Tala Strauss

Tala Strauss is a South African with Canadian citizenship. She is currently finishing up her last year at Gordon College, in Wenham, MA, where she double majors in philosophy and political science.

In Defense of the Instageneration

Why shouldn’t good community exist online as well as offline? The main arguments against Instagram and social networks are that they encourage narcissism, selfishness, or excessive sharing, blurring the line between the public and the private. Alex Miller Jr. recently argued that “to record life at the same moment we experience it requires more attention then we can spare.” The critics say that social networks erode character, identity, and authentic intimacy.

Spending an inordinate amount of time admiring pictures of yourself (or pictures of your food, your party, your Pinterest project) may be narcissistic, but that is the risk of almost anything that portrays the self to the self in some way. Instagram may make it easier to be selfish or narcissistic, but every new tool and space—for communication, community, self-projection, and self-portrayal—is equally at risk of being abused for selfish reasons. Newspapers, stages, dinner tables, mirrors, paintings, even our own minds—all of these platforms are at risk of becoming breeding grounds for selfishness and narcissism.

A social network is both a tool and a space. Like any community, when members exhibit antisocial behavior, they threaten the community’s structural and spiritual integrity. It is selfish to abuse a tool or overwhelm a space with no consideration for others, and such selfishness can destroy, among other things, the good spirit of a community. Each member of a social network ought to respect the dignified presence of others. Online space is different from other spaces, but it does not suddenly become a non-space because it is not the same. Similar rules for human interaction apply in the virtual rooms of the internet as would apply in other places.

There is a risk that Instagram and social networks blur the line between private relationship and public relationship, but the tools have privacy settings built into them by their designers. Everyone has the freedom to change those settings. To complain that people share too much online is to betray a lack of discernment in whom you choose to follow and befriend online (and yes, it can be a real friendship, even online). Do we follow too closely the lives of high school friends or strangers we don’t really have relationships with, which leaves us feeling like online stalkers? If there are reasons we don’t visit with friends from high school, or obstacles to building fuller relationships with people, then why do we complain about social networks forcing us to know others in ways we don’t want to know them? The networks themselves have given us the option of making the same social decisions online that we’ve made in “real life.” If you are going to spend time complaining about the negative effects of the tool, find out how to use the tool appropriately, so that you can control its effect on your life. By choosing whom to follow, you have a measure of control over what kinds of images and words you allow into your feeds.

Don’t let the tool rule you. Don’t throw it away because it requires virtue and practice to be used creatively and positively. Do you stop talking to everyone when one person misunderstands your tone in real life? Do you stop riding bikes after you fall off once? Do you throw away all of your mirrors because you are too proud to look at your face’s imperfections, or too vain to drag yourself away, like Narcissus? It shouldn’t be a surprise that a space shaped by the presence of others would not always fit our social life preferences. Accepting that about any community is part of living in it graciously.

It is first a question of who you are going to be in every new social space you inhabit, and only second a question of the power that space holds to shape you. Yes, the space may be unhealthy; but when you do have power to shape a space and freedom to inhabit a space in a positive way, you should examine how you inhabit that space before you attack it. Sometimes, if you don’t like a place, you have the freedom to leave. That is part of the danger of online communities; the ease of exit means people don’t worry as much about their behavior when they are present. But when someone chooses to be a part of a community, they should still be held accountable to certain principles of communal life by the other members. Encouraging that kind of commitment to healthy online community would be a helpful way of engaging people in social networks, rather than leaving with the hope that the community will eventually self-destruct.

Is it with loving, virtuous, and community-building character that you inhabit online communities? Do you seek to shape the space for better? If you currently inhabit an online space with no desire to leave, have you asked yourself if you are selfish, narcissistic, and open about things that should be limited to other communal spaces like the bedroom, the bathroom, or the confessional booth? Those questions can be asked about Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and every other public or private online space you frequent.

We can enjoy being present online. Instagram draws attention to the aesthetic aspect of ordinary life. We are not forced to tell a false or selfish story with our Instagram profiles, Facebook profiles, and Twitter profiles. We can be humble, plainspoken, joyful, and truthful. I know that I’ve failed many times as a human being in community, whether it’s online or not. But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up on the spaces I inhabit – at least, not for now.

What if Instagram actually helps us pay attention to our lives and other lives? Sometimes face-to-face interaction can distract from what the other person is actually saying. Sometimes we have a hard time seeing our own lives from the outside. Sometimes we refuse to see through another person’s eyes, and when somebody can share their view of the world through their iPhone photos, we get a view of life we wouldn’t have otherwise.

To see ordinary life, portrayed with a humble pride and an eye for beauty in the gift of our days, is in fact extraordinary—that is what Instagram can help us do. Instead of dismissing our lives, our everyday views and experiences, as unworthy of record, Instagram places value in sharing the everyday with one another. It is a visual narrative of who we are and where we have been. It is a space for creative, caring community. Someday we will inhabit other spaces, and we might ask the same questions again about how to be human, how to avoid narcissism, selfishness, and vulgarity; but as for the spaces we inhabit now, let’s do so with love, joy, gentleness, and self control.

