Nostalgic Reaction: Instagram, Alienation, and Simulated Authenticity

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by Photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted…Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it.”
-Susan Sontag, On Photography

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1. Introduction

Recently, I attended a concert at which I overheard a fellow concertgoer say to his friend how excited he was to see the band that was about to perform. I could relate; I, as many do, truly most enjoy the unadulterated experience of music when played live. As the lights dimmed and the band began to tune up, my giddy friend took out his smartphone and began using it constantly, posting on Facebook, writing about the concert on Twitter, checking into the venue on Foursquare, and of course, taking hundred of pictures and videos. “What was going on here?” I wondered. Was he really enjoying the concert or was he simply documenting his presence at the concert, creating artifacts that proved he was there?

Though I cannot speak to a specific individual’s practices of enjoyment, I can confidently say for myself that such methods would greatly hinder my true presence and enjoyment of a concert, or almost any other event I can imagine. Yet, many of us, myself included, fall prey to the desire to document our actions and cultivate our own digital history online everyday. To not do so is deemed odd and antisocial today. I will argue that this hyper-awareness to our own historiography, and its curation on the internet and elsewhere, have created in us a sense of alienation and distance from ourselves and our experiences. I argue that, in an attempt to gain a feeling of (loosely defined) “authenticity” and realness, we revert to forced nostalgia. We can look at the rise of the wildly popular iPhone application, Instagram, as an example of this desire. Yet, this manufactured history and effort to inject nostalgia into our documentations as a signifier for truth is, in itself, based on multiple logical fallacies, works to only reuse and rehash old ideas, and will fail to aid our escape from alienation, instead pushing us further towards the technology we wish to rise above.

2. Movement to Ubiquitous Documentation

Man has always documented his actions and thoughts, through writing, drawing, sound recording, and other methods; we could not argue that this aspiration is anything new. But with the advent of photography, especially as it progressed into a commercially viable and cheaply used consumer product, the ease at which a person could document their lives and their surroundings became greater, and, consequently, so did the amount of documentation going on. Anything could be photographed rather easily, and was, which began to completely alter the way we view the world, mediating all we saw through its potential for documentation. Susan Sontag, writing in 1973, said that “photography reinforces the nominalistic view of social reality as consisting of small unites of apparent infinite number…through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles; and history, past and present, a set of anecdotes” (Sontag 17). We began to see by looking at photographs of the world instead of looking at the world itself, “which levels the meaning of all events” (Sontag 7).
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While Sontag was slightly worried, but not overly irate, at the omnipresence of images as the main mediating force of our reality, another thinker, Guy Debord, most certainly was. Only six years prior to the publication of the above passage, Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle, in which is posited that all human and social interactions had become replaced by representations of such, and “social relations among people, mediated by images” Debord 4). This “spectacle”, as he called it, is in direct aid to the corrosive and all encompassing status of the commodity, where in capitalism replaces genuine interaction. The rise of visual technology and its role in creating mass media as we know it unmistakably is the main culprit of this shift to a “world of the commodity dominating all that is lived” (Debord 37).

If Sontag and Debord were alive today, they would see how technology and the internet have advanced and shaped their theories into new forms of communication, mediation, and alienation. Our vision and communication in the world may be mediated through images, as Debord argued, but, given our current technological advanced status, our communication with ourselves and our sense of personal history is now mediated to the core by the presence of such images, as well by our own creation of them. Our ability to document our every action through myriad of social media outlets has allowed us to produce our own spectacles wherein we not only communicate and consume only images, but we define ourselves and our histories by using and producing them.

