The sun’s out, the barbecue has been dusted off, and England’s World Cup frolics are but a jaded memory. Summer has definitely arrived. And if you were in any doubt, how about this for one more telltale sign: judging by my newsfeed at least, we’ve started using Instagram again.
You may not be a user, but the stats are hard to argue with. According to the app’s slick press page, on average 60 million photos are uploaded on Instagram daily, with some 200 million users active each month. Those numbers include a third of US teens and millenials (14-34). Why has it grabbed us so much?
Instagram’s popularity indicates that we were born to praise. CS Lewis once observed: “We delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”
His point is simple enough; delight needs an outlet. And outlets are, by nature, external and social. Sharing isn’t just ‘caring’ as the popular hashtag would tell us, it’s also declaring. It’s not enough to just know something is good, we need to let it be known.
That’s where Instagram comes in. There’s lots of talk about post-Christian UK losing its morality, but perhaps less noticed is a decline in the language of praise and thankfulness. And if Lewis is right, then one consequence to be expected is a general sense of dissatisfaction, as our ‘enjoyment circles’ remain incomplete. Instagram seems to have become a means by which we try to fill this gap. Whether it be that beach-view, a selfie or even a ‘foodie’, each shared image effectively becomes a means by which we can release a virtual exclamation of ‘yes, this is good!’ We share not so much to communicate, as to release.
Here’s the problem. In a naturalistic worldview where, as one fourth-century theologian described God, there’s no “Fountain of Goodness”, there’s going to be a subtle shift concerning how we praise. I think it’s revealed in the way that ‘Instagrammers’ also have their fair share of haters. One survey on Facebook revealed that Instagram posts were right up there with baby photos as the things people found most annoying on their newsfeeds. Similarly a recent article by Grace Dent, “Top Ten Instagram Holiday Don’ts“, hilariously highlighted the predictable and self-indulgent ruts that ‘Grammers’, particularly celebrity users, tend to fall into. On one hand it’s hardly surprising that we get a little frustrated with the same-old filters and the same-old shots of flat whites.
But maybe our Insta-angst has a deeper root: we’ve forgotten how to handle ‘praise’. Once we’ve got used to operating without a God, highlighting the goodness of something becomes culturally a little strange. In particular, it can easily be perceived as an act of pride. As I share my ‘blessings’ it can seem like I’m bragging about what I’ve managed to get my lucky mits on. The focus is on the self, and what it has achieved. It’s a natural consequence of losing sight of the Giver; His good gifts instead become our entitlements, and our innate desire to praise instead is warped into self-infatuation.
Ultimately, the Instagram asks us how are we going to respond to goodness. In that sense, social media is always just going to be a means to another end. One of the resounding critiques of social media is that it has turned us all into our own PR agents. But more than anything else, the end for which we were made is praise – and praise of Another. Rather than discarding the tool, let’s use it to truly complete our enjoyment. Let’s bring God back into the picture.