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.