Postmodernism on Instagram

Maffesoli’s article from this week’s mandatory reading list describes the ways in which neo-tribes developed as a consequence of postmodernism. These are presented as a sociocultural transformation affecting the religious, ideological, economic and sexual spheres. While before the late 20th century there was a social structure where authorities imposed a specific role for each person; afterwards, we developed a social order based on organic and fluid networks of people. The article clearly focuses on the development of neo-tribes/tribalism and mass society, which can also be understood in terms of digital media. This made me think about online communities, how they are accessible and presented to us and the role of Instagram in all of this. I then started wondering about other aspects of postmodernism and the more I read about it the clearer its affiliation with Instagram and Pop Culture became.

I am clearly no expert when it comes to postmodernism, which can become very confusing and contradictory, but I have decided to use this week’s post as an attempt at identifying and simplifying some of postmodernism’s key features. In order to do so, I will be highlighting how Instagram can be seen as representative of the postmodern society. I will also be drawing on examples from other blog posts written by other AMS students.

Postmodernism, […] in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Neo-tribes

This has already been extensively discussed by Maffesoli so I will not dive into this aspect of postmodernism. Neo-tribes apply particularly well to Instagram and maybe this could be due to the visual nature of the social media platform. I have the impression that visual content resigns more with me than other forms of media. In my case, pictures strengthen the sense of identity and membership influencers build upon while encouraging passive engagement* with their lives and movements. There are countless influences operating on Instagram and, therefore, just as many neo-tribes. The first two I could think of are the fitness community built by Kayla Itsines through her #BBG programme and #IWeight, an activist movement created by the actress Jameela Jamil.

Blurring Boundaries

A symbol of [the postmodernist state of mind] is a Bedouin mounted on a camel and clad in traditional robes under which he is wearing jeans, with a transistor radio in his hands and an ad for Coca-Cola on the camel’s back

Vaclav Havel – President of the Czech Republic, Independence Hall, Philadelphia – July 4, 1994

One of the aspect postmodernism lays on, is the concept of blurred boundaries which have been constructed through historic and cultural development. In Maffesoli’s article, this concept is applied to the increasing vagueness of social structures and positions, leading to a more fluid society. Yet, postmodernism adapts this notion to time/space, reality/illusion and low/high culture.

Time and Space – Confusions over time and space implies spatial barriers and distances destruction. This means that knowledge of other cultures is increasing, travelling seems more accessible and proximity can be easily achieved. If we focus on the latter, we can see a connection with one of the Internet’s main perceived advantages, that of participating in events or travels through other’s, such as influencers, experiences. This concept is well explained in @cosmo-media blog post from last week, so check it out if you haven’t.

Reality and Illusion – the belief of a blurred distinction between facts and fiction is another fascinating aspect of postmodernism, which can be explored in terms of politics, ethics, celebrity cult etc. (for examples of these, see “The ultimate postmodern spectacle” and “Celebrity As a Postmodern Phenomenon, Ethical Crisis for Democracy, and Media Nightmare”). According to the postmodernist philosophy, we are experiencing a constant and inevitable creation of simulacrum (copy-of-a-copy / nothing in our culture is โ€œrealโ€) while the collapse between media (illusion) and reality contributes to hyperreality (simulation of reality) (Baudrillard, 1994). But let’s keep this simple. We can easily spot this merging of reality and illusion in the Instagram universe. The most straightforward example of this is the unrealistic body standards dictated by celebrities and the use of Facetune or filters, which implications can invade reality as in the case of body dysmorphia disorders. Overall Instagram users are known for presenting an embellishment version of reality while promoting an idealised yet illusionistic world. A vicious circle is then created as we all want to be part of the same fabricated and contrived reality. The psychology of this can be further explored by looking at ’embellishment’ and ‘Persona Adoption’ (Bullingham and Vasconcelos, 2013). Finally, also in this case, @cosmo-media’s post above-mentioned is an example of confusion between reality and the illusion created by media.

Low and High Culture – Instagram portrays (and maybe is the cause of) the merging between low and high culture in an array of different ways, celebrities’ cult is an example of this. The cult of celebrities has existed for a fairly long time but we have to admit that this veneration and morbid obsession for them has culminated in the Internet age, let’s just think about the Kardashians-Jenner and their presence on Instagram. Celebrities are clearly part of low culture mainly operating in a low culture environment (social media and other forms of digital media. Yet, because of the ways in which their selfies, outfits, make-up looks are praised, celebrities are often viewed and treated like ‘religious’ icons. Another example of the merging between high and low culture is explored through the realm of fashion and brands’ accessibility through Instagram in ‘Social Media and High (?) Fashion’ by @zeynepyilmaz.

Challenging authorities, deconstructing truth and knowledge

In postmodernists philosophy, ‘objectivity’ and ‘authority’ are challenged as it is believed there is no such thing as absolute or cultural truth, but rather a set of different viewpoints all valid and open to interpretation. Postmodernists radically question and interrogate everything happening in the world. This type of behaviour is not not only allowed in the online world but is encouraged. In fact, Instagram and any other social media platforms give make possible to comment on anything, challenge authorities otherwise unreachable and deconstruct certainties (like that of a round Earth). However, I do recognise that this is not only a feature of Instagram but rathe of the www.

The idea of deconstructing is also intrinsic of social media’s nature, where everything can be changed and, on the surface, nothing is permanent or tangible.

Alienation and Uncertainty

According to Maffesoli, postmodernism’s plurality over modernist’s individuality leads to modern society feeling alienated and uncertain concerning identity, history, and truth. This contributes to the struggle of identifying who we are and our place in the world. The end result of such insecurities is the creation of alternative identities. Pop-stars reinventions (i.e. Miley Cyrus, Madonna, Bowie) can be seen under this light, but the concept of performing a different persona is the same described by Bullingham and Vasconcelos (2013) on social media platforms. Hence, once again, the concept of simulacrum and, especially of hyperreality become valid consequence of this alienation caused by postmodernism.

Conclusion

postmodernism can become quite complex and with this week’s post, I tried to express in a, hopefully, simple and clear way how I identify features of postmodernism on social media beyond that of the creation of neo-tribes. With this post, it is not my intent to say that because almost everyone who has access to them uses social media has a postmodern mindset but I wish to present how the Internet mirrors deeper cultural and social behaviours.

I’m aware this post is pretty long, so well done for making it thus fare! There are a few more examples I didn’t get to discuss but I hope everything was clear enough since I was also figuring out my own thoughts as I was writing! Please, feel free to leave a comment below ๐Ÿ™‚

Notes

* in this case, I see ‘passive engagement’ as a positive aspect as it keeps the user interested without making them overwhelmed.

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