Monday 23 September 2019

The great Instagram lie: Sophie White on keeping up appearances

When Sophie White joined Instagram it was for work purposes; she never expected to become so enthralled with the bonkers world of influencers, nor for it to inspire her second book, ‘Filter This’

Sophie White:
Sophie White: "I'd question if I was being too outrageous with some of the OTT elements, but then I’d read about another influencer pulling some ludicrous stunt". Photo: Kip Carroll
Sophie White. Photo: Kip Carroll

It’s hard to believe that only a couple of years ago, Instagram was a distant concept to me — like a foreign country I’d heard of but had no desire to visit. At the urging of my publisher, I started an account when my first book was released. I needed a “following” and to engage more on social media, I was told. Up to that point, I’d found zero appeal in social media. To my mind, Facebook was boring and Twitter, toxic. Joining Insta in late 2016 was like arriving very late to a party where everyone else was already bananas drunk and I was left to play catch-up — only instead of cocktails, I was catching up on a whole new world of hashtags, filters, inane inspo quotes and a whole lot of marble and rose-gold flatlays.

The Insta mores were particularly hard for me to get my head around. On Insta, it was perfectly acceptable — encouraged, even — to post endless oh-so flattering pictures of yourself pouting, and to humble-brag the crap out of every little life win. Where was all the quintessentially Irish angst and self-deprecation? These people not only seemed impossibly glam and flawless, but also only delighted with themselves. It seemed so un-Irish. And the hashtags, my god, the hashtags. A cursory scroll will invariably throw up some hilariously contradictory posts: wellness influencers posting videos of their meditations with hashtags like #Unplug — though if a wellness blogger meditates and doesn’t upload it to Insta, did it even happen?

Instagram is nearly 10 years old, and ranks among the top five most downloaded apps in the world. An estimated 95 million images and videos are posted to the photo-sharing platform daily. Originally, the app offered something pleasingly nostalgic to its users — with its washed-out filters; the Insta-tile canvas that frames users’ images is a throwback to the old Polaroid frame; and even the name, Instagram — which is a portmanteau of ‘instant camera’ and ‘telegram’. However, for its myriad scathing detractors, it has since become a shorthand for everything wrong with social media and the narcissistic millennial age. While the term ‘selfie’ has been around since the early 2000s, the advent of Instagram, with its roster of filters, meant that every one of us was permanently camera-ready, and, by 2013, the word ‘selfie’ was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Pitch-perfect

While I was initially baffled, I soon got into the Insta-swing. I’m not above some heavy filtering, and my camera roll is replete with nearly identical selfies — I take about 30 variations for safety. Frankly, I challenge anyone to resist the sweet, sweet nectar of virtual likes rolling in after a well-placed selfie or pitch-perfect caption.

Sophie White. Photo: Kip Carroll
Sophie White. Photo: Kip Carroll

More than any other social media, the long arm of Instagram has shaped and, many would argue, distorted our real-life behaviours.

Over the last five years, Insta has effortlessly infiltrated the way we live our daily lives, making everything from pancakes to memories ‘all for the ’gram’. We photograph our every moment and even the most casual user can find themselves performing for the likes, while the Insta elite, ‘influencers’ with huge numbers of followers, are coining it with sponsored posts. However, in a move to help reduce pressure on app users to achive high numbers of likes, Instagram has recently begun hiding likes for Irish users, as well as those in Canada, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. An Instagram spokesperson said the company is waiting to see the results of this test before deciding whether to roll out the change to more countries.

Instagram has also spawned a new iteration of our beloved curtain-twitching and people-watching. We assiduously track the behaviour of others via their Instagram — drawing conclusions and judgments informed by innocuous captions, humble brags or clearly doctored images, which make up most of what we see online anyway. Beyond the basic filters that come with the app, now users employ multiple separate editing apps like Facetune before a snap will even make it to Instagram. As such, the collision of real life and fantasy on Instagram is nothing new; however, the fantasy has undoubtedly entered a new realm with the rise and rise of the influencer. We’ve gone far beyond enhancing images, and are now looking at completely enhanced lives.

It’s for sale

Take the recent Vanity Fair profile of the ‘murfers’ (mum surfers) in Byron Bay, Australia, where the impossibly exquisite lives of ‘micro-influencers’ play out across the Instagram accounts of seemingly laid-back surfer mums dripping in children and artisanal kombucha. And how are they doing it all? According to Vanity Fair, they’re a cohort of “a cross-tagging, cross-promoting, mutually amplifying, audience-sharing group of friends living, loving, working and posting aspirational lifestyle content in a highly Instagrammable paradise”.

