Cindy Sherman - December 2017

Cindy Sherman, self portrait photographed for W Magazine’s December 2017 issue.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a social media platform transformed so drastically as Instagram was in the days following the first demonstrations protesting the death of George Floyd. My feed went from a tidy stream of charred sourdough boules and half-completed puzzles to an explosion of text. Friends from college, fashion brands, and celebrities alike started sharing links to bail funds, articles, and petitions; raw expressions of anger, grief, and regret; twee, illustrated guides to allyship; or vague promises that although they will never understand, they stand. That, or they stopped posting entirely. 

The overall tone of the app—or, at least, the sliver of it that I inhabit as a white millennial woman of extraordinary privilege—has always been unrelentingly sunny (This is my beautiful house, this is my beautiful wife!). The sentiment persisted even as the pandemic eliminated its most popular subjects: With no weddings or graduations to celebrate, vacations to document or parties to dress up for, many users turned the camera on themselves and their immediate surroundings. Pain, fear and loss are hard to photograph; craft projects, work-from-home outfits, and cooking are easy. 

But as graphic videos of Floyd’s death and stunning incidents of police brutality against protestors began to circulate widely, I felt like I was watching Instagram’s engine stall. All of a sudden, posting a selfie or a photo of a shaft of evening sunlight hitting your houseplant became an implicit signal that you didn’t care about what was going on in the streets of Minneapolis, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and in towns across the country. To share an image of comfort or fun meant you had the luxury of not caring—you felt this national tragedy did not affect you, and that the protests were for somebody else. 

Tapping through my own feed, I felt a shiver of disgust at the sight of an acquaintance dancing in his backyard with a beer in hand. But at the same time, my eyes started to roll after seeing dozens of the same guides to allyship and Desmond Tutu quotes in fonts fit for a Casper ad. Everything felt like too much and not enough, like a bunch of people stage-whispering over each other, “Look! I’m not racist! Absolve me!”

Now that it’s clear we’re in the midst of the most significant civil rights movement in decades, it’s been strange and fascinating to watch the accounts I follow struggle to figure out what’s appropriate to share. Things that felt innocuous three weeks ago now read as glaringly tone-deaf, the once ubiquitous practice of re-sharing a dozen photos other people posted in honor of your birthday, downright bizarre. 

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Just as 9/11 didn’t mark the death of irony, I doubt that this surge in the Black Lives Matter movement will mean an end to conspicuous self-promotion on the internet. But it has brought a level of criticality to something so many of us have done without thinking about it that much: sharing a highly aestheticized version of our lives with thousands of strangers. And for what? Unless we’re getting paid to post, what are we even getting out of this? Does it add anything substantial to the world? What could we be doing instead?

For influencers and models who have built empires around their faces, the platform that was once a narcissism playground of sorts has become a minefield. Instead of offering up the hoped-for rounds of applause for their hollow virtue signaling, their followers and peers have started to call them out. The most egregious example came from the influencer Kris Schatzel, who went viral after she was filmed backing into a river of protesters to be photographed before walking away. Her bikini-dominated grid is now topped with a raft of defensive pleas for forgiveness and screenshots of death threats in her DMs. 

Another woman, Fiona Moriarty-McLaughlin, who was filmed as she interrupted a construction worker boarding up a shop in Los Angeles to pose for a photo with his power drill, was effectively laughed off the internet. Others who had once been lauded (or tolerated) for their canny deployment of selfies and and seemingly unfiltered views into their lovely lives have reached the limits of personal brand-building: Leandra Medine has stepped down from Man Repeller after readers accused the blog of discrimination.

Now, even as protests continue and the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor have still not been held accountable, it seems like the content engine is starting up again. After the wave of black squares and Notes App Apologies and pledges to do better, the “lifestyle” images have returned. But it does seem like a lot of white people have been sufficiently jarred into shutting up and listening for a while, or at least reconsidering the impact of what they share as it relates to everything else that’s happening in the country.

While some celebrities still insist on sticking their faces into the narrative (see: the idiotic “I Take Responsibility” video montage), others have decided to remove themselves from the picture entirely. Selena Gomez, one of the most popular users on the platform with 179 million followers, handed over her account to a series of leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, including its co-creator, Alicia Garza, and the New Yorker writer and Columbia Professor Jelani Cobb. 

Other white celebrities have followed her lead with #sharethemicnow, an initiative started by Endeavor CMO Bozoma Saint John, designer Stacey Bendet and the authors Luvvie Ajayi Jones and Glennon Doyle. In an effort to magnify the voices of Black leaders, Gwyneth Paltrow shared her nine million followers with maternity activist Latham Thomas, Julia Roberts turned her 8.8 million to the fashion and beauty expert Kahlana Barfield Brown. 

For those of us with less astronomical follower counts, it’s been heartening to see individuals, independent brands and even meme accounts challenge their networks to get involved in concrete ways, whether it’s by offering to match donations, sharing comprehensive resource guides to dismantling systemic racism, or raising a couple of hundred dollars to bring food and PPE to local protestors. There’s even a movement building to get Instagram to make the “swipe up” feature to everyone, rendering fundraising and link-sharing even more seamless. 

But will this new kind of content replace vacation photos and selfies for good? It would be thrilling to see the focus of the app shifts from “look at me” to “here’s what we can all do” and stay there. I’m not sure that it will, or that everybody wants that. Maybe a lot of the more self-indulgent stuff will just shift to Close Friends stories. But I do think many people who came of age on Instagram are experiencing a collective loss of appetite for the surface-level prettiness that the app lends itself to, and are seeking more soul-nourishing stuff instead. 

Related: How The Meme Account @PatiasFantasyWorld Became a Central Voice in the Anti-Racism Movement