I was an early adopter of Instagram. Over a decade ago, I downloaded the then-brand-new app onto my iPod Touch and began haphazardly documenting moments in my young adolescence: my colourful socks, the movie playing on my TV, a duck-face mirror selfie. My clumsy collection of spontaneous, often blurry photos had no motive other than being a photo diary of sorts to be shared among friends. In 2022, the idea of treating a social media account in such a blasé way is almost laughable.
Over the past decade, what started as an online album has quickly snowballed into a meticulously managed visual identity. As Instagram grew, so did its curated concoction of reality, and soon, influencers and celebrities (thank you, Kardashians) were ruling the app. Photos that were planned, posed and flawlessly filtered became a prerequisite to posting, and sponsored content added to this perpetual perfectionism.
But the out-of-touch, hyper-curated aesthetics of “performative Instagram” set unrealistic standards and, frankly, became boring — especially as COVID-19 normalized less-than-glamorous lockdown living. Mariah Barents, an influencer who tracks social media trends, says that with the world stuck at home, users got tired of trying to present such an idealized narrative. “Before, influencers portrayed these perfect lives and they seemed so unattainable,” she says. “We just got tired of wanting to be perfect.” As a result, the 2020s welcomed a new era — one that threw out the proverbial rule book of filters, precisely posed travel pics and colour-coordinated outfits and ushered in the new wave of “casual Instagram.”
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“Casual Instagram is a style of posting where you’re trying to convey to your audience that you don’t really care about how they perceive you,” explains Akili Moree, a content creator who has made several viral TikToks critiquing the trend. Made famous by influencer Matilda Djerf, YouTuber Emma Chamberlain and singer Dua Lipa, casual Instagram projects a nonchalant, almost accidental beauty that performative Instagram never did. Glamorous photo ops have been traded for slice-of-life snaps capturing everyday existence — running errands, silly facial expressions, empty living rooms — usually posted in an assemblage of pictures known as “photo dumps.” However, these depictions are deceiving.
“When we are posting, we are, by definition, ‘performing,’” says psychologist Joti Samra. “We’re pressing the ‘on’ button and gazing toward a camera. There are always going to be some performance components to that. It’s a fallacy: When we think something looks so natural, it never is.”
Barents agrees, explaining, “I think there’s still an inauthentic part of influencing because content has to be somewhat aesthetically pleasing.” Case in point: Before she even touches her camera, Barents has to find a suitable backdrop and natural light, set up her equipment and, of course, piece together the right outfit. Then comes the ever-so-subtle posing, to convey the impromptu feeling we’ve come to associate with the nonchalant aesthetic. The entire process, including choosing and editing a photo, usually takes over an hour, and sometimes she repeats it with multiple looks in one day for a stockpile of content.
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While casual Instagram is, in theory, supposed to eschew fakeness, Samra argues that it actually makes it worse. “It’s exacerbating the performance,” she says. “To look spontaneous and unplanned requires planning, so the irony is that it’s really no different from other kinds of posts.” And now, instead of making us want to book a tropical getaway, the app can also lead users to feel like their mundane day-to-day lives aren’t measuring up to others’ experiences.
Hence the meteoric rise of TikTok, which undoubtedly influenced the new age of unposed posting. The videosharing platform is arguably the antithesis of Instagram: It’s upfront about its performance aspects — like rehearsed skits and dance routines — while also welcoming creators to post spontaneous stream-of-consciousness content. After the boom of casual content on TikTok in 2020, the trend migrated to Instagram, thanks in part to users like Barents encouraging others to stop caring about the look of their feeds. But “casual” means different things on different platforms. While making a TikTok video involves simply opening the app and pressing “record,” there’s always a degree of selection that goes into sharing the right candid pic on Instagram.
Moree gets this, which is why he chooses to lean into the platform’s fantasy elements. “Instagram mythologizes our lives and lets us believe that we’re a little more important than we are,” he says. “I just think of it as a game.” When we choose to view Instagram as a form of performance art, we can use it to foster creativity. The issues arise when we tell ourselves that it’s possible to sidestep performance on an app that’s rooted in curation.
So, is the secret to navigating casual Instagram (and all of social media) as simple as seeing it for what it truly is: a glorified Michelangelo-esque mosaic of ourselves? Maybe, although this is always easier said than done. But I sometimes wish I could revisit all those early adolescent Instagram photos, which eventually got replaced by a more intentional feed. There was an innocence behind the silly selfies and out-of-focus snapshots that I sometimes wish I could tap back into. After all, what’s more casual than reality?
This article first appeared in FASHION’s May issue. Find out more here.