’90s Kid Unleashed: Reconstructing identities in the age of Instagram

Land of “fit teas” and thirst traps, Instagram is where we millennials and Generation Z have made our home. After all, we can’t exactly afford houses with all that avocado toast we’re buying, so we build our nests among Kardashians and #sponsored posts.

Complaints of millennial narcissism gone wild on Instagram are rampant. The Habsburgs could sit and wait for a year to get one extra-inbred portrait of themselves, but heaven forbid I take 15 seconds out of my day to post a picture of myself.

With a billion monthly active users, Instagram’s popularity has exploded. More than half of these users are under the age of 35, placing this app firmly within the millennial and Gen Z territory. Are all 621 million of us just extreme narcissists? Perhaps. More likely, however, this accusation — like so many of the accusations lobbed at younger generations — are more reductive and simplistic than they are true. 

So why do we post on Instagram? Enjoyment, peer pressure, boredom. Many more reasons than words I have in this column. Let’s focus on this: the representation of our lives in the digital sphere. Social media offers us a perfectly curated digital record. Our memories are made incarnate online; they’re preserved in perpetuity.

But more than that, they are perfected. Camera in hand, we are our own historians. What we record is a heightened reality. Shift the camera a couple of feet to capture the stunning, picturesque sunset. No one ever has to know about the unsightly pile of litter just outside of the camera’s view. We can record our memories and remember them how we want to, not how they were.

We curate a life for 

ourselves online that matches the perfected aesthetic sensibilities we aim for but can never quite achieve. Thus, Instagram is not just a representation of our lives but a “re-presentation” — a construction that cleaves reality into fragments and reconstitutes them into an idealized composite that we can control. 

The visual nature of photography as well as the presentational and permanent nature of Instagram make it the perfect platform for this “re-presentation.” Our profile becomes a tangible record of this new life we construct for ourselves. We solidify this newly-minted version of ourselves within the digital pages of the timeline. The sensible grid that organizes our profile creates an illusion of order for this new sense of self.

We enter the cultural record with our offering to the digital gods and perform these new identities until they become real — at least online. A participatory medium, Instagram invites our audience — friends, family, even strangers — to engage in the construction and reinforcement of these new identities. Each like, comment and view offers a quantifiable measure of our success in reimagining ourselves.

As more and more aspects of our lives enter the digital space, our collective ability to distinguish reality from its online avatar diminishes. Ironically, that only further pushes us to grasp for what is real, what seems authentic against the current of increasingly fake representations. Our lives seem to have shifted from the world in front of us — the one we can touch, smell and feel — to the one in our hands: this secondary digital world unlocked by our smartphones.

In the face of this increasingly digital age, there is an understandable desire to establish and confirm the reality of one’s own being, to scream “I exist” in the face of the incoming digital void. Yet this impetus only pushes us further into the digital space as we post and post and post, hoping to confirm our own actuality in the cultural record of Instagram through the validation of others.

Only time will tell if we will be able to untangle ourselves from the digital embodiments we’ve built or if reality and simulation will merge until the digital becomes the real. But these inclinations are hardly new. Humans have always constructed new identities for themselves. They’ve always told stories and asserted these reconstructions in the cultural record: in paintings, plays and films. So don’t fret too much about our generation. 

After all, to be human is to grapple with your own story and how you tell it. Sometimes those stories come in the form of Instagram posts.

Ellen Murray is a senior writing about being a millennial. Her column, “’90s Kid Unleashed,” runs every other Monday.