On weekend mornings, I make coffee and toast and catch up on the blogs I subscribe to. One website had recently published an interview with an Instagram influencer. I clicked on it; having seen some of their posts on the platform, I was curious to know more about them.
It turns out they live in Scotland, like me, in a period property, unlike me, but the article lacked the details I wanted to know. Behind the lens, how had this picture-perfect lifestyle come to be?
I think a lot about Instagram culture. It’s both beautiful and bizarre, the way we brand ourselves. Thinking and writing about this so often is either a total waste of my time, or a necessary examination of yet another weird thing we take as normal in our society, or both.
On ‘lifestyle’ Instagram — interiors, fashion, travel — what is shared is by definition aspirational, and in order to be aspirational and idealistic, the truth is often out of focus. It’s a styled sort of transparency, one where products or people or pets are placed photogenically, but we never fully understand the reality behind the lens.
In a way, we all do this when we post on Instagram. We package our lives into grids, curate our moments, and consume other people’s. The ‘Instagram is a highlights reel’ cliché has lost some of its force through overuse, but it remains true.
Because how often do we share the daily difficulties of life? Where do we post the tears and despair and shitty bits? When do we let on that our beautiful lifestyle is financed by a boring day job, or a wealthy partner, or inheritance, or some other privilege? I wonder all of these things when I scroll through my feed, grazing on lifestyles that may not actually be attainable, financially or otherwise, to me or many others.
In wondering these things of the people I follow, I am also asking them of myself. What I share on Instagram is mostly photographs from local walks I do with my partner in quiet corners of the countryside. The photos are taken on a basic Nikon camera I’ve had for about a decade, with salt crystals in the viewfinder from a rocky boat trip to Staffa many years ago, then edited when I get home.
My own curated Instagram grid.
I don’t share much about my day job or where I live. In the interests of transparency, maybe I should, because I’m not a full-time writer typing from a country cottage overlooking a loch, although it’s charming to dream that I am. My home is a small semi-detached new build on the edge of a Fife town, which we almost couldn’t afford, despite it being considerably cheaper than the average price of a home in Scotland.
I work five days a week as a social media manager from my kitchen table and my partner works full-time too. The main reason we live in Fife is because I used to commute to Edinburgh and he used to drive to Dundee — a literal halfway house. I’ve blogged before about finding myself somewhere unexpected, controlled in many ways by the self-sufficiency they call employment, but which often determines where we live and how well in return for a pay cheque.
That is the truth behind my lens. Working full-time is how I spend the majority of my hours, rather than the handful I spend walking or writing that you see online. Does that mean I am less than transparent, too? Or is it something more complex than that, fuelled by a desire deep within us to focus on and share only the bright moments?
As Joshua Becker wrote recently on Becoming Minimalist, ‘Influencers on social media share only the parts of themselves they want to share.’ I would extend that to say everyone who posts on social media shares only the parts of themselves they want to share, for as many different reasons as there are people.
Even if we did share everything about our lives on Instagram, our online self would still be just that — a digitised imitation. When we ‘find our niche’ in content creation we rob ourselves of the multitudes we contain; yet when we share it all, nothing is private, nothing is ours. (And in a world where they say personal data can be more lucrative than oil, that should always be on our minds).
This morning, as sunlight made leafy patterns on the kitchen wall, I read an excerpt from Johann Hari’s upcoming book Stolen Focus. In it he explores ‘the messages in the medium of social media’ — that is, what the platforms imply to us through their design. For example, Twitter tells us that we can understand the world in pithy, quick, widely-applauded 280-character statements.
If I apply the same logic, Instagram indicates that our lives should be beautiful enough to follow, covetable enough to comment on, so sellable that people save our posts to buy what’s in them later.
But what if they’re not? ‘Life is complex’, Hari reminds us. Unless we’re open about life’s ugliness and pain and take the time to deepen true connections with both others and ourselves — online and off — the lifestyles we see on social media will seem shallow.
This may go against packaging up our lives in pretty Reels, filtering out the blemishes, but if we’re each exchanging lifestyles in this online economy, perhaps we owe it to each other to be transparent about how attainable and beautiful our lives really are.