A year ago, I was scrolling through Instagram, the wildly popular photo-sharing app, when I came across a video taken by a friend in her garden. She watched excitedly as her husband teed up a golf ball. There was much shrieking from a crowd behind the camera as he lined up his shot and swung. The ball exploded into a cloud of neon-pink powder, a dramatic way of showing that the baby they were expecting would be a girl.
This is a birth announcement, 21st-century style. I should add that I wasn’t surprised. On social media, I’d followed their journey from engagement to wedding to the purchase of a puppy, so I was sort of anticipating that the next pronouncement would feature a detonating pink or blue sport ball of some kind.
You see, I’ve learnt to speak fluent Instagram, where all major (and minor) life announcements of my generation take place. A photo of a boarding pass means you’re moving across the country or are about to embark on an enviable holiday; a snap of a company logo announces a new job; the Hamilton theatre marquee shows your friends that you finally got tickets.
Instagram was bought by Facebook in 2012 for $1bn — an extraordinary valuation for a two-year-old company that at the time boasted only 13 full-time employees. Yet it proved a shrewd investment. By 2014, Citigroup estimated it was worth $35bn and today it has 800 million monthly active users.
As Instagram becomes more embedded in our lives, the app has fundamentally changed the way we share information. “Pics or it didn’t happen” has become an anthem for Insta-culture. And so a choreography of life updates has evolved. The Instagram feeds of twentysomethings are filled with new jobs, holiday pictures and engagement photos.
It can feel like all this has raised the bar for what we share and how we share it. Travel destinations, restaurants and bookshops are increasingly reliant on their Instagram-ability. Things that were once private experiences are now so commonly shared that they have taken on a performative air. Couples expecting a baby can buy tennis balls, footballs or even shotgun targets that, when struck like my friends’ golf ball, explode into clouds of pink or blue powder. A manufacturer of “gender reveal” products called Poof There It Is! has made more than 36,000 sales on Etsy in less than two years. In one video last month, the happy couple enlisted an alligator crunching on a melon filled with blue jelly to help make the announcement.
A common formula may have emerged for the Instagramming of joyful events but it’s less clear how to share when things veer off course. In November, professional hockey player Erik Karlsson posted a photo of himself, his wife and her sonogram to announce they were expecting their first child. It received almost 95,000 likes. A few weeks later, he shared a picture of himself beside a bright blue cloud from a gender reveal hockey puck. Then, last month, Karlsson shared a picture of his son’s footprints beside his name and birthdate. In a longer than usual caption, he explained that his son Axel had been stillborn.
Instagram posts about our days of heartache or pain are less visible on the platform — perhaps because they don’t score as highly with its algorithm or because we don’t tend to share those moments as much. But in the comments beneath Karlsson’s post, people wrote about their own experiences of losing children. His openness helped others feel less alone.
Instagram’s popularity indicates a deep desire to connect with others, to give and to receive validation from friends, colleagues and even strangers. But a constant need to document our lives can also skew the way we experience joyful moments. We shouldn’t need to photograph something to make it real or special, though by sharing our lives, the good and sometimes the bad, we can also create communities of shared experiences. Perhaps this is where the “social” in social media comes into its own.
This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.