In other words, it’s for sale. The “slow living” mums are creating a living, breathing, real-time ad campaign for their followers, pushing their own products or those of select sponsors on any given day.

This new frontier of lifestyle commerce and personal brands throws up some knotty moral issues and inspired my second book and first novel, Filter This, which follows Ali, an obsessive aspiring influencer, who relentlessly broadcasts her life in pursuit of virtual validation. When Ali inadvertently leads her followers to believe she is sporting a baby bump and immediately gains thousands of followers, she realises that the one vital ‘hero’ accessory of this season is not to be found in Penneys. But as Ali soon learns as she plunges deeper into the Insta world, if you are going to commodify your every day, what is not for sale? Your intimate moments? Your children? And more importantly, how do you cope with such an unpredictable “product” as “real life”?

The app’s mechanism of posting pics, garnering ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ is an efficient system of investment, reward and validation, and is irresistible to our generation of instant gratification seekers. It’s an hourly hit of “You like me, you really like me”.

Of course, all this ‘liking’ has seen a rise in our other favourite activity: hating. The app has quickly become the new preferred way of social tracking. We take screengrabs on our phones of every misspelled caption or dodgy filter to gossip with friends. WhatsApp groups are awash with screengrabs of poorly-edited Insta posts revealing the trickery at work behind supposedly candid shots or tone-deaf sentiments ripe for public scrutiny and shaming — think of the Swedish influencer Natalie Schlater, who earlier this year posed in a white bikini in front of a Balinese rice field in which a man was bent double, working. The image was captioned, “Thinking about how different my life is from the man picking in the rice field every morning”, Schlater was swiftly pilloried in the court of social media.

I recently complained to a friend about the lack of space on my phone — the scourge of my generation — and she suggested I delete my screengrabs. I was outraged. “Are you calling me a bitch?” I railed. Then I checked the number of screenshots clogging my phone and there was a lot — like, more-photos-than-I-have-of-my-kids a lot. 

Social monitoring

In Ireland, this trend for social monitoring seemed to particularly take off, whether because of our innate penchant for begrudgery or simply the village mentality of a small island. Anonymous accounts began to spring up on Irish Instagram in the last year, “calling out” influencer transgressions, with one, ‘Bloggers Unveiled’ gaining so much traction — at one point it garnered more than 220,000 followers — it was referenced on RTE’s Morning Ireland and was covered in national newspapers. While these anonymous accounts frequently cited the outing of influencer misdemeanors as essential for educating younger, impressionable social-media users and encouraging them to question the scrolling perfection they see online, the tone often seemed closer to old-school bitching of the secondary-school variety. After all, if the intentions were so noble, why the need for anonymity?  

Of course, the constant exposure to perfection has led to a well-documented rise in mental-health issues, especially in young women suffering with self-esteem issues and obsessive comparison.

As we come to terms with each new consequence of technological advances, another appears to challenge us — it’s an idea explored in the speculative anthology series Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker in 2011. Each stand-alone episode considers the fallout wrought by tech possibilities evolving at such breakneck speed that our human ethical framework simply can’t, well, compute.   

In the years since it first aired, many of Brooker’s dystopian predictions have leapt from screens and come to pass, including a grotesque TV character running for political office; bots capable of imitating deceased loved ones; and the apparently imminent rollout of China’s social-credit system, which was skewered in one of Black Mirror’s most notorious episodes, ‘Nosedive’. The pastel-hued episode looks like an Instagram feed, and depicts a near-future where people can rate each other and affect their ‘score’ on a social-credit system. It looks like Instagram and it feels like Instagram, with status being measured by statistics not dissimilar to likes and followers.

Satirising a culture that is already pushing the envelope in terms of basic sanity is difficult, as Jack Wagner, creator of the comedy Like and Subscribe, found. “I would write a scene that I thought would be so ridiculous and absurd, and then a couple weeks later, it would happen in real life,” he said.

With my novel, Filter This, I was constantly coming up against a similar problem; it’s a scene often too ridiculous to parody. As I wrote the book, I’d question if I was being too outrageous with some of the OTT elements, but then I’d read about another influencer pulling some ludicrous stunt. It became a running joke; I’d come up with something I believed to be utterly bonkers, only for it to have happened already in real life. At the end of the day, when you’ve got people scripting their marriage proposal on this app, I guess there’s really no baseline of sanity there! Yes, you read that right. Earlier this year, the boyfriend of American fashion influencer Marissa Casey Fuchs put their elaborate 48-hour-long “surprise” holiday-scavenger-hunt engagement — yep, that’s a thing — out to tender among New York marketing agencies. The presentation, titled ‘Journey To Marriage’, was offering brands the chance to “align with this momentous occasion and the beautiful cities she will be visiting along the way”.

