Photography, as Susan Sontag famously pointed out, has long been seen as a form of evidence. That spirit seems to animate the trend — spreading and evolving since summer 2017 — of posting “Instagram vs. real life” diptychs that demonstrate how photos, side by side, can become evidence against themselves. Popular in the wellness community, these show food or physiques, spectacularly camera-ready on one side and quotidian on the other. One may depict a brightly colored, Instagram-ready smoothie versus the swampy-hued but nutritious one a user claims to actually prefer in “real life.” Another may show photos of the user taken moments apart to highlight how different one can look depending on how they prepare themselves for the camera. (These recent posts offer a range of examples.)
Sometimes, these images are intended to be humorously self-deprecating — a sight gag capitalizing on the discrepancy between the expectation and the event. Occasionally, they’re unkind, but for the most part, these images are earnest rather than shaming or funny. That is, they have a different valence from the recent “If you don’t love me/you don’t deserve me” two-panel Twitter meme. On the Instagram images, the accompanying captions often denounce superficiality and strategic image manipulation and emphasize the value of embracing rather than concealing imperfections.
The pairings seem intended as PSAs to remind us that much of what we see on the platform is fake, and that we should be wary of how readily we suspend disbelief and get sucked in to the world of aspirational illusion. They seem a knowing alternative to the stylized images they try to debunk. But should we be corrected for having taken pleasure in visual subterfuge? Is stylized relatability any less contrived? Even the “more real” and supposedly unaffected images are themselves their own kind of image filter, evidence of a stylized performance of authenticity — and an effective one at that. Situated within a steady stream of aggressively beautiful images, the contrasting averageness in the diptychs becomes eye-catching: Their intent may be to critique the platform, but they can’t escape replicating its logic.
Casual spontaneity is often as elaborately constructed as Instagram’s more polished images. Earlier this year, Leandra Medine Cohen, the founder of the lifestyle blog Man Repeller (1.9 million Instagram followers), posted “How to Take a Good Instagram Photo: A Theory,” in which she admits as much. “The paradox, of course,” she writes, “is that we know (inherently at this point) how much effort might go into a selfie, but we’re willing to accept the pretend sheen of ease.” But enjoying that pretense of apparent spontaneity doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve collectively lost all grasp of the truth. For their intended audiences, these images don’t seem like contrived attempts to pass off stylized setups as everyday life but instead imply dedication to the aesthetic, a pure commitment to trying to influence. In its way, this is as “authentic” as any document that purports to capture unvarnished reality.
For influencers, authenticity tends to be bound up with aspiration: an image is “true” if it captures and triggers desire, even if the image is carefully and even deceptively constructed. The feeling it inspires in the midst of scrolling is what matters. They draw on the ambiguity between what is real and what is possible. And after all, what could be more inauthentic than an image from an influencer that fails at seeming influential? Being liked, capturing attention, connecting with an audience: on Instagram, these incentives are not a corruption of reality but the basis of it. So a post whose strategies for garnering attention are legible conveys something essential about the “facts” of the moment that begat it. Traits like spontaneity, vulnerability, and beauty are as “real,” by Instagram’s standards, as the attention they get in being effectively signified. Instagram teaches users to decode and navigate these sorts of “deceptions” on their own terms, which is a large part of what makes it compelling to use.
A kind of vertigo ensues if we try to assess lifestyle-oriented images in terms of their level of truth. Instagram is consumed not as bona fide reality but a hyperreality, in which representations refer to other representations, not some supposed truth outside the app. There is no natural beauty, just “natural” beauty. No candid shots, just shots that read as “candid” by the code of conventions that effective influencers have mastered — demonstrating that mastery over the conventions is how one establishes one’s influence. There is no “reality” against which to measure the particular beauty or mood or lifestyle an image is designed to evoke except itself. Using something faked, edited, misleading, or out of context to attract attention isn’t the platform’s problem but its point. There is no “fake news” on Instagram.
But there are fake audiences. There’s no telling how many of Instagram’s 800 million users are bots; the only estimates of the number of fake accounts (8 percent as of 2015) come from the platform itself, though independent analysts have suggested bots could make up closer to 30 percent of total accounts. While the company does shadow-ban insubordinate users and delete some bots, it has not launched a large-scale effort to purge them since the “Instagram rapture” of 2014, in which millions of bots were deleted for the sake of preserving “genuine interactions.” After the rapture, Instagram received thousands of pleas from despondent users begging to have their cherished ghosts back.
As the New York Times laid bare in its January investigation of bot accounts, social media users can readily buy followers to artificially inflate their metrics in hopes of seeming more popular or influential. In some cases, bots are a threat to democracy, but the platform for such conspiracies has never been Instagram. For the price of a lunch out, any Instagram user can acquire 1,000 bot followers overnight, purchased from online distributors. Also for sale, though at a higher price point, are blue verification badges and access to automated systems that feign coordinated enthusiasm for your post (some Instagrammers form “pods” to organize flurries of likes and comments to a similar end).
