Instagram: From Self-Construction to Alienated Labor?

In December 2012, the popular app Instagram infamously made changes to its privacy policy that made it seem that the app would now be able to advertise using photos users had taken with or uploaded onto the app. These changes caused an uproar that sent many users fleeing from Instagram to other visual social media apps, and even more users threatening to flee once the privacy policy took effect. Although Instagram insisted that the new privacy policy was being misconstrued, and that it would never take ownership of users’ photos to its own monetary benefit, the scare nonetheless had a profound effect on users’ understanding of their ownership of their photos in general. Other popular social media outlets, such as Facebook and OKCupid, also take ownership of any photos uploaded onto the sites, although they do not advertise using these photos (and thus users maintain a sense of “mineness” with regard to the photos they upload, legitimate or illegitimate though this may be).

Although the Instagram scare ended up blowing over, with the app rewording its privacy policy to prevent users from construing it as a threat to their privacy, this event points to bigger issues regarding ownership in the digital sphere. I think the Instagram scare is the beginning of what will prove to be a trend: namely, that users will begin to recognize their lack of ownership over the data, especially the images, that they upload onto social media apparatuses, and that this recognition will be accompanied by even less ownership over this data. That is to say, there may come a day when photos uploaded to Instagram will no longer be the private property of individuals, but rather images capable of appropriation by other individuals and institutions in an immediate and visible way.

I think that what proves especially threatening to Instagram users in contemplating the possibility of their photos no longer being their own private property is the way in which they put themselves into their photos. Instagram, like any social media apparatus, entails the construction of a certain kind of subject, or digital self. Whether we post photos to Instagram, tweets to Twitter, photos, status updates, and map locations to Facebook, personal details to OKCupid, or résumé information to LinkedIn, we are creating ourselves by putting forth a certain ‘self.’ We want to give off a certain impression to other social media users. (A recent New York Times article explored the related phenomenon of the ‘humble brag.’) I’d upload an Instagram picture of a seared duck with bone marrow and crème fraîche pearls I got from a hot new restaurant, but not of the tuna sandwich I had for lunch. I’m far more likely to post a picture of me luxuriating on a yacht in a cute outfit than I am to post one of me taking out the trash, even though I do the latter more often than the former. In psychoanalytic terms, I infuse my ego-ideal into my Instagram account, rather than myself as I am on a daily basis. I think what this indicates is not a dishonesty in social media accounts, although that can definitely be true (I’ll never forget the story of the friend who found himself on a date with a 5’6”, pudgy 40-year-old when the man’s online dating profile had pictured a strapping 25-year-old), but rather that any self-conception is a construction, and the self-conceptions forged in social media spheres are constructed more consciously, and selectively, than a number of other self-conceptions. And the self-conceptions we forge for social media can be great sources of satisfaction for us. Through uploading photos to Instagram, I am not only projecting an idea of myself that I want others to perceive, but I am projecting an idea of myself to myself. I am fascinated by the phenomenon of people viewing their own social media profiles, trying to get an outsider’s perspective on who they are (I certainly find myself doing this. Sometimes, when a new person friends me on Facebook, I’ll look at my own profile wondering how that person will perceive me through my presence on Facebook!) And this gazing at one’s own profile ‘through the eyes of another’ becomes a form of gazing at the self as an object for oneself.

I think this gaze is at work in the case of Instagram in a particular way for two reasons: 1) the photo-based nature of the site provides a particularly visual form of self-representation, and 2) the nature of photo-taking as an art form makes the photos of Instagram feel like the product of one’s labor or work, rather than the simple expression of ideas found in other media such as Facebook statuses or tweets (though this is not to say that statuses or tweets cannot be artistic!). I think the first reason is self-evident, but the second may require some explanation. And this is where I think Marx and Hegel are helpful.

In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes how an individual becomes conscious of itself as “being-for-self” through the act of work. An individual works on a thing in the world, and by putting herself into this work, becomes conscious of herself as independent self-consciousness capable of transforming raw materials into a finished product. The work produced is at once independent of the individual, and dependent on her insofar as she created the work. I think an Instagram photo is such a work. I take a photo with my camera, selecting the image to capture, framing it in the way I think fit, snapping the shot, and adding a filter (I’m partial to Mayfair lately, though always a fan of X-Pro II and sometimes Walden). I post it, and there is a product that I have created. Technology has helped me create it, but I have put some of myself into this work. It is my work of art, humble as it may be. Furthermore, there is an added dimension of “mineness” because this picture is supposed to represent something that I want to be associated with me in the eyes of others, and thus in the eyes of myself. A picture I’ve taken of a beautiful library? I want people to know that I hang out in that beautiful library, and that I appreciate it. A shot of an unusual-looking lemon? I want people to know that I found that (in the farmer’s market, no less, as I’ve “added a location” to my photo), and thought it was cool. That I’m a person who sits in picturesque libraries and goes to farmers’ markets and takes sweet shots of weird fruits. 

I think what is so disturbing to people about the idea of Instagram advertising these images is that my work, the product of my creation, of my labor, becomes someone else’s. But this is in fact what happens all the time in capitalism. Instagram in its current state is persisting in giving its users an outlet for creating ‘works’ through taking photos, but soon enough, these photos may become the products of alienated labor. Social media outlets such as Instagram are already imbricated in capitalist modes of production– after all, what is more consumerist than a “news feed” offering free-market consumption of images?–but still maintain the sense of private property, because what others are consuming in viewing my photos is my own self-conception, always marked by my labor. What would–and perhaps, will–occur in the case of Instagram’s being able to freely circulate its user’s images, would be that the product of labor would be alienated from the producer. The same way that the laborer who works on an assembly line is alienated from her labor, from her work. The fear of Instagram users in the face of December’s privacy policy was the fear that they would become alienated laborers producing photos for the sake of capitalist overlords without any ownership of their photos. Then, Instagram photos would, rather than constructing a self-conception, entail its destruction. Under these conditions, Instagram would follow other modes of production. As Marx states, “the activity of the worker is not his own spontaneous activity. It belongs to another. It is the loss of his own self.” Or perhaps this is even already the case with Instagram, but in a less obvious way?


Uhh yeah, wasn’t kidding about that Instagram library shot.


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