Instagram’s Pivot to Video May Forever Turn Our Lives Into Content
“[T]he main thread of one’s life story is now the electronic commodities and media services through which all experience has been filtered, recorded, or constructed,” according to Jonathan Crary, in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.
We’ve known this to be true for a while — at least for as long as we’ve lived, grown, and fused our lives with Instagram-like barnacles on a colossus of an algorithm-made ship. If things were already bad, they are likely to get worse, according to many; Instagram recently announced its intention to pivot toward more video content, calling the shift “inevitable.” The platform has clarified that photos will remain on the grid, but the platform will intentionally promote more video-based content.
The change is as much about audience interest as it is about commerce and money; Instagram is currently in a competing bid with TikTok, a video-only format that has quickly risen to gargantuan success in the mainstream.
While the platform insists that the user experience will become better over time, the change in packaging has bearing on how we construct archives of ourselves. A shift toward video means a compulsion on users to mediate their online lives through video. This is by definition, and necessarily, more intrusive and demanding; instead of sharing a static picture of food, you may now want to react to it, say something about it that makes you a much more compelling person without the layer of intrigue or mystery that a simple photograph allows.
The situation also speaks to the consequences of letting a giant, for-profit tech company become one of the main arbiters of how we live our digital selves — ultimately holding the power to shape how, when, and even why we express ourselves the way we do. We’ve already become much more beholden to likes, clicks, and views than we would have ever thought ourselves to be. Videos compel us to add more of our personalities to the clickable parts of ourselves, turning every one of us into content creators — since videos, inevitably, are far more consumable than photos.
“The more you use the Internet, the more your individuality warps into a brand, and your subjectivity transforms into an algorithmically plottable vector of activity,” wrote scholar Justin E. H. Smith in The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is. The more the Internet changes explicitly in service of a few companies’ profit and monopolistic competition, then, the more we as individuals lose our individuality. We’re all but arm-twisted into “producing” our lives as video — not doing so would mean dying a digital death, if being alive online is to be visible. All this makes the photo “option” not really an option.
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The imperative to turn ourselves into a brand, moreover, bleeds into other aspects of our lives — where content is an indisputable part of many livelihoods. “Cultural producers who, in the past, may have focused on writing books or producing films or making art must now also spend considerable time producing (or paying someone else to produce) content about themselves and their work,” notes Kate Eichhorn, new media studies scholar and author of Content.
Will all this mean that we’re doomed to a cycle of dance reels ad infinitum? It may be too soon to tell. But in the meantime, we still grapple with questions of authenticity online. When photos themselves were never as authentic as they made themselves out to be, what will the endless optimization of our lives in video mean for us? Already, the pressure to be “real” amid all the manufactured authenticity or performance became the self-same performance it swore never to be. Authenticity becomes labor, and the ability to monetize emotions, experiences, and life itself online has led to a crisis in self-discovery. Who are we if we’re not always performing, reacting?
“The original Instagram tropes have grown dull, creating a hunger for authenticity, or at least the appearance of candor,” writes Carrie Battan in The New Yorker. Batton notes the rise of candor, deliberate sloppiness, and the “getting real” post that performs sincerity and relatability with deliberation — all meant to contrast the highly filtered, unreal, optimized aesthetic of the old Instagram. Clearly, this, too, has become old hat: and a push for a different kind of authenticity is underway, leading to video as the answer.
So far, all this performance and optimization, and then careful un-optimization, has made people not only exhausted, but disheveled; causing many to disassociate from themselves, not even knowing who they are anymore without Instagram. These were existential problems inherent to the platform already — and that’s just with static images. What would it mean to add our speech, voice, expressions, mannerisms, tics, joys, fears, and simple mundanities to this digital death spiral? We’ll find out — and likely, we’ll post videos about it as we do.