Instagram Couples: the fun house mirrors of society

I kept running into this couple on a recent excursion to the Lençóis Maranheses. Initially, I shrugged them off with a wry smile and a mild eye-roll: the gentleman simply seeming to be another one of these “Instagram Boyfriends” who has become his partner’s selfie-stick by accommodating her near endless requests to be photographed regardless of the absurdity of the pose. 

Lamentably, this has become the reality that some men must endure in their desire to be with a certain type of physically attractive woman. Perhaps it’s their own fault for being so superficial and enabling, but as a single man in the world of dating apps, I have become acutely aware of this phenomenon. Swearing to myself that I will never succumb to this, I vigilantly seek out any red flags that might portend a potential partner’s desire to have me join their ranks. There might be some bend to what I’ll do for a pretty face, but I refuse to break and become an Instagram Boyfriend.1 

After observing this couple for a short time, however, I realized that my immediate impression was wrong. This gentleman with the tanned swimmer’s body and perfectly quaffed hair was just as into taking photos as his girlfriend. It wasn’t that he was one of these Instagram Boyfriends: no, they were one of these “Instagram Couples”. They are each others’ selfie-sticks. Love: 21st century style. 

For those who aren’t familiar, the Instagram Couple (Latin: Duobus Instagramus) is a pairing of two highly intelligent, upright primates, distinguished by opposable thumbs which they dexterously use to grip a mobile phone and manipulate its camera and social media apps. A newly evolved form of Homo Sapiens, the Instagram Couple differentiates itself from its relatives by living a life centered around the production of content for public consumption in the goal of becoming what is referred to as an “Influencer” or “Social Media Celebrity”. Their survival and natural selection is based on the extent to which they are successful at (i) gaining followers and (ii) receiving likes for their posted content.  

The Instagram Couple can be difficult to spot outside of its natural habitat of the social media platform. During mating season, however, they can be spotted coming together to create photographs in locations that are deemed to be “istagrammable” – i.e., physical locations that provide a background conducive to creating photos that will receive likes and/or incite envy in others. This helps explain their attraction to the Lençóis Maranheses – a World Heritage Site with a vast network of freshwater lagoons set within sweeping white sand dunes, it provides ample opportunity for the Instagram Couple to nest and produce photographs. 

All joking aside, this is a thing and one I’ve been encountering with increasing regularity. The first time I saw an Instagram Couple, I was in the Royal Portuguese Reading Room in Rio de Janeiro. This is a very instagrammable place and it makes sense, in retrospect, that they would have been there. Still, as it was my first time observing a couple that was equally into these photographs, I was quite astonished. I was struck by their lack of embarrassment and obsession with taking a photos that would incite a mild amount of shame in any sensible person.

When I ended up in Spain just a few months later, I was beside myself with just how pervasive these couples were becoming. Just like this couple photographed in Lençóis, many bring wardrobe changes so that they can maximize their photographic output (even into something like a natural park).2 This isn’t travel, but rather a remote photoshoot. These couples are choosing their travel destinations and organizing their holidays primarily around whether it will produce good Instagram photos. They aren’t choosing a place because of its cultural, spiritual, culinary or historical significance. They don’t even seem to be choosing it because it seems like it would be fun or relaxing. These might be added considerations, but they are just a bonus. No, they are choosing to spend money, take time off of work and get on a plane to go to some remote location principally because they feel it will provide them with the best opportunity to inch closer to their goal of internet celebrity status.

Let that sink in for a moment. I appreciate that I am aging and that I might just be a grumpy old man shaking his fist at a world passing him by, but I am going to push back a bit here and say that the world is going fucking crazy. 

My fascination with this couple in Lençois really started to develop on my encounter with them the following day. Once again, I found myself soaking in a warm, shallow lagoon, encircled by stunning white sand dunes. My journey there was by motorboat: the warm wind whipping across my face as I sped along a river flanked by tropical rainforest. I was in paradise.

