This Isn’t Fun Anymore: Taylore Scarabelli

Essay originally published in Issue 20
Written by Taylore Scarabelli
Art by Tom Jones

I was already on Instagram for over a year before I got my own account. It was 2011 and a close friend had spent the last few semesters uploading photos of us to their profile. By the time I signed up, I could see the different variations of myself beginning to take form. There was Artsy Me in glasses and a vintage dress, hovering over a communal canvas. Goofy Me, micro-bangs bleached blonde with noodles hanging out of my mouth. Then there was Party Me, hunched over laughing with my roommate, beer in hand. All of the photos were topped with cool-toned filters and frames that made them look like Kodak negatives. And while the heavy editing and added grain made it seem like we were trying to look alternative, the pictures still felt honest—like teen photography used to.

Fast forward 9 years later and Instagram aesthetics have come full circle: from faux 50mm film photos, to immaculate influencer shots, back to oversaturated images and dirty mirror selfies. Today, teens are swapping perfectly poised photos for candid shots, and Facetune for silly filters. Even luxury brands like Balenciaga are substituting high-res images for “cursed” ones, encouraging artists and stylists to shoot their latest collections as if they were kids misfiring the family camera while playing dress up in granny’s clothes.

All of these things mark a renewed strive for authenticity and a collective desire to stand out in the crowd, but on a platform with over 1 billion users sharing the same memes and filtered selfies, it’s increasingly unclear what it means to “be yourself.”

Today, a common narrative has emerged that social media has made us all into clones by converting attention into profit. Platforms bait users with likes and follows, encouraging them to post more in order to extract data and sell ads. The result is a series of cultural bubbles that cause us to mirror one another, adopting similar aesthetics in order to earn more attention online. Under this data regime, creativity is behest to the algorithm, resulting in an accelerated trend cycle that makes ‘grammable items like oversized Filas huge overnight—only to become a meme about the pathetic nature of consumer culture a few months later.

On Instagram nothing is freaky, or weird or subcultural anymore. Just as the desire to be different is nothing new, neither is the culture industry’s inclination toward homogenization. Aspiring members of the avant-garde have always used consumption—fashion in particular—to signal rebellion against societal norms. For decades, these signifiers of difference have acted as meal tickets for marketers who know that nothing spurs consumerism quite like the desire to be different. It’s the reason why Hot Topic is always on-trend, and why platforms and pink hair look basic. When everything is on the same plane, sub becomes ground-level, alternative becomes mainstream.

But if trends have consistently emerged from underground, trickling up through magazines, music videos, and fashion houses before being mass produced and sold in malls—why does it feel like we’ve suddenly reached peak-culture? The answer is that social media has not only accelerated trend cycles and provided us with easily replicable inspiration for our art, it has also made our similarities more visible than ever before.

For those who consider themselves artists or trend-setters, Instagram has become a succubus, swallowing up newness and difference before spitting it back into the feed to be consumed and copied by the masses. And it’s not just corporations moodboarding young artists (though this is common). When we all see the same references, we tend to come up with the same ideas. That’s why there’s more than one black-out-contact-wearing influencer accusing mainstream designers of biting their style. In a networked world we’re all influencers, and everyone else is copying our looks.

As we begin to look more alike online, authenticity has turned into absurdity and it’s getting progressively harder to out-weird one another. When influencers are photoshopping themselves to look like aliens and fashion houses are stuffing it-bags with french fries, it seems like we’ve reached a peak. Today, attention-seeking is expressed with harmless shit posts, face filters, and over-the-top looks, but there’s a darker side to it too. On my feed, memes that make fun of suicide are scattered amongst screenshots of no-longer-relevant selfie feminists getting cyberbullied on finsta accounts. When it comes to earning attention, everything—and everyone—is fair game.

When I told friends I was writing about the end of Instagram they would say things like “good” or “definitely.” As if we’ve come to a consensus that scrolling is shameful and that sharing anything other than obligatory “work” posts (like press or party flyers), is desperate and embarrassing. But the truth is that we still spend too much time hate-watching fashion girls and emoji-replying to stories. It’s easy to roll your eyes at an image of an acquaintance posing with a minor art world celebrity, but it’s also hard not to share a screenshot of your latest work-in-progress, or a selfie of your newly injected lips.

Instagram is where we get attention for minor achievements. Where we find new clients, or new people to fuck. But it’s also a place where we waste time exposing our private thoughts and ideas to a corporation that seems to be above government control. And that’s exactly their goal: Facebook has made it so that we need Instagram just as much as it needs us, only they are getting paid while all the rest of us pray that our online clout will turn into something more. 

If signing off feels like self-erasure, staying on feels even worse. What are our options? We can cast aside our egos and limit our app use, or stay online and join new social networks that promise to protect our data and compensate us for our work. Or we can log off altogether, and pretend we live in an era where openings and editorials excite us, where we’re no longer worried whether our outfits or our art is just a collage of things we saw on the feed.

But we can also learn to think about social media in a different way. If capitalism created the concept of individuality in order to divide us and encourage us to buy more, perhaps the one good thing Instagram has done is show us that we’re all the same. Instead of seeing profiles as competitive tools for generating engagement, we might think of our personal aesthetics like memes: freely shared, relatable material that has the potential to connect like-minded people. I personally Iove DMing about clothes with girls I’ve never met IRL, who happen to dress just like me; even if the personalization algorithm is our subculture and Instagram is the new indie magazine.

Either way, it’s probably healthier to be more selective with our attention. The other day I saw a girl at the nail salon scrolling through sexy photos on her phone. I told her I was writing about the end of Instagram and I asked her if she noticed herself “liking” less. She laughed and told me she just unfollows people who bug her. “Like who?” I asked. She gave me a sideways look. “Mostly white feminists,” she said, “and influencers.”

Read more from Taylore here.