In the age of social media, identity is performance. A performance where you showcase the shiny parts of you. Kumbaya. Life is a utopia.
How do you know it a utopia?
The social media ecosystem. Instagram uses simple affordances such as “Likes” and “Comments” to increase the engagement of post or profile picture as signifies approval from others. The algorithm determines the ranking of the object in question and depending on its mood it would accelerate or decelerate on the Instagram totem pole.
Although it is part of the social media equation, there is a participation aspect to it. The user feels like they need to present themselves in a certain way to gain social capital and engagement.
But why do we perform our identities online?
The Insta-Beast and Its Motivations
Social media is cited as a cause that exacerbates and amplifies pre-existing societal problems. Unrealistic beauty standards. Social Media. Echo Chambers. Social Media. Coming across a cat video that happens to prevent you from doing your assignment the next day. Social Media.
However, before examining the Insta- Beast, we have to discuss why the motivations to perform identity exists in the first place and how it snowballed into a problematic medium to this day.
In the case of Instagram, there are initially six motivations as to why people want to use the platform, according to a 2016 study, “Identities in Flux: An Analysis to Photographic Self-Representation on Instagram” by Sofia P. Calderia:
1) Sharing, the wish to enjoy the photographic activity jointly with others.
2) Documentation; the urge to capture, record, and preserve transient experiences.
3) Seeing; the urge to see the world through the eyes of others and to be able to present one’s viewpoint.
4) Community; the thrills and incentives of social interaction and a responsive audience.
5) Creativity; photographic production as an artistic effort marked by a strong aesthetic aspect; and finally.
6) Therapy; the idea, expressed by a small set of users, of Instagram’s photographic and social activities as being, in a certain sense, generative of “well-being” or even “healing” for emotional or psychological instability.
However, in her study, she cited a 2013 master thesis of Zane Verdina, who explored how two of the initial motivations– community and sharing is closely-tied with identity:
“Identity, that aims to create a visual self-representation in online environments, of triumph, the ability to announce an achievement publicly, and of fun, the simple usage of photography as a means to escape boredom or monotony.”
Dopamine Hits and the Social Media Ecosystem
The identity charade on social media plays in heavily at this point. Following trends, subscribing to particular aesthetic, speaking into existence an agreeable popular opinion and adhering to mainstream conventions are the many ways of gaining social capital.
According to the Harvard University researcher, Trevor Haynes notes that Instagram is built to be addictive and captures your attention.
“When you get a social media notification, your brain sends a dopamine along a reward pathway, which makes you feel good.”
As dopamine activates the reward centre of the brain, the person is beaming to the influx of likes, in turn gives them an ego boost. In a sense, they are confirming that they are subscribing the modern standard of beauty, materialism or hedonism.
It is a common practice on Instagram, to trial and error the ebbs and flows of the algorithm. The objective: to top the previous dopamine high by amassing more likes and followers. It can take forms of posting an aesthetically pleasing brunch, fitness routines, OOTD or travel photos.
Perhaps, they went to a popular high-end fine dining restaurant and ask their significant other to take a picture of posing rather “elegantly” to the static ambience of a restaurant. Contorting their torsos and their faces at a 45 degree angle, whilst looking down at the decadent yet small plate of fillet mignons, pensive beyond all reason.
When their significant others took their photos for the ‘gram, they add a filter and go through the rolodex of captions stored in their heads from previous brainstorming sessions.
Suppose this benign action of taking a photo at fine dining restaurant spirals out of control, the dopamine high eventually will turn into an addiction. Users solely depends on Instagram as a source of decadent external validation from strangers. (Hence, the semblance to drug or gambling addiction.)
The actions mentioned above is what constitutes to the overall “fakeness” of social media. It portrays the user as being one-dimensional; highlighting the acceptable and low lighting the unorthodox.
The Overall Picture
Although starting as an innocent app where the initial motivations are sharing social activities amongst your friends, the commercial side of Instagram reinforces a sense of conformity on the platform.
Advertising and brand sponsorships have created breeding ground for the micro-celebrities, known colloquially as, “Instagram influencers” who banks on their appearances. The more conventionally beautiful you are, the likely you become an Instagram influencer, the more likely you are to conform to the unrealistic asethetic.
Due to the Instagram feedback ecosystem, the culture of Instagram encourages vanity and superficiality to thrive. To reach a certain dopamine quota, Instagram influencers may opt to digitally enhance their looks and upkeep a luxurious lifestyle to rally support from their followers.
According to researchers from the University of Sydney, they found out that users who frequently use Instagram have a strong desire to belong.
“The greater desire to belong accurately predicted more frequent Instagram use, and more perceived social support, both in general and from significant others or friends. However, the frequency of Instagram use alone did not predict perceived social support. In a nutshell, this means that people with a strong desire to belong are more likely to use Instagram.”
The Reflection: Mitigating the” Je ne sais quoi” effect.
Its easy to criticise and poke holes at a phenomenon without participating in the game. Therefore, I have participated in the game of Instagram, quite moderately. I have to admit that I have failed multiple times to attain 100+ Likes per photo and amassing a following.
A) I view my Instagram as a documentation tool and update it without knowing that I was participating in the game.
B) I don’t use Instagram as a money-making machine.
C) The friends I have are not avid Instagram users; somewhat, detached from their phones.
Or, the reasons above are all not valid. I don’t know how to play the game.
I’m at a crossroads where I question the ethical implications of performing my online identity and only showing the “highlight reel” of my life. It begs the question “Who do I want to impress?” and “Why do I post in the first place?”
“Do I, to an extent, want to have external validation from strangers and feel good for myself?”
Even a broader question, “Does any of the social media performance mean anything in my measly existence?”
As I spiral down the existential doom of angst, I came to realise the dopamine hits, the external validation and sharing only the “highlight reel” on social media is just ….theatrics. A part of me want to “attain Insta-Hoe status fame,” but another part, I never cared for playing the game in the first place.
I don’t know. (“Je ne sais quoi”, is synonymous to “the air of uppity exclusivity” meets “the allure of the unattainable,” that Instagram exudes.) As I scroll through the countless of posts, I came to realise that I should opt out of being a slave to the Instagram algorithm. In due time.