We all die immediately of a Brazilian butt lift
Pivot To Image
I had reached the point of diminishing returns. I wanted to quit Twitter, but my fingers were as if possessed, typing command+n, tw, return at any lull in the workday, letting autofill take care of the rest. Like an old woman who finds herself at a familiar bus stop in her nightgown, I’d blink at the new window and wonder how I got there and where I’d intended to go. More than once I asked a friend to change my password and lock me out of my account. Weeks would go by without incident, sometimes months, but then a protest would break out, or my hometown would be on fire, and the old media was too slow with the news. I’d click Forgot password?, have a link sent to email, log on, catch up, lose my mind, and repeat the process.
By then it was summer 2018. Some days I opened my feed and felt like I was participating in a battle for hegemony. Twitter was where the fourth estate now gathered to talk to itself, and a struggle over what counted as common sense was underway. Yes, it is OK to punch a Nazi, one felt compelled to say to the old-guard publications as they awkwardly confronted the Trump era. Other days I felt like I was watching my peers tear each other apart for our collective amusement, as if we couldn’t remember whether this was our job. It was hard to tell sometimes — and it was really amusing. To be good at it was a new kind of talent. The best acts were irreverent, impulsive, zany, quick. They could be vicious or nihilistic, incoherent in the long run but meted out at such a drip that you didn’t notice or care. Lower-skilled participants doled out hearts to keep everyone going, like the bystanders who hand out cups of water at a marathon. But there was no way to leave, is how we felt, or how I felt.
The best practitioners had better boundaries than I did. “I never search my name on Twitter, of course not, it’s none of my business what people say about me,” said one friend who was particularly gifted in this form.
Finally, in July, I thought: I’m going to have a heart attack if I stay here.
I changed my password to thisisamassivewasteoftimeandnotthepurposeofyourlifeonearth.
I’d always liked pictures.
I told my friend, an art critic, that I was self-banishing to Instagram, the only social media platform that did not haunt me, get under my skin, and cause me to feel shortness of breath and numbness in my fingers. I had a theory that everyone was haunted by at least one of them, and which one depended on your insecurities, the type of people who gathered there, and the style of communication its interface allowed. I surveyed new acquaintances: “When you think, ‘Social media is terrible,’ which are you thinking of most?” For some the answer was Facebook — people with serious exes, political ambitions, MAGA family, or high school rivals. For me, and for others overwhelmed by the hyperacceleration of news commentary, it was Twitter.
Instagram felt innocent by comparison. No one I knew cared about it or made a living on it. The people who confessed a troubled relationship with the platform were visual artists, which I was not; prone to FOMO, which was not my flavor of social anxiety; or influencers concerned with a standard of perfection that was not my standard, and so I felt immune. For the most part Instagram people preached positivity and contentment, and reminded themselves and their followers that the aesthetic harmony attainable in images was fleeting, not sustainable as a way of life. Instagram people did not seem mean or clever. They were earnest and sincere. They drank green smoothies and went on hikes, sought personal bests, good health, peace of mind, and oneness with the universe. They believed every day was a beautiful day to be alive. Leaving Twitter for Instagram was like moving to Los Angeles, only cheaper. I knew people who’d gone west to convalesce and to retire from public life. Maybe Instagram would be like that for me.
I told the art critic that I needed a rest for my mind, and that I was enjoying this stream of pure images. It was all squares, squares, squares of people’s children and flowers and dogs and sunsets and friends and family and parties and workouts and whatever else they saw that day.
“I’m loving it!” I said. “It’s so simple!”
She rolled her eyes at me. “Yeah,” she said, “because everyone knows images are totally uncomplicated and true and exactly what they announce themselves to be.”
But I wasn’t chastened. I felt like I was onto something beyond the hermeneutics of suspicion. I just made a private note not to talk to her about Instagram again.
By this time I had already been on Instagram for six years, long enough to have developed misgivings about it — but the platform was such a reprieve from the moment’s psychic turmoil that I didn’t dwell on them. To do so would be like to spend one’s vacation researching the detrimental effects of tourism: a wise, just, and morally superior choice, but objectively not the point.
If I was operating under a willful innocence, it helped that I’d started in 2012 with a rule: only follow people you know. Even then I’d felt like I was being hosed daily with unwanted opinions, ideas, emotions, and headlines on Facebook and Twitter, and the idea that I could start fresh with a limited intake made me feel safe. My Instagram account was not private — anyone could follow me — but I kept a tight door on my feed. There was no share, retweet, or reblog feature on Instagram; people would have to go out of their way to show me things by people I didn’t follow, and most didn’t bother. The network was limited. Nothing I didn’t want to see would appear in the timeline. The environment was still and sane.
