In­fi­nite Scroll: Al­ways Look­ing

Hello Mr. Magazine - - INFINITE SCROLL: ALWAYS LOOKING - Text by Khalid El Khatib

I’ve been sin­gle for nearly two years in New York City. That, cou­pled with the slow crawl to thirty – and my less re­silient liver – means that many Fri­day evenings are spent watch­ing TV on my sofa with a glass of wine. I sit in sweat­pants and a t-shirt: a more seden­tary, less glam­orous re­flec­tion of the char­ac­ters I watch.

Dur­ing lulls, I pick up my phone and open In­sta­gram. The scroll that pro­ceeds is sec­ond na­ture, pre­dictably lik­ing ev­ery fourth or fifth pic­ture–a burger I wish I were eat­ing, a serene beach that feels in­fin­itely dis­tant from my noisy city street, a shirt­less guy, or two of them in bed to­gether.

I rarely stop scrolling to re­ally think about those men – some of whom I know well, oth­ers pe­riph­er­ally, and a few not at all. When I do al­low for a few sec­onds of re­flec­tion, I feel strange. It’s not guilt, and rarely jeal­ousy. I wonder, rather, if they ever stop to think about guys like me – in sweat­pants, on the sofa, look­ing at them and their per­fect lives. I wonder – how is a re­la­tion­ship dif­fer­ent when it has an au­di­ence?

If many gay cou­ples’ pho­tos are, sim­ply put, “dou­ble self­ies,” some part of what they post must be for val­i­da­tion. Not nec­es­sar­ily val­i­da­tion for their love, but of the de­ci­sions they make and of their sta­tus as a great, or ar­che­typal, ro­mance of the 21st cen­tury. In De­cem­ber, @Luke Austin Pho­tos The 3rd posted a pic­ture on In­sta­gram of a man ly­ing on his stom­ach. In murky green briefs, his inked up­per thigh and torso punc­tu­ate the photo’s cen­ter­piece: his no­tice­ably toned ass. Three red and white stripes from an Amer­i­can flag float at the top of the photo, and it’s ap­pro­pri­ate: for many gay men, Luke’s photo, cap­tioned “Hus­band,” is the Amer­i­can Dream.

Nearly 40,000 fol­low­ers peek in on Luke Austin-Paglia­longa and his hus­band Mar­cus Paglia­longa-Austin (@mpaglia­longa) as they cap­ture their daily rou­tines in var­i­ous states of un­dress. Strangers have bought them drinks, opened their homes to them, and given them free clothes. Luke is not at all obliv­i­ous to the at­ten­tion: “It’s com­pletely sur­real,” he says.

Their ac­counts are fa­vorites of mine be­cause their re­la­tion­ship in many ways be­gan on In­sta­gram, with “a lot of lik­ing, wink­ing, and emo­jis,” which led to an in-per­son date when Luke trav­eled from his na­tive Aus­tralia to Los An­ge­les and, even­tu­ally, mar­riage.

If Luke and Mar­cus’s mar­riage is some­thing new, Ash­ley (Ash) Den­ton (@food­faceash) and Paul Dotey’s (@pauldotey) re­la­tion­ship is some­thing old. Ash and Paul have been mar­ried for three years and to­gether for nine. They share a dog, a house, and an au­di­ence of over 22,000 fol­low­ers. If Luke is gay In­sta­gram’s Terry Richard­son – an un­der­wear en­thu­si­ast and provo­ca­teur – Ash is more like its Ansel Adams: a lover of mono­chrome and a food stylist whose “ro­man­tic pho­tos” are no less tan­ta­liz­ing, but a lit­tle more SFW.

I know more about the lives and bod­ies of these four men than guys I have gone on two or three dates with, and I wonder if this is a prob­lem. Just as mod­ern gay porn’s dou­ble-pen­e­tra­tion and bukkake fin­ishes stall our abil­ity to be sat­is­fied with vanilla, monog­a­mous sex, do In­sta­gram ro­mances rep­re­sent a sim­i­larly unattain­able ideal, a more in­sid­i­ous ver­sion of the old rom-com com­plex?