A great sense of tranquility inhabited me and I marveled at the profound beauty in all directions. I felt a connection forming with the universe and nearly cried when attempting to comprehend the reasons for why I have been so blessed. Euphoria began to cascade through my body. Suddenly, they appeared again before me, interrupting my serenity with reflexive, effortless modeling poses.

A motorboat similar to the one that had ferried me to this slice of heaven had just arrived. With it came another batch of tourists (the Instagram Couple making sure to beat them to the prize in their attempt to secure photos that would be unobstructed by others). I remained in my stoic location within the center of the lagoon and observed the scene that was unfolding around me.

To my left, a beefy, bronze bodybuilder suddenly appeared at the top of the great sand dune that flanked the northern side of the lagoon. A selfie-stick in hand, he was documenting his descent in the hope that it might later prove to be a video worth posting online.

To my right, a man erupted in an aggressive “cool dude” pose – his two “thumbs-upped” arms spreading outwards like a peacock’s plumage. Just as quickly, his feathers collapsed and he turned violently away from his phone in order to cast a furious glance in my direction. I had, apparently, waded suddenly into frame, ruining his hope of taking a photo that would make others think he’d had paradise all to himself. His desires dashed, he gathered his things and returned to the boat – the scene apparently holding no particular value for him outside of its use as a photo background.

I watched all of this somewhat surreally and felt my inner tranquility giving way to feelings of disgust. Mindful of this, I detached from everything external to me and turned inwards so that I could explore the root causes of this unpleasantness. It was curious to me, after all, that I should be so bothered by any of this. These people are not harming me or anyone else and are all probably lovely people in their own right. Why was I letting any of this distract me from what had been, up to that point, a truly wonderful experience?

As I dwelled on it there in that lagoon, I initially framed my feelings in subjectively moral terms. “I am disgusted,” I said to myself, “because of what Instagram and our phones are turning us all into.” Rather than resolving these negative feelings that had begun to well up within me, however, this declaration immediately forced me to redirect my disgust inwards and consider my own role in promoting this lifestyle.

I subsequently began to see this Instagram Couple as a fun house mirror reflecting back a distorted image of myself and broader society. “How narcissistic we’ve become,” I again told myself. Even if narcissism might be as old as our species,3 there seems to be a notable decrease in the shame associated with public displays of it. Perhaps it’s just me becoming old and disgruntled, but I tend to see a world where we not only care less about people behaving in objectively egotistical ways, but one where we actively and collectively reward such behavior. (As Exhibit A, your honor, I’d like to submit into evidence the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States of America). 

I would argue that nearly all of us are, to some extent, prone to narcissistic impulses from time to time. In attempting to explain why this behavior manifests itself, I would wager that a person’s insecurities and need for external validation play a leading role. Tracing someone’s narcissistic behavior back to its source, we would likely find his or her loneliness, emptiness and self-doubt. Lurking in the shadows of that behavior, we would discover one’s weaknesses and the feelings of fear and vulnerability that they create – a vulnerability that tends to inspire feelings of contempt within us. Seen through this lens, I came to view my feelings of disgust as ones that are not necessarily directed at them, but rather at myself. The Instagram Couple is simply a conspicuous reminder of that need inside of me to receive approval from others in order to derive a sense of my own self-worth.

Not entirely satisfied with this explanation, I pressed on in that shallow lagoon and contemplated these feelings further. My disgust, I realized, was not being driven primarily by contempt for my reliance on others for external validation, but was rather being caused by something more profound: disgust at a globally growing disregard for truth, substance and merit.

I’ve spent enough time on dating apps in recent years to know that the emerging norm is for women to have profiles that are like mirror images of what was unfolding around me in that lagoon.4 When visiting these profiles, you are confronted with a wall of self-indulgence: a seemingly bottomless depth of narcissism stretches out before you, with nearly all photos tending to be of that person striking some nearly perfect pose. Profiles of different people are becoming nearly indistinguishable: poses, props, and even locations are becoming uniform; our personalities pasteurized and our individuality giving way to a globalized presentation of the self. It’s remarkable: a person trying so hard to be unique, but looking simply like a franchised link in a corporate chain; a moulding of a personality mass-produced in a Chinese factory. 