I took pleasure in my output, which I maintained for myself. My early photos were all studium, framed to impart a controlled meaning. In hindsight they suggest a person still working in a linguistic frame of mind. Things like: a bus enrobed in rainbow vinyl that said bourgeois tours. A small statue of the Virgin Mary in a restaurant window, palms out in her blue and white robes, beside a sanitary inspection sign that read grade pending. An air freshener for a car called POISON Fragrance with the second word written in script. A row of boxes for a product called Nasopure, a sinus wash system, showing a woman smiling into the sun with water streaming out of one nostril, next to a smaller box with a little girl, also with water streaming out of one nostril, and the added copy, “little squirt to go.” Screenshots of text messages from friends at work, including one that said, “Literally just cleaned Parmesan cheese out of toddlers vagina.” A page I was assigned to fact-check at the gossip magazine where I worked part-time, featuring photos of Miley Cyrus wearing no pants, bra, underwear, or shoes, provisionally titled Miley Clothes TK. Puns. A few moodier, artistic choices, like a highway billboard wishing Jesus a happy birthday, or a dramatic shadow cast by a bridge over a building’s facade.
Later I moved into the more casual territory of photos of my friends, as children and adults; photos of my cat; photos of the Afrofuturist murals in my neighborhood; photos of my family on vacation. I continued to take lots of pictures of signs, vanity plates, and found tableaux that suggested a narrative, like a real dead rat I saw curled up on the sidewalk on my way to work, surrounded by nine pink tablets that looked as if they’d been arranged by a human. Sometimes I used filters, which turned my surrounds high contrast and old-timey. The bar for content was low.
How did I choose what to post? If I was walking down the street in company and stopped to say, “Sorry, I just have to take a picture of this,” usually that was sufficient. A random, inchoate force was at work — the snap reflex of humor or taste. Elaine Scarry writes in On Beauty and Being Just that it’s characteristic of beauty to compel us to reproduce what we see. We behold a beautiful vista or flower or face, and we want to draw it, to photograph it, to copy it and possess it and protect it. In my experience, the same holds true for ugly things that nevertheless delight. “Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster,” Scarry writes. “It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living.” That was how I felt about the rat.
Posting was its own separate pleasure. I would eventually come to post for attention, like everyone else — I, too, was a parched marathoner on mile ten, reaching for a cup of water — but early on, when nobody liked my pictures, I still found it gratifying to post. The satisfaction of self-publishing is difficult to describe. To press a button and see your own excrescence appear in the preordained format, minted, can feel like a kind of magic. It can make you feel like you count.
But as I said, what people saw from me was less important to my mental health than what I saw of them. Hence the rule to only follow people I knew. For two years, that was a clean, easy test.
Then one night someone asked me, “Did you know that Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union are married?”
“What!!” I screamed, as if I cared about basketball or Gabrielle Union. I suppose I did, enough to pull up Dwyane Wade’s profile.
“Wow,” I said.
“Good for them!” I said.
“I’m following!!” I said.
Soon afterward, my friend Caroline asked me if I’d seen something Lena Dunham had posted.
“I only follow people I know personally,” I explained. “And Dwyane Wade.”
“That’s dumb,” she said. “You should follow Lena.”
She blew cigarette smoke out the side of her mouth and said, “Sure. It’s a good follow. I mean, you don’t have to. Do whatever you want. It’s your Instagram.”
From there I began to relax my definition of an acquaintance. Someone I met online? A writer I’d worked with but never met in person? Someone I liked from the other platform, where I followed with greater abandon? Someone with ten-plus mutuals who I’d probably seen at a party? Why not. Before long, I was looking at a lot of people I’d never met and never intended to.
Genres of Instagram I came to recognize after this door opened were: archival photography, astrology meme, travel photography, cooking/baking, fitness/exercise, political meme, celebrity stan, street fashion, makeup/drag, time-lapse photography, architecture/design, tactile or “satisfying,” cross-platform meme (e.g., screenshots from Twitter), female influencer, historical, inspirational, animal rescue, literary, home decor, viral dance, gymnastic/acrobatic, ceramic, houseplant care, illustration, and softcore pornography. Some trends were easier to decipher than others. For a period of six months I noticed a number of Americans visiting Portugal and posting pictures of painted tile. Why did the tile look so good here? I overthought it for a while and then realized Instagram was already tiles. Why all the houseplants? Because we spend too much time indoors, and they photograph well.
The first genre account I loved was @chillwildlife, an account dedicated to animals in human or otherwise comic situations. A dog riding a horse, a hamster sharpening a pencil, a pigeon on the subway, a sleeping pig in a blanket nosing its way toward a strategically placed chocolate chip cookie. Nine golden retrievers cruising happily on a motorcycle, driven by a man with another golden retriever on his lap. Simple pleasures. A balm at the end of the workday.
Each night I lay in my bed beside my boyfriend with one eye closed against the pillow, the other eye open, and wheeled down Instagram’s infinite scroll. Each morning I woke up to my phone alarm and rolled over to tap it off and, if I had time, looked at Instagram half-asleep. I easily spent an hour on it a day — in bed, on the subway, or at my desk during lunch. Compared with the hours I spent elsewhere on the internet, it felt like nothing.
