Casual Instagram and the “perfect” college experience

Caitlin Parnell discusses the façade of the casual Instagram post

You have a painstaking ten minutes in between classes, your friends are elsewhere, you find yourself a seat outside the lecture hall, and before your brain can even consciously command it, your hand involuntarily reaches into your pocket, and all in one swift motion, you find yourself scrolling on Instagram. Sound familiar? Well, don’t worry my friend, you are not in the minority. Opening Instagram has become second nature to most of us, haphazard scrolling sometimes filling up embarrassingly large proportions of the day. It’s no secret that social media apps like Instagram have expertly captured the attention and time of entire generations, to the extent that, while many of us might attempt the occasional cleanse, for most, we can’t quite fully commit to clicking ‘delete’ forever. We all know this, just as well as we know and often openly discuss the ways that Instagram negatively affects our mental health. So why do we continue to pretend that this isn’t the case? 

If your following feed is anything like mine, then this description might sound familiar to you: blurry candids; angled shots of empty kitchens; screenshots of humorous text conversations; elusive captions or, better yet, ironically honest ones. Some might not be able to remember a time when Instagram didn’t appear so “casual”. But if we cast our minds back, we might recall that pre-pandemic, the influencer world was dominated by mystery and perfection (#wokeuplikethis, anyone?). We might think of perfect holiday pics and professional photoshoots, of filters and photoshop. This is by no means to suggest that these features have become totally extinct. But there is no denying that once we all retreated indoors, the need to cultivate perfection followed us there, and Instagram became much more about documenting our day to day lives in a way that appears blasé and nonchalant. And, like most things, this has trickled down from the professionals to the everyday Instagram user. 

“Perfection must not be tried for – it must appear to come to us easily, and we must not be seen to care”

Now, the notion of contorting our bodies in flattering ways and digitally enhancing our faces is cringe. Perfection must not be tried for – it must appear to come to us easily, and we must not be seen to care. Those of us who were in college during the pandemic (hello graduating class of 2024) might remember this phenomenon feeling particularly relevant at the time. Anyone not fortunate enough to live in halls in 2020 might remember longingly and bitterly scrolling past photo dump after photo dump of what looked like the perfect college experience: abandoned dinner tables scattered with half-empty wine glasses and candids of friends (God forbid) hugging abound. But those of us who were trapped in halls at the time, disconnected from home and family, might remember things differently…

Though now most of us have integrated back into the real world, this trend hasn’t left us. Now our posts feature more depictions of nightlife and outdoor activities, as well as many more people, but the style is very much the same. We might struggle to do any activity with friends without going out of our way to capture a moment that appears accidental. We could spend upwards of half an hour putting together the perfect photo dump, striking the ideal balance between unflattering and “accidentally” hot. We might strain to come up with a suitable caption. And all of this to make it appear as though none of it took any time or effort at all.

My concern is, why? Why do we continue to perpetuate this presentation of the perfect life while simultaneously openly acknowledging how it makes us feel? The use of social media during the pandemic was the perfect example of how comparison kills joy, but we know that for most of us it wasn’t contained to that time. We’ve read the articles, seen the studies, and more than that we’ve had the conversations. So why is there a persistent cognitive dissonance? 

“That cultivated mosaic of images becomes part of our identity; it is the primary way that a certain number of people perceive us…”

For a generation that grew up in the digital world as much as the real one, questions of how we present ourselves online are the norm; the fact that we will be presenting ourselves at all is already assumed. As much as we are already a self-conscious species in the real world, this translates tenfold onto the online one, where there exists an illusion that we have total control over how others can perceive us. Embarrassed that your college life isn’t exactly like the ones that appear to you online? No worries! That’s the very space where you can make it appear as though you have it all together, that yours is an extravagant social life of parties and friend-group activities instead of one that largely doesn’t exist outside of the library or your workplace. In essence, that cultivated mosaic of images becomes part of our identity; it is the primary way that a certain number of people perceive us, and we’re aware of that. While posting in this way on Instagram does perpetuate this trend of accidental perfection, it is first and foremost a product of it. The app is as successful as it is because its creators know that we are victims to our own egos, and that we will continue to use it as a means to take control despite knowing, deep down, that everyone else is doing the same thing. 

If your use of Instagram is something that bothers you, of course I can suggest deleting it. But if you’re a human being like me, then that probably won’t work. Instead, maybe try pushing yourself to post things that don’t follow this trend. Be more honest with your followers, post things that you actually think are worth sharing or remembering – have fun with it! More importantly, only post when you really want to, instead of when you feel pushed to. You could start by trying to notice the difference. Who knows? Maybe you’ll start to feel like your real life isn’t so undeserving of being seen.