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Truth, Time & Authenticity on Instagram

Time on Instagram is always presented as supplementary information. When an image or video is posted to the newsfeed or story section of an Instagram account, the pictorial and/or audiovisual content of the post is its primary tool for communication. This visual content is (optionally) illuminated further with language in the form of captions; reference to a location; text added over images; and text-based ‘stickers’ and GIFs. Time is a footnote: any reference to when the post was uploaded is at the very bottom of the post in faint, grey lettering, in the smallest and lightest font style on the platform. Or, in an Instagram story, time is acknowledge in the most minimal of abbreviations; in very faint numbers and letters to the side of the name of the account the content was posted from. Time is clearly not intended as primary information on Instagram.

Despite this, I would argue that time plays a significant role in shaping how we regard the Instagram content it relates to: through how time can be used to suggest the provision of objective information. By which I mean to say, I believe that these discretely presented identifiers of time on Instagram subtly lend the visual content which they are connected to with an air of the truth. Moreover, that this suggestion of an image’s veracity, (when accepted by an audience of fellow Instagram users), in turn lends an aura of authenticity to the content’s creator (whether that be an individual or a brand).

Regardless of whether information about time is foregrounded within the format of the Instagram post or story, time’s significance in the culture and history of Instagram is alluded to by the platform’s name. On the question and answer website Quora, Kevin Systrom, one of the founders of Instagram, explained the intention behind combining the words “instant” and “telegram” (2011) for the platform’s name: ‘[we were] searching for something that combined the ‘right here right now’ aspect of what we were trying to accomplish with the idea of recording something in your life.’ (2010) Systrom’s explanation reveals something about the original intentions for Instagram’s use: the proposition that the visual content shared is being uploaded only moments after the instance in which it was captured. The instant in Instagram, points to the implicit inference that the visual content on Instagram is a window onto the moment in which it was shared, and can be considered as a reliable document or form of evidence of that moment.

Let us unpack this further. Instagram uses what Jean-François Lyotard describes as ‘objective time’: a term outlined in his essay Time Today (1988, p. 58). Objective time, Lyotard explains, is an indexing form of time which fixes reference to a moment through its relation to a clock or calendar, as opposed to a ‘time designator’ such as “today” which is relative and unfixed. On an Instagram profile page the newest uploads are always the leading content; conspicuously prioritising content closest to the present. The accompanying information on time included in the post counts upwards in [objective] real time from the moment that the post is uploaded: in seconds, minutes, hours, then days whilst the post itself slowly retreats down the newsfeed into the past, as more posts are added, keeping only the newest content at the fore. The specificity of this indexical and objective information (the careful tracking of the seconds, minutes, etc. since the post was created) has the effect of apparently seamlessly conflating what are in fact two events. The first event: the moment in which the visual content (a photograph or video) was created, becomes drawn into a second event: the moment in which an Instagram post was created, (which happens to use the visual content produced in the first instance) regardless of the timeframe between the two events. Because, despite Systrom and his co-founder Mike Krieger’s intentions of people sharing the 'right here right now’ (Systrom, 2010), as all users of the platform today are aware, it is relatively rare that Instagram content is created and uploaded in the same moment.

To be clear, unlike the option to live stream a video on Instagram, when creating content for an Instagram post or story there is a necessary order of events. Meaning, that there are multiple ‘presents’ or moments which occur throughout as a sequence of actions required by the process of capturing and sharing visual content. What I am distinguishing between here is the instance (1) in which visual content is created and shared immediately afterwards, and the instance (2) in which visual content is created within the application itself and shared immediately afterwards. As opposed to instances (3) in which visual content is created and then only uploaded to the platform after a variable time period has passed since the creation of the visual content. This timeframe (be it twenty minutes, twenty days, twenty weeks … however long) is hidden by the conflation of the two events: a conflation which is a result of the second event - the sharing on the platform - attributing indexical, objective time information to the first event through its juxtaposition to the visual content created during the first event. When in fact, this indexing of time relates to the second event.