The Dress Project

Most of us assume that girls like new clothes, shopping trips, and spending a lot of money on those two things. While it isn’t always the case, it is safe to say that more girls than guys take pleasure in shopping for clothes. Whether or not this is absolute truth is not the main subject of this article. Instead, it is about the lifestyle decisions of a few friends who, realizing their own habits were beginning to clog up their creative arteries, determined to experiment a little with their consumption choices. It may be accurately described as tampering with the system on a very small, very harmless level.

Having recently cleaned out my closet for the year, I was very proud of my efforts to reduce the amount of unnecessary “stuff” in my closet. But to my dismay, in response to a blog post, a friend of mine mentioned a comment made by her Opa, which went along the lines of, “You just need one dress for the week and one dress for Sunday.” This, and littlebrowndress.com, inspired her to propose taking the happy, free month of October and turning it into a thirty day fast from our clothes.

The idea was that we would wear a single dress for the whole month, every day, from morning until night. At first the idea frightened me. I had no noble complaints; my primary concern was my status. “See no evil,” my childish mind decided, and I put her suggestion on the shelf, until the end of September arrived. Disconcertingly, Avery announced that our dress project was fast approaching. Now, there is an element of competition and peer pressure in even the most loyal friendships. Friends have more influence than the media and parents combined, in many cases. My ego immediately rallied me to her cause, as there was no way I was going to be satisfied as the ordinary one while she traipsed around exuding extraordinariness.

While she began on October 1, I still needed a versatile dress – one I did not have in my closet, apparently, and needed to purchase. I may have defeated the anti-consumerism theme of the project, but at the same time, none of us were entirely against shopping. Economically, North America would be in dire straits if everybody stopped buying things, as would the rest of the world. There is nothing inherently wrong with commerce. Neither did we believe the world of fashion was wholly associated with the devil, or any hateful nonsense supporting drab dress. In fact, commerce and fashion are both good things. We want to live simple, not impoverished, lives.

Once I found a dress that would “work” (nothing perfect), I discovered in the first day that there was a thrill to this project! I would imagine a thousand outfits around this dress, surely, and they would be nicer than any outfits I had ever put together. I pranced around, unconcerned by the prosaic concerns I was convinced I had left behind as I ascended to this higher realm.

But the next morning did not treat my dress kindly. As I woke up to a black dress covered in cat hair, the merciless truth dawned on me: black is an ill-fated color. When one keeps hairy creatures as household pets, one is bound to find hair everywhere. Each morning, until the end of the month, I would curse the day I chose a black dress, and dutifully “de-hair” my dress. I was learning to deal with the limitations of a chosen “relationship” on a very small, very practical level.

On the bright side, the dress gave me something to work with. Rules, patterns, blueprints – all motivate creativity. When there are guidelines, it is easier to create something. My dress provided a type of canvas. It reminded me that I do not need half of the things I desire, and if I focus on something for a while, I can get to know its character as a “thing” in creation. There is a wealth of hidden possibilities in every part of life that most of us are too lazy to uncover. Rather than pursue mere novelty, I had the opportunity to bring out the possibilities inherent in the dress, molding them into something slightly different every day.

Perhaps, on a larger scale, we would waste less of the world’s resources if we were captured in wonder by the curve of a carefully crafted cup; the joyful noise of a neighborhood waking up in the morning; the blessed figure of a human being beside us at the kitchen table. We would no longer be animated by a surface curiosity, a desire to entertain ourselves when we get restless. Aliveness to reality in the active knowing of the God-given character of a thing can satisfy us. It is how we can relate to it on a human level, lovingly.

One month is not very long. What miniscule impact we may have had on the world was not our point. What the project did achieve was the unearthing of possibilities for what can be made of the shape of our days. The best part of the entire affair was discovering that everyday routine is also a form of worship. In the church, “liturgy” is defined as the order of worship. If every day is a unit of time in a lifetime, and my purpose in every day of my life is to worship God, then the Dress Project was my order of worship. It was part of the liturgy of my daily life.

In the end, the experience was not that dramatic. In fact, most people only noticed that I had been wearing the same dress to school every day once I mentioned the fact. By documenting our progress in Facebook albums, our project gained the praise and flattery that probably diminished any heroism in our “fast,” but also encouraged us to keep it up. It was that accountability, along with the pleasure of sharing what we made every day, which made it less of a burden and more of a fun experiment.

On November 1, I exhibited an art piece I put together, hanging pictures in an empty closet of my friend Avery in her dress. It was a nice way to conclude what I had learned during my brief lesson in stewardship, presenting our project to the critical eyes of our community. We were not purely motivated and our experiment was not expertly executed. It was just a shaky step towards a more human way of living.