What would I see? A fitness personality lunging across the sand. An adopted cat squirming in a paper bag. A Frank Lloyd Wright building. A sourdough loaf. A friend coming out as nonbinary. A mirror selfie. Handstand tutorial. Gallery opening. Nightclub candid. Outfit of the day. Medal from the Brooklyn half. New floating shelves. Screenshot of an article titled, “A 140-year-old tortoise wearing her 5-day-old son as a hat.” Protest. Crashing waves. Gabrielle Union’s baby. Wedding kiss. Friend’s young mom at the peak of her beauty for Mother’s Day. Ina Garten in a witch’s hat. Detail of a Bruegel painting. Brown egg in a white void, posted to @world_record_egg [verified blue checkmark], with the caption, “Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram, beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)! We got this [hands up emoji].” By the time I saw it, the egg had 53,764,664 likes. The comments read:
What does the egg mean?
That’s a trick question.
The egg doesn’t mean anything.
World records are meaningless in a culture defined by historical amnesia and the relentless invention of categories, I thought, and double tapped to like the egg.
A woman sniffing a bouquet. #NotAllGeminis. A Lana Del Rey impersonator. A child in sunglasses. A lower-body workout (no weights). A man smiling with his dinner. A chihuahua in a Cheetos bag. New York Fashion Week. New tattoo. Bird in flight. Fire Island vacation. Figures of the 20th century, recently passed: David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Debbie Reynolds, Aretha Franklin.
And yet for all that I only dreamed about Instagram once, after finding an account through @chillwildlife dedicated to a dog named Pam.
Pam’s owner was a young woman named Courtney, an animal lover and seamstress who goes by @napkinapocalypse. Courtney lived in Carpinteria, a beach town east of Santa Barbara, with her then boyfriend, a professional surfer. She made funny videos about their baby son, Sammy, and the animals who lived on their property, an array of pigeons, dogs, roosters, chickens, and Cooper’s hawks that periodically attacked the pigeons. I loved her sense of humor, her sense of color, the editing choices she made in her videos. The way she was with her baby — goofy, unprecious, like he was just another animal to be loved — made me less terrified of parenting. And I loved Pam, the patient black French bulldog with thick rolls of neck skin who @napkinapocalypse ventriloquized, dressed up in sunglasses and a denim jacket, and drove around in a remote-control convertible. I was proud when a video of Pam aired on Good Morning America. I laughed at a slideshow of Sammy sobbing at the petting zoo because a goat got too close to his ear, scored to “The Whisper Song” by the Ying Yang Twins. Over time, I watched Sammy take his first steps, watched him fall in love with the garbage man, watched him learn how to swim, first by belly-flopping and floating inert in the water. I watched @napkinapocalypse and her boyfriend get married in their backyard, jump into the pool in their dress and suit, and later have two more children, twin girls. Years passed. Both Pam and her fellow dog, Boogie, fell ill and died.
I liked everything @napkinapocalypse made. Her output, to me, was the best of what social media had to offer. She didn’t need Instagram to be who she was, but the things that she made gave me a reason to look.
Then, in 2015, she appeared in my dream. I was at a garden party in Carpinteria, celebrating Easter with my parents and their neighbor, @napkinapocalypse. It was a casual, cheerful party, with streamers and sheet cake and eggs hidden all over the yard, but the afternoon wore on and I needed a break. I passed through the sliding glass doors into @napkinapocalypse’s living room, a white, sunken, open-plan room filled with sunlight and divided by sectionals. I sat down on the floor beside some toys that hadn’t been put away. I was admiring the houseplants when @napkinapocalypse walked in.
“Hi!” I said.
“Hi,” she said. She paused, hesitated, did a half-turn to look over her shoulder and then back at me. “Can I help you with something?”
“Oh, no,” I said, mussing the tufted carpet. “I was just tired. I thought I would take a break and hang out with Pam and Sammy . . .”
But as I said this I realized I’d made a horrible mistake. @napkinapocalypse did not actually know my parents, certainly not well enough for me to be in her house. I scrambled to my feet.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I was confused.”
She nodded, a little afraid.
I offered to let myself out.
I woke up embarrassed by my unconscious. I stayed embarrassed — too embarrassed, for a while, to look at her Instagram.
Then two strange things happened, which in retrospect I realize may have been warnings. Not long after my Pam dream, I was visiting a friend and her husband at their Airbnb in Laurel Canyon when she introduced me to two friends of hers, a man and a woman. Outside it was cold but sunny, so we sat in a clearing in the steep backyard where the owners had placed a picnic table and a clay chiminea. I tended the fire while my friend made introductions. After a few minutes of small talk, the man said, “Are you @dtortorici on Instagram?”
I was alarmed. I didn’t have enough followers to be known.
He gently placed his two hands on his chest and said, “@dotkalm.”
How can I describe the feeling that passed over me? Here was a person I’d never met, whose name I hadn’t known, whose picture I’d never seen, who had a website I’d followed many years ago and whose neglected Instagram I’d recently found. The website was called the New York Thymes and showcased selected clips and bloopers from CNN.com. I’d watched them at three in the morning with my coeditors at the college newspaper, waiting for the latest issue to travel from our local server to the printer’s. Our favorite video was a segment about a lost kitten who found its way home, shot low to the ground to simulate the kitten’s point of view. Our second favorite was a segment about hedge funds, in which a newscaster in a trench coat stalked menacingly through a hedge maze. There were endless human-interest stories with chyron epithets like Chad Lester: Engaged, Frances Rosario: Found Jewelry In Burrito, Dan Bell: Bought Snack, Lindsay Scallan: Lost Camera In Hawaii, Marc Rosenthal: Was Lost In Apple Orchard, Sarah Purnell: Friend Of Couch Boat Creator. At three in the morning, the videos made life vivid, animated, living, worth living.