As I fall into a pan­icky, philo­soph­i­cal black hole, I con­vince my­self that the key to un­der­stand­ing my own lone­li­ness lies in un­lock­ing mo­ti­va­tions of the In­sta-fa­mous.

Fash­ion blog­ger and Brook­lyn-based bach­e­lor Richard Haines (@richard_haines) re­calls his ini­tial re­ac­tion to In­sta­gram as a more vis­ceral re­flec­tion of lone­li­ness than mine: “Ev­ery fuck­ing guy is in Capri, in love and gor­geous, and I want to kill my­self.” At the same time, he knows his own ac­count has its share of envy-in­duc­ing pho­tos. “When I’m at Fash­ion Week in Paris, I post beau­ti­ful pic­tures, but none that in­volve catch­ing a cab in the rain or [the frus­tra­tion] of miss­ing a train. All the cir­cum­stances that are [every­day] life are edited out.”

“The lives [In­sta­gram cou­ples pre­sent] are very se­duc­tive, but it’s an edited ver­sion of real life. Who knows what hap­pened five min­utes be­fore the photo was taken?” He qual­i­fies with a sigh, “I have to tell my­self that or I’ll lose my mind.”

Luke is quick to ad­mit that though all of his pho­tos are au­then­tic mo­ments, the nar­ra­tive can be mis­lead­ing at times, “Our re­la­tion­ship on­line looks like it was sent from the heav­ens with a golden halo around each im­age, and I’m sure it makes a few fol­low­ers gag, but [newly mar­ried] it’s kind of how our re­la­tion­ship is right now.” He adds, “We ar­gue and get pissed at each other like any cou­ple,” and with a smirk, “but that’s not aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing.”

Mar­cus con­curs that the re­la­tion­ship they pre­sent on In­sta­gram isn’t con­trived: “We aren’t stag­ing a ro­mance novel. We walk around a lot, eat a lot, lay in bed, and watch movies.” They just hap­pen to do most of those “nor­mal cou­ple” things with their briefs pulled down just slightly, tan lines ex­posed and fil­tered to more starkly con­trast. De­spite the ob­vi­ous ad­just­ments and en­hance­ments, the pic­tures come off sin­cere; there’s no sec­ond-guess­ing that they are in love. But their In­sta­gram his­tory is not with­out mo­ments that give pause to the no­tion that their lives are per­fect.

Luke’s move to the USA was doc­u­mented with con­fetti-pep­pered pic­tures of farewell and wel­come par­ties – Amer­i­can flags cer­e­mo­ni­ously and se­duc­tively draped be­low six packs. To what ex­tent were those pic­tures and the thou­sands of “likes” he re­ceived the push he needed to know he was mak­ing the right de­ci­sion to leave Aus­tralia and move in with Mar­cus? Where are the mo­ments of an­guished in­de­ci­sion? Where are the pho­tos doc­u­ment­ing the hellish process of an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal move? What about the pho­tos doc­u­ment­ing the bu­reau­cratic Amer­i­can im­mi­gra­tion process? These ques­tions are im­po­lite to ask and dif­fi­cult to an­swer hon­estly.

There are mo­ments of dark­ness. Mar­cus once posted a photo of him­self pinch­ing a thin layer of stom­ach pad­ding. Be­low this, the cap­tion re­vealed that he was seven days sober. It was a sur­pris­ingly pri­vate mo­ment to ap­pear on the tightly cu­rated fo­rum of In­sta­gram, a star­tling plot twist in what had ap­peared to an end­less pro­ces­sion of cham­pagne wishes and caviar dreams. The photo is un­char­ac­ter­is­tic and tough to like with­out know­ing ex­actly what it means, or what Mar­cus wants. Is he look­ing at his fol­low­ers as a net­work for sup­port or, less se­ri­ously, seek­ing a bit of val­i­da­tion that he looks great as is? What does it mean to “like” such a post? Is it sim­ply a crude way to ex­press generic sup­port or is it sim­ply the way we do things now, gen­uinely or not? Ei­ther way, nearly 2,000 peo­ple liked it whether or not they’d thought too hard about it.

