaintances.

- advertisers / "influencers" trying to brainwash <15 years old into thinking that life is all about how you look and what you consume.

[0] https://www.boredpanda.com/social-media-instagram-identical-...

I find very few photographers obsess over "image quality", instead they care about if a photo is a good photo or not.

And I'm the first to agree with that, I shot 35mm film and scan it myself. But not to the extent of jpeg compression artefacts and ultra low resolution, just look at that [0], you can barely distinguish anything besides blurry blobs of colors (it's displayed even smaller on the actual IG feed). I hate pixel peeping, but imho the only way that pic would look decent is on a 4" display.

[0] https://scontent-frx5-1.cdninstagram.com/vp/5390bf9a135306a5...

Photogs adapt to the medium. [1] provides a good insight into how Instagram's (initial) square-only format and low resolution are creative constraints themselves. I practice mostly street and photojournalism with some portraits (and also shoot, develop, and scan my own film) and story has always triumphed quality, and Instagram's limits are plenty.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQWYEPNh8QE

Not true... How about all the makers out there? They are going to make with or without approval from strangers / aquaninstences. I am happy they share on IG as I wouldn't see their creations otherwise... especially folks in countries that do not use an western style keyboard.

> They are going to make with or without approval

Well yeah that's the whole point. If you "make" to show you're not a "maker" you're a "shower". IG is purely built for attention seekers / self centered people and wouldn't exists without them. (it's always a form of narcissism / virtue signalling / showing off

You can be happy they share their stuff on instagram but it doesn't change the underlying reason of why it is shared.

Some makers are motivated by showing / sharing things to others even before social media was around. Instagram is also a useful marketing platform for creative professionals who may otherwise have had a harder time breaking through. Just because the platform doesn't fit your use case doesn't mean people don't use it for useful applications.

Is there an official logical fallacy for "I subscribed to shit content producers and now I get shit content, I blame the app"? I feel like I see that one a lot...

Look at what's "trending", look at what's popular, I'm not talking about the .01%. The .01% don't affect society.

This is only true until the platform shows you a load of content you didn't subscribe to.

This is something Instagram and Twitter both do.

I use it. About 6 months ago I deleted my facebook and instagram accounts. I found that I didn't miss my facebook in the slightest. I didn't miss much about my instagram, but I did find that I missed how easy it was to share photos of myself and my family with extended family and close friends, and to see theirs.

Since then I've created a new account, but I've only followed about 15 of my closest friends/family. None of them are aspiring "influencers", and so the content I'm seeing doesn't have any product placement, political messaging, or really anything other than photos/video updates on my friends. As a result, I don't have much of a reason to check it more than once a week or so. It feels like a much better balance than previously and so I find myself appreciating the app, what little I use of it. I think a lot of the problems people have with it arise when they are using the platform to find "content" ala YouTube or HackerNews rather than simply a social network for sharing your personal media with people you actually know.

I and many of my non-local friends and family keep in touch with one another with Instagram, moreso than facebook, for sure.

When traveling, my wife and I maintain a "post-only" and "reply-only" rule, where we can post updates publicly and reply to comments on those posts, but no general browsing of social media. Besides whatsapp and SMS for communicating with whomever is traveling with us, Instagram ends up being our main source of sharing and communication with people at our destination.

For instance, when in London last year, I posted a few photos as we were bouncing around town and ended up meeting with a couple friends who I hadn't realized moved there recently.

Also, anything I'm working on creatively (lately, sourdough) ends up on my feed.

I post miniatures I've painted and follow some other miniature hobbyists (Warhammer in this case).

I've found that Instagram use is growing amongst nearly all of my friend groups (including HN demo and non), while use of all other social apps is fading (not counting WhatsApp). For reference, mostly age 24-32 in the US and Western Europe.

It has the benefit of posting something simple and easy, a picture. And those pictures rarely convey opinions, so there are less wars on instagram.

I've mostly moved my social media screen time to TikTok.