I hugged him, to everyone’s confusion, and we returned to conversation. But I was high on the encounter and over-stoked the fire, not noticing the heat in the belly of the chiminea or the black smoke streaming out the top until an adjacent branch of sage was in flames.
“Shit shit shit shit shit,” I said, and threw my drink on it. My friend’s husband ran down to the house, grabbed a vase, filled it with water, and poured it on the fire. I ran after him in a useless panic. Once it was out, I stood panting by the steaming brush, amazed at all the excitement. I wondered what it meant, if anything.
Two years later, I was arriving at a birthday party with my friend Sarah when I saw an old friend on the sidewalk. We joined his circle of smokers, and he introduced us to a woman I recognized from Instagram. We had mutual friends, she and I, and I’d followed her because I thought she was funny. I told her so.
“Oh . . . thanks,” she said. “That’s nice.”
“No really, you are!” I said, and took the spliff she offered.
We began to talk about the strangeness of meeting people first encountered online. Was it unique to our era, or were there analogues in the past? I began to tell the story of @dotkalm — of our chance meeting, how happy it made me, and how surprised I was at my happiness. How was this even possible, this eternal volley between mimesis and life, mimesis and life, through which you could discover a stranger who felt like a friend, but a friend from whom you needed nothing? How could you appreciate it without sounding like a stalker, or a fan, when the feeling was more like running into a neighbor from a past life? How amazing that a person could simply appear, and you could simply like them, and leave it at that? I was talking faster and faster, rambling on the outbreath, extending my sentence a few extra words even though I desperately needed to breathe. My friends were nodding. I leaned against the wall of a building and all of a sudden felt very tired.
“I’m tired,” I said.
I felt a hard, throbbing pressure on my forehead. You slept in again, I thought.
My old friend was calling my name. I turned my head on the pavement toward his voice. His eyes were sideways and full of parental concern. He looked like I looked unwell.
“You fainted,” he said.
I was embarrassed. I sat on the curb with a scraped face while Sarah gave me a tissue to dab my forehead and a bottle of water to drink. She called my boyfriend, who was planning to meet us anyway. In ten minutes he was stepping out of a cab.
“What happened?” he said. “She talked so much she passed out?”
“We were talking about the internet,” said Sarah. “She got a little excited.”
“Ah,” he said. “The internet again!”
The closest I came to experiencing an Instagram subculture was through following fitness accounts between 2016 and 2018. I was in my late twenties and had rediscovered a passion for exercise. I belonged to a gym, but needed things to do, something better than running or cycling. Instagram was a fount of ideas.
It began when my friend Emma and I started noticing a woman at our gym — a blonde in her forties, impressively jacked — who was there whenever we went. We might see her doing pull-ups, or kettlebells, or resistance bands, or donkey kicks on the Smith machine. Every time we marveled at her strength.
One day Emma whipped out her phone and said, “Dude. I found her on Instagram.”
We started calling her FitKitty, after her handle.
In the morning before work, I might see Emma at the gym doing something staggering, like single-leg deadlifts on a box with a sandbag over her head, plus burpees, plus Turkish get-ups, and timed rests between sprints. “What is that?” I’d ask.
Or we might be doing partner exercises, two-person routines we’d seen on Instagram, and gym people would ask us what program we were doing.
From there we branched out. I appreciated FitKitty’s workouts, but was depressed by her meals of salmon and avocado, the brownie muffins she made from black beans, and the faux ice creams she whipped up in her $450 blender using ice, homemade nut milk, protein powder, and low-calorie natural sweeteners I’d never heard of, like xylitol. Her followers led me to other exercise addicts, who led me to more addicts, and soon I discovered the world of independent sponsored athletes: people, mostly women, who worked out all day and were paid in tights and crop tops by athleisure brands to do so.
The independent sponsored athletes made oceans of content. Many of them were YouTubers who had crossed over to Instagram, and a surprising number were from Australia or the UK. They were also young. I watched more than one video in which a nervous, tearful twentysomething confessed that she was dropping out of uni because her heart wasn’t in it anymore; what she really wanted, she said, was to make content full-time. Most wore makeup or false eyelashes as they squatted twice their body weight and pushed sleds across the floor. All wanted to build their glutes [peach emoji] and to strengthen their posterior chains. All demonstrated a monomaniacal commitment to exercise and set their videos to royalty-free electronic music with chopped chipmunk vocals. On the morning of November 9, 2016, even the Americans were still squatting, doing HIIT, breaking PRs, without interruption.
