I’m trying to remember the exact moment. It was a late Friday in January, and I was headed home. I’d just left a show at Blue Note in the West Village when the urge struck. Maybe I’ll record a story for fun. The first upload was intentionally straightforward: I’m walking to the subway, the front-facing iPhone camera capturing my hurried pace as I make my way down the street; the words, “How do I use this thing?” sit at the bottom of the screen. By the time I arrive at my apartment and shower, I’ve already uploaded another video and plan to record one more before I go to bed. I knew it then: I was hooked.
I’ve never cared much for my online identity, or the competitiveness and speed at which new platforms roll out. And though I’ve been a casual Instagram user, I was skeptical of the Stories feature — which allows users to post short-lived photo and video slideshows that disappear in 24 hours — when it was introduced last August. For months I ignored it, and held off updating the app for as long as I could. At its best, Instagram Stories felt like a less-than-excellent ripoff of Snapchat (or at least what I had seen of it; I never joined). But because modern living is a reflexive enterprise, and technology amplifies our participation in it, I eventually started watching the stories of people in my feed. At some point, we all opt in.
In the four weeks since my initial post, I’ve uploaded more Stories than I have images in the three years I’ve maintained an Instagram profile. Stories is an odd, frenzied form of communication: an amalgam of stills, compressed loops, and videos that comprise seconds or minutes of a person’s day. A sort of a digital collage. I especially enjoy the disposability of each upload, the impermanence of my ideas. Sometimes an idea is just that — an idea — a thought or expression that has no real currency. Last year I posted a photo to Instagram with the caption “selfie as self-affirmation,” but I don’t entirely buy into that belief. Still, the image has remained on my page (I like the photo, though, as my cousin pointed out, I do look a little sad in it). Sometimes we are one thing, and another the next minute. We are not a fixed self.
“Sometimes we are one thing, and another the next minute. We are not a fixed self.”
There was a theory put forward by Sherry Turkle in 2012 in which she suggested that humans were becoming unhealthily reliant on technology. Our expectations for various technologies, and their applicability to our lives — email, text, Facebook, YouTube, gchat, etc — were growing in direct response to our diminishing reliance on each other (you know, human interaction). “As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves,” she wrote in Alone Together. In part, Turkle, who is a clinical psychologist and a professor of social sciences at M.I.T., was right. We like to believe that creating a Twitter persona or uploading a new Snap Story will put us in control, but the opposite is more often true: we become attached to technology to such a degree, we can no longer imagine living without it. In time, entities like Instagram and Facebook become an extension of who we are and how we express ourselves. Or not who we are, exactly, but who we wish to project into the world.
In her research, Turkle found that human communication was becoming too hindered by our constant online interactions. But since using Instagram Stories, I find myself interacting with more people than I ever have. I’ve become more conscious of my surroundings: the small, elderly woman at the gym who resembles Joan Didion and wears a red sequins beret; cans of High Brew Coffee that detail their “Black & Bold” flavor (for one story, I took a photo of the can and added the word “selfie”); the bouquet of silver clouds that loitered just above 22nd Street and 6th Avenue in mid-February (“Were these the metal clouds Solange sang about?” I jokingly wondered in another upload).
Stories is seductive, as Turkle might put it, but seduction doesn’t necessarily imply retreat or social detachment from those around us. We are just alive in new ways.