Brett Baron is a history junior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
College students know that Instagram is a great way to spend hours doing nothing productive whatsoever. For this reason, I try not to have the app on my phone. But when my girlfriend asked me to re-download it so she could send me memes, I figured I’d give it another try. Unsurprisingly, I sat down and immediately wasted an hour of my life.
Although I probably should have used that time to study, it wasn’t a total loss. I realized, scrolling through the endless similar, but mildly distinct, photos of cars and sunsets and people, that Instagram reminded me of a book by a French philosopher I read last year. I found Jean Baudrilliard’s “The System of Objects, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, and the Consumer Society” at the back of my bookshelf and reread the relevant chapters. Baudrilliard’s writing is not the easiest to navigate, but after an hour or two, most of the pertinent details were fresh in my mind again. I sat and wondered what, if any, of the book could be related to Instagram, but it seemed like something of a stretch. Just as I was about to give up, what I had been searching for finally hit me all at once. The way that people use Instagram as a means to create a persona through what they choose to consume is strikingly similar to the thesis of Jean Baudrilliard’s “System of Objects.”
Published in 1968, “The System of Objects” is an analysis of the socioeconomic function of a modern capitalist society. Baudrilliard claims items are not just valuable because of economic worth, or utility. Value also comes from how society looks at an object relative to other objects. This is why Gucci slides are so much more valuable than Nike slides despite being made from nearly identical materials and performing the exact same function. Because of the societal influence on value, transactions of items are driven simultaneously by a social and economic motive. Transactions say something about you as well as provide you with goods.
Baudrilliard goes on to assert that the driving mechanism of a capitalist society is consumption, as opposed to production. He claims this is the case because of the way value is partially determined by society. For example, buying a sports car, as opposed to a normal car, shows the world that the consumer in question values cars that are relatively nicer and faster and is willing to spend more to obtain those characteristics. In this way, what is being consumed by the purchaser of the sports car is not just $50,000 worth of car parts or a device that can get them to work. The purchaser is also consuming the car as a sign of their wealth and tastes, with the intention of conveying their endorsement of those values to the world. In a consumer society, this consumption of select items has become essential for consumers to create their own identities. He comments that the “personalization” that results from identifying oneself through this consumption results in a “generic image manufactured through the imaginary assumption of all relevant differences.” In other words, the purchase of specific items relative to others, although practically meaningless, allows us to express our individuality while still adhering to popular tastes and trends.
That is what reminded me of Instagram. People use the app to give others a representation of who they are, which is difficult to do with only pictures and captions. They do so by displaying themselves, their friends, their things, their surroundings, the things they like, their food and so on. These things are not, of course, just displayed for their material or use value. For users’ endorsements to be meaningful, their followers must also generally understand what the objects are worth relative to other objects. By adding these things to their page, Instagram users are relying on a common understanding of why their posts are significant. This is the basis for creating an identity through displaying certain items on Instagram.
The popularity of Instagram is a vindication of Baudrilliard’s thesis. Instagram is a well-packaged way to broadcast a user’s consumption to the world. It has one billion daily users, some 15 percent of the human race, precisely because it is a very effective tool for curating users’ personas in the digital age. It has become so powerful that trends on Instagram can influence what society wants to consume in a massive way. This is true in fashion, food, makeup, cars, bikes and almost any other popular genre of consumable items. An example of this phenomenon is Kylie Jenner. Because of her massive following, (116 million accounts, the fourth largest on Instagram) she has the ability to affect the popularity of a consumable. This is exactly how she became so wealthy. By leveraging her influence to increase the significant value, and therefore the demand for her own products, she has become incredibly wealthy.
Like the industrial capitalist system from which we all benefit, Instagram is an incredible platform with large drawbacks. Industrial capitalism has given us the luxury of consuming objects because of what they say about us, but has saddled us with a dependency on said system for those consumables. Because our identities are dependent on consumption, we are reliant on industrial capitalism for our identities. As Baudrilliard phrased it: “Personalization and integration go strictly hand in hand. That is the miracle of the system.” This same idea of dependence characterizes Instagram as well. For those whose sense of self is derived from they way portray themselves on Instagram, there is always the glaring issue that one day that service might no longer be accessible.