The Science behind why we photograph EVERYTHING

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

We’ve all done it. The oblivious pick up your phone and hit the colorful little square without even realizing that we’re doing it. As if a magnetic force is drawing us in to scroll through an endless stream of perfect families, delicious-looking food and influencers with the most gorgeous sweater on that just happens to be 50 percent off. We are addicted. Why? Because who wouldn’t be with endless perfection at our fingertips and a way to maybe fit into a part of it. While this blissful, absurd world has captivated all of us at one point or another, I took on the challenge of deciphering why we are all so obsessed with that little app called Instagram. While eyes roll, I guarantee you that this research is both scary, accurate and you may feel personally targeted during these next few pages. But rest assured you are not alone, in fact, there are 800 million of you, but we’ll get to that later. Throughout the last four months, I dug up the underlying science of why we photograph everything and how our society has been very personally affected.

I dare you to pick up your phone and delete your Instagram account. Not the app off your phone but your actual account. Say goodbye to all your posts, followers, perfectly organized story highlights and hit delete. Are you feeling anxious? Is your heart beating faster? Maybe you rolled your eyes and said: “what, no.” We have become what this platform has made us. It is who we are, or at least, who we’re trying to be. The world was forever changed after the night of October sixth, 2011, the night that Kevin Systrom launched Instagram. The simple idea, created and intended to be a photo-sharing app would cross 100,000 users in its first few hours of life. If you can recall the very beginning there was no IGTV, no stories, no “influencers,” not even a way to edit your pictures. There were about seven filters and some random picture you decided to post. Then, Facebook bought the company for one billion dollars. Today the app is estimated to be worth around 100 billion dollars and houses 800 million users. With this estimate its no surprise it runs our lives. There is that saying “I’m just trying to be who my dog thinks I am,” when it should really say, “I’m just trying to be who Instagram thinks I am.” We are all crazy marketable. In this day and age, every single one of us is a blogger and we can dance around our social media apps with confidence and ease. The scary reality is that young kids today are immediately thrown into the fire of social media and it is shaping our next generation. Daniel Miller describes this false reality in his book Social Media in an English Village as, “They have come to regard Instagram as a kind of craft, though a craft that requires minimal effort and competence. This means while it may be derided by elites or professionals, it is entirely unintimidating to a teenager.” So in a world where young adults (and even old adults) are drooling over the lives of people we don’t even know, kids have unlimited access to this as well. And then we wonder why generation z is materialistic and greedy. We have the ability to make ourself and our lives appear in the way we wished they were. I call this the ‘brick wall effect.’ We see a brick wall that will add to our aesthetic Instagram feed so we take a photo in front of it. At the same time, the danger of using everything around us to promote ourselves has caused our society (Millenials in particular) to hit a brick wall. We no longer understand looking at something beautiful just to look at it, we look at it to find the best way to take a picture of it or in front of it. While many claim they only use the platform to promote their business they are getting just as sucked in as the rest of us. Instagram has single-handedly decided how we dress, eat, workout, decorate our homes, how we take pictures, where we take pictures and why we take pictures. In a HuffPost article by journalist Ellie Pool, she wrote,

It sounds crazy that a few less likes on an Instagram post could send your mind into such a frenzy about ‘what is wrong with me?’ but when you’ve become so dependent on the compliments and approval of others to feel good about yourself, you can’t help but be affected when you feel as though people aren’t giving you that nod of support by hitting the like button.

You may be thinking, ‘an app can’t do all that,’ but it most certainly can, I will prove it to you.

The most interesting thing I discovered when I started my interviews was this notion of “cleaning up Instagram.” While I was amazed at the trend across my interviewees, I was embarrassed to admit I had taken part in this “cleaning of the gram.” In my question “Do you remember the first thing you ever posted?” the most common answer I got was something along the lines of “Yes, but I deleted it a long time ago.” After digging further into this repeated answer I realized that many had deleted old, embarrassing photos from the beginning of their Instagram use. While dissecting my interviews this caught my attention and I realized that this was what my study was ultimately all about. I wanted to discover why Instagram has such an effect on our self-confidence, both on and off of the app. We crave this envy from others, the more likes and comments the better. Our confidence sores with more followers and if you have a blue checkmark you’ve earned yourself the title of Instafamous. This amazing connection between who we are in real life and who we are on Instagram has begun to shape our every move. In turn, our society has become obsessed with itself. This constant praise and approval from others is something millennials need to function (Are you triggered? Chill, I’m a millennial too). In a study done by Sheldon Pavica and Katherine Bryant of 240 young adults of all genders and races, they found that "...narcissism was positively related to using Instagram to appear cool and for the surveillance of others. When it comes to behavioral outcomes, only narcissism was positively and significantly related to the amount of time participants spent editing the photos before posting them on Instagram.” Translation, this platform has literally made our society more narcissistic, you can’t argue with science. I then asked my interviewees if they felt like Instagram affected their self-esteem. Fifty percent said that it did and all except one said that it did at one point or another. One described it as

“...more like upping my confidence rather than like self-esteem... If this makes sense. I don't post to make myself feel better, but when I post and I get a lot of likes, it makes me feel better."

While this made me seriously depressed, it only further showed the impact Instagram has on our self-confidence.

