Aside from the many celebrities that I like to pretend I’m best friends with, the people that I follow on Instagram usually have either, a) multiple adorable pets, b) heartbreakingly hot bodies, or c) many shiny, nice, expensive belongings. Instagram is the ultimate envy machine: it feeds off the fact that we all want what we can’t have and will spend an absurd amount of time drooling over those things. The fact that I will choose my mandatory ten minutes of ‘Gramming when I wake up in the morning over having time to eat breakfast is just evidence of how strangely absorbing and enjoyable it is to feel jealous of other people. But because it’s so nice and fun, we forget to notice Instagram is nothing more than a visual representation of the class divisions which exist in the world today.
There is a trend of popular modern social media launching their success off a platform of exclusivity. Facebook was originally only available to Harvard students before being slowly introduced to other Ivy League schools. It’s popularity amongst the “elites” and it’s inaccessibility to the masses meant that once Facebook was finally made public, people went crazy for it. Because it was only available on iPhones, Instagram enjoyed a similar exclusivity for the first couple of years of it’s existence. When Androids were introduced and made access to smartphones relatively easier for those in low-income households, they were ridiculed as the trashy, uncool iPhone alternative. When Instagram was made available to Android users in April 2012, essentially removing it’s element of exclusivity, iPhone-wielding Instagram users revolted en masse, tweeting classist things like:
These days Instagram is widely available to all smartphone and Internet users, but the classism problem remains, and in fact has deepened with the changing ways that we use the app. In the beginning, Instagram was simply a way to add cute filters to make our photos look “artsy”. It was known mainly for photos of cats, espressos, and single-speed bikes. Now, Instagram is much more about creating a visual narrative for our lives – curating what we want the world to see when it looks at us (even if that image is vastly different from the reality). People who are keeping up with the cool kids will actually edit their photo on a different app (I like VSCO cam) before they post it to Instagram. It’s much less about the creating and much more about the showing: look at this new bag I bought, look at this exotic destination I flew to, look at this salad I made with all organic ingredients, look at me and my friends at our cute weekly Sunday brunch, and notice how I‘m holding my flat white at the perfect angle for showing off my many Karen Walker rings.
The classism we experience on Instagram now is derived from the simple truth that the parts of our lives which are the most “Instagrammable” are the things which we are able to enjoy because we come from a place of true privilege. The brunches, the bags, the long road trips, the lazy mornings; these are all pleasures that only a few select people in society actually get to enjoy. I think sometimes we forget about that because most of the people who have more followers than us are also more privileged: Dan Bilzerian, who posts photos of his expensive cats, his gaggle of prostitutes and his shiny yachts. Various Rich Kids of Instagram, a group of millenials who like to post photos of their watches and bottles of Veuve that they’re much too young to be drinking. These are people who are known for little more than flaunting their privilege, but we all lap it up because it’s such a simultaneously disgusting and attractive lifestyle; we hate it but we also want it for our own. Because those lifestyles are such obvious and lavish examples of extreme privilege, it’s easy to look over the fact that we, too, the actual real people, are privileged, and post photos which exhibit that. Everyone’s posting pretty much the exact same thing; it’s easy to think of it as “normal”.
But my point is not that it’s unfair that people who aren’t very privileged can’t get any likes on their photos. I’m sure that people in low-income households have more things to care about than how many people thought their breakfast looked nice this morning. The problem is that Instagram normalises and popularises a life which can only be enjoyed by the few, and other lives are not represented at all. The Digital Divide as alive and well – as of this year 133.3 million Americans still did not have a smartphone, and only 18% of teachers asked said that “all or almost all” of their students had access to digital resources allowing them to complete their work at home. These statistics show that Instagram classism isn’t only because the life of the world’s underprivileged is just generally less aesthetically pleasing to the rest of us; it’s also because their lives aren’t shown at all. For a platform which boasts more than 150 million active users and is creating a collective idea about what is important and valuable in this world, it’s scary that, on Instagram, poverty doesn’t exist.
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