Within these profiles, two pervasive themes can typically be found: (i) the attempt to portray some version of a “great life” to others,6 and (ii) the desire to have that life validated through likes and followers. I tend to avoid these profiles and the people who maintain them because they bring heaviness to my heart. Rather than ever feeling impressed or infatuated when looking at profiles similar to those above, I always feel disappointment by the dual consideration that people can be so shallow and that others can be duped into not seeing them for what they clearly are.

While I despise Donald Trump’s policies and personality, I think what has always bothered me most is that he’s such an obvious snake oil salesman. He’s a greasy used car dealer with gaudy gold plated jewelry and an over-indulgence in cheap cologne. He’s that guy that gives women the creeps and leaves them clutching their drinks so as to ensure that he is never left alone with them. He oozes a viscous, conspicuous slime, yet there are so many people who don’t see it. How can it be? The thought of it is so jarring because it makes me feel like I’m trying to have a rational, reasoned argument with the inhabitants of an insane asylum.

This is what I tend to feel when I observe the ecosystem that exists around these Instagram profiles. I see such shallow, insecure, uninteresting, entirely unoriginal and obscenely narcissistic displays being rewarded and praised by large numbers of people. I can’t make sense of it and it leaves me feeling at times as though I can’t make sense of this world in which I’m supposed to belong. It has always seemed so obvious to me that their photos are entirely inauthentic and painstakingly cultivated, yet it is nevertheless unsettling to see this belief confirmed in real life. In watching this couple take great effort to stage a scene, that is exactly what was happening. I was watching an Instagram profile coming to life. I was seeing how the sausage is made. 

In these heavily orchestrated moments,7 the aspiring Instagram influencer reveals the true gap between the life being presented online and that being lived offline. Watching the Instagram Couple pose, it was as if I had been granted backstage access8 and was able to accidentally and unexpectedly stumble upon the actors out of costume and character.9 The curtain is pulled back and we are exposed to a life that is starkly in contrast to what is being portrayed online. Rather than happiness and fulfillment, there is sadness and emptiness.

In that Instagram Couple, I observe two people – each playing the role of both Narcissus and Echo – staring into their phones like one would a mirror. Like Narcissus, they become completely obsessed with their own images, ignorant of the pervasive, external beauty that surrounds them. Like Echo, they provide each other with positive feedback that enables and perpetuates this behavior. This couple did not find the space to truly feel the sand on their feet or the fresh lagoon water on their face. An opportunity to seek communion with the universe was lost in their fixation on creating a memory of an experience they never actually had.

Echo and Narcissus (1903). John William Waterhouse.

The surrealism of the scene is intensified when one considers that we’re witnessing the creation of the following: two people presenting an image of a life they’ve never really lived, which will then be consumed by people choosing to forgo life in favor of vicariously living through them. Actor and spectator become complicit in a staged performance of life. I am not seeing two people live when I observe this couple; I am watching two actors rehearsing and reading through a screenplay.

Our existence is increasingly being staged: performed for the enjoyment or approval of others who would rather lose themselves in the fantasy of another’s life than pursue life themselves. Reality television, Instagram, Twitch, Twitter, Tiktok, YouTube – these are not entertainment platforms; they are marketplaces where one side commodifies its life and subjects it to the the market forces of supply and demand. These people stand before their personal experiences like gladiators before a crowd, willing to sink to untold depths in their search to receive an upward thumb.

I do not know who the real people are who were taking those photos that I witnessed, but I am confident that they are not the personas that were ultimately portrayed online. With this, I inched closer to understanding the feelings of disgust that had entered me. This couple and their life is a great lie – a lie that is believed by far too many. Truth and the search for it remain among the most noble of human aspirations and endeavors. It is elusive and laborious at times, yet I count it as one of the defining missions of my life. In that lagoon, it turned out that I was sitting at the fault line between truth and falsehood – set between natural perfection and human fallibility; an allegory for the human struggle for honest expression.

