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I recently got into an argument with an Average Twelve-Year-Old (ATYO) about language and Instagram, an argument which, I have to admit, is semi-signalling to me the end of the world. When a teen posts a cute picture of, say, a puppy or a baby brother on the photo-sharing app, other teens invariably comment “awe”. I pointed out to the ATYO that they really mean “awww” and that “awe” actually means “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear or wonder produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful”. She seemed unimpressed by the distinction. If there is a difference between God and a cute puppy it’s uninteresting to her.
Continuing in this vein, I said that all the kids commenting on Instagram and using “artsy” as a great compliment were misusing that word — “artsy” actually being a negative term meaning pretentious or fake or trying too hard to seem artistic. The ATYO looked at me with the pity one might feel towards a tourist struggling to read a menu in a strange land: “That’s not what it means on Instagram.” I realised, to my horror, that she was right. The words, as I and the Oxford English Dictionary understood them, were rapidly vanishing into the world of Instagram and its 400 million users, in which “awe” is about puppies, and “artsiness”, skilfully filtered, is vastly preferable to art.
On the planet of Instagram people eat only avocado toast, artfully laid-out bowls of yoghurt, granola and berries, and improbably stylish desserts. They are always in a bikini on a beach or swimming underwater (“Missing this”) or cupping their hands into a heart shape or suddenly finding themselves in front of profound graffiti such as “Protect yo heart” or “Kill the balloons”. The world being communicated is identical to the world being communicated by every other teenager, except, in some intangible and awfully hard to measure way, it is uniquely theirs. The fear of straying from the formula is matched only by the desire to be just a bit better at it. (“Goals!” the comments shout. “Artsayyy”; “Could you be more artsy?”; “So artsy I can’t even deal.”) What is slightly chilling is the sameness, the lockstep, the absolute refusal of originality. The trick is to be like everyone else — a tiny bit distinctive but not substantively so.
How many parents have lured languid teens away from their screens and off Snapchat with the promise of Instagram-ready backdrops? “How about we go to the Tate? You can take pictures.” Recently the ATYO and a friend had a picnic in the garden under an umbrella in a thunderstorm, complete with blankets, pillows, smoothies in Mason jars, red striped paper straws. I suspected them of enduring the extreme — albeit stylish — misery of this experience solely for the cute photo, though I have no proof that this is true. The goal is the photo, the goal is “goals!”, the staging is the fun, the activity is just the part leading up to the post. There are whole afternoons where girls are infinitely photographing themselves, sleepovers devolving into 3am photo shoots — no wonder they are exhausted! There is the pressure of the constant preserving, the late-night ennui of the teen curator — the drive to capture rapidly superseding what the old-fashioned among us might call “life”. In her book Alone Together (2011), MIT technology scholar Sherry Turkle writes: “In all of this, there is a nagging question: does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind, and indeed of all encounters of any kind?”
One of the more telling teen comments is the “TBH”, which means “to be honest”. This is a comment you post to a friend that has nothing to do with the photo you are commenting on. These TBHs are either so grotesquely hypocritical (to someone you don’t like, “tbh: I miss you so much love you so much”) or so glitteringly generic (“tbh: I don’t know you well but you are so pretty and nice”) as to bear no relation to what those in the adult world might call “honesty”. To be honest, in Instagram, is to be an empty flatterer.
Fielding some mockery on her lamely store-bought and fairly perfunctory Halloween costume, the ATYO said calmly, “At my age, it’s more important to be cute than original.” I admired her sangfroid and self-knowledge in the face of middle-school power structures; at her age I myself was utterly bewildered by the imperatives of “cute” and was, therefore, pretty much stuck with original.
The echo chamber, nonetheless, strikes me as ominous. Why do young teens have to parrot back to each other endless inane affirmations of their beauty? At 12, it’s “cutie”, “model status”, “gorg” or “you are so prettttty I can’t even deal”; a couple of years later, it’s “sexy”, “hotttt” and “babe and a half”. The natural self-consciousness of those years is escalated by the funhouse mirror of it all; your feeling that everyone is looking at you is magnified by the fact that everyone really is looking at you.
