For over 18 months, from April 2018 to November 2019, I put a fair amount of time and energy into trying to vandalise Instagram by means of crappy pictures. It all started by chance. I had opened an Instagram account in 2012, and for a while I had actually played along with the app’s ethos, adopted its grammar of airbrushed shots and evocative captions, and uploaded some images of cats and Roman monuments. But I quickly grew tired of the thing – and the amount of pictures I put out slowed to a dribble.
Part of the problem was certainly that I was bad at it – a shoddy photographer. Part of it was that my life was uninteresting and unworthy of being immortalised and beautified in Inkwell or Lo-Fi tones. Part of it was that I just couldn’t compete with the good coiffes and the glowing skins of better Instagrammers – and it was that, as a preternaturally vain young man, that I just couldn’t accept. By the start of 2018 my Instagram account was dormant; I had deleted the app from my phone.
But then, in April 2018, my followers were treated to a picture of an empty packet of rice-based crisps, with the hashtags #nomnom, #gourmetfood, #foodie. A newspaper editor had asked me to write a piece about disinformation on Instagram, so I had downloaded the app again and played with it a bit.
One day, I started taking random pictures of whatever happened to be nearby. Hence, the empty packet of crisps; hence, some socks on a clothes horse; hence, a lightbulb on my ceiling. I added random filters, and footnoted the result with hashtags vaguely related to what was portrayed: a scrap of grub would get #foodie or #foodporn; the lightbulb would get #sun.
It didn’t take long before what had begun as an act of rote testing started appealing to me as an avenue for subversion. What if – what if! – my badly-filtered pictures of ordinary stuff could be harnessed to pollute Instagram’s uplifting hashtags? What if someone searching for #foodporn in hopes of massaging their eyes with perfectly iced cupcakes or too-red-to-be-true apples wound up seeing a picture of a half-eaten spoonful of gungy hummus? That seemed to me like a good way of annoying Instagram users. Possibly, in the long run, even a way to put people off Instagram – that tiresome prairie of good photographers, wise filterers, six-pack-sporting influencers. Of course my plan did not make sense. Of course a few drops of shit couldn’t really poison Instagram’s storybook well. But, you know, envy is a powerful force. And it is cheap.
So off I went. I started assiduously taking pictures of absolutely boring things and coupling them with incongruous hashtags. The more mismatched the picture-hashtag coupling, the better.
Some cases were easy. Of course a picture of my dead basil plant – or rather ex-plant – would be hashtagged #greenthumb. But what’s the right hashtag for a dishwashing sponge? For a power outlet? For a set of parking stripes? I built an archive of hashtags that could be pasted under every picture. They had to meet two main criteria: they had to be relatively popular, which would enhance the chances of my pictures being seen; and they had to be hinting at a scenester’s lifestyle. #Londondandy; #Dapperdan; #Globetrotter; #Nevergiveup; #Mondaymotivation; #Millionairemindset; #Sundayfunday; #Luxurylifestyle.
Sometimes I would steer my brand more towards the California hip set, rattling off #paleodiet #fitness and #namaste. Other times I would lurch to the opposite side, straying into Dan Bilzerian-esque territory with braggadocious labels like #jetsetclub #moneymoneymoney #billionaireboysclub or #yachtclub. I felt like I was taking the Instagram game to the next level: I wasn’t simply wielding airbrushes, flattering angles, and filters to convey an exaggerated image of myself; I was publishing dull shots from my maddeningly normal life, and lying to my followers’ face about what those images were about.
After playing the game for a while, I noticed a couple of things that surprised me. The first was that I was getting new followers and a fair amount of likes for my bad pictures – more than I used to get when I posted normal ones.
Partly that was down to bots. Automated Instagram accounts were clearly skulking the social network, keeping a close watch on certain hashtags – and instantly interacting with any post featuring them. Seconds after posting a picture of a banana peel on a Pret tray – #luxuryfood, #luxurylifestyle – I would get tens of likes from shifty looking accounts, and comments such as “Wonder show of real luxury! u need to posting more,” followed by a request for a follow. I would answer the comments, either by humouring the bots, or by pointing out that my picture was actually shit.
If the bots were uncanny, the fact that some actual people also seemed to like my pictures was utterly bizarre. Some were in on the joke – and privately let me know that they supported my anti-Instagram crusade. But others were not. Others genuinely appeared to believe that my pictures were a crack at art. A way of highlighting the inner beauty of everyday objects – socks, toothbrushes, washing powder.
A guy from Cape Town, whose bio featured the words “fashion”, “art” and “travel,” and who must have felt threatened by my hashtag pollution, stopped by to tell me that “[my] work” was “the next level of dopeness.” After I got mixed up in a discussion on an Italian politician’s Instagram account – bad move – some of the people I was arguing with mocked me: “You are posting shitty pictures and you think you are an artist,” one said. “Judging from your pictures, you seem troubled” another chimed in.
I started wondering whether they were right. Was I just lying to myself about the real essence of my effort? Can you really criticise Instagram’s culture by using Instagram?
What ended the experiment for me, though, was the second thing I noticed: it is very difficult to take new crappy pictures every day.
I had established some rules for myself. The pictures had to be dull, ordinary, unexciting. But they couldn’t be too bad. Taking a dump and then posting my lo-fi turd on Instagram under the hashtag #nomnom was forbidden; so was taking pictures of used condoms, dead animals, or whichever revolting object springs to mind. Not only that would have likely gotten me kicked off Instagram, it would have been unsubtle. The trolling would have been too apparent. The hashtag hijacking would have been too crass. And it would have been too easy: there is no challenge in photographing your faeces every morning.
So I shot traffic cones; bollards; toilet mats; closed windows with no view; road barriers; pieces of pipe abandoned on the curb; cardboard boxes; manholes; empty glasses; half-munched carrots; tissues; street signs. Hashtags smelling of metropolitan adventures and exotic high-jinks would be rigorously pasted beneath them. But I eventually hit a wall.
The last picture I posted, on November 17, 2019, is an image of a crumpled paper tissue. That was my second crappy shot featuring a paper tissue, in contravention of another rule I had established: no repetitions.
I decided that would be the natural ending of my anti-Instagram project. The whole thing had gotten tired. I hadn’t really killed Instagram – my “work” had very likely been noticed by very few people, including those who were convinced I was doing an art project.
I stopped posting simply because I had run out of crappy things to shoot. My life only contained enough ordinary objects to create less than two years of crappy content. You might say that there’s no such a thing as running out of things to photograph. That I could go out, make an effort, and look for more shitty stuff to capture. But that is missing the point entirely: I had started my campaign because I wanted to counter the artificial reality built by professional influencers and dedicated users with a stream of lazy, out-of-place shots of whatever was in sight. Actively seeking subjects to photograph would transform what I do exactly into what I loathe: an art project – or worse, a successful Instagram account.
Obsessions is a semi-regular column in which WIRED staffers share their current internet preoccupations. Read about our weird WhatsApp behaviour here.
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