While I could lazily pat myself on the back and lay claim to some sort of moral superiority for not being as transparently phony as this Instagram Couple, the search for truth requires a skeptical and inquisitive mind that is directed at the world and one’s place in it. In service of truth, we are required to avoid defining ourselves in terms of how we are distinct from the Instagram Couple, and instead confront how we might be similar.

The falseness of the Instagram Couple seems beyond question, but it forces me to reflect on my own insincerity and the disingenuous and egotistical ways in which I represent myself. In following this line of inquiry, I tapped into a sense of disgust rooted in my petty concerns over how my hair looks, how my clothes fit or how my body appears in the mirror. I reflect on the instances where I disconnect from the universe around me and become preoccupied with my posture or my gait and whether others find me attractive or cool. In that shallow lagoon, I was forced to confront my own shallowness and how it forces me into a life of dishonesty. Sure, I am not as obvious as the Instagram Couple, but there is a case to be made that I too at times am presenting myself to the world like the façade of a slum covered in a fresh coat of colorful paint; a Japanese Zen garden, assiduously sculpted to create a minimalist scene that appears perfectly harmonious and natural.

This same sentiment extends to my own engagement with social media. To what extent are my posts “true”? Am I innocently sharing my joy with others or am I driven by ego? Am I a baboon beating my chest in an attempt to establish dominance? Am I attempting to win your admiration with all the places I’ve been and trying, thereby, to incite your envy? Am I sad and lonely and trying to portray the opposite? I don’t know the full answer to these questions, but I would do a great disservice to truth by dismissing them and not at least admitting that I am, at times, also guilty of such deceit.

Perhaps most troubling, however, is that these lies promote a very great sin: the squandering of life by disengagement from the present, the universe and oneself. With this, we punctuate the explanation for why the Instagram Couple inspired feelings of disgust within me.

I have to admit something to you: I have a fantasy of being held up on the streets of Rio and having someone rob me of my phone. Recognizing the privilege of this complaint, I will nevertheless say that I regret finally purchasing a phone equipped with a relatively good camera. Taking the occasional photo every now and then was fine, but it’s getting to the point where it’s taking me away from life rather than helping me share it with others. I hate being on my phone and wish these things never came into existence. I hate every time I go on Instagram and I certainly hate every time I look at an ex-girlfriend’s profile. I am appalled by how much time I spend staring at a screen doing absolutely nothing that is important or even fulfilling – resigned, it seems, to procrastinate until I end up dead.

I get that there are all sorts of benefits from our phones and this digital world we live in, but what could be more inconsequential than virtual life? No one on their deathbed will ever lament the lost opportunities to spend more time on their phone. No one in their right mind pines for a eulogy that praises the multitude of Instagram followers they had during their life or the number of retweets they produced. By all accounts, we are wasting our lives staring at a screen: video games, YouTube, social media – an indisputable waste that this couple forced me to confront. Their opportunity to fully experience Lençoís was lost due to their preoccupation with their Instagram accounts, but it shines a light on my own sins of wastefulness: the staggering amount of time pissed away on my phone. My disgust at them is a disgust at myself and the dishonor I do to the great gift of life with every single second spent on Instagram or Facebook; every time I read about sports; every video or photo that I take; every profile I swipe through on Tinder; or every time I virtually stalk an ex.    

In closing, perhaps these lies are harmless and not worth the level of thought that I’ve devoted to them. I would note, however, that in the great lies of the Instagram Couple as well in my reflection in that lagoon, I see the last four years under the Trump administration. I am reminded of the immense harm that can arise when reality is cast aside and distorted. I am reminded that we have not defeated the Trumpian assault on reality and am forced to confront that we are likely still in the midst of an ongoing trend in this direction. Every bare face I see walking the streets amid a pandemic and every Walmart employee assaulted for asking someone to wear a mask support these unfortunate assertions. In these lies and our detachment from reality, I see a country of people that can’t agree on the existence of climate change; a country trapped in a tightening grip of narcissism that now seems to be incapable of meeting the challenges required to overcome it.