From time to time they cracked. “I look nice and smug in this photo,” said a popular woman powerlifter I liked, “but I’m considering making a YouTube video about my recent nervous breakdown/identity crisis.” Through her I learned about the mechanics of Facetune, a photo editing app that allows you to smooth cellulite, shrink waistlines, whiten sclera, and disappear acne with little technical skill. I knew about the app from trans women I followed who used it to soften jawlines and erase Adam’s apples, a sort of spot-treatment for dysphoria that brought their likeness closer to the ideal. Their offhand references to Facetune suggested that image manipulation wasn’t empowerment, just something you could control when your health insurance didn’t cover facial feminization surgery. The athletes, less forthright about their body-image issues, were cagier about their usage.
In the powerlifter’s video about Facetune, she said she felt hypocritical for editing her photos while championing body acceptance and strength-building for women. If she couldn’t walk the walk, at least she would talk about it. She was not the only one. Such confessional double-consciousness was everywhere on fitstagram. Women posted before-and-after photos sixty seconds apart to demonstrate the powerful effects of posing. Before: a slumping, bloated person with her tailbone tucked. After: a composed physique model with a popped heel and a perfect ass. Some accounts informed their followers that bikini competitors and fitness models do not maintain six-packs all year: they cut for competitions, do photoshoots, and stockpile pictures to post in the offseason when they need to eat again. But no matter how much consciousness-raising they did, they were still under the spell of the image and strove to live up to it.
I wish I could say I watched this all from a cool, critical distance. In truth, my self-image began to prune from swimming so long in the sea of fitstagram. I spent too much time at the gym and worried about my forward head position — an affliction common to people who spend too much time on their phones. My Explore page, which drives users via algorithm toward content similar to what they’ve seen or liked, became a mosaic of increasingly extreme exercisers. Looking at competitive bodybuilders, I caught myself thinking they didn’t look all that weird. This is how dysmorphia works, I thought; the algorithm only encourages it, nudging you toward extremity. And yet it cut both ways: the more body-positive accounts I looked at as a counterweight, the more the Explore page fed me body-positive imagery. All images train the eye, and consistent exposure to fat bodies rewires the brain just as much as consistent exposure to thin ones. It brought to mind a moment in Pumping Iron, the ’70s bodybuilding documentary, in which a young Arnold Schwarzenegger attempts to explain the mindset of the subculture.
“I mean, obviously a lot of people look at you and they think it’s kind of strange, what you’re doing,” he says. “But those are the people who don’t know much about it. . . . As soon as you find out what the whole thing is about, then it’s just like another thing.”
Everything on Instagram was like that. Once you found out about it, it was just another thing.
For a while Instagram brought me joy. My anxiety symptoms subsided, all my friends were here, and I loved to see their faces. But absent the toxic alternative, Instagram began to slip from its former place in my esteem.
Elaine Scarry writes that “beauty is sometimes disparaged on the ground that it causes a contagion of imitation, as when a legion of people begin to style themselves after a particular movie starlet, but this is just an imperfect version of a deeply beneficent momentum toward replication.” The beneficent replication she’s referring to is reproduction: “Beauty, as both Plato’s Symposium and everyday life confirm, prompts the begetting of children,” she writes. “When the eye sees someone beautiful, the whole body wants to reproduce the person.”
Scarry is writing a defense of beauty, and so can be forgiven for calling beauty’s role in infinite replication beneficent when it is at best indeterminate. Examples of detriment and neutrality abound. One afternoon, Dr. Phil was playing on the monitor above the elliptical. The sound was off, but closed captions were on. I pulled out my phone to take a picture, just in time to catch
WHEN SHE DIED IMMEDIATELY AFTER
GETTING A BRAZILIAN BUTT LIFT.
Frozen under the text was a selfie of a woman wearing a paper hospital gown and a blue hairnet. Instantly I knew that the picture I’d taken, of image and caption, was too dark for Instagram, too dark even for Stories, the feature that lets you post images and videos that autodelete after twenty-four hours. This woman died, I think. Died.
Will the enduring aesthetic legacy of Instagram be the Kardashian-Jenner woman, the figure on which all plastic surgeries and cosmetic procedures of the 2010s converge? I cannot imagine Instagram without the ass fetish, or the ass fetish without the Kardashians, or the Kardashians without Instagram. Other beauty trends have waxed and waned. Recall the meme: “When she says you won’t be able to find a girl like her but it’s 2016 and everyone looks like this.” Below, twenty tiled photos of different but identically styled women’s eyebrows, thick, arched, and completely filled in. Ludicrous, yet everybody wanted it. Perhaps the ass will go the way of the eyebrow.
This would be the place to speak about René Girard, about influencers, about the mise en abyme of mimetic desire: we want what other people want because other people want it, and it’s penciled-in eyebrows all the way down, down to the depths of the nth circle of hell where we all die immediately of a Brazilian butt lift, over and over again. But what is there to say? We know it, we know it, we know it. Still we keep scrolling, deeper down the well of our bottomless need.
But do we know it? The full extent of manipulation on this platform, the psychological complexity and the degree of social engineering involved? Yes and no. As of this writing, Instagram has an estimated value of over $100 billion, one hundred times what Facebook bought it for in 2012. It is a data-collection business and a media-selling business. Third-party indexing tools glean data from what you post and sell it in the form of brand analytics — or as information for governments, security and surveillance firms, and corporations. Images posted to Instagram are used by Facebook to help train its proprietary image-recognition software. And, of course, Facebook-owned Instagram tracks your movements across the internet, and hints that it is stalking you in ways both subtle and not.
