Instagram Stories: The layers that follow

The Ideal Self
The average Instagram user engages with the app's virtual world for approximately 21 minutes a day. It has very much taken over millennials and digital natives everyday life. The curated content of each person's feed is a direct reflection of their ‘ideal self’. It is the ‘wish list’ you, the one you wish to put on show, to portray to others how you chose to live your perfect and original life. Users construct a feed of photos and videos whilst also engaging in the second most important ‘work’ of the platform: building followers and selecting those to follow.

Our constant need for communication makes such things as novels and films feel irrelevant. We are constantly interacting at a fast pace, but will our attention spans hold out to read that book or watch that film? Do such activities become irrelevant in this regard? When was the last time you watched a film without engaging in social media or glancing at your phone? Perhaps now these pastimes will be treated as special occasions, like frequenting cinemas or going to the theatre.

It is said that our generation (#only90skidswillremember) have evolved to hold an Instagram attention span. Does this mean that web 2.0 platforms have made us the way we are today, scrolling and constantly digesting information but unable to hold a focus span for long, or have we shaped these platforms around our hopes and desires? It is hard to say, but what is certain is that one cannot live without the other. It’s a chicken and egg situation, what came first the selfie-loving millennial, or the platform in which we share highly edited images?

We use Instagram in our day-to-day lives to project the perfect versions of ourselves; by constantly publicising what we are up to. But it’s crucial to remember that instagram’s image upload is an act done only a few times a day (avid users might upload 5 or 6 images daily, but most maintain a once daily). This keeps the IRL and URL hybrid at bay, giving users the ‘free choice’ to maintain their banal daily routines hidden behind the facade of their highly curated feed. The security, and the distance between ‘real’ life posting and our ‘real’ lives behind the feed, is a barrier social media tycoons are indeed aiming to break. Facebook’s 5 year plan is to find a way to bridge the curated selves we present, and our very real lives behind it.

URL Arena
The shift from URL to IRL is no doubt long on its way. With communication tools that exceedingly blur the barrier between real and virtual. Take Pokemon Go as a contemporary example, the difference between catching a Pokemon on our Gameboys Colour to catching one in our bedrooms is made to feel close to nonexistent.

What then, happens when Instagram adds Stories as a feature? Does this change the realness of Instagram, allowing for a screenshot into people's true lives? Or will this too be curated and heavily edited, only showing the ‘authentic’ parts of our lives that are superlative? User’s curated Instagram feed lasts forever, yet one of Stories’ luring elements is that they are fleeting, lasting a mere 24 hours. This allows people to be more daring and less thoughtful with what they share on their Story, making them sloppy and brief. With this in mind, more and more online inhabits are beginning to share their personal and private lives URL, removing the online/offline barriers and allowing for everything to be seen on screen.

Instagram’s Stories is a direct mimicking of the web 2.0 app Snapchat, whose entire premise is sharing short-lived images. The Story feature on Snapchat, however, differs from Instagram in the curation of a self-narrative. Snapchat is more personal, whilst Instagram has a personality that needs to be upheld. Snapchat makes its users find and add friends who can then view these Stories, whereas Instagram Stories are more or less available for anyone. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Instagram already stood as a prestigious social media platform, with its set audience when Stories was introduced. The Story feature on Instagram almost feels like another level of engagement for audiences, making us feel involved in their lives, be that a global institution, a clothing designer or a meme admin. It creates aspirations and is used as a marketing tool and selling point, which is something Snapchat has not yet mastered. Viewing Instagram Stories carries the sensation of looking out of a window at both strangers and friends passing by, whereas Snapchat is similar to looking through a window into someone’s life. The audience of Snapchat has been hand selected for that specific reason, a layer of privacy. The Instagram Story is meant for viewing in a more public light-hearted way.

So what happens when you take this fleeting, judgment-free experience and place it among the broader context of Instagram? The notion of an Instagram Story is curation aligning with authenticity. The biggest impact of adding Stories to Instagram is the added depth and the personal aspect, working towards building a cyber friendship, rather than an online connection of liking/commenting. It is a hand picked, consented intrusion into people’s everyday life. With a simple update of the application, influencers can now provide a glimpse into the ‘life behind’ the photos and curated videos. They can share an unfiltered view into their lives, directly with their existing fan bases - people who have been with them throughout their Instagram journey; fans who enjoy the more curated photo and video content, and who are eager to step into the private zone Stories provides.

But what is interesting to consider is who is the real person behind the slightly less filtered, fleeting Stories? Users now have to take another step backwards, shedding another layer deeper to protect their ‘real’ selves from being cast into the limelight - an aspect that is indeed inherent to our communication milieu yet seems to maintain a sense of impossibility in the virtual communication. Every time we are given yet another medium to express real life in real time, we continue to build and curate that space, and perhaps rightly so. As complex human beings we can find it hard to expose ourselves even to our closest friends and family, so why would it differ online, and to infinite watchers nonetheless?

We don’t talk IRL how we do URL, in this case language tropes such as, “that moment when…” would rarely be uttered around the dinner table, yet we speak that way on Instagram and continue the digi language in its Stories, only through video and images. With this in mind, although Stories are inherently URL, they are in fact IRL that has already been adapted to fit the digital content onto which it will be publicised.

For digital natives, the difference between our real selves and our online selves is narrowing at considerable rate, as we become more accustomed and comfortable in the act of sharing, globally our lives, our relationships, communication and language. There is no doubt that technology’s future aim is to create a seamless transition between us, and the machines that help us communicate. The question here is this: will it be the advance technology that ultimately skyrockets into the highly complex realm of human expression, or, will it be us who regress to where technology’s ability is capped, shaping our ways of communication to fit the limited capacity of URL? Is Stories depicting our IRL existence, or are we depicting our URL selves?

These are questions only time will answer. But until then, the all-knowing Facebook and its sibling Instagram have yet to infiltrate our entire lives. We generally still recognise the difference between Stories and real life. But are we regressing? Keeping ourselves hidden whilst curating the new hit Story layer. The very fact the feature is called ‘Stories’ suggests it should be entertaining and exaggerated. It goes with our desire to ‘prosume’ rather than consume, we want to produce content rather than just digest it. With web 2.0 applications such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat we expect to share ourselves, but we mustn’t forget that they are only the mediums, it is us who create the message.

Words by Maisie Florence Post, 2016