The understanding of visual content on Instagram as a record (Systrom, 2010) is problematic. Firstly, because, as in the third instance outlined above, images are not frequently shared in the 'right here right now’ (Systrom, 2010); and secondly, because it does not account for the intentions behind the creation and sharing of both the visual content and the Instagram post. Therefore, I would argue that rather than being considered as records - which infers that they provide objective knowledge in the manner of evidence - visual content on Instagram should be considered as testimony.

As testimony, rather than as an empirical truth such objective time, Instagram posts and stories should be considered as subjective versions of events from the perspective of an individual; an individual who has their own motives, ideologies and values underpinning the intention of sharing each post. To understand these images and videos we have to consciously undermine the conflation which occurs between the two events which assumes that the moment of the creation of the visual content is only momentarily ahead of the moment that the visual content is being shared (as in instances 1 and 2 described previously). Only after consideration of the significance of the gap between events, and of the two separate events themselves (creation; sharing) can the reliability of the Instagram post be judged as a reliable testimony which can serve as a record or not. However, when content on Instagram is regarded as a record as opposed to a testimony, this process of critique and judgement is absent and the information presented in the Instagram post is accepted at face value.

In her essay, ‘Truth in Testimony: Or can a Documentary Film ‘Bear Witness’? Some reflections on the Difference between Discursive and Existential Truth’, Sybille Krämer explains the operations of testimony:

‘The subjective experience of the situation is expressed in a intersubjectively understandable language so that the jury judges or accepts the testimony of the witness to be true.’ (2016, p.31) 

What most interests me about Krämer’s description is not her explanation of the testimony itself, but the process of validation necessary for the testimony to be established as true. To give testimony is a call to be believed, however belief, unlike objective knowledge, requires a ‘leap’ of faith from the receiver of the testimony, to accept and acknowledge the testimony as true.

Historically, the rationale for who had the authority to judge another’s testimony was unsurprisingly grounded in religion. Writing in 1850, philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard claimed that the highest form of authority was God and therefore, by proximity, those channelling God in their roles in the church (bishops, priests etc.) shared in this authority; whilst secular authority was the weakest form of authority: the authority of an official body, such as legal authority, or a governing organisation. (Hong & Edna, 2000) I am not mentioning Kierkegaard here to imply that an audience on Instagram can judge the validity of an Instagram post through authority from God, or from an official body. Rather, I wish to highlight Kierkegaard’s theory as an example of a resolute moralising doctrine of judgement founded on a binary religious conception of good and evil. This good/bad binary will be food for thought later. For now, let us consider a more contemporary understanding of how testimony is validated.

According to Benjamin McMyler, rather than the authority to judge testimony being derived from an official body or divine being, McMyler (somewhat more compellingly than Kierkegaard), explains that in providing a testimony an individual is making ‘assurance’ or ‘guarantee’ to those they are addressing, that should their testimonial be later found inaccurate, wrong or misleading, that they will take responsibility. (2001, pp. 91-112) This is what McMyler calls the ‘second person model’, and is dependent on trust between those providing the testimony and those making judgement. When an Instagram post is accepted on face value as a record of an event by an online audience, what is in fact a testimony is being given validation as a truth. Even when allowances are made for the timeframe between the capturing of the visual content and its sharing on Instagram, when the post or story is perceived as a record it is accepting that what is being presented is more or less an accurate window onto the life of the person sharing it.

