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Instagram: Mapping the cultural shift in Indian urban landscape

Instagram: Mapping the cultural shift in Indian urban landscape

This article discusses the effects of Instagram on the Indian Urban Landscape.

By Ritika Popli

As I see the dying red bar on my iPhone, I increasingly become aware of not only its irritatingly short lived cycle but also of the real-time consequences of my choices. I make the conscious decision of using the last few minutes of my precious battery not to make that one last phone call or send an SOS text. Instead, I use it to check my ‘Instagram’; well the struggle is definitely real. My fingers are itching to see if any new picture has been uploaded by the people I ‘follow’, making me question whether I actually suffer from the socio-psycho cultural angst called FoMo (Fear of Missing Out). The digital landscape is built on attention and visibility, so what really matters is not so much the actual content of the updates but the anxiety of missing out, which is a manifestation of the self-regulatory state exaggerating the desire to stay connected and ‘updated’ with what everyone is doing. The achievement of social-media evangelists is to make this urge – to share simply so that others might know you were there, doing this ‘amazing thing’ achieving your #SquadGoals – second nature. This is society’s great phenomenological shift, which, over the last decade, has occurred almost without notice.

The idea that I could frame the landscape of the world around me simply through the lens of my ‘phone camera’ with a sense of minimal aesthetic, ‘snap’ the particular moment and instantaneously transport it to the virtual space, is tantalizing. The experience can be peppered with a kind of digital nostalgia by mimicking the look of old lenses and film stock, making everyone sure that everyone looks a little younger, prettier and magazine worthy. Instagram, in the year 2014 alone grew to 150 million users from 80 million users worldwide, becoming a social phenomenon and a global rage and becoming a tool to comprehend that ‘diffusion is not the key to global cultural studies, rather mobility is’. It is also a byproduct of the Network Effect: The more people who are part of a network, the more one’s experience can seem improvished by being left out. Not getting sufficient ‘likes’ can lead to a further alienation socially making the individual feel that she/he has committed the greater sin of sharing something in the first place that probably was not worth sharing. It’s all in good fun, until it isn’t.

How does one understand its affects in an Indian context, when it can be seen globally as a kind of ‘emerging cultural community’ where ‘no one knows exactly where it is heading or exactly what it is’ making it increasingly harder to take any one cultural context as a particular standard. Instagram becomes even more complicated as regional cultures are analysed around the world in terms of a set of methods and theories first developed in the West. Can Instagram then be classified as a portal where ‘the more global, the more local’ translates into technologies that seem able to transcend location and actually produce its re-inscription? A good case in point would be the idea of ‘World InstaMeets’ where digital imagery replaces traditional forms of photography and the ceremony of ‘taking a picture’ radically transforms. Such events can be loosely defined as Instagrammers in all different parts of the world gather(ing) in their hometown to meet other members of the Instagram community but the ‘actual’ organistaion is left to the users themselves. Also, interesting is how the idea of ‘photowalk’, which forms an essential part of the InstaMeet correlates to the idea of the flâneur, a figure of movement who as an individual consumes the very spaces she/he moves through. Susan Sontag, an American writer and filmaker recognized in the flâneur an unmistakably photographic figure which becomes a person who has desire to capture, objectify, and consume the passing world and yearns for the photographic apparatus.

Instagram as an idea surrounding culture is not restricted to a ‘thing’ or ‘system’, rather it becomes a set of transactions, mutations, practices and technologies which constantly negotiate with institutions and experiences, lived and vicarious, making cultural markets become extremely pervasive. It is not just us about uploading the carefully crafted authenticity of your life or about the #PartyLastNight, it is also becoming a force important in visual culture today and a simple search in ‘Google Graph Trends’ with the keywords ‘Art’ and ‘Instagram’, leads to the result that “Instagram” has been a more interesting subject to the masses than “Art” itself since sometime last year. It is no surprise that all major Museums and Art Institutions have active Instagram handles; MoMa (The Museum of Modern Art), MetMuseum (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), British Museum, Guggenheim Museum and MuseeLourve (Musee du Lourve) are active on Instagram and have a huge base of followers. There are  Instagrammers who are producing ‘work’ taking frames from day to day life and creating ‘art’. It is also striking that the most-typical and maligned genres of Instagram like the #selfies become self-portraits in Western Secular Art but one has to critically think about the position of the author – who owns the picture and how it is circulated? There is also the idea of the ‘disembodied subject’ within the aesthetics. The social, economic and political conditions are already eminent in the change from the analogue to the digital.

It is extremely easy to be cynical of social media, to find some illuminating picture/link amidst the tsunami of data, but then why go on? A casual chat with a friend who has over 20k followers and is a Gurgaon based photographer  said that, “Just the scale of people who are on Instagram and actively use it is bewildering. I found a bunch of employment opportunities to shoot gigs and musical concerts through it. As a young, urban Indian kid this is part of my identity today and it makes me who I am. People are finding love, announcing their break-ups on Instagram and it is undoubtedly the reality of our times. At the end of the day it is true that ‘information is power’ and one has to understand how to use it one’s advantage.” He has been recently ‘recommended’ by Instagram in their long list of ‘Recommended People to Follow’ which he says with a wide grin on his face.

The Urban landscape is changing and what we are increasingly seeking as validation is commodified and packaged sexually which becomes difficult to accommodate. Kim Kardashian’s body has become a cultural aspiration for millions of young girls across the globe, and most of the comments on her Instagram pictures are young girls who aspire to achieve her famous derrière, lips, skin tone and the list goes on. This kind of extreme hyper sexualisation of the body and fetishation is definitely a departure from the normalised gaze because now the body is digitally manufactured according to an ‘ideal’ and such an inflection is becoming harder to accommodate. It is challenging to understand this commodification in the Indian context which, besides tapping the post-colonial aspiration in the youth, is moulded in a first world context. Something as fundamental as our linguistics schema has drastically changed where the economy of language has shifted along with our reading habits. Right from the method in which we narrate our stories, make our updates more machine-readable by adding hashtags, emoticons and shortening the length to fit into the provided character length, is not necessarily translating into brevity.

As I wait for KimK to upload her latest #selfie with Yeezus, it also makes me look at my complicated predilection for Instagram questioning my sociological, technical and aesthetic engagement with this ubiquitous and compulsive medium and look at few glaring and urgent questions that remain unanswered.

Ritika has recently completed her Masters in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, where Indian Art History, Theatre and Performative Studies and Film Theory have been her key research areas in the past two years. She can be contacted at [email protected]


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