Creativity or Indoctrination: Instagram and its Subtle Mechanics of Conformity
A tale of how Instagram and the Attention Economy Consistently Undermine Authenticity and the Artist
Published in Harpers Bazaar Arabia, May 2021 Issue
Visual social media platforms and the creative process have become increasingly intertwined. With a user base that spans 50.64% of the world’s global population, Instagram has successfully positioned itself as a creative marketplace indispensable to anyone with an interest in the visual arts, where personal profiles act as permanent, online CVs and feeds are littered with curated mood boards drawing in thousands of followers looking for creative inspiration.
On the surface, artists have hit the jackpot: never before in history have they been so free and able to identify, connect, learn from and sell to a global audience, to self-promote and find self-sufficiency as self-employed creative entrepreneurs.
But choosing to found your entire artistic universe within the confines of a fabricated, intensely curated reality, especially one built on the advertising industry’s dangerous notion of monetizing attention, comes with stiff hidden costs. We are living what economist Herbert A. Simon famously dubbed as ‘the attention economy’; in a world of information overload, our attention is prime real estate, and social media platforms such as Instagram have pioneered algorithms meticulously designed to hijack our nervous systems with highly addictive dopamine bursts to re-engineer our behaviour in a way that facilitates the reach and return of advertising dollars. The hours we spend mindlessly scrolling through our feeds are adding up – and it’s bad. According to Statista and Data Portal, as of 2020 the average person has 8.6 social media accounts and spends a global average of 2.24 hours on social media per day; a habit that innately undermines the fundamental constituents of the creative process, namely, uninterrupted periods of intense focus, isolation and immersion in one’s craft.
Tristan Harris, Founder of the Center for Humane Technology, ex-Google employee, and one of the key figures on the hit Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, has been outing social media’s social engineering practices for almost a decade. For him, it’s the social approval indicators such as likes, pioneered for the first time by Zuckerberg, that are the biggest threat to our independence – subconsciously undermining our individuality by rerouting our collective attention away from our personal interests and towards mainstream, macro-categories of aesthetics that are easier to target efficiently.
It’s what Pierre Bourdieu, renowned French philosopher and sociologist alludes to in his concept of habitus: our social milieu is social media, and our tastes are entirely defined – and stunted – by the limited spectrum of images we see. In short, what we feed our minds with is eventually what spills out. Consistent exposure determines taste, like learning to love classical music or the opera, and with more and more creatives – or rather, reported monthly users of 1 billion - feeding from the same stagnant well, there’s bound to be repercussions.
Being in constant connection to a curated subset of ideas, images and thoughts of humanity is detrimental to our ability to think critically and independently. As Reema Al Banna of eclectic regional label Reemami notes, “ I see with a lot of designers today that there’s a lot of monotoning, less breaking the rules and less creating new stuff.” And she isn’t the only one to notice - a few minutes of scrolling through Instagram will reveal limited, overarching umbrella aesthetics, mass reproduced images both among brands and individuals, and most unsettling of all, full-blown identity replicas herded by transient, seasonal trends – posts featuring the same style, creative concepts and sometimes, even captions. An entire universe of human expression whittled down to a few macro characteristics.
There are whole Instagram profiles dedicated to showing us that we are running in circles - @insta_repeat for travel photography and to some extent @diet_prada, infamous for outing imitations among designers that mistake inspiration with downright appropriation.
“You are being creative, but only in the exact way in which others on the platform are being creative; it’s a fully constrained expression, “says Elisa Arienti, Co-Founder and designer of La Come Di, an independent local label. “We’re so intertwined with it that we feel we have to align ourselves with its overall aesthetic culture – we know it’s bad for us, but we just have to be on it.”
As a relatively new technology, we are yet to fully assess the cognitive and social impact of social media’s heavy intrusion into our daily lives; but one thing is certain: exclusively dabbling within safe, commercially viable and conventionally popular spaces is the antithesis of innovation – and creativity. In what world does true art equate to regurgitating mainstream content? Artist and psychoanalyst Otto Rank called it almost 90 years ago in his book Art and Artist: a true artist innately runs counter to the mainstream, delving into unique, new dimensions that add to our perception and understanding of reality. Mainstream content on the other hand, does nothing but stunt artists’ ability to extricate themselves from the pull of social conformity and create thought-provoking, original art.
