The technology, coupled with Gen Z’s passion for politics and activism, means the tone of Instagram has changed radically and will never be the same.
This post first appeared on the King’s Business Review.
A friend told me recently that he is considering deleting Instagram. Why? He originally intended to use the platform for light entertainment. Now he feels bombarded with campaign messages seeking support for a range of causes. Further, he says he feels pressured to engage in every conversation for fear of being condemned if he doesn’t. It feels like a burden, he explained, exhausting to constantly be reminded of the world’s evils and having to agonise over whether or not to make a comment.
He said this feeling was magnified if he chooses to comment. The complex and explosive nature of so many issues makes it difficult to know exactly how to engage in conversations. The example he gave was the recent content surrounding Sarah Everard, sexual harassment and women’s safety. He asked my opinion on whether he should be commenting, especially about men making women feel safer. On the one hand, it felt like the right thing to do (and in life his genuine views), but on the other hand, he didn’t want to seem like he was encroaching on or appropriating a women’s issue – there was a risk his message of support might be received as one of male arrogance. I understood the rationale but explained that in my feed, I had seen a few men speak on the subject, and I celebrated those cases. I’d also seen women post about the lack of men sharing their thoughts on the issue, so I felt confident a message of support would be well received. But the process of deciding whether or not to comment was difficult and far removed from the original way in which he used Instagram.
The exchange made me examine exactly how the use of Instagram has changed, especially over the last 12 months. On reflection, I, too, noticed a big shift. Gen Z is using Instagram for activism more than ever before. Why?
A major enabler of Instagram’s political scene is the introduction of stories and, more importantly, the share function. Stories, added in August 2016, and the ‘share to story’ feature, introduced in May 2018, are the main method individuals use to engage with activist issues. The introduction of the latter, in particular, has seen the use of Instagram, as a vehicle for these charged debates, explode. It has forever changed the nature of the app and its usage.
The non-permanent nature of a story means users are more comfortable sharing messages on current events as it doesn’t interrupt the grid of their personal pages. Crucially, the ‘share post to story’ feature means users can repost resources, news, messages from activists, and anyone with a view on the topic. Plus, users can add to existing posts and make a comment themselves. The technology, coupled with Gen Z’s passion for politics and activism, means the tone of Instagram has changed radically and will never be the same.
Another catalyst: it has been a year of global stories. The pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the US election – to name a few – have made everyone question, challenge, talk and share like never before. This has no doubt been exacerbated by the COVID-19 restrictions, having ample time to read the news and share resources online.
The Black Lives Matter movement caused particular shifts in the use of social media. There was a widespread sense that if one wasn’t talking about it online, one was doing something wrong. Indeed, there was implicit – and sometimes explicit – pressure to comment. Almost everyone had a view, but to be (potentially) condemned for not sharing it? This was a substantial shift in the dynamics of social media.
And this change is under scrutiny. Yomi Adegoke wrote an article for Vogue headlined ‘We Need To Rethink Our “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” Approach To Activism’:
‘I find myself drafting tweets only to delete them, because I hate the idea of contributing to the discourse only to show I am doing so. I muster a few retweets to links to petitions and resources that are useful, then I log out to protect my peace. I feel guilty, even though I know I’m doing what I can offline. I worry that, despite discourse on racism being central to my work, it looks like I don’t care. While it’s fine that others feel comfortable processing their anger online, I resent the idea that if it’s not processed this way, it isn’t there.’
Adegoke explains the emotional conflict at play when it comes to expressing views online, particularly for those directly affected by the issue at stake. Rightfully, she acknowledges that just because one isn’t talking about an issue online doesn’t mean they are unaware or not fighting it in real life.
Black Lives Matter brought more nuance to the question with the use of ‘#blackouttuesday’. Intended for those in positions of white privilege to be silent and make space for black people’s voices, there was pushback against it. Many believed the ‘blackout’ was coming at a crucial time, and silence wasn’t required but voices of support. Furthermore, some seemed to post a black square for ‘#blackouttuesday’ in what was deemed an act of ‘performative allyship’ and virtue signalling. Adegoke addresses this:
‘I am not interested in statements fuelled by fear of cancellation. I am interested in those who maintain this energy when nobody is around to applaud it.’
Much of our hyper-political Instagram culture, one could argue, is performative – there is often an element of ‘following the crowd’ on social media. But when activism becomes a trend rather than a choice, it has the potential to lose its effectiveness. If the intent is to look interested, rather than being genuinely engaged, no real progress is made. Issues become transient – a narrative where it is okay to stop posting about it when everyone else does.
When it comes to the moral obligation, the question remains: should users be expected to use Instagram to support, comment on, or engage with political or activist agendas? If they do not have strong views on an issue, are they wrong to show support?
The answer is highly contextual and subjective. A response based on pressure risks devaluing the currency of the movement and the genuine supporters who are trying to drive change in which they truly believe. One must question the merit of support if it becomes the Insta equivalent of a tactical vote, cast primarily to avoid the perceived threat of the individual being cancelled.
Perhaps the ‘right’ answer is to follow Adegoke’s guidance. It is not about ‘fear of cancellation’. It is about sharing messages you would also share if nobody were listening.