This is brings us to what is at the core of this issue, and why this complex series of relations between time, experience, technology and testimony are worth considering this closely: the contemporary fixation with authenticity. I would argue that Instagram’s conflation of time combined with its thorough indexing of objective time, and allusion to the ‘instant’ in both its name and founding ideas, play a role in Instagram posts and stories being perceived as records as opposed to testimonies. In this way time contributes to the characterisation of Instagram content as authentic. This is not to say that the quest for presentation of an authentic online self was the intention behind Systrom and Krieger’s design of the platform. Instead, I would argue that the drive to project an ‘authentic’ (and generally idealised) self is one of the objects (or ends) of Instagram now that it has become sufficiently socially and culturally significant and complex to be considered a genre of discourse. The schema of a genre of discourse is set out by Lyotard in The Differend : Phrases In Dispute (1983), which proposes that a genre of discourse supplies a set of possible phrases (which may be linguistic but are not limited to language and may be a silence, sign, or any possible gesture or way of communicating) in order to attain certain ends determined by what is at stake. All phrases must, by definition, be linked from phrase to phrase, and the genre of discourse determines what linkages are, or are not, suitable. In the case of Instagram, as described by Michel Feher, what is at stake on social media is the accumulation of credit in the form of appreciation (likes, follows, positive comments) received following online sharing. (2013-15) To accumulate this appreciation is contingent on other online users to not feel lied to: by presenting an authentic self.

Writer and journalist Pandora Sykes devoted her essay The Authentic Lie (2019) to this contemporary obsession with authenticity and the role that social media (Instagram in particular) has played in its amplification. Sykes describes how transparency on social media has become regarded as proof of ‘goodness’ and ‘authenticity’ (ibid. p.27). This reference to goodness hints at a moral aspect of this ardent Instagram quest for authenticity which has arisen from the foundations of the 'right here right now’ proposition. When Instagram content has initially been accepted by an online audience as a record, if it is later revealed as inaccurate it is responded by the same audiences who accepted it as if it were purposely falsified evidence, rather than a subjectively constructed self-narrative. Instagram content found to be inauthentic is judged with a ferocity and old-testament style damning more inline with Kierkegaard’s divine authority for judgement along the lines of good and evil, than the more measured consequences described by McMyler whereby the individual providing testimony takes responsibility for their inaccuracies. One only needs to look at examples like the shaming and denigration of wellness blogger Belle Gibson, following the investigative journalists Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano’s uncovering of her false claims that she had cured her [fictitious] brain cancer with ‘clean eating’. Reflecting on the online outrage which followed the exposure of Gibson’s inauthentic Instagram presentation, which included death threats, Toscano reflected, ‘Her scam was so against the norms of society that it does deserve condemnation […] But when you delve into the social media damnation that she bore the brunt of, it’s hard not to think that the shaming of Belle Gibson crossed a line.’ (Douglas, 2017) It seems that such fervent outrage is a result of when Instagram content is wrongly regarded as a record, and not as a subjective testimony for us to consider and critique; and that by shifting wider understanding of Instagram content towards that of testimony, outrage would be less keenly felt when content was found to be unreliable, not to mention the reduction in pressure it would apply to ourselves as users.

 

References 

Douglas, J.R. (2017) ‘Behind Belle Gibson’s cancer con: 'Everything about this story is extreme'’, in The Guardian, 12 November 2017. Available online.

Feher, M. (2013-15) The Age of Appreciation: Lectures on the Neoliberal Condition 2013-2015, [Lecture Series]. Available online.

Hong, Howard V. & Edna H. The Essential Kierkegaard. Princeton University Press, 2000.

Lyotard, J.F. (1983), The Differend : Phrases In Dispute, Translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele, Reprint, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Lyotard, J.F. (1988) The Inhuman: Reflections on Time’. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.

McMyler, B. (2011) Testimony, Trust and Authority. Oxford: University Press.

Sykes, P. (2019) The Authentic Lie, Birmingham: The Pound Project.

Systrom, K. (2010) ‘How did Instagram get its name?’, Quora, 22 November. Available online. (Accessed 4 April 2019).

Systrom, K. (2011) ‘What is the genesis of Instagram?’, on, Quora, 12 January. Available online. (Accessed 4 April 2019).

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