‘Casual Instagram’ is the app’s latest trend, but are we performing more than ever?

The rise of TikTok, photo dumping and a backlash against influencer culture during the pandemic has seen Instagram go ‘casual’. But do uncurated feeds full of small, unremarkable moments really mean we’ve ditched performative posting for good?  

It was late on a midweek evening. We were locked down, getting irritable on Zoom and having regular Wednesday wine nights. I was in the middle of my habitual post-work Instagram scroll when I came across a term I had never seen before. Sitting pretty in the middle of my feed was a post titled: ‘photo dump’.

Above it sat a carousel of five pictures detailing mundane moments of pandemic life. There was a cup of morning coffee, a country sunset, a loungewear mirror selfie, freshly baked bread and flowers. It was random, uncurated and fresh.

Gone were the envy-inducing holiday snaps, luxury escapades and posed outfit photos. During lockdown we had nowhere to go, no one to see, and nowhere to be seen. For a time, our pictures and stories solely depicted our random yet humdrum lives.

It seemed Instagram was going casual.

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Deemed as the antithesis to the curated app Instagram had evolved into, where feeds are filtered and themed, ‘casual Instagram’ embraces life’s small, messy and spontaneous moments.

A growing trend, casual Instagram really took off during the pandemic. Creators needed to engage with their followers, but it became trickier to sell an aesthetic without the backdrop of the world. Social media users required connection as we distanced from each other and so came the need to document the unremarkable moments of our daily existence.

This shift coincided with the rise of TikTok – a platform built on instant virality where curation has no place. Gen-Z, who make up the majority of the platform’s 1 billion active monthly users, revolted against the perfection Instagram was selling.

TikTok’s influence is far-reaching, so when a collective call came for a break from ‘performative Instagram’ and its feeds of homogeneous influencers, Instagram answered, and fast. But, as this movement away from organised feeds gets underway, has the way we use the app actually changed? Or are we still doomed to suffer at the hands of the digital age’s comparison culture?

Some social media commentators think praise for this so-called relaxed approach to Instagram has been overzealous.

TikTok user @cozyakili went viral after he critiqued our new casual aesthetic and photo dump obsession. “Casual Instagram is an even greater performance, and that’s a fact,” he says in a clip, suggesting that comparing casual Instagram to performative Instagram is like comparing reality TV to scripted shows. 

“Reality TV is not reality,” he noted. “It is attempting to convince the viewer that what they are watching is, in fact, real life, but it’s not. That is what photo dumps and casual Instagram are.”

He continues: “In photo dumps, you’re still curating and narrativising your life through photos. Maybe they’re not super edited and maybe they’re not posed, but they’re still strategically selected and put together to convey a specific message.”

Over the years, experts have warned about the effects of social media and its constant pursuit of perfection. Research carried out last year by the Education Policy Institute and The Prince’s Trust found heavy social media use was linked to young people’s negative wellbeing and self-esteem.

According to the research, one in three girls are unhappy with their personal appearance by the age of 14, and the number of young people with probable mental illness has risen to one in six, up from one in nine in 2017. Meanwhile, the Royal Society for Public Health found four out of five major social platforms made younger people feel worse, and 38% of adults think social media is actively harmful.

The new, casual Instagram was intended to help prevent us from feeling what these statistics show, but if @cozyakili is right and we still perform under a different guise, then will these issues ever disappear?

The Royal Society for Public Health found four out of five major social platforms made younger people feel worse and 38% of adults think social media is actively harmful.

For a time, I too attempted the casual aesthetic. Throughout lockdown, I documented the reality of living in rural Ireland. As I tried to make pictures of newborn calves and rainbows on dirt roads look Instagrammable, I quickly realised getting the ‘shot’ was more than a quick click and trick of the light.

To be casual meant work. It felt the same as taking an outfit picture on a girls’ night out. As always, it was all about angles and backdrops. For every 20 pictures taken, you only got one good aesthetic gem. I was still performing, but this time the edges were more relaxed.

Tara Marzuki, a digital influencer based in New York, is a content creator who embraces the casual aesthetic and is optimistic about the move, saying it has opened the doors for influencers to be more creative.

“I find it a more inspiring way to post,” Marzuki tells Stylist. “There was always something about a glossy feed that has never sat right with me. Casual Instagram is attainable and exciting for anyone who is enthusiastic about posting, and you can create it at home.”

However, she notes that the aesthetic isn’t simply random moments of magic. “There is definitely an element of performance to it,” says Marzuki. “There is thought to it, and it is an art in itself. It is not effortless because you have to get the right balance between candidness and looking pleasing. There still has to be a purpose for the viewer.”

Instagram has often been criticised for being a platform where privilege reigns supreme. To be successful on the app, the scenery, the rooms and the clothes you post in must be luxe. Marzuki says she sees more and more creators pushing against this ideal as nonchalant posting becomes more popular.

“I think the people most successful at this are those who are being creative and are not caring about the perfection in it,” she says. “And these are the people who are now setting the trends.”

But will this ever stop us from putting on a show? We are all portraying a version of ourselves on social media and 12 years into the Instagram machine, this will be a hard habit to shake.

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Psychologist Dr Richard Smith from the London Psychologist Clinic says we are now too socially aware not to perform. “Social media has always been about portraying a profile of the self,” he says. “We keep up with assumptions and expectations we believe people have of us through our feed. Every post we put up is to show a side of ourselves or prove a point in our beliefs. That doesn’t change even if it looks more relaxed now.”

He believes the performance may never stop until we take ourselves out of the social media equation. “As we continue to search for an authentic online self, there will always be an element of performance because, by nature, that is what social media is,” he notes.

“To truly break away from it and free yourself from the act, you have to step outside of it, look inwards, really see what you are doing and ask yourself the most important question, which is why?”

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