Occasionally someone or something lifts the veil. In July 2019, Instagram crashed, and for a brief period users had the unusual experience of scrolling through their feeds and seeing, in the place of images, image-recognition metadata as blue text in pale gray squares. The text read:
Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, text
Image may contain: 1 person, close up
Image may contain: night, sky and outdoor
Image may contain: 1 or more people, people sitting, shoes and indoor
I imagined sentient robots thumbing through photos. This is how they’d see us, I thought: in Terminator vision.
When Instagram introduced advertisements in 2013 it suddenly seemed like every fifth image in my feed was an ad. Then I counted and every third or fourth post was an ad. With time they grew uncannily specific. An ad for a bar cart from a furniture start-up, on which stood a selection of magazines, including n+1 — my employer — next to a speckled philodendron. An ad for a minimalist women’s clothing brand based in San Francisco, modeled by the younger sister of a poet I’d recently met. I was being reached by Facebook Ads Manager through detailed targeting, which I knew existed: users who like Bon Appétit, live in Brooklyn, between the ages of 18 and 35, should see this ad. But this was being stalked on another level. By the end of 2019, I half expected to see my own likeness in an ad served just to me — me in minimalist clothing, reading n+1 beside a bar cart.
What were other people seeing? I realized I had no idea. Whereas I once watched TV ads with interest — especially those geared toward men during the football games my boyfriend watched, the car commercials and beer commercials and pharmaceutical commercials for hair loss and erectile dysfunction — on Instagram I saw only myself. It was easier to see ideology at work on other people, and at least those TV ads gave me a sense of what strings of the American male psyche advertisers were choosing to pull. Now I was alone with my ads, in a filter bubble of one.
Over group text, I asked my friends what ads they got.
A and B got gender-neutral underwear and dyke brands, “usually with ‘dapper’ in the name,” said B.
C got the dyke brands too, with one pushing “a very specific linen jumpsuit.”
D got period underwear and semipermanent cruelty-free hair dye.
E got the hair dye and the athleisure brand that four more of us got.
F said, “I just got an exxon mobil ad send help.”
G got direct-to-consumer jewelry and the magazine where she worked, as did H, as did I.
J and I got egg freezing, bras, and a humanitarian aid organization whose ads featured photos of starving Yemeni children.
Only I got health-food meal kits and online counseling for depression and anxiety. I took a screenshot of the latter and sent it to the chat with a frowny face.
HAHA, G tapped back.
LOSER, said G.
JK, said G.
What had I expected? More overlap, more commiseration, more opportunities to discern the pattern in the particulars, as the second-wave feminists had in their consciousness-raising groups. Instead, talking about Instagram ads was like blurting out a dream only to have someone say, “Isn’t that a telltale sign of [extremely specific and humiliating condition]?” To attempt generalization was to hazard self-revelation, with no guarantee of illumination or gain. Instagram grows on subjectivity like a fungus whose shape and color varies from person to person, and to describe what it feels like to live with it is not to describe how it works. Nor is it to describe what it feels like for anyone else — a fact of which this essay is evidence.
Inside and Outside
Meanwhile, Instagram was leaving its trace on the physical world. People in search of ’grammable content were mobbing restaurants, public lands, and private neighborhoods in greater numbers, causing their stewards to think differently about design and crowd control. I read an article about rue Crémieux in Paris, where residents of pastel-painted houses were begging for a gate so tourists would stop taking photos in front of them. “It’s become hell,” the vice president of the street association told a local news website. “On weekends we get 200 people outside our windows. Our dinner table is right by the window and people are just outside taking pictures.”
An article on NPR suggested Instagram was driving more visitors to national parks in pursuit of the perfect image. In 2018, the article reported, “a California woman fell to her death at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan while trying to take a selfie.” At Yellowstone in 2015, a woman “was gored by a bison while attempting to get a selfie with the animal.” Park officials created a voluntary pledge for visitors that included the phrase, “No picture is worth hurting yourself, others, or the park.”
Land preservation was also a concern. An anonymous curmudgeon started the Instagram account @publiclandshateyou to shame Instagram tourists for their thoughtless treatment of nature reserves and wilderness areas. “Social media has begun turning digital footprints into real physical footprints that are having an astounding negative impact in the real world,” they wrote on Publiclandshateyou.com. “Trampled wildflower fields on [Bureau of Land Management] land. . . . Swimming holes filled with glass in our National Forests. . . . Drones buzzing overhead in our wilderness areas. All because ‘doing it for the Gram’ is more important than actually enjoying the natural beauty around us.” In spring 2019, Miley Cyrus posted a photo of herself hanging from a Joshua tree, an endangered plant known for its delicate root system. The Mojave Desert Land Trust begged her to take it down.