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Sontag or Debord never lived in a world where the average first-world consumer was always in reach of technology that can produce and document. The smartphone, a device which has consumed and mediated all of our interactions, both as a tool to access the internet and as a device to mediate in-person communication (how many times have you been at a dinner and been forced to look at photos on their phone, or worse, watched while they ignored you in favor of checking social media on it?), gives us the ability to constantly create and perpetuate the spectacle. Like my friend at the concert, we are continually aware of our capacity to document and share, and with that comes the strong feeling that we must do such things wisely, as they define who we are in the eyes of others. In his enlightening essay about the rise of faux-vintage photography, writer Nathan Jurgenson explans that, “when taking a photograph, we are at once both poets and scribes; a point that I have used to describe our self-documentation on social media; we are both telling the truth about our lives as scribes, but doing so creatively like poets” (Jurgenson 2). Later he writes that Facebook and social media “has positioned us to live life in the present with the constant awareness of how it will be perceived as having already happened” (7). Sontag writes, “a way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it- by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir” (Sontag 7). Now, these “souvenirs” have shifted from being only accumulated at special times in ones life, events limited and considered significant because of their rarity (such as a vacation, to follow the metaphor), to being amassed from every day life and used to create a diary of one’s history, not just chronicling of the important moments, but everything in between as well. In this manner, the spectacle begins to seep deeper and deeper into our lives.

3. Almost Instant Nostalgia on Demand

This alienation from our reality and our status as only documentarians of our lives, as opposed to experiencers of them, has pushed us towards a search for “authenticity”. We wish to reconnect with our experiences and to create “real” things, instead of pixels on a screen. We long for days before everything was broken into discrete parts for easy digital transfer, before everything existed in a form easily consumed by technology. We wish for a time when touch was the main sensation, not vision. But, of course, we do not want to change our current social and purchasing habits, as the Spectacle has too tight a hold on us. So, we need a tool that can simulate such feeling for us, while still giving us a product to consume. Enter Instagram.

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Instagram is a mobile cellphone app which allows users to snap a picture using their camera phone and share those pictures with their friends, family, and anyone else in the world, via the Internet. What makes Instagram different is that it allows you to add filters to these pictures, post production, which give you the distinct look of an aged photograph. The multiple effects allow users to add a tell-tale yellowing and washed out quality like one would see on a bonafide Polaroid, or vignetting on the edges, like one would achieve from Lomography. The filters simulate scratches and film grain and some even superimpose edges with film writing to give the extra feel of a tactile, paper image. They are directly emulating the aesthetics of photographs created from film and printed on flat material, thus harkening back to days when such things were the status quo for documentation, before they migrated to a computer screen. They give the user the look of aged “authentic” photograph without any of the work.

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“Authentic” and “real” are tricky concepts and terms, ones that are admittedly on unsteady footing and have unclear definitions, hence the quotation marks. What is authentic and what is real? It is a question that many philosophers and thinkers have grappled with for centuries, and is a subject for many other discussions outside of this work. What is important is that the users perceive the look of old photographs as “authentic”. They equate the signs of age, vintage, and, more over, nostalgia, to signify an object closer in touch with a given reality.

One of the main reasons for this is the scarcity of the “authentic” photo that Instagram is trying to fake. A Polaroid is a unique artefact, a token kept in shoeboxes and one that, if lost, is gone forever. A photograph in digital form on Facebook can be copied and saved, emailed and printed infinite amounts of time. With analog photographs, “the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store,” wrote Sontag (1). However, with the advancement in technology, the digital image became easier to create, accumulate, and store, but also lost its status as an object. Thus, to simulate the look of an old Polaroid is to make a step closer to regaining that uniqueness, materiality, and realness we equate with it. When one opens any Instagram image online, they are presented with a message which reads: “Snap a photo, then choose a filter to transform the look and feel of the shot into a memory to keep around forever.” Even this message alludes to the evocative materiality of past photography and practices of documentation. We are not only referencing what exists in our images, but the act of documenting itself, something that has been lost through digital accumulation.
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The act of adding filters and, in a sense, augmenting our documentations of reality is also helping us to gain a sense of labor that we have lost through our use of technology. Debord explains that “the technical equipment which objectively eliminates labor must at the same time preserve labor as a commodity and as the only source of the commodity” (Debord 45). Hipstagram, an application very similar to Instagram (less popular and without the sharing capabilities) even has a feature wherein users are forced to shoot a “roll” of photographs (twenty-four phone images) before they can see them on the phone, simulating the mystery and delayed gratification of analog film photography. We have been removed from our own work so much that we seek to regain the sense of labor by working on, adjusting, and augmenting our personal spectacle, as well as denying ourselves the ease of automation that the phone’s technology allows us, because we feel that it gets us closer to true experiences and authentic reality. And, just as Debord expects, we pay for this ability ($1.99 in the iTunes App store), thus turning our labor into a commodity.

