One week into social distancing, I became convinced Instagram was the best it had ever been. Like many people, I have a complicated relationship to the app, which has such a powerful ability to make me feel unsuccessful, uninteresting, and poorly dressed that I’ve mostly kept it off my phone for the last year. (I prefer the clunkier, slightly less addictive desktop experience.) But when I stopped leaving my apartment except for grocery runs and the occasional walk, I downloaded it again. I wanted a tether to society, and I wanted it in my hands at all times.
For once, I envied nothing I saw in Instagram’s endless photo stream. The sheet trays of homemade cookies, the wine bottles opened at 4 p.m., and the TikTok dances filmed in living rooms weren’t evidence of my own lameness; they were simply how friends and internet-famous strangers were coping. That was nice to see. It felt like we were truly all in this together.
Three weeks in, things took a turn. Isn’t that how everything is these days? One minute you’re Zooming with friends, laughing over some inane Jackbox game, and the next you’re weeping into a couch cushion. Once the novelty of our shared coronavirus hobbies wore off, the gap between my life and certain influencers’ lives reappeared and was suddenly intolerable. I live in New York, and if someone is holed up in a house with a nice yard or easy access to unpopulated nature — particularly if they moved to said house as a response to the coronavirus pandemic — I can’t handle their content.
It’s an ugly feeling to begrudge someone their flower beds and lakeside walks if that’s what’s keeping them sane. After all, I’m healthy, I have work and am able to do it from home, and I’m isolating with my boyfriend, whom I like a lot. I’ve funneled all of my panic into the belief that if only I were in the woods right now, everything would be totally fine. Obviously this is not true. And yet: I don’t want to see the amenities you have that I do not. Give me bedraggled comedians making videos from their couches. Give me chaotic memes. I will even accept your amateur cooking tutorials. Spare me your sweeping farmland vistas. Actually, I will spare myself and hit the unfollow button.
One minute you’re Zooming with friends, laughing over some inane Jackbox game, and the next you’re weeping into a couch cushion.
Pre-pandemic, my enjoyment of Instagram’s steady drip of aspiration was a function of the hope that at some indeterminate but glowing point in the future, I too might acquire tasteful and matching bed linens, reams of airline miles, and a casually famous social circle. Then the coronavirus came along and ripped that mood board off my wall, revealing the boring, extremely solid bounds of my apartment. The limits of reality have never been so clear; we have never been so stuck in the present moment. It doesn’t matter that one day I might have a picnic table where I can do the crossword while sipping my morning tea. I don’t have it today.
Everyone’s trip wire is different, but wires are getting tripped left and right. One friend who has always avoided fitness content is annoyed that the fashion types she follows have started posting workout selfies en masse. A second is bummed that some influencers have replaced glamorous #ootds with photos of their cluttered apartments. (“I think it's almost too resonant,” she says.) Another had to mute her favorite Christian mommy ’grammer due to a flagrant disregard for social distancing guidelines. One has found herself gravitating away from creatives who throw off “early ’20s hipster irony,” as well as the Instagram account of the queer dating app Lex. The demise of in-person dating makes her too sad.
Pre-pandemic, my enjoyment of Instagram’s steady drip of aspiration was a function of the hope that at some indeterminate but glowing point in the future, I too might acquire tasteful and matching bed linens, reams of airline miles, and a casually famous social circle.
Shaha Zehra, who is working from home in Washington D.C., is frustrated by Instagrammers still trying to do aspiration in the form of elaborate meals shared with housemates, beautiful cocktails, stylish face masks, and cute pajama sets. Then there’s the sudden barrage of ads for chic loungewear and posts from publications offering suggestions for which Tom Ford eyeshadow palette to use for a Zoom call. Though brands big and small are doing what they can to survive right now, it upsets her to see a public health crisis turned into a marketing opportunity.
Zehra has noticed two lanes of discourse emerging: celebrities and influencers encouraging at-home workouts, and celebrities and influencers telling followers that they don’t need to be productive at all right now. “It feels like there’s no middle ground sometimes,” she says. While there’s certainly an audience for both messages, Zehra has a new appreciation for celebrities who seem to simply document the roller coaster of industriousness and despair, like Florence Pugh, who has taken to posting unvarnished cooking tutorials and videos of herself dancing around her house. “She seems sincere, she has off days, and she doesn’t seem to be pushing an agenda,” Zehra says. “I think Florence is just experiencing her day and being strange and funny.”
Marketers have for years cited “authenticity” as a key to influencers’ success, but it’s not the same thing as realism. A grittier, less edited look at life can be appealing right now, and that means steering away from professional influencers. Tara Leavitt, who has been working from home in Jersey City, says that friends and acquaintances have started taking over the role of influencers in her online life. She’s friendly with an esthetician, for instance, and has enjoyed getting a behind-the-scenes look at an actual skincare professional’s morning and night routines. “People who have smaller followings but have a unique perspective are much more interesting to me right now. It doesn’t feel like a persona that’s been crafted,” Leavitt says.
We shed a tear for our former favorite influencers, we unfollow, we refocus our attentions on accounts that don’t make us feel like smashing a bottle of natural wine against the wall. My friend who is bummed out by Lex on Instagram has found solace in the comedy of Catherine Cohen and the abundance of kittens posted by Hannah Shaw, aka @kittenxlady. A friend who has been working abroad for two years says that accounts like @subwaycreatures and @NewYorkNico, who has been hosting a #BestNYAccent contest, are feeding her homesickness. At any other time they would be too cheesy for her, but right now they’re exactly what she wants.
My petty resentment of anyone with a backyard, while newly powerful, was there in some form pre-pandemic. I’d optimized my feed for envy — of other people’s trips to LA, statement coats, and arcane but seemingly lucrative creative jobs. An emotional bellyache seemed like a reasonable price to pay for a peephole into their worlds. On a certain nauseating level, it seemed productive, at the time, to always be striving. But it certainly isn’t now.
We shed a tear for our former favorite influencers, we unfollow, we refocus our attentions on accounts that don’t make us feel like smashing a bottle of natural wine against the wall.
The most useful thing I can do at the moment, and probably forever, is learn to love what I have inside these four walls and stop obsessing over someone else’s gardening project. I can see trees from my fire escape, too: a Japanese maple, a stooped birch, an I-don’t-know-what with newly grown leaves that glow acid green when the sun hits them.
Leavitt beat me there. “I think we’re all being forced to have a lot of appreciation for what we have right now: what we have access to, what’s in our pantry and kitchen and closet,” she says. “I think because of that, because I’m being asked to appreciate what exists in front of me right now, I don’t feel as much of a pull toward trying to emulate someone else. Which is a really lovely thing.”