By then it was obvious that Instagram was changing the built environment, too. Cafés, bars, and themed fun houses called “museums” were being constructed and designed to appear on the grid. Art museums realized that programming exhibitions with built-in opportunities for “user-generated content,” or UGC, repaid in free, “organic” promotion. As the artist and brand strategist Dena Yago explained in her 2018 essay “Content Industrial Complex,”
While UGC is produced en masse and at will, a company’s marketing plan may include a UG C campaign that broadcasts a call to action, or “CTA,” designed to provoke an immediate response. In the realm of social media, this response is often the creation of more content — the posting of selfies, photos, and videos. . . . Brands will also look to the volume of UGC produced as a metric for their own success — in which case your UGC is directly generating value for the brand while you walk away empty handed, save for some immaterial likes.
Yago named the exhibitions that best exemplified the “shift in art towards the exhibition as content farm”: Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Rooms, “Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest,” Anne Imhof’s Faust, Random International’s Rain Room, Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, “anything at all by James Turrell.” I thought of these shows when I saw “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at the Guggenheim the following winter. A female mystic who partook in many séances, Klint refused to show her work while she was alive. Before she died, in 1944, she expressed a wish to have her paintings exhibited in a spiral temple. The Guggenheim, built in 1959, is a spiral temple.
On the one hand this was a miracle. So rarely does our present seem like a future the past would have wanted, this embarrassment of a world, with its neofascism and technology addiction and carbon levels rising and all of us incapable of handling it. But our present was at least one woman’s desired possible future, the future in which Klint’s paintings could be hung in a spiral temple. It ought to have been reassuring, but all I could think about were the people posting photos of the paintings to Instagram, where they harmonized with the visual language of the platform: pale pinks, soft geometric abstraction.
New storefronts and restaurants were likewise optimized for the image. Considerations like comfort, accessibility, and acoustics were secondary to visual appeal. It was as if the landscape itself had dysmorphia, altering its physical appearance to fit an arbitrary standard that undermined its primary function. But maybe I had it backward. Maybe the point of a physical space was no longer to shelter physical people. Maybe a storefront was a marketing tool for a direct-to-consumer internet start-up, the way a website was once a marketing tool for a brick-and-mortar store. Glossier. Everlane. Warby Parker. The Sill. Walking into such places felt like walking into an app. They always looked smaller in person, like actors who are shorter in real life.
A Period Of Darkness
By fall 2019 I came to understand Instagram dwellers as broken people — my people. If I was getting depressed, so was everyone else. The algorithm’s hall-of-mirrors effect seemed to be at work again: more and more people were posting about staying in, struggling with their mental health, and finding a community of fellow sufferers on the platform. But it wasn’t just me and my algorithm. Other people were growing disenchanted and reclusive, and think pieces confirmed the trend. Tavi Gevinson published a New York magazine cover story chronicling her ambivalence about growing up on Instagram. The Atlantic claimed “The New Instagram It Girl Spends All Her Time Alone” and described how influencers were staging more selfies at home to appear relatable to their followers. Home-delivery services, loungewear brands, and weighted-blanket manufacturers were all well poised to capitalize.
Then I encountered the Agoraphobic Traveller. At a live performance for Pop-Up Magazine, the emcee cued the lights for a message from their sponsor. The stage lights dimmed and a four-minute video told the story of Jacqui, a fortysomething woman with a thick New Zealand accent who’d started having severe panic attacks in her twenties. “Eventually I was diagnosed with agoraphobia,” she said in voice-over as the camera caught her face through a windowpane. For a while she struggled to travel far from home. “It’s not living life. It’s not a life, when you’re just constantly not in a good place.”
Then she hit a turning point. Jacqui was looking at Google Street View one day when she thought to take screenshots of vistas or tableaux she liked. “I’ve always loved photography,” she said. “This gave me the opportunity to be a photographer but without having that anxious feeling.”
“I think that I’ve taken around 27,000 screenshots,” she told the camera.
Jacqui created an Instagram account, @streetview.portraits, to share the screenshots she took. In the video, the camera showed Jacqui looking at one of her Instagram posts, a washed-out image of two camels in the desert, scrolling over the comments.
“Now I feel more connected to the world than I ever have before,” she said.
With help from Google, Jacqui traveled to New York for an exhibition of her photos in SoHo, called “The Agoraphobic Traveller.” The video showed Jacqui in a cab, Jacqui on the plane. The camera trailed her arriving at the gallery, her shoulders hiked and hands in her pockets. Inside, she smiled and relaxed. “If you’re struggling and you’re keeping it to yourself . . . it definitely doesn’t help,” she said. “Please don’t give up, know that it can get better and it does get better.”
I was happy for Jacqui, but the video disturbed me deeply. I found it pernicious and thought about it for days. The message was benign — technology connects you to the world — but I couldn’t shake the subtext: that if Google and Instagram had an ideal user, it might be a creative person who could not, would not, leave her home.