Of course, our subjects within our images look as though they are from a time gone by as well. Given our hypersensitivity to the possibility of all our actions of becoming part of a personal documentary, we live in a “present which is always future past” (Jurgenson 7). Such a feeling has shifted our experience of time, to the point where a second ago feels much longer, and we seek a sense of nostalgia to validate this change in perception. The instant wistfulness of Instagrammed photographs relates to this elongation and segmentation of time into discrete and digital moments, as well as adds a reference to the authenticity that comes with age. If we equate nostalgia with validity, genuineness, and a closer connection to our experiences, then, when we add a tint of yellowed aging to our photographs, we are creating instant nostalgia, and injection of “authenticity” to our recent history. Not only is the image itself given realness through feigned materiality, but its subject matter is given an authority because it harkens back a time perceived as more “real”. Now, our images of the delicious meal we made or our dog sleeping are infused with a melancholia and a supposed authenticity they had before digital imaging. Nevermind that those in the past who we are trying to emulate never documented their lives in such a fervent manner as we do in the present.

This change in our relation to time and to the way we perceive and document our history also leaves us wanting to regain a control of such ideas. In Society of the Spectacle, Debord writes:
When ideology, having become absolute through the possession of absolute power, changes from partial knowledge into totalitarian falsehood, the thought of history is so perfectly annihilated that history itself, even at the level of the most empirical knowledge, can no longer exist.
As our personal perception of time is shifted, time and history itself has been collapsed by the spectacle. “[H]istory remains separated from the common reality,” Debord writes, leaving “the indifferent oblivion of cyclical time”(Debord 132). Because the ideology of the spectacle allows for the illusion of time passing but never for any real change of power relations or change in ruling ideologies throughout history, chronology is a myth, as we all experience the same basic concepts and ideas repeated and repeated.

Thus, we experience an increased inclination and penchant for nostalgia and a desire to put things from past decades on a pedestal of authority, yearning for the “good old days”. We wish to regain a hold of history and chronology in order to gain an illusion of progress and of time passing. Instagram helps us to do so by allowing us to label things as “vintage” and giving us the chance to reference the past, even if the same constructs of hegemony and consumerism were in place then as they are now. This is not to say that the ecstasy of nostalgia has not been around for centuries before the Internet, since the dawn of conscious documentation, but, with the rise of ubiquitous recording, the search for a closer relation with reality has caused it to become of paramount concern. Yet, as we can see, any delusionary claims that Instagram releases us from the Spectacle by granting us instant nostalgia and authenticity is a sham.

4. History Repeating: Nostalgia and Age as a Style

In his essay, “Postmodernism and the Consumer Society,” Frederic Jameson posits that “in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum” (Jameson 18). In our postmodern world, the author is dead and all we have to communicate with are ideas that have been already created and we can only access styles that reference those thoughts that have been thought before us. In this way, we have a confusing concept of the past, where in it can only be understood as simply a source for themes, genres, styles, and systems, ready to be commodified. Jameson goes on to say that we are forced to “seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about that past, which itself remains forever out of reach” (20).
the "1977" filter at work
the "1977" filter at work
When users alter an image in Instagram, they are doing just this. Instagram my have a filter called “1977”, but what it references is not the exact year that punk broke, but a certain style and feel that has been pulled from that era into the realm of consumerism. Tools like Instagram flatten history into codes of reference to be easily read and consumed, leaving any actual allusion to a real time and place irrelevant. In a recent interview, Instagram’s founder, Kevin Systrom, said, “What we care about is giving you the tools to take a snapshot from your camera and turn it into any mood you want” (Zeichner 2). What the filters suggest is not a distinct and historically accurate point in the past, but rather the simple stereotyped essence of “vintage”; not a time but a “mood”, as Systrom puts it.