Then there is the fish face. Why teenage girls think that puffing out your lips in a way that no one does outside Instagram is somehow sexy or attractive or signifies glamour will remain one of the universe’s eternal mysteries. And yet, fish faces proliferate. Girls who would look smashing if they weren’t doing that strange thing with their mouth are everywhere.
One can assume the fish face came into being because a straightforward selfie in which you are clearly trying to look good is not cool. The fish face, or stuck-out tongue, indicates that this is just for fun, you are not trying to look good, you are just effortlessly goofing around in your regular life, though as anyone who has ever lent a 13-year-old their phone knows, they have taken 60 selfies in the space of three minutes and are deeply embroiled in the serious business of choosing the most flattering of these photos that they are not, of course, taking seriously.
The fact that teens can predict what the comments will be, almost to a word, in no way deters them from checking their Instagram incessantly. There is a great frantic urgency to know if a best friend wrote “prettttty” or “pretttyyyyyy”. The minute gradations, two hearts or one, 60 likes or 65, are measured, accounted for, filed away. In case obsessive monitoring is not giving enough information you can tally up the likes using an app. I suppose jealousy has always been a great medium of teen power — it’s just that in the old days we couldn’t measure it with quite this level of precision.
The old suspicion that people like and don’t like you hardens into countable knowledge. You not only suspect but know that people are watching, judging; that for every “goals” lurks someone thinking “this is so stupid”, “her feed is boring” or “she’s imitating me”. In a recent Pew Study report, 24 per cent of teens said that they go online “almost constantly”.
One glorious friend of the ATYO decided unilaterally to leave Instagram. “Too much drama,” she explained to me. I had to think for a minute: what drama? The drama of 62 likes versus 50, the drama of “pretty” v “you are so beautiful I can’t even deal”, the drama of “artsy” v “wow”? Still, this kid is probably going to be president.
And then, of course, annoying parents police the pictures. A year ago, one concerned mother told another mother that the ATYO had put up an inappropriate picture of herself and a friend, and the friend’s mother told the ATYO to take it down. The picture was of the two of them with three tons of make-up on. They looked sweet to me; clownish, tarted up, experimenting with some future self who would hopefully be a little better with the eyeliner. Yet the policing mother thought this image was overly sexualised, Lolita-esque. Instagram: a great venue for slut-shaming other people’s 11-year-olds, in other words.
The ATYO wistfully points out that someone she knows is “perfect”. She means perfect in an Instagram sense; that is, this girl looks good while projecting that she is not trying to look good. I mention that she is probably not perfect, that she probably lies awake at night thinking no one understands her, and is anyway wearing a lot of mascara and taking 100 photos to achieve that particular effect.
It’s not a coincidence that the “perfect” girls are also the wealthiest girls, that this Instagram perfection rapidly distils into things you can buy, places you can afford; there’s something branded, moneyed, about teen Instagram. The best things in life, it whispers to our tweens, are by no means free.
I try to bring the ATYO’s attention to the few brave souls who are satirising Instagram convention. My favourite is Socality Barbie, a doll placed in Instagramish settings with captions such as “feeling blessed”, “cuz fall”, “create a life you don’t need a vacation from”. More recently, the Australian Instagram celebrity Essena O’Neill began to annotate what went on behind her pictures: stomach sucked in, faked smiles, insecurities, being paid to show products.
The satire and critiques seem oddly beside the point to the ATYO. The fact that this is not life is not news to her; she intuits the artifice the way a four-year-old navigates the screen of an iPad; she swims in it. The truly depressing and astonishing thing is that its power is in no way decreased by that knowledge.
We can only stand back and regard the new artsiness with awe (or “awww”). Goals, we begin to think. I can’t even deal. Kill the balloons. Protect yo heart.
Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University
Illustrations by Cynthia Kittler