These tactics have been subject to even more condemnation than “fake” images on Instagram, yet they could be defended on similar terms. Augmenting images is central to Instagram’s appeal; why would follower counts be any different? For users, their objective reality may be less important than the overall aspirational fantasy they support — follower counts are just another detail in which to pleasurably suspend disbelief. So why wouldn’t you tweak it the same way you might adjust the contrast?
From an advertiser’s point of view, though, fake follower counts are less a matter of one person’s authentic aspirational fantasy than fraud. These metrics are the bedrock “reality” upon which the platform’s influencer economy is built; threats to it are threats to revenue all along the chain. Instagram has a rule against “deceiving” users, but it is enforced by cracking down on bots, not Photoshop.
Among influencers, the practice of buying followers is essentially cooking the books. If follower counts become unreliable as an index of influence, influencers could lose negotiating leverage with sponsors. To protect the apparent integrity of the metrics, buying followers or gaming algorithms must be made to seem taboo. Accordingly, influencers are known to condemn and condescend to peers with inflated metrics. “It’s not so much outrage as people pity you,” one career influencer confides of those who buy followers. “It’s like people who pay for all the drinks at the bar just to feel like they have friends. It’s sad.” And recently, the aggregator Bloglovin’ — a platform which, like Instagram, connects influencers to wider audiences — sent an especially blunt email to its users about the impact fake followers have on their bottom line, imploring them not to purchase them. The email tried moral appeals (“Let’s be part of the solution to stop this cycle and move to a place where honesty is more precious than follower count”), incentives (“we also reward genuine influencers with bigger + better campaign opportunities”), and threats (“we constantly monitor influencer’s data for suspicious activity and we take corrective action”).
Brands have started to seize upon tools for determining the legitimacy of one’s audience and are relying on different engagement metrics that are harder to fake. Yet there is still something delicious about a sizable follower count, and something real to be gained from having one. Even if it is losing currency with advertisers, the perceived value of followers still operates on other users. Instagram legitimacy — in the sense of being popular — rides on it, which makes it a prerequisite to fulfilling certain ambitions. For many professions, especially those that depend on an individual’s networking skills, a respectable social media presence is de rigueur. The difference between having 500 followers and 1,500 could be enough to garner attention, secure a job interview, validate your work for those who need another form of confirmation. It can provide the kind of slight edge for which people have long paid marketers. The optics of a high audience number can still function as a form of due diligence in trying to represent one’s best self by any means necessary. To say fake followers are inauthentic rings closely to the critique of the application of makeup as inauthentic, as Danah Boyd observes. Shaming the buying of bots feels petty and besides the point, like shaming someone’s contour or Botox.
The alternative to buying Instagram legitimacy ostensibly lies in being a “good” Instagram user: dedicating time, money, and emotional energy to the pursuit of editing, posting, hashtagging, engaging with other users’ content. This changes Instagram use from a fun diversion to an obligatory chore. Yet even if you submit to this regimen, you may not see proportionate rewards. The app’s algorithms prioritize established rather than fledgling accounts, populating its highly visible “explore” feed with dispiritingly uniform images that have already been well-liked. Pictures of puppies and ice cream cones, stylish young women on eternal vacation, pneumatic workout selfies, lattes — professional influencers and casual users alike draw repeatedly from the same array of reliable options. It’s no coincidence that buying followers accelerated after Instagram stopped showing posts chronologically and began ranking them algorithmically. Algorithmic sorting suggests that the only way into the closed feedback loop that assures that the attention-rich get richer is to cheat.
Given this intrinsic unfairness, buying followers seems reasonable, maybe even relatable. It’s very “real” to try to solve an annoying problem with money. What could be more human than seeking shortcuts around unfairly remunerated labor? By saving users on-app work, buying followers could even be interpreted as a more efficient way to be “authentic” in another of its popular meanings: “I am living an offline life.”
Buying followers can alleviate hassle, but it entails embracing the paradox of all counterfeiting: coveting a currency whose legitimacy you are in the process of undermining. When people buy followers, they are sabotaging a system to which they are simultaneously capitulating. Buying followers is believing in them.
On Instagram, authenticity is inseparable from ambiguity, as “real” and “fake” constantly fold into each other under the pressures of its attention economy. Competition and professionalization end up contending with spontaneity as the markers of “realness,” contorting the way users represent themselves and interpret other’s posts. This is clear from “finsta” — a contraction of “fake instagram” — accounts, with double-digit followers and unedited, inside-joke-y images. These are commonly understood to be secret or private places to be more “real” and have fun outside the pressures associated with their real-name Instagram identities. But when “real Instagram” profiles are meticulously staged and “fake” ones reflect the unguarded self, it suggests the uselessness of the fake-real binary for addressing our conflictedness about identity and the multiple forms it takes.
Even “finsta” is subject to its own code of behaviors and as vulnerable to becoming contrived as regular Instagram. What then? A finsta-finsta? And a finsta-finsta-finsta? The need for escape becomes for ever more recursive, and the illusion of total control over one’s image ever more elusive. And yet this pursuit of authenticity is what ultimately makes the app compelling. It at least gives you something to do to try to “be real”: post more, scroll more, create more accounts. Influencers stake their claim on the platform by navigating that process, holding out the promise that the most perfectly realized version of yourself still aspires to become something more.