If Duchamp, Van Gogh, Kandinsky and other pioneers of art movements hadn’t challenged prevailing aesthetic norms institutionalized by the dominant tastemakers of the time, none of the artistic diversity that erupted from the 20th century would ever have occurred.
This is where Instagram’s immense disservice to the entire endeavour of creativity is most clear - by limiting and homogenising what constitutes desirable content through the superficial metrics of the attention economy, Instagram reveals itself not as an egalitarian platform that creates a space for all individual forms of art to exist and be seen, but as a slow and subtle indoctrination machine that suffocates that innate spark of originality, spontaneity and authentic being crucial to art, inadvertently reframing the world’s ideological perceptions of ‘creativity’ to mean content marketing, and ‘good art,’ that which garners the most likes, views, reposts, and followers.
“Social media really takes away your independence because you’re constantly thinking about the public,” says Stavros Antypas, Creative Activist and Founder of Tawahadna, a local production house dedicated to supporting Middle Eastern female artists. “The content you choose to showcase is entirely manipulated based on what you think people should and shouldn’t see about you. Likes and views are what dictate direction – is this really authenticity?”
In a society that equates success with notoriety, creativity has become a simple means to an end: fame. Encouraged to pursue the fabrication of a perfect pseudo-self online, we are living in an era where curation has come to supersede creation, investing countless grooming hours in the minute construction of a digital alter-ego where everything is ‘on brand,’ encouraging users to dedicate enormous amounts of time to creating a steady stream of Insta-favourable content and coldly analyze the aftermath with readily accessible KPI’s as if they were dealing with corporate strategy and not their own lives. In a normalized culture of mistruth and vapid showmanship, the sad truth is that ‘artist’ and ‘influencer’ are on their way to becoming practically interchangeable terms.
In the end, it all boils down to a classic case of art versus commerce. And the repercussions go beyond the artist’s internal struggle between originality and catering to market needs - the creative industries have fundamentally restructured to align their business models with the soul-crushing parameters of fame and celebrity culture. The result? Entities situated as middlemen between artists and clients such as PRs, talent agencies and art galleries, have developed the practice of seeking out talent based on follower count and not on the independent merits of their work. What matters above all, above art, thought-provoking concepts and creating a space for creativity and innovation to flourish, is reach, and some stiff market research ready to serve trend guidelines to follow blindly to maximise return on advertising spend.
As much as this is an inescapable consequence of your standard profit-chasing, this does nothing but exacerbate the damage done to our collective sense of creativity by mass endorsing a space permeated by lazy, uninspired commercial work and quasi-identical content. To the exasperation of the local creative community, client briefs requesting the exact reproduction of images found on Instagram have sadly become a common occurrence.
Authenticity, it seems, has entirely moved offline. More and more big-ticket artists such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lily Allen tout including cyclical periods of extended hiatuses from social media and its distractions into routines in order to reconnect with the self, the present, and immediate surrounding environments, all critical factors in exploring our innate creative potential.
To cultivate a path back to originality, the creative eye needs to regain its independence, to rediscover personal and offline spaces, to seek inspiration irrespective of its like-potential, and the form this takes is an innately personal one. Elisa’s inspiration lies in the interests nurtured in her childhood, from the history of art and fashion to colours or shapes that trigger an idea. For Reema, it’s her surroundings; her home, her relationships, the objects and spaces she comes across.
In sidetracking Instagram’s innate drive towards homogenization, intent is paramount. How we use a tool defines what it becomes to us, reinforcing the kind of independent agency vital to the pursuit of true individuality and self-actualisation. As Steven Johnson, media theorist and renowned popular science author exploring the intersection of science, technology and experience suggests, “Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.” That tangled bank is our inner universe, the source of our identity and unique, inimitable voice and perception. Everything we need is right there; the choice is ours.