Doing it for the ’gram
What does it mean when your online and real life personalities don’t match up? And does it matter? Emma Chong Johnston investigates
Looking beyond #authentic on Instagram
My husband has Instagram, and not just in the way that an #instagramhusband does. He’s been using it actively for over a year and consistently gets more likes on his photos than I do (yes, it rankles). I do not feature on his feed: it’s a visual diary of his cycling and fitness occupations, all GoPro action shots and podium photos. But what I find the most remarkable is his captions, characterised by exclamation marks, emojis, selfies and hashtags which have in the past included: #nutrition #muddy #racing. (We are very different people.)
All of this may lead you to conclude that he’s a naturally outgoing, extroverted person, or at least a man with an appreciation for public displays of emotion. But no. The first time I tried to take a selfie with him, he acquiesced with the enthusiasm of one going to a wisdom tooth extraction. He doesn’t do parties. He’d rather do a 100km mountain bike ride on his own than have to linger over a post-ride teh tarik with a cycling buddy. When we meet friends, they frequently think he’s upset with them; in reality he’s happy on the inside, it just... takes a while to make it to his face.
But these contrasts don’t seem problematic to my husband. He can post selfies without a shred of selfconsciousness, something his vain but neurotic wife often can’t work up the courage to do. But he won’t document for the sake of it; I’m the only one in our household who feels the need to take a photo of us watching TV. His grumpy IRL front and cheery Instagram persona are both him; they just represent two parts of his personality that get expressed at different times. And, in fairness, he’s not saving all the fun and games for Instagram: I’ve seen him jousting with
our cat, cheerfully coaching seven-yearolds on the football pitch, and gleefully filling a pick’n’mix cup every time the opportunity presents itself.
Which is real life as we all know it. No one is just one thing, but social media and particularly Instagram have, over the last decade, allowed us to create very specific versions of ourselves in a way that has never existed before. If you only knew me from my Instagram, you’d assume I do nothing but flounce around in floral dresses and take photos of the cat. But most days I turn up to work in some kind of ancient shirt dress, no makeup and the same shoes every day. Do I feel the need to broadcast these moments? Not really. Does this make me a deeply artificial person? Debatable.
Millennials and Instagram users have come under torrents of abuse for their obsession with ‘curating’ their feeds, for polishing the appearance of their lifestyle. But this is not a complaint rooted in any understanding of reality I know – no one tells everyone everything. That’s not self-censorship, it’s a function of social living. Whether in daily conversation or on Instagram, we choose the stories we want to represent ourselves, consciously or unconsciously filtering them through our words, tone or image-editing apps. Everyone has a natural bias towards anecdotes in which they come across well, however they define those parameters. “I do not fake things and go out of my way for the ’gram,” model Alicia Amin tells us, “but my Instagram is still controlled. I use it to showcase my works, milestones and when I actually do something interesting. No compromising double chin photos.”
Same here Alicia. On Instagram I too choose photos in which my jaw looks sharper. In real life I want to be known as intelligent and funny. On Instagram I’d like to be known for having nice clothes. In real life I try to mitigate my inclinations towards pettiness, my dislike of small talk. On Instagram I choose not to post photos of myself schlubbing around in pyjamas. I broadcast the good, and work on the bad in private.
Contrary to the criticism directed at our generation, this is not unusual. “Both of our online and offline behaviour are real,” wrote Indian sociologist Koyel Bandyopadhyay. “One doesn’t get more validity from the other, if real is equated with being genuine or authentic.” So why do we assume that people’s online identities are embellished or fake? “Since we use all our sensory capabilities to construct ‘reality’, when we can’t do that (because you can’t smell your friend’s food pictures or feel the breeze of your colleague’s tropical island pictures), we tend to stamp online behaviour as “not real.”
The impulse to present ourselves in different ways is not one born of the internet. There have always been means of changing your image according to your audience, and Instagram is just the latest, most sophisticated tool. Of course you can take this instinct too far, but is Photoshopping your butt bigger psychologically any different to wearing a corset to make your waist thinner? They’re both problematic behaviours born of societal pressures that have the most impact on young women.
The difference is this: women, whether shooting, directing or editing these images, are in charge. The rise of social media influencers, a universally eye-rolled concept, is the leading example of this. A few young women on Instagram took the traditional media landscape by storm, outperforming magazines and models to become leading voices. Even if they are going out of their way to create images that bear no resemblance to their ‘real’ lives, in doing so they are taking charge of their own narrative in a way that women centuries ago would have longed for.
On no other platform are young women yielding so much power. This year, four of the five most followed personalities on Instagram are women: Selena Gomez (126 million followers), Ariana Grande (113 million), Beyoncé (106 million) and Taylor Swift (103 million). Blogger Aimee Song (4.6 million) parlayed her online influence into a book deal, a full crew to capture all her (often sponsored) travel moments, and a spot on the Forbes 2016 ‘30 under 30’ list. Here in Malaysia, leading blogger Jane Chuck can pick up 14,000 likes on a photo of an ice cream and turn that into a content deal with Visa. All these women are traditionally beautiful but have built successful careers for themselves outside the male gaze, and use an imagedriven platform to draw attention to issues other than their beauty. A single post on Beyoncé’s Instagram that said ‘BeyGood Houston’ signalled that her charitable foundation BeyGood was working on the ground in Houston to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey. It got 840,000 likes.
Yes, many of social media’s driving forces are the same as society’s have always been: to look young, thin and affluent. And yes, Instagram’s intrinsic structure of presenting yourself for likes is problematic. But the value of having a space in which you can recreate yourself cannot be underestimated: for young people, who need the freedom to find out who they are, sometimes many times over. And for women, who need freedom.
“Do I feel the need to broadcast these moments? Not really. Does this make me a deeply artificial person? Debatable.”