The crucial part is the facial expression. Arrange a focused frown or an absent glaze, as though you were mentally composing a text or considering someone else’s, and the people eating paninis at the table next to you will never know you’ve in fact just performed a task of far greater import. You can trust me on this, because I’ve perfected the art of surreptitiously Instagramming: an approach necessary for my use of the growing social media app in public. My arm, resting unremarkably on the table at a remarkably flattering angle, reflects a contradiction that I participate in daily.
I’d prefer it if my panini-eating neighbours remained ignorant of my Instagramming, simply because all they would see is That Kind Of Person (a hashtagging internet-narcissist extraordinaire). On the other side of the iPhone screen, my followers will know I am Exactly That Kind Of Person, which I’m perfectly comfortable with. Viewers of my photo have the luxury of witnessing not just the implicit act of Instagramming, but the fruits of my artistic labours as well: namely, a perfectly executed picture of cappuccino foam. The trendy, quasi-urbane tableau I’ve captured is one I’m confident will override any judgement my followers might subject me to, in the same way that it nullifies any guilt I might experience for participating in behaviour that I would normally deride. I would similarly experience near-fatal shame if I were caught taking selfies by an onlooker, but safe within the arena of Instagram, I am consistently #shameless, liking the way my eyebrows look because I know they will harvest likes.
Perhaps such disconnects may seem like a strange development, but rest assured (mum, dad), Instagram has not changed me profoundly. Social media is social media, the stuff inside my iPhone isn’t real, my life beyond the screen would be the same, I think, were there no screens at all; nothing small and rectangular sitting on my heart with grease-marks where my fingers have been sliding, locking, unlocking. But perhaps mildly, moderately, somewhere in the background of things, Instagram is making me happier. The world is a big, bad place, full of people who will steal your wallet and laugh at you when you trip over various objects or express personal opinions. But inside that icon – a crude caricature of cameras from decades viewed from behind a rose-tinted blindfold of nostalgia – I have found sanctuary.
Social media has built an economy based around appreciation, the ‘like’ becoming an increasingly ubiquitous currency. Blogging platforms have allowed users to sell their art, ideas and content accordingly. On Instagram, the most sacrificial of social networks, you’re selling you, arm extended to the heavens to capture your face at its best angle. Such willingness to place your existence in such a vulnerable position, at the mercy or scorn of 100 million Instagram users – both strangers and friends – brings the appeal of the application into question. But, remember, there are 100 million of you, of us, out there. Instagram is a best-case scenario for safety-in-numbers like never before. It’s hard to criticise someone’s inane photo of their breakfast, their bedroom, their baby, when you still want to take photos of your breakfast, your bedroom, your baby and you still want them to like it. A judgement-free realm is created, based upon the mutual desire for autobiography. Whole-hearted enjoyment supersedes cynicism and self-deprecation, so that our narcissism can thrive as we frolic among the hashtags together.
If Instagram has successfully banished the shame surrounding vanity, perhaps it’s a place of further potential triumph, where our other sources of guilt can be expressed, shared, and overcome, one #shameless at a time. Living in Canberra, there is one particular shame I’d like to be freed from, which is, living in Canberra.
I am sure that well-rounded Canberran adults are sufficiently able to banish such cultural cringe, with jobs and lives and friends and things that they go out and do. But if, like me, you are one of the youths, the effects of negative conditioning, that take the form of dialogues much like the one below, are still felt keenly:
A: Where are you from?
We can be subject to such derision either explicitly: from the mouths of Sydney or Melbourne-dwellers with their self-assigned übermensch status, or implicitly: on the Internet and through pervasive cultural narratives that align coming-of-age with an escape from the suburban Plato’s cave. No longer, however, should we allow ourselves to be shackled by Canberra-guilt. This is a call to arms, and by arms I am referring, naturally, to smartphones.
Anything can be made picturesque when you take a picture of it. Such is the marvel of the acquiescent human brain. Instagram gives us 24/7 access to this capability, which means we can (and already have), exploited every mundane moment, by framing it in a manner that makes banality digestible, as something cute, something funny, something beautiful, something stupid, something strange, something anything. Everything that we see, do, want, eat, feel, is valid and justified for expression, because it’s fun for you, as well as the 100 million other Instagrammers, who are doing the very same thing. A supportive environment that trumps any high school pastoral care initiatives, Instagram is the best possible location for brow-beaten Canberrans to tentatively explore the Nation’s Capital, not as a hole, but as a place where an abundance of mundanity translates to endless fascinating and hashtaggable micronarratives.
With Instagram, my cul-de-sac becomes a wistful dead-end, the cigarette-and-kangaroo-faeces peppered local oval a profound space of green emptiness, the National Library is a cavernous prison of agony, illuminated by flickering fluorescent light, my bus stop is a monument to lovers that have scrawled their initials into the orange bench, my caffeine consumption is Lynchian and writerly, my own face a symbol for all who suffer an impending doom in the Nation’s Capital. In this way, I can exploit the capability of a photograph to isolate a moment from its context and highlight only the most favourable vibes that realise Canberra’s hidden cool side.
Instagram is not, however, Canberra’s ultimate solution. Vibes are entrapping, dangerous things that can cause one to lose sight of real life, amid visual cues to Sofia Coppola. Using Instagram to make Canberra palatable could quickly slip into a vicious cycle of forcing frames, filtering Canberra so that its appeal comes from its ability to look like other, cooler places that only exist in movies or interstate. So that we don’t lose our grasp on things, Instagram is a place of transition, a haven where we can make the switch from shame to enthusiasm, while keeping our pride safe. Soon, we’ll learn to like and share again in the real world, unashamed. Baby steps.
Joanna Pope is a Year Twelve student looking forward to commencing Life In The Real World next year, hopefully 16,061 kilometres away, in Berlin. It is on this threshold of change that she has also finally come to appreciate her home of Canberra and its particular breed of the secretly (or inadvertently) cool.