Instagram: How phony are your memories?

Article published on April 21, 2014
Article published on April 21, 2014

Sig­nals of the past, whether it be a pho­to­graph, a piece of music or a smell, are privy to dis­tor­tion as well as fantasy. Now in the age of ob­ses­sive doc­u­men­ta­tion of our lives on­line and as we alter re­al­ity by means of pos­ing, crop­ping, un­tag­ging, delet­ing, “beauty fac­ing” and ap­ply­ing fil­ters to our pho­tographs, do we run the risk of pro­duc­ing phony mem­o­ries? 

The sim­u­lated world cre­ated by the lat­est dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies sounds dystopian but lest we for­get - it also pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to be who we want to be. This is a pho­to­graph I took after leaf­ing through the manda­tory Nan Goldin cof­fee table book re­quired in every Kreuzberg flat. I’m han­ker­ing after the in­ti­mate “urban bo­hemia” of a Goldin-es­que aes­thetic. I’ll post it to Face­book, In­sta­gram, Pin­ter­est ac­com­pa­nied by #bo­hemi­an­lifestyle #heroin chic #in­tel­lec­tual. If the photo looks gen­uine, it’s thanks to In­sta­gram which has dis­guised the fact that the whole scene was staged. That I made my flat­mate take the pic­ture, that I don’t ac­tu­ally smoke, that I strate­gi­cally arranged the book about art and ac­tivism (which I’ve never read) on the sofa, that ac­tu­ally I’m wide awake. At least I look cool.

In­sta­gram is an im­por­tant per­pe­tra­tor in the pro­duc­tion of phony mem­o­ries. Through a host of skeu­mor­phic fil­ters, blurred edges and sim­u­lated film grain, smart­phone snaps can be trans­formed into what look like age worn and paper printed pho­tos. The in­sta­grammed snap­shot is often highly self-aware and “photo ops” are des­per­ately sought out as the pre­sent is in­creas­ingly seen as an op­por­tu­nity to doc­u­ment the past. But de­spite its con­trived na­ture, the in­sta­grammed snap does its best to give the im­pres­sion of au­then­tic spon­tane­ity, suc­cess­fully dis­guis­ing fab­ri­cated nar­ra­tives as real mo­ments. The re­sults are pho­tographs that look as if they have been dis­cov­ered in a photo album from the 70's - they emit an im­me­di­ate nos­tal­gia and in turn au­then­ti­cate our mind­less snaps as gen­uine “mem­o­ries”.

Every­thing can be beau­ti­ful - on In­sta­gram

Through an In­sta­gram fil­ter, every­thing looks bet­ter. Any­thing as mun­dane as a take-away cof­fee cup has the abil­ity to emit nos­tal­gia. Through In­sta­gram, an awk­ward evening with an ac­quain­tance can be trans­formed in to #NightofMyLife. Not only is it weird that we unashamedly pre­sent un­truths to on­line com­mu­ni­ties, but also dan­ger­ous if in the fu­ture, these rose-tinted pho­to­graphs plus the dis­tor­tion of time re­sults in fake mem­ories. Will we one day re­flect on the pho­to­graph and think: “Why didn’t we keep in touch when we were al­ways such good friends?”

Eliz­a­beth Lof­tus on the fic­tion of mem­ory (TED Talk). 

Psy­chol­o­gist and mem­ory ex­pert Eliz­a­beth Lof­tus claims that every­one is sus­cep­ti­ble to mem­ory dis­tor­tion. When fed mis­in­for­ma­tion, we begin to re­mem­ber things that didn’t hap­pen. Lof­tus has car­ried out sev­eral ex­per­i­ments which con­cluded that false mem­o­ries can rel­a­tively eas­ily be imbed­ded into peo­ple’s minds – whether that be a false child­hood mem­ory of get­ting lost in a shop­ping mall or re­mem­ber­ing a piece of ev­i­dence that never ex­isted. This ease sug­gests that our own doc­u­men­ta­tion of con­structed nar­ra­tives plus our will­ing­ness to be­lieve our own fan­tasies has the ca­pac­ity to con­struct false mem­o­ries too.

Sim­u­lat­ing the real and the raw

Per­haps an­other rea­son for the trend of pre-dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy is a sub­con­scious yearn­ing for some­thing tan­gi­ble within a world so sim­u­lated. Today we recre­ate the snap­shot aes­thetic made pop­u­lar in the 80’s and 90’s by the likes of Nan Goldin and Corinne Day. Their hon­est and often un­flat­ter­ing pho­tographs act as por­tals into their lives, re­veal­ing in­tense emo­tions and an in­sider’s per­spec­tive on a counter cul­ture of drug ad­dicts, trans­ves­tites and AIDS vic­tims. The pho­tos have been at­trib­uted with being ‘real’ and ‘raw’ – the exact qual­i­ties we want to see in our own pho­tographs. Now, the av­er­age In­sta­gram user may not fre­quent free par­ties, shoot heroin, share baths or even have an eye for a good photo, but that doesn’t mat­ter - with In­sta­gram’s 80’s fil­ter, we can ap­pro­pri­ate other peo­ple’s mem­o­ries as our own and achieve the de­sired “look”. For now my phony ap­pro­pri­a­tion of a Goldin pho­to­graph is quite em­bar­rass­ing but per­haps in the fu­ture I’ll for­get I wrote this ar­ti­cle and be­lieve my own lie.