Post-script 1: the rise of narcissism?

Although never using the term millennial in this article, it almost seems implied that my lament over society’s increased narcissism is directed at them. Millennials, in general, get a lot of flak and I want to point out that a series of studies looking into the rise of narcissism are divided over whether it’s even a real phenomenon.

To the extent that narcissism is increasing, we can likely place most of the blame on the processes that have given rise to greater levels of individualism in society. I want to ignore this for a moment, however, and focus on the social elements at play that promote behavior that we may interpret as narcissistic.

To preface this, I would note that any perceived rise in narcissism may be an artifact of the technological platforms that make it easier to find and reward narcissistic behavior. With self-absorbed social media accounts being easier to find, a social process likely takes over which diffuses the behavior they extol across larger segments of society. The process is potentially quite straightforward: others are increasingly seeing this narcissistic behavior and observe that it’s being rewarded by their peers. As a social species that is hardwired to desire social approval, this can have a powerful effect on our behavior – particularly among adolescents – and incentivize us to duplicate the behavior that we observe being endorsed by others in our social networks and across the wider social environment.

This would explain why there are so many photos that seem identical across distinct profiles. People want to be accepted and feel as though they belong; yet not always knowing how, they scan the landscape and observe others for clues and cues on how to behave. Numbers are really great for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that they provide us with a means of quantifying and measuring something in a way that is easy to understand. On something like Instagram, the numbers of likes a post receives is a powerful and easily interpretable cue to others and helps them decipher what is valued by our peers.

I feel that this is useful to highlight because I want to note that many instances of perceived narcissism might, in fact, be highly social behavior. It might not be entirely healthy and might rest on deep seated insecurity, but it suggests that labelling all these people as narcissists would be unfair and extreme. Where we’ve gone wrong then is in rewarding behavior that is not necessarily conducive to cooperation or beneficial to collective outcomes.

It is also worth pointing out that these social media platforms have democratized fame to a significant extent and made it a far more attainable aspiration. People who previously had no real pathway to stardom can at least conceive of it being possible since so many social media celebrities have fame that is based on no discernible talent (while also being famous for acts that are much more easy to replicate).10 This seems to have been a process that was unleashed well before mobile phones and Millennials (with reality television and shows such as American Idol coming to mind), and has only intensified with the pervasiveness of phones, faster networks and widespread use of platforms like Instagram.

If moral battles are to be fought, it is likely less helpful to wage them against phones and increases in narcissism and probably more important to revise the way we award fame and social approval. In many ways, we seem to have become a giant American high school: belittling the nerds and laying praise at the feet of jocks. We increasingly grant fame to people who lack any real talent, do minimal amounts of work and who provide no discernible social benefit.11 I still have no idea what the Kardashians actually do and I can’t see any reason why they should be more than trophy wives. I can see, however, how they’ve inspired a whole generation to feel as though they too can become rich and famous without actually needing to work or educate themselves. (Ok, now that was a grumpy old man speaking).

Post-script 2: the difficulties of coming of age in this era

I know that I have cast a fair amount of shade on Instagrammers here. I want to say, however, that I think this is probably a really difficult time to grow up and I’m quite thankful that social media and mobile phones weren’t around when I was an adolescent.

It is really difficult for young people, I imagine, to have this thing out there that sends a publicly visible signal to others regarding your social status or value. I can still recall the awful pressures of being popular when I was a teenager and social media seems to replicate this on a much larger scale (while allowing others to more easily shame and bully you). It’s therefore easy to sympathize and see why so many young people are obsessed with their number of followers and the likes they receive: they grew up in a world where this was critically important to their social status, identity and sense of belonging.

