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E. Rossini is an Italian filmmaker, producer and activist best known for The Illusionists.

New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop.

Neil Postman“Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology” (1992)
Technopoly Neil Postman

In the best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up Marie Kondo explores how powerful it is to assess the objects in our homes, to neatly organize them, and ultimately to get rid of anything that no longer serves us. This exercise can have transformative effects, not just in our homes, but also in our lives: it can relieve stress, fill us with gratitude for the things we already have, and ultimately it can drive us to be more mindful and intentional. I did this a couple of years ago, decluttering my home to amazing results. I was then inspired to apply the same techniques to my digital life; I took a hard look at the social media platforms I was using and asked myself: “Does this bring me joy?” Followed by: “Is this absolutely necessary for my work and life?”

I realized then and there that platforms like Facebook and Instagram had seldom brought me any joy; I posted once every blue moon and only “lurked” on them to keep track of my friends’ lives, with a constant, mild undercurrent of anxiety at the thought of missing important events. Fear of missing out: check. Occasional comparison anxiety: check. Mixed feeling of liking a friend in real life but deeming their Instagram posts too narcissistic: check. Feeling guilty for being judgmental of said “narcissistic” posts: check. Making the mental calculation of how many books I could have read instead of mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and Instagram: check. Ultimately, I came to the powerful realization that, if I ever make it to the age of 80 or 90, I will never ever look back at my life and think: “I wish I could have spent more time on Facebook and Instagram”.

We take social media for granted and we’ve come to see it as an essential utility, like water and electricity. And yet, if you think about it, for millennia people have nurtured friendships, fallen in love, found jobs and gotten informed without the help of so-called “social media” – which has only been around for less than 15 years. 15 years! For perspective, the cognitive revolution occurred 70,000 years ago and modern civilization developed at around 3100 BC. 15 years is nothing in relation to the entire history of humankind. The rise of social media is a novel phenomenon, but we haven’t truly questioned it, or given thought to what we lose with the adoption of these new technological tools and platforms. We’ve welcomed smartphones and social media with open arms, accepting each new version as an improvement for our lives, with little critical analysis of pros and cons.

In the past year there has been rising awareness about smartphone addiction and the potential deleterious effects of social media. “Living for ‘likes’: how Hong Kong teens reveal classic signs of social media addiction” “Instagram ranked worst for young people’s mental health” “Patients are desperate to resemble their doctored selfies. Plastic surgeons alarmed by ‘Snapchat dysmorphia.’” are just a tiny sample of articles you may come across on a daily basis. Awareness is rising, but I have yet to find a deeper analysis that provides links between platform design, typical daily usage and their effects on people’s self-esteem and self-image. I’d like to give it a shot: to dispel some illusions about Instagram, with the aid of prescient remarks from cultural critics such as Neil Postman (Technopoly, Amusing Ourselves to Death) and John Berger (Ways of Seeing).

Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. I mean “ecological” in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists. One significant change generates total change. If you remove the caterpillars from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival; the same is true if you add caterpillars to an environment that has had none. This is how the ecology of media works as well. A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything.

Neil Postman“Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology” (1992)

Illusion no. 1: Instagram is a photo sharing app

On the surface, Instagram may appear to be a photo sharing app, but upon closer inspection, one can see that the way it is designed turns it into something entirely different.

Those who have been online for more than 10 years might remember Flickr: a popular photo hosting service. There were no restrictions regarding a photo’s dimensions or aspect ratio; photos didn’t have to be square or vertical to do well on the platform; comments, likes and number of followers were an afterthought and not important at all for its users. Flickr’s numerous groups and discussion boards provided feedback to photos, as well as helpful advice about cameras and lenses. Users could share photos with rich metadata, revealing which camera they used, as well as lens model, aperture, and shutter speed – and those data points were incredibly helpful to other users, when deciding which camera gear to buy. The art of photography was truly front and center.

Compare this to Instagram, where photo metadata is unavailable, while popularity metrics are front and center: the first thing you notice when you open the app. Number of followers, number of likes, and number of comments are the first things you see. The app constantly notifies users about the performance of their photos, showing them who liked and commented on them and if they have gained new followers. The higher the numbers, the better. “I want more” may be Instagram’s true guiding mantra.

Reality no.1: Instagram is an online popularity game

I see Instagram as an online social credit system, a popularity game, that puts its users in a rat race to accrue more followers, more likes, more comments.

One of the most common aspirations for teenagers and young adults today is to become so-called “Instagram influencers” – users with a large following, who are approached by brands and paid to run #sponcon (sponsored content).

