Feature writing

Social media

Put down your phone. The best things in life are not on Instagram

The Daily Beast

June 20, 2017

The invitation was to a very nice-sounding party to promote something. I may well go. The added enticement was the promise that this would be an “Insta-worthy event”: a terrible collision of words that signals the kind of social trend that, all too familiarly, makes you want to scream into the void.

Confession: I am not on Instagram, and so I only enjoy the world of filters, and heavily curated lunches and gorgeous bodies and picnics and sea, and flowers, and fruit stands, and cool people, and lazy afternoons and trips abroad, at a remove. And enjoy them I do. People’s Instagram accounts, and other social media, are like heavily stylized photo albums, but made public instead of kept private within your home or within families.

Because they are public, they tell the story of a life their owners choose. An Instagram account is a prettified palace of partial truths or outright set of lies; pictures that speak of intimacy but are rarely intimate. A personal Instagram account provides a stage for the performance of self-revelation. Instagram makes you your own publicist. Instagram tells us about where you are in the world, your select access to fashionable people and tribes, fun, and success. There are rarely Doritos to be excavated from crevices in your sofa.

It’s only inevitable, given how popular Instagram is, and social media sites like it, that events are now being tailored to it. Once a product becomes a word or phrase and “Instagram” is a verb as well as a name (and an adjective too), its success cannot be disputed or dismissed.

The invitation that said the event was “Insta-worthy” was really saying: “Come here, and the food and drinks and surroundings will look so good that you will be able to take pictures of them, which you will probably manipulate in some way to make look even better, and then post those pictures to a social media account, which will promote the product we want to sell.”

Here, the product wins, and the invitee wins too: a perfect commercial, promotional symbiosis.

But even if it wasn’t so nakedly commercial, so many events and occasions now strive to be “Insta-worthy,” where once we would have taken a photograph of them to record the meaningfulness of the moment, to then hold for ourselves, or show to friends and loved ones.

But now these private acts of meaning have become fetishized and public. If you go to a restaurant, there are people around taking pictures of the food with as much focused intensity as Michelangelo finishing David’s left buttock.

Those pictures are then posted to social media, because people are replicating and wanting to better the pictures of food they see on TV and in magazines. As you watch them, it feels like a madness: Look at the human contortions just to take the picture of a salad. This is food, this is fuel. Soon, someone will eat it (though, as Roxane Gay pointed out in a recent Vogue interview, there is a disconnect between those fetishizing food visually on social media and evidence they eat much of what they photograph). Ultimately the food will come out of their bodies. Are they going to Instagram that?

There’s a relentless absurdity today of recording and elevating the quotidian, spanning everything from going to the park to read, going to the beach to swim, and walking through some woodland and gazing up at the branches of trees and the sky.

Perhaps all this photographing and curating manifests a world involved in a 24/7 case of FOMO. Perhaps it’s the urge to broadcast everything about oneself all the time, the need to show and tell, the need to be your own self-advertising news feed, the need to assert a public identity. You’re your own star, your own Annie Leibovitz, your own journalist.

However, when you start thinking about conceiving events as “Insta-worthy,” you’ve stopped conceiving of them as events which may be about just enjoying nice food, drinking some drink as the sun goes down, and meeting some interesting people.

Instead, these events are simply for show, and showing off. The aim, the dream, is for you posing to go viral just like Kim K, for your fishcake to be as loved as Nigella’s, for your rooftop party to be as fabulous as… Instagram is a strange circus of desire and exhibitionism.

Amazingly, there was a time when going out and doing things and doing them with other people—sometimes not on the perfect picnic rug, sometimes when there were clouds in the sky, and plates with strange stains and chips on them—was quite normal.

In those days, you took a picture of those loved ones at the event, in their odd clothes, pale legs, and sometimes wonky teeth and painfully sunburnt shoulders, and they were just smiling and happy to be there. That photo may still exist in a drawer or old scrapbook.

The reality of life, in fact the reality of the best evening out and best party, is that it might not be “Insta-worthy.” It may just be experienced. It may go unrecorded publicly. You may hold it tight to your private memory, and cherish it like the most perfect smooth pebble or shell you take from a beach. It’s yours.

If something isn’t “Insta-worthy,” what does that mean? That it’s not worthy of being photographed or publicized? That it makes no commercial sense? The ugly underbelly of something being “Insta-worthy” is that if something can’t be made beautiful and desirable, sellable or fuckable, if it isn’t “Insta-worthy,” then what value does it have, because everything—at least at a swish party—must at least have the aspiration or potential now to be “Insta-worthy.”

Here are some things that everyone wielding a camera or filter is missing. Anything or anyone of genuine interest around them that isn’t shiny and begging to be photographed. They’re missing the looks of joy on faces, the 70-year-old guy who has had a more interesting life than they could ever have imagined and won’t know about, because they did not speak to him.

They’re missing the lady in the non-descript dress, who actually grew up near them, and has so many stories about their hometown and shared friends and acquaintances. They’re missing a riotous conversation of gossip and silliness with a total stranger. They’re missing a flirtation. They’re missing the chance to make a new buddy. They’re missing a book recommendation. They’re missing the real story, which is everyone around them, all because they’re making themselves look like the world’s most ridiculous mime artist to capture and share with the world—you were there! you saw it first!—“Insta-worthy” moments.

Newsflash: A glass of rosé on a rooftop is better drunk than posed with the looming shadow of a water tower behind it.

A curated world isn’t the world. A world seen through filters isn’t the world. Your event may be “Insta-worthy,” it may not—just as the world has always been even before social media.

The savvier party-giver might suggest banning phones all together, and just gathering people together to chat and look at the sunset. They can pick their phones up on the way out.

That night there will be no images of the event at all sent out into the world to a group of strangers who weren’t there. There will be no hashtags. Just memories, all personal.

The next day, when someone asks what you did the night before, you will tell them you were at a party.

Ooo, any pictures? Did you post it, they ask.

No, you will say, but it was fantastic. You also saw a pretty cool tree on the way to work, which managed to be both crooked and majestic, and you didn’t take a picture of that either… and then there was this guy walking down the street in short shorts and nothing else. You smiled as he sauntered by, unsnapped by your phone.

And this puppy, oh so cute, its paws on its head. You’d carried on walking past that too.

You are now an “Insta-rebel.” Enjoy it.