This weekend I posted a picture to Instagram of myself in my Halloween costume. What I didn’t post were the 10 photos I’d taken before I got one I liked.
I’m not (that) vain; science says we tend to look weird to ourselves in selfies due to variations in lighting, camera angles and the mirroring of our asymmetrical faces. Regardless, it’s safe to assume that plenty of people’s phones contain a discarded-selfie graveyard like mine.
In 2015, it's clear to most people with a camera and access to the Internet that the images we curate on social media are just that — curated, a projection of who we want to appear to be. So it's somewhat surprising that Instagram model Essena O'Neill's decision to quit the platform on the basis of its misleading nature has resulted in such deeply-felt shockwaves across the Internet.
Earlier this week, the 19-year-old changed the name of her popular account to "Social Media Is Not Real Life" and replaced image captions with the true(er) stories of what went into her supposedly carefree snapshots. O'Neill's actions struck such a nerve that they landed her in the New York Times, and even led some to speculate that the whole thing is a genius marketing stunt.
O’Neill’s distress appears to be genuine. I don’t doubt the immense pressure she felt to present an idealized version of herself to the world, and hope she has found peace of mind after stepping away from something that was hurting her.
But much of the coverage of O'Neill's story suggests a sense of vindication; finally, the immense virality of her actions imply, here's a young person with some sense, who sees social media for the evil, life-ruining force it is. As is the case with so many things millennials enjoy, people take great satisfaction in “debunking” Instagram, in proving we’re all narcissistic liars and that our onscreen lives are a meaningless waste of time.
While it's valid to crave openness from our digital interactions, and, as O'Neill suggests, we don't want to be guilty of encouraging unattainable ideals in impressionable minds, Instagram was never meant to be a strictly documentarian tool. You’d think this would be obvious on an app literally created to filter photos, and which, until about two months ago, bound everything from closeups of manicures to sprawling landscapes within a uniformly square frame.
Instagram isn’t a mirror so much as a lens (or, dare I say, a filter) that celebrates the beauty gained in the loss of detail, softening an image the same way time would a memory, and making our lives seem warmer, fuzzier and, yes, maybe a little bit more magical than they are.
That's exactly why so many like to trash it. People seem to have confused signing up for an Instagram account with signing a contract to forever be completely candid with a bunch of strangers on the Internet. These "gotcha" moments resonate because we resent other people pretending their lives are perfect (read: better than our own).
Things like the mega-viral "Truth Behind Instagram Photos" series are meant to expose the pathetic reality behind our attempts to look happy and fulfilled online through the cropping and filtering of our experiences. Yet even when people are more open with their lives, they're often accused of oversharing, or posturing at being "cool girls" whose efforts to look messy and imperfect are just as staged as O'Neill's bikini shots (see: the popular account "You Did Not Eat That").
It's worth noting that people have been manipulating images pretty much since the invention of the camera. All photography is an act of manipulation, in a sense, a result of lighting, angle, timing, lenses and choice of subject. Professional photographers travel vast distances for the explicit purpose of obtaining a good shot, and often taken hundreds before finding it.
Ultimately, though, O'Neill's story isn't about Instagram at all. In part, it's about the commodification of women's bodies, the pressure of patriarchal beauty standards and the seductive power of celebrity (which was doing damage long before we all had smartphones).
Most broadly, it's about the inherently performative nature of identity, and the tension between our public and our private selves. This tension is as old as humanity; the Internet has just given us new, expansive tools to shape the way we're perceived, and stoked our voyeuristic desire for transparent looks into strangers' lives.
But Instagram photos aren't candid paparazzi shots — they're images often taken, and always shared, by their subjects. And while O'Neill's actions remind us of the value in remembering what's behind the pictures we post, there's something deeply honest within these images themselves: They expose the way we want to be seen.