Ways Of Peeping
In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies is a housebound magazine photographer laid up with a broken leg and “nothing to do but look out the window.” Across the courtyard is a dollhouse of parallel lives that he can watch unfold from his wheelchair. There’s the blond “bikini bombshell” — “Miss Torso,” he calls her — who stretches and twirls in her underwear while she butters her breakfast toast; Mr. Thorwald, the costume jewelry salesman, who tends a flower garden and a sick, unhappy wife; “Miss Lonelyhearts,” a single woman who pantomimes a candlelit dinner for two before she drinks and cries herself to sleep; and other nameless neighbors who are less intriguing but still worth watching.
The view from Jeff’s rear window calls to mind Henry James’s “house of fiction,” which “has not one window but a million.” It also recalls the view from Instagram. As Durga Chew-Bose writes in an essay on the film, “Jeff sits and stares out his window like we sit and scroll, and double tap.” He spins stories about his neighbors, like we do “about strangers . . . based on their Instagram accounts.” The ethical implications were fraught then as now. “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” says Stella, the insurance company nurse who checks in on Jeff and admonishes him. “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How’s that for a bit of homespun philosophy?”
“Reader’s Digest, April 1939,” says Jeff.
“Well, I only quote from the best,” says Stella.
Modern voyeurism has precedents, even the multiple-window kind. The entangled dynamics of who sees whom and who knows they’re being seen have always been present. Where Instagram seems truly new — beyond the introduction of machine learning and commercial surveillance to the mix — is in the strange instability of the viewer’s position as a subject. A voyeur knows what kind of viewer he is, but looking at Instagram, you are not always a voyeur. Neither are you always a witness, nor any other single kind of watcher. Each post interpellates you differently. Your implied identity slips with each stroke of the thumb.
If you’re me, scrolling through Instagram, you’re the confidant being whispered to by a face shot from under the chin. You’re the recipient of a holiday card from a family in matching turtlenecks. You’re the magazine subscriber flipping through editorials. You’re the woman standing in front of the screen miming the aerobic movements of your instructor. You’re the mother, adult height, looking down at her child. You’re the lunch companion peering across the table. You’re the customer browsing for deals. You’re the scholar sifting through archives. You’re the fan admiring Beyoncé. You’re the mirror, reflecting the image of the photographer. You’re the photographer, seeing through her eyes. You’re the phone.
Or you’re the voyeur at the window, trying to get a closer look — in which case the villain who enters your private space, not through the window but through the front door, is the ads.
A week into writing this essay, I began to see ads about it on Instagram. The bar cart came back, this time with different magazines on the shelf. So did the “life-transforming, plant-rich super meals delivered to your door,” and the forward-head-position posture corrector, a piece of plastic you stick to your spine that buzzes whenever you slouch. I was served an ad for a New York Times article about facial-recognition technology, and an ad for the Wall Street Journal featuring an illustration of a teen girl looking despondent in bed; a phone on the bedside table showed two girls smiling and surrounded by hearts. The caption read, “Young Americans have become unwitting guinea pigs in today’s huge, unplanned experiment with social media, and teenage girls are bearing much of the brunt.”
The US government has been slow to respond to the scope of this experiment. The European Union has been more aggressive. In response to pressure from EU regulators, Facebook is now more transparent about data. For the first time, I can see the names of companies who have uploaded my information to the platform: Predictive Media Analytics LLC, Nielsen, LiveRamp, Acxiom, ADARA, Oracle Data Cloud, Wunderman Data Products, SocialCode, TowerData. The company has also given users some measure of control over ad settings. Following the directions in an article I found online, I switched Ads based on data from other partners — meaning data about websites I’d visited or purchases I’d made on my credit card — to Not allowed. I switched Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere, which I didn’t understand, to Not allowed. I switched Ads that include your social actions, meaning ads telling friends I liked certain products, to be shown to No One. Overnight, my Instagram ads became delightful.
“My dear Queen, please choose a maid that you like,” read the prompt at the bottom of one sponsored post for an iPhone game. My choices were enchanting, a sumptuous brunette in a beaded purple bodice; ordinary, a more modestly sexy brunette with bridal head jewelry; and humble, a friendly-hot brunette with cat-eye makeup in a dirty blue frock. The demo cursor, a white woman’s hand with hot pink nails, hovered over humble. In another phone-game ad, a pregnant cartoon blonde in gold hoops stood beside a pink sectional with a lacy black bra strewn across it. “What’s that? It’s not mine!” she cried. Two options appeared in bubble format: check in the room . . . or run away crying.
I loved this garbage, but my life as a generic nontarget, a recipient of ads for Amazon Influencers, corny T-shirts, and trashy iPhone games, was short lived. I simply spent too much time on Instagram for it not to relearn what it knew before I wiped the slate. I wish I could wipe it again.
The speed of machine learning is startling, often creepy. It’s hard to tell what is creepier: the feeling that someone is somewhere out there, following your every step, or the fact that no one is, just the tracking device you carry with you in your pocket. I still give Instagram an hour a day, for the intermittent pleasure it brings. A built-in timer reminds me when my time is up.
Late at night in bed I get an ad for a meditation app meant to aid with sleep. It’s midnight and I’m browsing stories.
Addicted to instagram? says the ad.
Below is a poll with two options: Yes and How’d you know.
I tap my answer and the poll reveals its results.
Forty-nine percent clicked How’d you know.