Have you watched Nosedive, the first episode of season 3 of the dystopian series Black Mirror? It imagines a future society where people rate each other after each interaction they have… every citizen has a median score, visible to all, which creates a sort of caste system. Those with a high score have access to discounts, can lease beautiful cars, rent gorgeous apartments and grab last seat tickets on a plane. Inversely, those with low scores are barred from entering public buildings and have access to sub-par apartments and cars.

People with large followings on Instagram are used to receiving free trips, services, free clothing and you-name-it in exchange for positive mentions of brands on the platform. Influencers and celebrities can command tens of thousands of dollars in sponsorship fees, in exchange for a simple post that mentions a brand. The “caste” system imagined by Black Mirror is already here and many Instagram users want to climb up.

We’re living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills. Whether it’s social media or pressure to be the impossibly ‘perfect’ twenty-first-century iterations of ourselves, or pressure to have the perfect body, or pressure to be successful in our careers, or any of the other myriad ways in which we place overly high expectations on ourselves and other people, we’re creating a psychological environment that’s toxic.

Will StorrAuthor, “Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It's Doing to Us” (2017)

Illusion no.2: Instagram is a great tool for self-expression

Regular users who care about Instagram popularity are encouraged to imitate successful accounts. And what is the dominant aesthetic of popular Instagram accounts? Highly polished photos, showing lavish lifestyles – which perform well with the algorithm.

Real life and candid moments don’t do so well on Instagram (and this is quite the understatement). There are plenty of examples of popular Instagram accounts losing scores of followers once they start posting authentic moments. Model Stina Sanders lost thousands of followers once she started posting “honest” photos. The UK’s Independent newspaper reported: “Sanders began surprising her followers with pictures they were not expecting to see: of herself bleaching facial hair, while she awaited a colonic irrigation to treat her Irritable Bowel Syndrome, with chipped toenails and with unwashed hair. […] And almost immediately after launching the experiment, her followers began to drop away.” More recently, a model known for her fitness photos lost 70,000 followers in a day (from her original 430,000 followers) as soon as she announced she would stop posting idealized bikini photos.

Photographer Sara Melotti, whom I interviewed for The Realists – shared with me that whenever she posts travel photos on Instagram that show the local population, the pics “bomb”. On the contrary, when she publishes photos from her “fairy tale” series that show her in beautiful locations, the photos do really well.

Reality no.2: Instagram has a strict set of unspoken rules that favor hyper-perfected, idealized images that are not a reflection of real life – with serious consequences

What is most insidious is that Instagram has the veneer of being a fun photo sharing app but in reality most of its users play it as if it were a competitive video game, whose ultimate objective is to grow one’s popularity. The workings of the algorithm are mysterious, but what performs well on the platform are idealized, highly stylized photos that look like they could be culled from a glossy fashion or lifestyle magazine. Real is out, hyper-perfected is in. And this may be causing an epidemic of stress and anxiety in teenagers and young adults, who feel like they don’t match up to the thousands of images they see every day – starring not just celebrities, but the hyper perfected “highlight reels” of their friends’ lives, too.

Illusion no.3: Instagram’s goal is to nurture deep connections

Instagram has been marketed as a useful, fun tool to see what is going on in the lives of friends, family, acquaintances, as well as interesting people and celebrities. But its real purpose may be something else entirely.

In his seminal book Ways of Seeing cultural critic John Berger wrote about the art of advertising:

Publicity is not merely an assembly of competing messages: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal. […] It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer by having spent our money. Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.

Now try replacing “Publicity” with “Instagram”:

Instagram is not merely an assembly of competing messages: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal. […] It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer by having spent our money. Instagram persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And Instagram is the process of manufacturing glamour.

Uncanny, isn’t it?

Reality no.3: Instagram is a Trojan Horse for advertisers

Humans have always been concerned with hierarchies – and their position within them. We’ve already seen how metrics are at the heart of Instagram, making people constantly aware of how popular they are on the platform, compared to their peers. Instagram feeds a problem (anxiety about one’s popularity) and provides quick solutions: posting photos to see how well one is regarded, receiving immediate feedback and/or purchasing a product advertised on the platform, in the hope of becoming more enviable. These actions have contributed to building Instagram’s aura as a positive environment for advertisers, full of engaged users.

It’s worth remembering that yes, Instagram is a free product, but the way it makes money is via advertising. Its parent company Facebook last year made around 30 billion dollars in worldwide ad revenue. In a way, Instagram has replaced old media as a more superior, more effective way to reach a narrowly targeted audience; it sells our attention to advertisers and the more time we spend on the platform, the more money it makes.