Another insightful part of my research came from doing an ethnography on my own usage of the app. The word insightful may be too large, scary, might better describe this experience. While I dug through Instagram looking for deep alleys I’d not normally walk down I discovered this massive brick wall: that my life is an utter disaster and everyone else’s is pure photogenic bliss. This ringing in my ear of you’re not good enough was constant no matter what alley I walked down. I found a mound of perfect families, typically matching, smiling candidly in front of a storybook house. I came across the cutest puppies, needing every single one of them. Instagram influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers and too many perfect photos to count. I began to make a mental list of everything I needed to have any sort of success in this world. This list includes hair extensions, about 150 more turtleneck sweaters, a baby with a giant bow on her head, a puppy, a much bigger house, and a full-time assistant to photograph all of this. What I found through this experience of self-pity and this “need” for all these materialistic things in life was that my confidence about what I do have was shattered. None of it was good enough anymore. This is when I realized how impactful Instagram truly is. I had heard it from my interviewees but now I felt it. It all comes back to self-confidence and how this little platform affects it. The other thing that struck me was how confined our world is within these parameters of what we “should” be doing, wearing, eating, and taking photos in front of. In addition to our narcissistic society, are we also creating a cookie-cutter society? Bless the hearts of the influencers who are rolling in the dough due to their follower count. But, on the other hand, they really all wear the same things, decorate their houses the same, even get pregnant at the same time (I’m not kidding). When we see the photographed perfection and attempt to recreate it, we push our own creativity to the side because theirs seems to be working. We lose the confidence to push our own ideas, concepts, and creativity. Michael Schreiner describes this perfectly in his article “The Tyranny of the Should,” as

“So people find themselves in a prison of their own making, one that keeps them from ever becoming who and what they really are since for that to happen unique potentialities must first be isolated and then developed, two steps that never occur as long as these potentialities seem tabu.”

And in a prison in which we are not only addicted but also feel the need to belong, we are unable to isolate ourselves. One of my interviewees described to me, after reading a blog, how you “should” post on Instagram, “... so that you have an even feed and it's not just like all yourself or all your business because that like deters your followers away.” We are so desperate to do this whole Instagram thing right that we forget that it was intended to share photos, not envy. Mark Zuckerberg always talks of attempting to make the world “more open and connected” but by opening up the world and connecting everyone, confidence to be yourself and boast your own creativity greatly decreases.

As Instagram has introduced more and more ways to “be connected” we see a massive increase in ads pushed on us and sponsored posts. Many people have positive things to say about using Instagram for their businesses. I use the platform for my business as well and find it a convenient and rather inexpensive way to market myself. On the other hand, I’ve had little success in accessing the target audience I want. In my own suspicion, I think that when a profile is on the “business mode” it hides your posts so that you feel the need to pay to sponsor them to get more action. But of course, that’s just my insecure self annoyed at an “algorithm” because I’m not getting enough likes on a post I spent way too much time on. In all my interviews I asked if they used Instagram for personal or business use, while half said they used it mainly for business, that same half are the ones who most feel Instagram affects their self-esteem. So not even those solely using Instagram for business are safe. We still crave approval. Even in business mode Instagram controls what you see and overloads you with what it thinks you want. Zuckerberg describes the creepy ad targeting as “listening in real-time” also known as eavesdropping. The people behind our addictive social media are the best eavesdroppers in the world. This only further plays into the stealing of what we know we want and replacing it with what they want us to want. But, we go along with it because we rely on the app to give us the feedback and approval we deserve. We can’t even imagine a world in which we truly controlled our social media. In my ‘discover’ page, I never discover anything besides more self-doubt. The founders of the Digital Defense Playbook explain that “This work is critical because our data are our stories. When our data are manipulated, distorted, stolen, exploited, or misused, our communities are stifled, obstructed, or repressed, and our ability to self-determine and prosper is systematically controlled.” The app knows exactly what feeds my addiction so that’s what it feeds me, and here I am, although I hate to admit it, I’m probably not going anywhere anytime soon.

Through this research, it has become utterly clear to me that we place way too much reliance on Instagram to define who we are. It is time we flip the script and show who we actually are, not be afraid to throw out new ideas or weird creativity. We have created this world that defines us by how many thumbs double-tap a picture, it’s absurd. Having confidence does not need to come from your popularity on a social media platform. I’m guilty of this, most of us are. How do we thrive in a world in which we must use an addictive app to build connections or market ourselves all while maintaining who we truly are? How can we be brilliant and confident in ourselves while scrolling through endless photographed perfection? There is a very simple answer ladies and gentlemen… unfollow the people who make you feel insecure about yourself. You might be thinking well it’s not about who I see but who sees me… I have a simple answer for that as well. Delete your Instagram and buy a mirror. Alfred Stieglitz, a famous German photographer in the 1890s once said, “In photography, there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” Almost 200 years later this still applies, but we must not get lost in this false reality. I asked every one of my interviews to delete their Instagram account, not a single one of them would. Later, when I asked them what they would do if they woke up one morning and Instagram was gone forever, most of them used almost the exact same wording, “I would be free.” It was then I realized that we’d rather be trapped in a false sense of shaky self-confidence, then free into the unknown.



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