While it would be fairly simple for me to just delete my social media accounts, this would seem to be impossible for many teenagers today. Like it or not, they simply can’t risk the pariah status that they would receive by not being a part of what everyone else is doing. When I was a teenager, people would go to the high school’s parking lot after classes and hang out or we’d drive up and down our small town’s main road and hang out in other parking lots. These were the staging areas where social life unfolded. You wanted to be with the cool group of people at the cool party and defined yourself against your peers, while hoping that you could ascend the social hierarchy. This was a lot easier to do when your reference group was only about 600 or so people. Social media for teenagers today is the same in spirit, but it’s on steroids. The level of creativity one has to have is far more pronounced and the reference group extends into the millions. Gosh, that seems really fucking terrible.

Post-script 3: The Galaxy Z-Flip 5G

From time-to-time, I will illegally stream an American football game if my hometown team is playing and I happen to be at home. Living abroad, this can be a bit more difficult given time differences, but it provides me with the opportunity to see the latest commercials and catch up on one of the quintessential aspects of American culture: consumerism. This past Sunday I did just that and caught the following ad for the Samsung Galaxy Z-Flip 5G phone.

While many people might not find this out of the ordinary, I was absolutely floored by this commercial and what it says to me about where we’re heading. This is a phone being sold online for US$1,450. That is about $1,200 more than I’ve ever paid for a phone and more than I’ve ever even spent on a computer. And while one of this phone’s key benefits is that you can have a large screen and still fit the device into your pocket, the commercial makes it clear that its main selling point is its standalone camera.

This isn’t a camera being marketed for nature lovers. No, Samsung is clearly trying to convince you to spend $1,450 so that you can take photos and videos of yourself. From the company’s official description: “Galaxy Z Flip folding technology allows for…previously unreachable selfies.” Samsung isn’t stupid and it’s betting that there is going to be a lot of people who will make their decision on whether or not to buy a phone based simply on the extent to which it improves their social media accounts. This is where we are as a society. I feel the disgust returning…

Post-script 4: progress

After writing this, I went up to a nearby vista and stared out at the glorious view across the Guanabara Bay here in Rio de Janeiro. This city, man: it’s just paradise. I sat up there for a while and took in the view. I listened to the birds and watched the trees sway in the wind. I watched the insects do insect things. The sun was shining and I was free and in the moment.

Suddenly a woman appeared from the nearby parking lot. She was on a scouting mission to determine whether there was a location for a suitable Instagram photograph. Determining that there was indeed such a site, she signaled to her partner who was still in the car and he soon joined her together with their driver (who was tasked with taking the photo). While not quite an “Instagram Couple”, they were nevertheless there only to take photos of themselves. That remarkable view was inconsequential to them.

It was precisely that type of moment that would usually incite some negative emotion within me. The funny thing is: it didn’t. Rather than feeling disgust, I was innocently curious. I observed them, but remained unbothered by their presence and their photoshoot. The lesson seems clear: my disgust at the Instagram Couple was, indeed, disgust with myself. My ability to reflect allowed me to get right with myself. Progress. Huzzah.

  1. check in with me again in a few years
  2. I’m not talking about a bathing suit or hiking gear. No, I mean they bring wardrobe changes: things like formal attire that are more suitable for a gala
  3. the earliest known record of the popular version of the story of Narcissus dates back to at least 50 BCE
  4. I would guess that the same is true for men, but I’m less exposed to it if it’s the case.
  5. Source: public Instagram profiles of instantly regretted Tinder matches and some of their male followers. Please note that it took me almost no time to find these profiles and definitely less than it took me to blur out the faces
  6. YOLO!
  7. My favorite is the person taking great effort to act like they don’t know they’re being photographed as though they are covertly being caught in a moment of true living and deep reflection. (the person photographed “meditating” is a really curious example)
  8. That the backstage is, in this case, the real world adds a further layer of surreality to it all
  9. See: Goffman, Erving. 1956. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.
  10. It’s a lot easier, for example, to look pretty in a photo than it is to play an instrument and compose music. Nevertheless, technology seems to be lowering the costs of stardom across all creative genres. Software, for example, is making it easier to compose music while effects such as autotune allow even the most horrific voices to become palatable
  11. We might scoff at the money that athletes receive, but at least they put in a great deal of effort to reach their level and embody a skillset that was at one time of critical importance to us as hunters and warriors.