When nudged, Ash shrugs that he doesn’t post dark or tense mo­ments of his re­la­tion­ship – they aren’t pho­to­genic. But like Luke and Mar­cus he is sim­i­larly quick to as­sert au­then­tic­ity; “I’ve never staged a photo of us. If I did, I would prob­a­bly cap­tion it gen­uinely with, ‘We are ac­tu­ally fight­ing right now.’ We don’t pre­tend.”

The fact is we are most likely to share when we are happy, when we are liv­ing our best life. Brett P. Kennedy is a gay clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist with over fif­teen years ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with gay men and cou­ples. His work, which fo­cuses on heartache, has made him un­sur­pris­ingly wary of putting it all out there. He points out the para­dox­i­cal na­ture of dig­i­tal open­ness, which we can’t im­me­di­ately rec­on­cile: While we’re quick to doc­u­ment new and bur­geon­ing love, “When a re­la­tion­ship turns South and dirty laun­dry or façades are ex­posed, you hear peo­ple as­sert­ing their need for ‘pri­vacy’ and ‘re­spect dur­ing this dif­fi­cult time.’ Twit­ter ac­counts close, and In­sta­gram goes dark.”

Brett ar­gues that the way most cou­ples on In­sta­gram in­vite fol­low­ers to bed is more nar­cis­sis­tic than gen­er­ous. “We all have a de­gree of nar­cis­sism that de­fines and show­cases who we are – our strengths, weak­nesses, ac­com­plish­ments. The op­er­a­tive word is de­gree.” He dis­tin­guishes be­tween healthy and su­per­fi­cial va­ri­eties of nar­cis­sism, and ar­gues that so­cial me­dia, in­clud­ing In­sta­gram, en­cour­ages the lat­ter. It’s a cyn­i­cal, maybe de­press­ing view of who we are and where we’re headed, re­in­forced by the fact the most­fol­lowed gay men on In­sta­gram aren’t mak­ing pro­found po­lit­i­cal state­ments or even post­ing pic­tures of their fam­i­lies like pop­u­lar straight coun­ter­parts: they’re giv­ing fit­ness tips (Al­mog Gabay, @al­mog9, 30,000 fol­low­ers) and sell­ing clothes (Adam Gal­lagher, @iamgalla, 650,000 fol­low­ers). In fact, most In­stas­tuds work in fields that ben­e­fit from strip­ping down or lay­er­ing up for fol­low­ers. Creative pur­suits like fash­ion, pho­tog­ra­phy, and per­sonal train­ing are at the root of many of the most suave ac­counts. On In­sta­gram, nar­cis­sism is a busi­ness, and busi­ness is good.

Brett warns that what­ever looks too good to be true – too fil­tered to be a real photo – likely is. “You don’t see cry­ing, fight­ing, or boyfriends in­ject­ing one an­other with steroids, the maxed out credit card state­ments, and the drugs that some peo­ple need to get through life off-cam­era.”

Or, to put it more bluntly: “You never see peo­ple on TV take a shit and you cer­tainly don’t see it on In­sta­gram.” All the same, I be­lieve that Luke and Mar­cus and Ash and Paul are gen­uinely happy – these men are match­ing-tat­too-level in love. Their In­sta­gram feeds are a less-than-true re­flec­tion of a nev­er­the­less true ro­mance. The sub­tleties here can be ig­nored or mis­in­ter­preted, but there are many more cou­ples whose hy­per-sex­u­al­ized posts are less sweet and more ma­nip­u­la­tive.

Ash in par­tic­u­lar is hy­per-cog­nizant of pri­va­tiz­ing cer­tain as­pects of his life. He rec­og­nizes that the false sense of fa­mil­iar­ity en­gen­dered by In­sta­gram can be dan­ger­ous and weird. Be­fore he takes and posts a photo, he asks him­self if he’s mak­ing his fol­low­ers feel too close: “It’s amaz­ing

how many peo­ple have come to [our house] for the first time and say they feel like they’re on a TV set.” More prag­mat­i­cally, he is care­ful not to post his ex­act ad­dress or other de­tails that com­pro­mise his safety. When he con­sid­ers his abil­ity to reach 20,000 users, rather than em­pow­ered, he ad­mits re­signedly: “It’s strange.” It’s not the place of fol­low­ers to ques­tion the mo­ti­va­tions of the cou­ples we like or lust af­ter – af­ter all, we choose who to fol­low. The best we can do is hope that our In­stas­tuds are at least aware of the im­pact they have on the thou­sands of guys who look into their lives. And with that, hope for their sake, that they set bound­aries on what and how they share. Richard puts it nicely: “See­ing peo­ple in a re­la­tion­ship twenty-four seven is sweet, but it’s too much candy.”

