Instagram is full of bots and spam accounts. I feel like the app is veering dangerously close to Facebook territory — aka, when an social media platform is overrun with spamy business accounts and pure spam accounts, thereby dramatically driving down the quality of the content and ruining an experience that was suppose to be between real people, not between people and businesses or people and spam. While social media is used in novel and interesting ways by people who do have a true personality, it often feels as if the majority of the content is being pushed out by a combination of legions of conventional, unimaginative, dull companies who are incredibly thirsty for followers, and the rabidly self-promoting bodybuilders/instagirls/food/photography accounts who seem to think that getting enough likes will transform them into social media stars paid for their content.
The quality of content feels extremely diluted when this level of commodification is introduced. The notion of your “insta-life” presenting in a completely different way than your “real-life” is an acknowledged phenomenon, if a BuzzFeed listicle specifically about it is any indication. The Instagram feed becomes a staging ground for the aspirational life we wish we had — and I think it is interesting that this aspiration has taken on a meme like quality itself, becoming ubiquitous across users.
For this hack, I made a fake Instagram account and populated it solely with stock photos (which are clearly stock photos, since I chose ones that still have stock watermarks). The account name is “livelafflove2k16”. I tried to mirror the type of stereotypical posts on Instagram; once I had the photo, I searched related hashtags. I lifted actual captions and hashtags used by real accounts to use with my stock version.
This is mainly a critique of hegemony in online social spaces. By using stock photos to represent the common types of photos that are posted, I aim to call attention to often hegemonic, heteronormative, and collective experiences of users on Instagram. It has a trickster element to it as well, done by pairing the “real” caption/hashtag content that other users created with the “empty/fake” stock photo; making no attempt to disguise the stock nature of the photo while simultaneously trying to pass it off through the caption and tags as genuine; the aesthetically-questionable use of filters; the hyper-stereotypical semiology encompassed in each photo choice.
In order to select what kind of stock photos I would use, I looked to typical photos I see shared, and attempted to delve into the semiology behind those types of photos. Every sign has 2 sides: the signifier, or the ‘thing’ that expresses the sign, in this case photos — and the signified, or the concept that the signifier suggests when you experience it. By bringing together signs and coded meanings, we create what the theorist Roland Barthes refers to as “myth” — or dominant ideologies that shape what we perceive to be “true” and “natural.”
Barthes wrote that myth services an important function for social control: if dominant ideologies are shown to be “acceptable/true/natural,” they will not be resisted or fought against. He applied this specifically to advertising, arguing that ads enforce the notion that conspicuous consumptions habits will grant us aspirational access to bourgeoise lifestyle groups. In reality, it only serves the dominant groups by reenforcing the ideologies of consumption/capitalism that grant them control.
What is Instagram if not a site to flex the digital extension of conspicuous consumption? When we all, consciously or unconsciously, create and share the same type of content informed by this Insta-myth, do we not become adverts ourselves — willingly or unwillingly — a vessel that communicates that dominant ideology?
Some examples of the semiology I was specifically engaging with follows:
The signifer is a beach, a moment of relaxation. #beach has 108,248,127 posts on Instagram. The signified is the idea of leisure and wealth — so much so, that this moment of vacation and escape becomes a focal point of sharing on Instagram. Typical accounts do not share shots of the view of cubicle at work every day; instead of presenting as the underclass reality, we attempt to present as a wealthy bourgeoisie. There is a stark contrast between the millions of beach tagged photos and the off-screen realities compared to Paris Hilton’s beach tagged photos and her off-screen reality. Onscreen, the two could almost compete — the difference doesn’t come across in the signifer. It becomes much more difficult to face the issues of income inequality when presented with the offline realities — but those are the realities rarely contrasted, especially on Instagram, wherein we tend to showcase our aspiration identity, not our lived reality.
Signifer is a young couple in an urban setting. Signified are ideas commonly communicated on Instagram about social capital gained through heterosexual romantic relationships. The best way to reap the benefit of that social capital is to post about the relationship constantly. There are also issues at play about who gets romantic disability — it is not typically older couples, rural couples, interracial couples, etc. Instead, like in other media formats (see Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment). This has consequences for the type of “myth” that is constructed around what romantic relationships look like, and can create an exclusive economy of claim that is damaging to anyone who is not young, white, able-bodied, and heterosexual. The other photos I chose to include of a happy white couple and an engagement ring photo also follow this line of thinking.
Other archetype posts included gym selfies — another type of post modeled on the aspirational self. The “cute pet” photo was included, as was the “food” photo. I tried to create the glitched version of these types of post by making them slightly off — with awful colors brought out by the filters, with the my “food” photo an obviously staged cornucopia — as a subtle satire on the proliferation of hegemonic, repetitive, vapid Instagram content.
In Rosa Menkman’s “Phenomenology of Glitch Art,” she defines the ‘glitch’ as a “(actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident or error. A glitch occurs on the occasion where there is an absence of (expected) functionality, whether understood in a technical or social sense.” Interestingly, although my use of Instagram is clearly not the intended use (sharing a fake persona with even faker photos), I experienced an odd phenomenon I was not entirely expecting. Presumably due to the ridiculously overkill, try-hard hashtag use (a minimum of 5 hashtags per post), as of writing this I have 76 followers. One of the photos — a stock photo of two women working out in the gym — has 24 likes.
An interesting social thing has happened: I tried to present the most vapid, obviously fake account I possibly could. And all those thirsty companies and rabid self-promoters and spam accounts actually liked and followed the content. It become a hilarious cycle of spam accounts following spam accounts. Several of what seems like legitimate businesses also followed me, and most surprisingly, some accounts that actually seemed like real people also followed my content. It’s hard to tell why the real people chose to follow the account — are the in on the joke, were they legitimately interested in the content, or did the just want one more follower?
What does it say that a social media account can be successfully executed using only stock photos? Ultimately, this project pokes fun at the way social media turns us all into fake versions of ourselves, and the way content tends to become eerily similar as we are backed into filter bubbles dominated by for-profit businesses and spam.