I went to the color factory and thought it was fun without taking pictures. I also went to a gorgeous shrine on a lake near Mt Fuji and there was a line dozens of people long to take a selfie at it. The problem isn't the pop-up experiences.

This article misses that people WANT other museums to be like this.

The modern art museum experience is a quiet keep to your self affair, and people arent even sure they can take photos. Compare that to the same artist’s gallery opening in a cool but grundgy part of town, and it is a loud, social and wine laden affair.

Popup museums fit right in between. Meant to be shared solely by your attendance and photo tagging with no ambiguity on the rules.

Maybe everything else the article wrote has some merit, but it is definitely out of touch and takes satisfaction from that reality, which is just poor journalism.

These have existed for decades as wax museums, the only difference is the style of photo that’s popular.

IMO as a non-Instagram/non-Facebook user, wax museums are much more independently interesting than the stuff featured in the article (brightly colored baths, ball pits, walls).

I had a good enough time just looking at the wax models, even if the obvious attraction there for most people was taking photos.

Honestly, I love that people want more artsy experiences in their life. Growing up in the 80s, everything was about conforming and being the same. If you were a guy, you had to like sports and listen to Bruce Springsteen. If you liked art you were a "fag"; if you liked science you were a "nerd"; and if you were either of those you didn't have a place in society. My wife tells me it was similar for the girls, though they had some leeway on the art.

I get that Instagram in particular brings out the worst qualities of wanting to look cool or important or whatever. And I agree that's awful. But man I would have killed for some sort of immersive artistic space to explore when I was a kid.

I'll take this over hanging out at the mall buying things for no real purpose any day.

Instagram is the mall, now...

A similar piece from the NYT last year: "The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’", https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/26/arts/color-factory-museum...

"The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing, from which all actual “having” must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function."

Guy Debord Thesis 17, Society Of The Spectacle

[1] https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.ht...

I love Debord and it's a really neat quote to relate to the article, but do you think this holds up to the cold light of evolutionary biology? Ie, hasn't 'appearing' long been an intrinsic part of sexual selection and raising status across multiple species?

The question of how any biological impulse operates within the economy Debord describes is an obscure and not a straightforward one. I'd say our human (i.e paychological) impulses come to the front. That is to say, the mind as developed in modern capitalist society obscures the biological link if any to signalling attractiveness.

In the context of signalling theory, this comes down to honest vs. dishonest signalling.

Maybe better to read “appearing” as “appearing to have”. Even if you limit yourself to talking about sexual selection, the argument is that modern industrial capitalism has brought about a sea change in how that functions.

Whether you stick with evolutionary biology and say that regardless the end goal is to get laid is irrelevant; he argues the mechanism has changed in important ways.

Humans used to consider ourselves to be more than just products of our biology.

Instagram advertising was what finally drove me off the platform. An unstoppable tidal wave of poorly-targeted products including cheap sunglasses, bizarre "on-trend" t-shirts and other assorted crap by brands that sounded like they'd chosen their name from a random name generator. And the ads were just about every third image. Grim.

> An unstoppable tidal wave of poorly-targeted products

Good targeting = tracking.

I’m happy with poor targeting, thank you very much.

Sure, I understand what you're saying. It wasn't necessarily the poor targeting, simply the volume of ads that were pumped in and all such terrible quality.

This article really bugs me, the issue is coming from our use of social media rather than installations themselves.

If it wasn't designed just to cash-in on this issue, these could be actual art installations of the likes of Kusama's rather than extravagant photo booths.

Why is it desirable to have the same photo as so many other users? Wouldn't it get more 'likes' if it was a more original photo?

Being original is a lot harder. People know they won't get as many likes as the original as well, but they'd get a sufficient from their friends—most people aren't aiming for worldwide popularity. It's a sort of consumerism and a cheap way to feel good. I'd wager that most people really don't _care_, they just want to be _in_.

Another example is the 'hygge' trend where people buy a candle, made in some Scandinavian country, and add some wood ornament in their home. It's not 'real', but it's enough for amongst their peers.


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