If you logged onto Instagram in the days that immediately followed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, you might have found the platform to be unrecognizable. Rather than the typical array of photos, you likely encountered an eruption of highly stylized content that didn’t and still doesn’t have a name but which we shall term “Instagraphics”—slideshow-style infographics with titles such as “Transformative Justice 101,” “How to Talk to Your Racist Family Member Right Now,” and “What is Abolition?” If you use Instagram, you likely saw a similar phenomenon in the weeks that followed Floyd’s death as millions took to the streets in every city nationwide.
Months later, we are now on the other side of that moment of eruption, and while a Black Lives Matter protest of some sort still happens in most major cities every weekend, a point of somewhat altered homeostasis in our daily lives has been reached. So too has Instagram settled back into familiar patterns; your favorite celebrities, influencers, brands, and perhaps friends and family are posting “regular” photos again—at least, as regular as they ever got during the pandemic. But the Instagraphics haven’t gone away. Rather, they’ve stuck around, and in doing so, they have diversified from posts specifically related to policing and systemic racism to posts touching on every social justice-related topic imaginable. We are living, it seems, in the era of the Instagraphic.
But who is the Instagraphic for? From style alone, one might infer that the ostensible target audience of one of these graphics is white liberals who can be counted on to react positively to social justice-oriented content so long as it is presented in an anodyne, non-threatening way. The content itself tends to make this explicit; posts are often addressed directly to white audiences in their titles. It seems that the imagined audience for Instagraphics is somewhat similar to that of the anti-racist reading list: sympathetic but overwhelmed white people who would like to be told, in the most seamlessly optimized way, how to properly process the current moment.
This phenomenon has especially troubling potential at a moment when liberal co-option of the newly mainstreamed abolitionist discourse is in full force. As the public focus on police brutality has shifted into a focus on racism more generally, the ideological range of the discourse has broadened: liberals, for the most part, are unwilling to countenance literal police abolition, so their focus is drawn instead to concepts like intersectionality and implicit bias, which, while intellectually stimulating, are less radical from a political standpoint. Instagraphics provide an endless source of material with which to interact on these subjects while rarely pushing beyond the political boundaries of the liberal worldview.
Posting large blocks of text in slideshow format is pretty antithetical to the way that Instagram has been popularly used up to this point. When first released for the iPhone in 2010, Instagram was specifically intended for photos taken on cellphone cameras. The app’s intuitive photo editing capabilities and ready-to-go filters were novel for a mobile app at the time, and they elevated the quality of early iPhone camera photos with some intentional stylization. These mechanics have, from Instagram’s inception, steered users toward curating a grid of artsy slices of life—kind of like the very first image posted to the platform in 2010.
Throughout the early 2010s, Instagram developed a very specific culture, one that is best described in aesthetic terms. Much has been written about the “Instagram look”—that perfectly and effortlessly arranged, symmetrical, minimalist, pale-pink-and-earth-tones-laden style that has gradually percolated outside the confines of the Instagram grid throughout the past decade. Instagram transformed the digital world in two distinct ways. First, it inured us all to the idea of filters, allowing users who’d never so much as stumbled into a darkroom to become armchair aesthetes. Second, the relative ease by which people could now crop and filter photographic content added a jolt to the already voluminous world of digital photography where, loosed from the confines of needing to physically develop film, an amateur shutterbug could paper the world in an endless array of images within a matter of seconds.
By the time brands arrived on the platform, smelling profit in the water, the Instagram look was already well cemented and codified, ready-packaged for early comers like Glossier to harvest into a new marketing phenomenon: advertisements that felt wholly specific to the platform on which they appeared and therefore less like advertisements. From then on, Instagram became a place where the boundaries between “brand” and “not brand” were all but completely disintegrated. One can become a celebrity on any social media platform, but only on Instagram can one become an “influencer”—the difference, for the most part, lying in a direct, established path to monetization in the form of sponsored content.