By using aesthetics of the past as “mood” enhancers of the present, Instagram applies the post modernist tactic of rehashing old tropes, though now in an even more direct sense, as a pure copy. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard refers to this in his essay, Simulacra and Simulations: “It is no longer a question of immatation, nor of reproduction, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs for the real sign itself” (Baudrillard 2). We are left with an object that references the appearance of something, without the substance or qualitites of that thing. These simulations become all we deal in, and the things they reference no longer exist. It is here that Debord and his Spectacle return. Instead of referencing the past in order to highlight the passing of time, things like Instagram work to further compress time by reusing the same ideas and passing them off as new. In this manner, time may progress, but history repeats itself ad infintum and therefore, ceases to exist. Photos taken yesterday look like they were taken forty years ago and, instead of reaching a closer understanding of our current time period, the lines between past and present are blurred even more. This cyclical nature of ideas, styles, and genres, and its subsequent use as a consumer good, help to keep power in check and to reinforce the nature of the Spectacle.

Shortly, after everyone realizes their photos all look exactly the same, Instagram will fall out of favor and the value of the one billion dollars it cost Facebook to buy the company will be in question. However, something will take Instagram’s place, something to push us further into the technological future that simultaneously connects us together and alienates us from ourselves and our subsequent communication. The irony of a product that makes our photos look old and faded which is actually moving us further into a world mediated completely through technology and closer to the Debordian Spectacle is lost on most. Sontag writes that photography is a “tool of power” (5) because it constructs our reality and because it “attempts to contract or lay claim to another reality” (12). Now that the power of photography has been democratized for anyone with a smart phone, such power is even more centralized to those who stand to benefit from the production and perpetuation of the consumer Spectacle.
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5. Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1994. Print.

Crouch, Ian. "Culture Desk: Instagram' s Instant Nostalgia : The New Yorker." The New Yorker. Web. 5 May 2012. <http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/04/instagrams-instant-nostalgia.html>.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone, 1994. Print.

"Instagram Is the Best, Instagram Is the Worst." The Verge. 9 Apr. 2012. Web. 10 May 2012. <http://www.theverge.com/2012/4/9/2928975/instagram-filters-ping-counterping>.

Jameson, Fredric. "Postmodernism and Consumer Society." The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. London: Verso, 1998. 13-29. Print.

Jurgenson, Nathan. "The Faux-Vintage Photo: Full Essay (Parts I, II and III)." Cyborgology. Web. 1 May 2012. <http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/05/14/the-faux-vintage-photo-full-essay-parts-i-ii-and-iii/>.

Sandoz, Devin. "Simulation, Simulacrum (2)." Simulation, Simulacrum (2). University of Chicago. Web. 2 May 2012. <http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/simulationsimulacrum2.htm>.

Sicha, Choire. "Your Beautiful Pictures Are Stupid: Against Trendy Digital Photography." The Awl. 5 Oct. 2010. Web. 10 May 2012. <http://www.theawl.com/2010/10/your-beautiful-pictures-are-stupid-against-trendy-digital-photography>.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Print.

Zeichner, Naomi. "Oversaturated: Is Instagram’s Popularity Changing Photography?" Oversaturated: Is Instagram' s Popularity Changing Photography? The FADER. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://www.thefader.com/2011/10/26/oversaturated-is-instagrams-popularity-changing-photography/>.

6. Image and Media Sources (in Order)