“This summer,” read the pitch. “Marissa of @fashionambitionist will be pulled into a surprise adventure created by the centre of her life, Gabriel. He will remotely ask her to take an unexpected and sentimental journey to him, a journey that will encompassing [sic] many familiar stops along the way that offer their own unique gifts…”

Seemingly at least some brands signed up for this engineered fairytale as gifts such as two diamond-and-gold necklaces from Jade Trau cropped up in the heavily documented, multi-day proposal extravaganza which played out in real-time, with meticulous detail on Instagram. Media outlets predictably lost their minds over this sideshow of perfection with headlines crowing, “Is this the most extravagant proposal EVER?” from the Daily Mail and “Gabriel Grossman’s Instagram Story proposal to Marissa Fuchs is what viral dreams are made of,” from Elite Daily.

Everything about the Fuchs-Grossman proposal perfectly sums up the strange, dystopian world of Instagram in 2019. What started as a fairly basic photo-sharing app in 2010 has become almost like a new dimension of augmented reality, where heavily filtered and edited people perform a perfect version of their lives online, often for audiences that media powerhouses would kill for. The New York Times, for example, boasts 4 million subscribers; meanwhile, singer Selena Gomez has 155 million Instagram followers.

Perfection sells on Instagram. Audiences respond to unlimited access, as long as the picture looks perfect. US influencer Taza (Naomi Davis) evidently makes enough to support her family of five kids by sharing impossibly wholesome and coordinated pics of family life; no small feat in New York City.

Audiences also respond to being #brave, as Australian influencer Belle Gibson discovered in the early 2010s, when she began documenting her miraculous recovery from brain cancer through diet on her Instagram. She netted legions of followers, a book deal, and a coveted spot on the then-new Apple watch, which launched in 2015 pre-loaded with her ‘Whole Pantry’ recipes app. The only problem with this affirming narrative? It was all a lie. Gibson had never had cancer; her facade of health and wellness hid a toxic compulsion to deceive — she’d even defrauded charities she’d claimed to work with.

The Belle Gibsons of the Insta-world are not extreme outliers. Insta-shams are now an accepted phenomenon. Gibson’s exposure was an influencer reckoning of sorts, in that it uncovered not only an individual transgression, but also our own part in the ecosystem of Instagram. We are the intended audience for this kind of stunt, and as much as we deride it, we are avid consumers of it also.

In Filter This, I wanted to explore how Instagram drives people to lie and fake their way to Insta-success. I realised what a dangerously pleasant bubble it is in which to exist, and how capturing ourselves at just the right angle or erasing our flaws in Facetune can be a gateway to all-out lying.

It’s undeniable that the app is addictive, and that’s no accident — co-founder Kevin Systrom majored in ‘symbolic systems’ at Stanford — a field that explores the intersection of psychology and computer science. The ‘likes’, ‘follows’ and ‘comments’ on the app are verging on narcotic, an anesthetic to the hurt and disappointment, the grief and boredom of daily existence. On Instagram — regardless of reality — you can erase the bad stuff, you can be your best you and your life can be your best life, and that is scarily attractive.

 

‘Filter This’, by Sophie White, €12.99, is published in trade paperback by Hachette Ireland, out now

 

The team

Photography by Kip Carroll

Styling by Chloe Brennan

Hair by Aidan Darcy, Brown Sugar, 50 South William St, D2. tel: (01) 616 -9967, or see brownsugar.ie

Hair Extensions provided by Great Lengths, for more information, see greatlengthshair.co.uk/ireland Application by Jolene McCarthy at the Hair Room, Blanchardstown, D15,  see thehairroom.ie

Make-up by Gillian O’Toole, Brown Sugar, 36 Main St, Blackrock, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 210-8630, or see brownsugar.ie

 

Fashion

All clothes, shoes and accessories from River Island, see riverisland.com

Location

Shot at Cafe En Seine, 40 Dawson St, D2. After a laborious eight-month refurbishment, Cafe en Seine reopened its doors last November and the results are simply stunning. This newly reimagined space now hosts a restaurant, five unique bars and a beautiful indoor Parisian street garden lined with real trees and a number of hip shopfronts. See cafeenseine.ie

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