Make Instagram casual again. This age-old phrase now overwhelms our feeds and has become a reality. Photo dumps, selfies, unposed shots, and “the little things,” now replace what used to consist of posed shots and the duck face. As our generation grows up, so does Instagram culture, after all, we’re the ones creating it. But here’s the catch– there is a new and subtle danger to the popular culture of “casual Instagram.” Regardless of this new trend’s drawbacks, it is quite the paradox, a social media app centered around posing that now hones in on the more “relaxed” side of life.

Two opposing TikToks have appeared on my “for you page” regarding Emma Chamberlain’s recent Instagram post. The picture captures Emma as she nonchalantly looks off to the side. She dresses head to toe in “college kid home from school” style, or as one TikTok names it, the “I’m leaving my boyfriend’s house in winter” look. One TikTok acclaims Emma’s casual and relatable post. She presents an image of herself that considering she dresses like the rest of us, wrapped and canoodled in old clothes not quite good enough to bring to college or our dad’s old sweater making a guest appearance. That one post, in a larger group of her more recent “photo-dump” content, makes Emma (seem) relatable, even when her lifestyle is far from that.

Another TikTok posted by user “cozyakili” instead commented on the new culture of casual Instagram. The user argues that casual Instagram poses an even greater threat than performative Instagram. After watching his video, I would argue the same. Consider the culture that influencers such as the Kardashians created in our teenage years. Instagram users previously, and sometimes still, flood the app with curated and stylish outfits, heavy editing, filters, and performative facial expressions such as gleaming smiles and smizes. But a posed Instagram shot owns its message. Yes, it portrays a highly curated lifestyle or perhaps an outfit that probably took hours picking out, but this performative culture is precisely that, performative. The viewers or peers that interact with such posts are probably aware that the user is posing for a picture or creating some element of performance.

This is where our casual posts and photo dumps may threaten this previous social order. No longer are we posing to flex lavish garb or a perfect life, we are adamantly not posing to reflect a perfect life. The life we all strive to capture is now one that we simply stumble upon. Posts no longer focus on big picture moments, but rather photo dumps or “the little things” that make it clear that beautiful and curated dumps can simply happen. Our lives are now one too many dumps deep in candid pictures or flowers. But are they candid? 

Aristotle first coined the phenomenon, “suspension of disbelief” concerning the theater. He conceptualized that audiences members are often so intent on finding entertainment in the theater, they surrender any previous knowledge or logic. This suspension of disbelief allows viewers to buy into a performance and believe it, even when it is far from realistic. As Instagram users, we too take on the role of the audience. Each time Instagram opens, a sense of reality or a logical understanding of the world diminishes and users suspend their beliefs. In its place, users buy into the seemingly perfect yet casual lives of the photos that push this agenda. I think if I asked nearly anyone in Gen-Z, “Do you think Instagram is realistic?” most would respond no, it is not realistic. Yet every time I open the app, I too believe that what I see represents reality. If I believe every post is exactly as it seems, maybe everyone else will feel the same about mine. Whether or not you are content with your posts, nine times out of ten, there is probably at least one fabricated element.

Perhaps your best friend truly did catch you looking into the distance. Maybe you really did stumble upon a cheeseboard that happens to look like a master chef creation. Yes, this is all possible and I’m sure your life looks just like your photo dump. But the way in which we all seek and yearn to find these casually beautiful moments, including myself, is what strikes me as odd. Instagram culture now centers around proving we have near perfect lives that come about so casually that they can be comprised into a few, simply edited photo dumps. Fewer Instagram filters are no indication that what we see on social media is unfiltered. 

I’m not critiquing casual Instagram or photo dumps. If you follow me on Instagram you know I am knee-deep in this culture. The point of this article is not to suggest we revert to the highly posed and performative culture that once reigned over our media. I like this not so casual, casual Instagram culture. Photo dumps and the now popular zoomed-in picture even helped rediscover my love for photography. On top of that, the pictures my followers post also resemble a higher photographic quality. That being said, it’s important to understand that this casual culture is not actually as “casual” or accessible as most of us make it seem. The opportunity to take pictures of beautiful or refined objects arrives only with a certain amount of privilege. The mere concept that thousands of Instagram users are trying and seeking to attain such a nonchalant yet impressive feed is itself an oxymoron.

I’m not one to critique social media. I love how Instagram changes as new trends become popular. We all sign up for Instagram’s fanatics and bullshit, for lack of a better word, the second we create an account. Post that dump or take a casual selfie and show the world, but if you find yourself jealous or self-conscious about the effortless beauty in everyone else’s posts, keep in mind that it’s still just Instagram.

Cover photo: Bari Lipper (The Crescent Graphic Design Team)

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