At times, the con­stant sweet­ness can turn sour. Jef­fery Self (@jef­fer­y­self), an ac­tor and writer in Los An­ge­les with 4,500 fol­low­ers, is one half of a for­merly In­sta-fa­mous cou­ple, and he’s been (some­times un­com­fort­ably) vo­cal about the demise of his re­la­tion­ship on In­sta­gram. But de­spite his oc­ca­sional gut­tural emo­tions, his feel­ings to­ward the pho­tos with his now-ex are pretty mild: “They were usu­ally quite ac­cu­rate. Our re­la­tion­ship went through the same ups and downs as many oth­ers. I’m sure there were days when my photo didn’t al­ways match my feel­ings, but I felt like I was just doc­u­ment­ing my life as I was liv­ing it.”

Jef­fery’s big­gest prob­lem with In­sta­gram aligns with Brett’s cau­tion­ary words. He is less con­cerned about what a cou­ple posts than how the app can ac­cen­tu­ate prob­lems and over­take the re­la­tion­ship. He be­moans “the weird cul­ture of fol­low­ing the lives of peo­ple you want to fuck, and putting your own pho­tos out there to make peo­ple tell you you’re sexy.” For Jef­fery, the val­i­da­tion that can fuel a happy, healthy re­la­tion­ship can just as well fuel jeal­ousy and breed be­trayal. He puts Brett’s psy­cho­log­i­cal ad­vice to be hy­per-re­flec­tive more force­fully: Know the power of what you post; it’s more than just a pic­ture. In­sta­gram didn’t cause Jef­fery’s re­la­tion­ship to end, but it may have ac­cel­er­ated and ag­gra­vated the process.

For their part, the cou­ples I spoke to weren’t con­cerned about the dan­gers of sub­con­scious flirt­ing and thinly veiled in­se­cu­ri­ties. Ash says non­cha­lantly, “Post­ing to In­sta­gram hasn’t hurt us, it hasn’t made us stronger. It’s just some­thing that we do.” There’s a restau­rant on my street corner that is stereo­typ­i­cally New York. Its rus­tic but mod­ern in­te­rior is vis­i­ble through floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows. It serves New Amer­i­can cui­sine to beau­ti­ful peo­ple who glow in can­dle­light. I look in on my walks home from work and ca­su­ally scan the pa­trons – mostly cou­ples. Some­times my gaze in­vol­un­tar­ily lingers on the im­pos­si­bly happy and the trag­i­cally quiet – the cou­ples who seem most and least in love. If they look back, I break away, turn the corner faster.

It’s Fri­day again: Sofa, TV, red wine. And af­ter many con­ver­sa­tions with the In­stafa­mous, I place my phone on the cof­fee ta­ble and open In­sta­gram. I stare at the app and for a minute or two wonder what to do… Do I un­fol­low the strangers I’ve ac­cu­mu­lated over time? Do I make my own feed pri­vate? I wait for a mo­ment of clar­ity, some great rev­e­la­tion. I want things to feel dif­fer­ent now that I know more about the pho­tos – what they can mean and how dif­fi­cult it is to un­der­stand that truth. But noth­ing comes. Noth­ing changes. Fri­day scrolls on, past pho­tos of strange men and Capri ca­banas un­til I like a pic­ture of a pas­trami burger that would go nicely with my glass of red. I don’t un­fol­low Luke or Mar­cus. In­stead, I like a photo of Luke. He’s in a swim­suit on a rooftop, a smog or cloud-streaked LA sky con­trasts his per­fect skin – he’s look­ing fit­ter. It’s the kind of thing you no­tice in a friend you haven’t seen for a while.

For a sec­ond I wonder if he’ll know I liked it – now that we’ve spo­ken. But I ac­cept that my like will prob­a­bly get lost among 2,300 oth­ers. Just like the cou­ples I look in on at the restau­rant, I only look away when they look back.

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