Social media is often viewed as a place of free and creative expression. It’s not only a liberating force, but a place where one can be recognized for originality, talents, and ideas.
Platforms like Instagram can launch young hopefuls into stardom, a phenomenon commonly referenced by the term “insta-famous.” While the path to “insta-fame” is different for each person, the popularization of this ideal has given rise to the phenomenon of self-branding. The careful curation of one’s image is rooted in the incentivization of every post, decision, and choice to share with the world.
Despite Instagram’s marketing as a creative platform for all, its algorithm can actually stifle creativity. It rewires our brains to crave instant gratification, which often comes at the price of authenticity.
Instagram’s algorithm tracks engagement to recommend more “popular” accounts with high followings and interaction. The creators of social media measurably legitimize people’s accounts and endorse “objective” ideas of appeal, giving users a goal of “follower count” or “like count” to strive toward.
Subsequently, platforms like Instagram foster a competitive spirit that continually recommends a similar, more “popular” account, and functions through a system of suggestions that tracks interests and ideals to keep users scrolling and striving toward more.
For creators, artists, and the aspiring “insta-famous,” the pressure to conform and post with engagement numbers in mind is heightened. Instagram popularity can turn into a science, through numerous apps on the market: apps that inform the times of day when engagement is highest, apps that track followers/unfollowers and analytics, and photo-editing apps that offer hundreds of filter options wired toward Eurocentric ideals and scientific proportions of beauty.
With scores displayed openly, creativity and originality are diminished and turned into objective grounds for competition.
Self-branding, in particular, encourages users to monetize their images, voiding the individuality influencers proclaim. It reaches its greatest extremes when each post — whether advertising deceptive weight-loss teas or appetite-suppressant lollipops — becomes a business transaction tailored to capitalist society, sometimes involving much more harmful implications.
The knowledge that each post contributes to one’s brand may even perpetuate performative activism and further marginalize the voices of actual grassroots activists who do not fit the mainstream mold.
Different factors come into play when users buy into the ideal of self-branding. Many lifestyle influencers who profit off from their so-called individuality seem to be the least original of all, as all their ideas for travel destinations and “photo ops” (or photograph opportunities) are borrowed, recycled, and replicated by other influencers.
For example, the rise of social-media friendly art installation pop-ups, like the viral Museum of Ice Cream, Refinery29’s 29Rooms, and Color Factory, reek of profitability and pseudo-creativity.
Participation in the world of social media is too often a pandering to superficial society’s ideas of glamour, beauty, and artistry.
People have become desperate for the “perfect photo,” willing to line up like sheep and expend time, money, and energy for the sake of that one goal. In the same vein, the constricts of perfection, instant gratification, and public scrutinization actually stifle true creativity and artistic expression.
The fake-instagram “finsta” phenomenon is a direct result of this culture. People have become acutely aware that their “main” instagram accounts, where they aggressively build social capital through scores, are not the place for true expression. They’ve taken to creating private accounts with smaller followings to post the silly “ugly photos,” the sadness, the embarrassing humor, and the candid thoughts on their minds.
There is certainly something intriguing about the shift in culture and the wealth of opportunities to participate in a self-designed world. But the reality that all our decisions can be made now with an incentive of social capital in mind is a scary one.
Milly Chi PZ ’22 is an aspiring media studies major from Buena Park, CA. In her free time, she can be found marveling at the wonder that is Canva.