It is no wonder, then, that Instagraphics have a vaguely corporate feel to them. Where brands commandeered the organic aesthetics of early Instagram, instagraphic creators have commandeered the commandeering, using the pre-existing aesthetic of Instagram—the color palette, typography, and composition of the Instagram “look”—to acclimate the viewer to seeing a completely different type of content on their feed, one that is both text-based and political in nature.
The resulting marriage of content and style—think police brutality statistics written out in cute, swirly handwriting against a pink background—may feel disconcerting outside the context of Instagram, but within the walls of the tile grid, where aesthetic cohesion reigns supreme and users have become acclimated to the ever-present filters and the easy ubiquity of the content, everything snaps into place as if it were ordained by a higher power. It’s really no mystery why it results in posts that are so eminently shareable and that go viral with staggering frequency.
Wherever the Instagraphic audience craves authority on a subject that may confuse or intimidate them, Instagraphic creators are happy to supply it. While some viral Instagraphics are one-off endeavors, others belong to larger catalogs; there are entire accounts dedicated to Instagraphic content. Instagraphics from these larger efforts, in particular, tend to approximate the style of educational materials; they may sport titles with a “101” suffix as well as a bibliography of cited works on the last slide. They are effectively “explainers” in the style of Vox, with a specific social-justice bent. (How fitting, then, that Vox recently published an explainer on slideshow activism on Instagram.)
The trouble with “explainer” content, whether it appears in journalism or on social media, is that it relies on simplification of complex histories and ideas—a process whose outcome depends largely on the ideological perspective of the person doing the simplifying—all while positioning itself as a thoroughly non-ideological product.
This is, then, the source of gut-level misgivings with the popularity of the Instagraphic phenomenon. Instagraphics appear to share the goal of educating on social justice-adjacent topics, particularly issues surrounding racism. But political education is a means to an end, and having scrolled through hours’ worth of these graphics, it’s hard to avoid the knotty fear that most of the creators of this content assume the goal of education is not to step toward mobilization but to be part of a never-ending treadmill in which posts are shared, likes are awarded, and books are sold in greater quantities, but substantial action never quite materializes.
This vague and platitudinous carousel is reminiscent of what writer Alex V. Green has called the “Having Conversations Industrial Complex” in which what should be the first step toward achieving justice is instead stretched out into an infinite loop in which the perpetuation of this cycle becomes its own end goal. At their worst, Instagraphics can feel incredibly facile—as you watch friends from high school and college repost them to their stories, you may come to suspect the propelling force in this new exchange is not the search for deeper knowledge but rather the desire to feel as if you have contributed to “the movement” without the inconvenience of actually having to do anything.
If Instagraphics have shown little potential to change the world, they have certainly changed Instagram: designed text slideshows are now a mainstream “type” of Instagram content and one which does not appear to be going away. This could have intriguing ramifications for media outlets for whom Instagram can be a tricky platform with which to drive engagement because the captions don’t support hyperlinks. What seems most inevitable is that sooner or later, Instagram-native brands will descend upon the Instagraphic concept with eager talons flared. Glossier, for its part, recently posted a “handy guide” to understanding sebum, the oil produced by the sebaceous gland. The guide predictably ends with the suggestion that you buy their $22 Priming Moisturizer. The days of photo-only feeds may soon be a distant memory. (Glossier’s most recent post as of Tuesday was an Instagraphic apology to employees who reported experiencing racism and transphobia in the workplace.“)
Ultimately, the Instagraphic is perhaps best understood as a symptom of Instagram’s cultural growing pains as it reckons with the increasing politicization of the platform. Instagram has never embraced politics as explicitly as Twitter has. The Instagrammer lives in a carefully constructed bubble of relentless and superficial positivity that would pop under the strain of even an hour’s worth of Trump-era news headlines. Instagram is a breezy oasis from a somber world; it is earnest in a cynical culture; it believes in the possibility of self-actualization, perhaps through delusion. It’s a place where there need not be a moral imperative to risk your life or livelihood marching in the streets because sharing well-designed graphics from the comfort of your own home is enough to bring about justice—the ultimate in aesthetically pleasing, color-coordinated fantasy for the Trump era.