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Is It Possible to Be Happy on Instagram?

Why a teenage Instagram star turned against the platform.

“It’s not real!” Instagram model Essena O’Neill insisted earlier this week. By “it,” O’Neill seems to mean everything that happens in the fabricated, glass world of the screen. Instagram, however, is her particular target. 400 million people now use the platform every month. That makes it even bigger than Twitter. For many users, it’s an innocent way to record and share memories. But having amassed half a million followers and tens of thousands of likes in the pursuit of image-based validation, O’Neill has a more jaded view. In an emotional video (which has since been deleted), she bemoans the years she wasted living on screen, manufacturing images of a seemingly happy, fun-filled life. “I realized I didn’t know myself without social media and without my physical appearance,” she explains.

O’Neill has also edited the captions of her pictures to expose the artifice behind them. A picture of her reclining, bikini-clad, on the beach, now reads, ““NOT REAL LIFE—took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good. Would have hardly eaten that day. Would have yelled at my little sister to keep taking them until I was somewhat proud of this. Yep so totally #goals.”

What is so disheartening in these revelations is not simply the admission that the photo isn’t a candid, spur-of-the-moment shot. It’s the way that her efforts to create the perfect shot alters her experience of reality. She isn’t enjoying the beach. She isn’t having fun with her sister. In fact, she’s straining that relationship, as she tries to capture an image of a moment that never really happened. O’Neill laments the ugly pretense of it all, but also all the richness of life that she’s missed by living for the gram, the time not spent “writing, exploring, playing, anything beautiful and real.” It’s easy to chase validation by posting flattering pictures, she reflects. “It’s a lot harder to sit alone with yourself and get real with your life. No one does that anymore.”

Is this a valid critique? Instagram is one of the most popular apps for millennials, but there is a vocal strain of resistance to its use—or, at least, to the kind of fabricated, filtered untruths it sometimes encourages. Sociality Barbie, an Instagram account of a Barbie doll living #authentic, being a #happygirl, and celebrating #sociality, pokes fun at the contrived quality of Instagram profiles. The account features pictures of Barbie in exotic locales (“If you need me I’ll be spending the day relaxing in my hammock in the most absurd places”), looking pensive (“Could I be any more authentic!?”), and sipping lattes (“Always gram your coffee or it didn’t happen”). The account has 1.3 million followers.

But acknowledging the hollowness of Instagram doesn’t stop people from continuing to Instagram their lives. Essena O’Neill’s breakdown, however striking, remains somewhat unusual. For the most part, people laugh it off. A Sweet Green ad captures the mood well: “Let’s be real,” the ad reads, “you only go apple picking for the Instagram.” Far from being a point for existential reflection, the fakeness of Instagram has become a good joke. There’s even an implied acceptance of our collective dishonesty, a kind of shrug: Oh well, that’s just the way things are now.

We talk a lot about how social media is changing the world, but how is it changing ourselves? Long before the age of Instagram, media theorist Marshall McLuhan issued a prescient warning: “The basic thing to remember about electric media,” he explained, “is that they inexorably transform every sense ratio and thus recondition and restructure all our values and institutions.” We now make decisions and live our lives for the image. We even feel, on some level, that the picturesque apple picking or latte sipping didn’t happen unless others see us doing it. That is unprecedented. But the question is: Is social media radically reshaping who we are, or does it just provide a new platform for man’s expression of his age-old vanity? 

The problem of seeming versus being isn’t a particularly new one. Hamlet, for instance, is obsessed with it: “I know not ‘seems,’” he declares in the opening act. (Hamlet is also, not coincidentally, interested in mirrors and appearances.) Acting, deception, seeming is part of how people live; it cannot be separated out from being, unless you stop being entirely. In this sense, the performances of Instagram are simply our latest forms of deception, another way to choose seeming over being. But it would be a mistake to think nothing has changed. The technologies we create have a tendency to recreate us in ways we cannot foresee. The anti-Instagrammers intuit this, and they don’t like who we’re becoming.

But performances aren’t always a bad thing; indeed, “seeming” is closely correlated with art. For some people, Instagram provides a way to express more honest emotions and states of being, like depression. With washed-out filters and grim expressions, these “depression grams” are, in their way, just as staged as the images of all those #blessed hipsters. But they allow people to perform in a way that feels powerful to them, to show something that they’re often compelled to hide. Amidst all the faux happiness, it can be striking to see people acknowledge and display the less sunny sides of life.

In these instances, Instagram becomes less a search for validation than an invitation to witness—to witness beauty, sadness, or simply what the world looks like, for a moment, through someone else’s eyes. The images are exercises in perspective, and they’re more memorable when they’re idiosyncratic. What really seems to rub us the wrong way about pictures of beaches or coffee is the homogeneity of the images, the 1950’s-like conformity to a certain expectation of what living should look like. O’Neill is right to call out the dangerous deceptions of Instagram. It is tragic, alienating, and ultimately unfulfilling to live in pursuit of the image instead of the experience. And a whole world of people who live like this is an alarming prospect indeed. But that’s not what Instagram has to be. Like so many of our technologies, Instagram isn’t good or bad in itself; its power lies in how we choose to use it. 

Of course, for some people, artifice is the whole point, and it can be a pathway to honesty. “Depression grams,” for instance, are a subset of Instagram photos that attempt to show what depression looks like from the inside. With their washed-out filters and selfies of grim expressions, these grams allow people to take control of their image in a way that feels powerful to them.

In these instances—because there are as many kinds of Instagram shots as there are users—the service becomes less a search for validation than an invitation into another’s life. O’Neill is right to call out Instagram’s deceptions, because a whole world of people who only live in performative documentation is an alarming prospect indeed. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Social media is powerful, but it’s important to remember that power is neutral. Artifice, after all, is a human invention.”