Hyperreality: Instagram and the modern mind

Hyperreality is a simulation of reality that is often indistinguishable or preferable from reality itself. Examples of hyperrealities include cities such as Disney World and Las Vegas. They are real, but they are designed for pleasure and consumption. Every building is a show to observe; every street is embellished with the extraordinary. The result is something more exciting and engaging than ‘normal’ life. In this pursuit, we become invested in something that is a departure from what we commonly experience and our perception becomes temporarily altered. The difference between these forms of hyperreality (places) and the hyperreality that is formed on social media platforms like Instagram is that the trip to Vegas or Disney World ends, and the hyperreality established on Instagram doesn’t. This new normal is displacing everyday reality in contemporary culture.

It has been revealed recently by a survey conducted by the Young Health Movement that Instagram ranked the worst out of the five social media sites evaluated. These included Snapchat, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The survey was conducted by almost 1,500 fourteen to twenty-four-year-olds. Instagram rated badly in half of the fourteen measures, negatively impacting sleep, body image, and anxiety to name a few. The chief executive of the Royal Society of Public Health, Shirley Cramer, commented upon the image-saturated nature of the worst forms of social media, “It’s interesting to see Snapchat and Instagram ranking worse for mental health and wellbeing. Both platforms are very image-focused, and appears to be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people”. The solutions proposed by professionals such as Cramer include pop-ups to advise against excessive usage and disclaimers on photographs on Instagram when they have been manipulated. To be candid, these measures seem to be put into place by people who are looking at Instagram from the outside, creating a simple cause-and-effect correlation. So the more time spent on Instagram, the more depressed, anxious etc. young people will feel. This isn’t the case. These propositions are only going to superficially impact these forms of social media, more of a preventative approach than an alteration. The real change needs to occur within our understanding of what this form of social media is in relation to our own lives. A more internal change in interpretation of these modes of social media for young and older people that will help our mental health and wellbeing in the long term.

This is where an understanding of hyperreality is important. We need to distinguish what we experience as reality online from our experience of reality itself. The more consciously we understand this distinction, the less harmful our exposure to these forms of social media can become. However, the nature of hyperreality itself is difficult to distance ourselves from. Umberto Eco’s book ‘Travels in Hyperreality’ ascertains that hyperreality not only produces the simulation but produces the consequent demand for more simulations. This appetite created for these types of illusions is dangerous as it causes a further departure from reality itself, investing more of ourselves in the simulation of it. If we think of hyperreality as fast food, what we eat is altered and enhanced with flavourings that don’t taste like what we could make from scratch at home. Yet what we make at home and what we buy at McDonald’s are both foods. But fast food is instantly rewarding, it is satisfying and effortless. Whereas making our own food is more laborious and perhaps not as delicious. This is similar to the effects of hyperreality vs our own reality. The images are simulated, created for our visual pleasure and presented to us in quick succession on Instagram effortlessly. What we see in our own reality is not.

The altered and enhanced content of hyperreal images is one aspect that makes them addictive, the pace at which individuals are exposed to it is another. The constant conveyor belt of simulated images on Instagram increases the frequency at which we expect to experience hyperreality. This frequency cannot be applied to actual reality. Therefore our minds demand that we ‘sync up’ in a sense to the frequency of social media sites instead of our own lives. This would make one feel more connected and rewarded by simulated reality than reality itself. The sluggish and often unreliable pace of reality (in terms of producing remarkable moments) cannot keep up with the consistent production of perfect images that hyperreality consists of. Creating a disconnection from our reality due to impatience or indifference has negative implications. It can foster feelings of inadequacy, of simply existing on auto-pilot, living through the images online instead of building a rewarding reality. It is easy to imagine how a sense of disconnection from our world would contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness. The danger of what is essentially a highlight-reel form of social media (Instagram) is that it normalises the extraordinary and it alienates normality. This would, in turn, make someone who’s life they believe to be ‘normal’ feel alienated. Putting a nice photograph on social media is not an insidious act. But the impact that seeing collections of carefully curated aesthetically pleasing images can be huge. This form of social media is ascribing value to the sensational and the beautiful. The tedious and mundane parts of life don’t exist here and therefore have no value. If you’re not beautiful or constantly doing extraordinary things, it has never been easier to assume that your life doesn’t matter.

“Social Media is NOT real life”

Essentially, hyperreality is a distortion of truth that is more appealing than the actual truth. In this context, we refer to images. Filters, angles and lighting all contribute to the ‘editing’ (distortion) of what the image actually looks like. Often alongside this is the caption, alluding to the effortlessness and spontaneity of the ‘moment’. The problem with this illusion of effortlessness is that it can inspire further discontent with our reality. The notion of ‘if they can have it all right now, why do I need to work and wait?’ can be damaging to ambitions. Solely placing value on the illusion of results without effort would be in turn devaluing the importance of putting in the work to achieve. Since there is no celebration or even evidence of the processes required to achieve the perfect body, for example, it is easy to become fixated with merely seeing the results. In recent times there has been a series of Instagram-famous models ‘confessing’ to how they manipulated the photos and the reality behind them. Essena O’Neill’s re-captioning of her Instagram posts were compelling. She debunked the myths she previously propagated, stating how for one post she made her little sister take over 100 shots until she was satisfied. Within these new captions, she discusses how she felt alone when capturing moments of contrived ‘joy’, how these photos had no ‘substance’ and how ‘SOCIAL MEDIA IS NOT REAL’. In some of her photos, she was only fifteen-years-old. Hindsight is 20:20, and although its one thing to take a stand and saturate her feed with these phrases, there was no explanation as to how she came to this conclusion.

My concern is that these realisations are exclusive to those who have achieved the Instagram dream, the aesthetic and the followers. Just as millionaires and famous people can tell us that the fame and money aren’t everything. How can this advice translate into the average Instagram user? Instagram is damaging to young people in particular as it provides a template to ascribe value to themselves as people. As previously discussed, being exciting, beautiful, well-travelled and creative makes you Instagram-able. The fact that you cooked dinner for your mum when she wasn’t feeling well, made a birthday card or did well on a test at school arguably isn’t. The template provided by Instagram to determine personal worth is incredibly superficial. This is particularly damaging to the young people that grow up with these forms of social media as they haven’t yet created their own sense of worth. To have it imposed during formative years can have powerful effects. The older generation that grew up without these artificial forms of validation will not understand the dependence that can occur from this. Having warnings on excessive usage won’t address the psychological implications of hyperreality and it won’t help create a sense of self-worth that is valid in reality.

To address the effects of hyperreality we need to invest more in reality itself. Helping to promote activities that make us feel more fulfilled and happy in our day-to-day. Being present in ourselves in reality instead of aspiring to be more than we are online. Only when we have a stronger sense of our own reality as something that we can create, we can regard hyperreality as supplementary. One of the things that hyperreality offers on Instagram is the sense of creation and the gratification that we receive from curating our own image of ourselves. If we could instil the same sense of control into young people, that they can define their own reality, they would invest more time and effort into themselves offline. To create a list of things that might help achieve a sense of self-worth would be condescending to how unique each individual is, but I believe breathing space from social media is key to formulating our own ideas about ourselves and the world around us. Instagram can be used to inspire and connect people. If we create a reality for ourselves that we enjoy and believe in, we can start using Instagram instead of Instagram using us. BONUS: Ikea’s take on the absurdity of it all.