Instagram gathers gargantuan amounts of information on users, like how many seconds they spend looking a picture, if they watch a video all the way through, who they interact with, if they hide an ad or click on it, all with the purpose of serving better ads – and maintaining the impression of being an excellent environment for advertisers to invest in.

Jaron Lanier, in 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now wrote:

Now everyone who is on social media is getting individualized, continuously adjusted stimuli, without a break, so long as they use their smartphones. What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale.

If you still think this is no big deal, I highly recommend you read this Medium post: “Facebook Uses Artificial Intelligence to Predict Your Future Actions for Advertisers, Says Confidential Document.

Ultimately, what turns people into good consumers? Anxiety and insecurity. In my documentary The Illusionists – about the dark side of advertising and the marketing of unattainable beauty – there is a sentence that invariably stands out to audience members. Numerous viewers have emailed me after watching the film, mentioning this sentence as a profound wake up call. In the opening sequence of the film, cultural critic and author Jean Kilbourne says:

It’s often seemed to me that a person who feels happy and secure isn’t going to be a very good consumer, because that person isn’t going to be looking for products to shore up the self-image or to feel better about oneself.

Sad people are good consumers. And Instagram provides the perfect environment for triggering comparison anxiety, poor body image, fear of missing out and other negative feelings. As I had mentioned earlier, the Royal Society for Public Health published a report last year confirming that Instagram is the worst social network for young adults’ mental health. And on average, Instagram users spend approximately 53 minutes on the app every day. Sara Melotti, the aforementioned photographer I interviewed for my new film, perfectly summed this up by saying:

The main problem I think social media is creating is that it’s making us feel like it’s not okay to be human. It’s not OK to be imperfect. And this triggers mechanism of low self-esteem and it makes us become consumers. And that’s what they want: perfect consumers.

Illusion no. 4: social media marketing is great investment for brands

Influencer marketing on Instagram has been steadily growing and is believed to be worth about one billion dollars. Influencers can be celebrities, but also regular people who achieved popularity on the platform, becoming “Instagram famous.” For this reason, many users are under the impression that lucrative Instagram fame is a meritocracy and is within anyone’s reach. Enter: the black market of Instagram likes, followers, comments and even the verification badge.

Sara Melotti has written two bombshell exposés on these practices; we collaborated on the latest one, to accompany her article “Instagram created a monster 2: frauds, an epidemic of fake influencers and the death of meritocracy.

Reality no. 4: a large portion of users on Instagram are bots, created to artificially inflate users’ popularity – for a price

Illusion no. 5: to be a successful artist, entrepreneur, [fill-in-the-blank] you must be on Instagram

Whenever I meet a new person and the conversation turns to social media, people are invariably shocked to hear I deleted my Facebook account and I only have 1 post on my Instagram account. “But you’re a filmmaker!” “But you are a photographer!” “How could you not use it?” Oftentimes, I hear this follow-up remark: “You are so brave” – as if not using a platform like Facebook was tantamount to doing something genuinely courageous.

Reality no. 5: you don’t need social media to thrive as an artist, entrepreneur, [fill-in-the-blank]

Computer science professor Cal Newport, author of “Deep Work” eloquently dispelled the myth of social media as a necessary professional tool in his TEDx talk “Quit social media”:

In a competitive 21st century economy what the market values is the ability to produce things that are rare and that are valuable. What the market dismisses for the most part are activities that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value. Well, social media use is the epitome of an easy to replicate activity that does not directly produce a lot of value, it’s something that any 16 year old with a smartphone can do. By definition, the market is not going to give a lot of value to those behaviors, it’s instead going to reward the deep, concentrated work required to build real skills and to apply those skills to produce things like a craftsman, that are rare and that are valuable. To put it another way, if you can write an elegant algorithm, if you can write a legal brief that can change a case, if you can write a thousand words of prose that’s going to fixate a reader up until the end, if you can look at a sea of ambiguous data and apply statistics and pull out insights that can transform a whole business strategy… if you can do these types of activities which require deep work, that produce outcomes that are rare and valuable, people will find you. You will be able to build the foundations of a meaningful and successful life, regardless of how many Instagram followers you have.

I could write another 10,000 words on additional aspects of Instagram that I find deeply problematic, but I’m conscious of our modern world’s short attention spans and fragmented concentration, so I deem it a semi miracle if you, reader, have made it this far. Thank you. Please share this post if you find it meaningful and sound off in the comments.