The irony here should be apparent: we were not so much being fed means to become creative or passionate as we were being shown ways to signal that we were either one — or better, both. It didn’t appear to matter whether or not we’d ever truly experienced what it was to feel the rush that accompanies creativity, or the bliss that is the complete lack of need for approval when immersed in the throes of passion. All that mattered was that cosmetically, it looked like we had. It was, in many ways, sickening; for years, we existed full of nothing but shortcuts to anything worthwhile; everything with an agenda, and never your own. It was also simply economics; in a society as massive and complex as ours has become, institutions that rely on vetting out the best talent — colleges, companies, banks — use signals of reality, as opposed to reality itself, to determine who makes the cut.
“That we were gifted Instagram after years of being conditioned to emphasize the cosmetic was almost poetic; if all of the obsession with it was a stick of dynamite, then Instagram was the spark at the end of the fuse.”
The truth, then, is this: our generation was raised with the understanding that the image we portrayed mattered more than who we actually were not out of some malevolent, externally imposed agenda, but because it was actually true. The result was that nothing we ever did felt organic; instead, everything felt like a checked box. You played sports to prove that you were competitive. You took classes to get grades, those wonderful letters that separated friends and induced panic attacks and never really went away and felt like the world for as long as I can remember. You took AP classes because they were decidedly not interesting; they were just faster, and for that reason, better signals of competence. You participated in extracurriculars because if you didn’t, there would be more empty boxes on your applications than there would be on those of your competition. Trips to remote parts of the world were the crème de la crème: proof of your selflessness and worldliness all at once, with the tangential benefit of being foolproof conversation topics and unbeatable application differentiators when placed up against the rest. Life was nothing more than an obsession with the cosmetic, necessitated by the complexity of modernity. For a time, it didn’t appear that things could get worse.
Then came Instagram.
That we were gifted Instagram after years of being conditioned to emphasize the cosmetic was almost poetic; if all of the obsession with the cosmetic was a stick of dynamite, then Instagram was the spark at the end of the fuse. The medium is a reflection of the same truth our generation has been getting stuffed down its throat for years: that is, there is more riding on the image you portray than on your actual character.
Instagram is built for the cosmetic, signal-obsessed world. Its business, after all, is driven by engagement, and because engagement is well-understood to be eroded by the presence of nuance and depth — two traits that are essential for a complete understanding of anything — Instagram promotes neither. Instead, the platform is filled with memes: simple truths that are as easily illustrated as they are consumed, alongside touched-up shots of individuals, each one a reminder that we grew up in a world in which community service and student council positions were more valuable on applications than they were in real life, and “fake it ’til you make it” really just meant “fake it ’til you die.”
This isn’t to say we’ve never wanted depth; in fact, I think the opposite is true. We crave depth, but we won’t get it on Instagram; its nature doesn’t allow it. This is a part of the Instagram’s massage, the entirety of which is, as of yet, unknowable. It is what happens when a society with a penchant for the cosmetic meets a medium dominated by it; it is what happens when the stick of dynamite — having wept for years; primed and anything but stable — meets the spark. The consequence is the drastic amplification of the signal-based society that modernity has forced us to become. If we weren’t already a cosmetic class, we certainly are now.