“Instagram is the new way for communicating.” That was the gutsy claim recently made by Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom. His evidence? Systrom’s photo-sharing app has just reached a staggering 500 million users. It may have been a bold statement, but it’s hard to argue with the stats. For many of us opening Instagram has become more routine than switching on the TV.
But what Systrom didn’t explore was how Instagram as a mode of communication might be shaping us. My own Instagram love-affair began back in April 2012. It was the freshness of the filters that got me first. But as time’s gone on I’ve found filters are a fitting metaphor for how the app itself can influence my whole view of life. And as someone wanting to be shaped first by Jesus, I’ve realised sometimes there’s a clash of perspectives.
So to mark the app reaching 500 million users, here are five questions I’ve found helpful to ponder as we let God’s lenses reveal how the app might be impacting us more than we think.
- Do we share because we’re thankful or because we’re needful?
Instagram is fabulous for showcasing the goodness of the world around us. It might be staggering natural vistas or cherished moments with loved ones. It might be yet another flat white. I’m convinced the app just wouldn’t work if the world wasn’t so good!
But how do we respond to goodness? Christianity’s story of the world is that there is a personal and triune God who is the fountain from whom all this goodness gushes. That means an obvious and fitting response will be thankfulness. Though they’re our photos, it’s his fingerprints that are on the screen.
But is that how our Instagram comes across? Theologian, Ted Turnau has said, “the line between sharing and self-centred attention-seeking is razor thin.” Thankfulness is turned on its head when we twist good things into a means to seek out our acceptance, as if our satisfaction could be found in one more ‘like’ or comment. A posture of need is probably a surefire sign I need to delight afresh in the divine acceptance we’ve been given through Christ.
- How does our Instagram presence limit how present we are where God’s put us?
For me one of Instagram’s ironies is that whilst it’s fantastic at helping me celebrate the physical, it can leave me simultaneously forgetting my own physicality. As we see the world through a million different windows, sometimes I find I’ve lost sight of the little corner of the world God’s placed me.
As pastor and writer Zack Eswine has observed, “whenever we place our feet somewhere, we choose not to place them somewhere else.” And isn’t it the same with taking our phones out? Whilst enjoying the incredible opportunity Instagram presents to be ‘everywhere’, we need to also realise to choose is to limit.
The problem lies not so much in being limited – that’s just part of being finite creatures. Rather it’s in not being aware of the choices of limitation we’re making. So what will we do with our limited resources – be it attention span, energy levels, or our physical presence? Who are we going to invest in? We need bucket-loads of discernment here. By choosing to connect here, where am I choosing to disconnect elsewhere?
- How is an emphasis on the visible impacting our appreciation of the invisible?
Instagram is a powerful tool for capturing and sharing the visual wonder of this God-given world. There’s nothing spiritual about denying this world is full of goodness.
But when I’ve been in rhythms of frequently checking my Instagram feed, I can drift into living like ‘all we have is all we can see’. Yet there’s more to life than meets the eye.
The apostle Paul began one of his letters to the early church by praying that God would open the eyes of their hearts (Ephesians ch1). In a visually impressive culture, he was concerned they’d lost sight of the spiritual realities of all that God had done in Jesus Christ. Don’t judge what you have spiritually by what you see materially.
- Is our Instagram use making us at ease with self-interest?
I recently came across a photography exhibition entitled The Death of Conversation. The artist had captured everyday scenes in which each person was staring into their phone screen, despite the company that surrounded them. And alongside the exhibition was this fascinating observation: “they know that every single thing that arrives on their device is somehow connected to them, whereas in conversation you are not always the focus”.
Maybe the so-called ‘connectedness’ of our generation could sometimes be better described as ‘selfwardness’, the ultimate in disconnectedness? Certainly Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom has previously suggested that people use the app because it gives them “an audience”. The Bible pops any pretence by reminding us our hearts will always have a self-centred bent. Maybe there’s a place for regularly giving our social media motivations a ‘double-take’?
- Are we fighting for contentment or craving greener grass?
Instagram is often stereotyped as that place where everyone’s life pretty much looks perfect. And there’s a reason for that! Sometimes scrolling through my feed can feel like covetousness and contentment are going bareknuckle against each other.
So whether it’s Kim K or just ‘someone from real life’, it’s worth rehearsing again the fact that we’re just seeing someone’s highlights reel. These are filtered, self-selected prime cuts. Everyone has their aches and longings – they just don’t tend to make it to the screen. Perhaps the more perfect it all looks, the more likely there’s some desperate crack-covering going on – just listen to Essena O’Neill’s story.
So let’s be self-aware as to when we’re particularly vulnerable to discontentment – and in those moments let’s remember that escaping into the filtered lives of others is no match for casting ourselves upon the one who holds our lives in his pierced hands.
What have you found helpful to reflect upon as you engage with Instagram as a disciple of Jesus?