In June 1883, the magazine The Chautauquan first posed the question, “If a tree were to fall on an island where there were no human beings, would there be any sound?” In June 2020, I pose the question, “If you don’t post your sourdough loaf on Instagram, did you even bake it?” Instagram has always been a source of validation for its users and now, with a global pandemic removing us from the direct contact of our friends, peers, and distant family, its significance in our lives has only increased.
Previously, my choices—from the outfits I wore to the foods I snacked on—could be validated by the dozens of friends and peers swarming around my college campus all hours of the day. In quarantine, this hive of in-person interaction is gone and the online realm, specifically Instagram, has become the only place where my presence can be felt and my actions validated.
Of course, the pocket-sized, digital world of Instagram has never been a perfect replacement for the real world. On Instagram, our actions aren’t confined to the moment we perform them. They linger on the timelines of hundreds and thus become forced to hold some level of importance and intention. With a digital audience in mind, there are no casual encounters or off-guard moments. Every post, whether you act nonchalant about it or not, is a brazen display of the version of yourself that you want the world to see.
When we had the real world providing the bulk of our interactions, the pressure to maintain a digital identity could go relatively ignored. We existed both casually in real life and presentationally online. Now with the real world suspended, relying on the pressurized realm of Instagram has caused identities to become performances. The self has merged into the digital self. To be an interesting person is to post interesting content. To be present is to have a digital presence.
I know I’m not the only one who is feeling this pressure. With the rise of 30-day song “challenges” (am I the only one who doesn’t understand how posting songs you enjoy is a challenge?), quarantine outfits, and “tag five people” chains, people are looking to combat isolation by sharing more of themselves with the internet. Most of this is a fairly harmless sharing of tastes and preferences designed to provide entertainment and connection. But there’s a point at which sharing feels almost competitive. Looking to be validated with likes, views, and comments, we post that we are making music, going on walks, watching high-brow cinema, and of course baking loads of bread. We all want to prove that we’re still interesting and nuanced individuals. More than anything, we all want to prove that we’re being productive.
To me, this is where the real issue lies. During a global pandemic when everyone is stuck at home, our Instagram feeds should be ghost towns. We can’t go anywhere! We can’t do anything! Of all times to allow ourselves to be ridiculously boring, this is the perfect one. Instead, it appears that our feeds have become the battlegrounds for one of the most prevalent arguments of quarantine: should we use our surplus of time for productivity or for self-care?
I’m of the belief that without social media, this debate wouldn’t even exist. If Instagram didn’t provide a constant audience for its users, quarantine would be the only time in many of our lives without anyone’s eyes upon us. We would be able to act out our days motivated purely by our own desires. If we wanted to lay in bed or train for a marathon, nobody would know either way. Isolation would be a time of discovering an unbiased, personal balance between productivity and self-care.
Unbiased is the key word here. While not posting the details of your life can help quel this debate, Instagram pressures will still inevitably affect you. After a day of loafing about, seeing the paintings and Bon Appetit dinners your friends made will inevitably leave you feeling a little guilty. Plus, when roped into the comparison culture of Instagram, even maintaining a certain level of productivity can feel inadequate. If you’re reading, you’re not working through your to-watch list; if you’re learning to bake, you’re not getting in shape; if you’re working on homework, you’re not writing the next great American novel. Gazing upon social media, it feels that no matter what you do you aren’t spending quarantine the right way.
This comparison issue is only exacerbated by the fact that, at least for me, the more time I spend in my hometown bedroom, the more my old habits, worries, and insecurities begin to surface. Away at school, I felt completely content with my style choices. Stuck at home scrolling and lusting over other peoples’ clothing and hair, I’ve begun to feel increasingly dissatisfied with what I have. Similarly, while in college I was never concerned with my diet or workout regime; at home, bombarded with clips of Chloe Ting transformations and apple cider dieting trends, I feel anxious when I start to eat what I feel is “too much” or lay in bed all day. What were once fleeting thoughts have now manifested into worries and fixations, magnified by their constant presence on Instagram.
This isn’t meant to be taken as a critique of those who enjoy sharing their lives. If what you’re posting makes you feel uplifted or proud or even just present, then post away! Who am I to critique the actions you take to make yourself happy and validated? This also isn’t meant to be a long, drawn-out version of the mantra “It’s a pandemic, not a productivity contest.” While that is true, this is really just meant to be taken as an acknowledgment of the current condition of social media and how its flaws are exposed and shaped by the global pandemic.
So I return to the sourdough bread and the song challenges and the outfit pictures. In a world where day-to-day interaction and validation have vanished, it’s understandable that we would turn to the digital realm to fill that hole. It’s far from a flawless fit. Being observed by everyone you know simultaneously creates a pressure that we just don’t have to worry about in normal everyday life. Productivity is coveted and comparison is inevitable. But until I can dine in a restaurant, walk through a busy campus, and go out on Friday night, Instagram will have to do the trick.
By Jill Risberg
Illustration by Teresa Woodcock