I was in full quarantine mode a few weeks ago — sweatpants on, anxiety heightened, spicy chili on the stove — when I received a strange notification. A friend had tagged me in her Instagram story, a place where users can upload posts that disappear in 24 hours.
“Draw an orange,” it said.
Next to the text was her own attempt, a misshapen fruit with googly eyes. Below it, dozens of users had done the same and then tagged five friends to follow their lead. The next day, someone asked me to draw a carrot. Then some grapes. My first thought? No way. This is how we are choosing to distract ourselves? To spend our time?
With people confined to their homes during the outbreak, Instagram activity from my followers has skyrocketed. Throwdowns, like the “draw something challenge,” the “push-up challenge,” and even the “toilet paper challenge,” where soccer players juggle the now scarce resource, have popped up on the photo-sharing app. People with little to do live-stream themselves shamelessly, and uploads meant for “close friends” house more apocalypse-inspired rants than I can handle.
Some people hate it. “It’s chaos,” one friend texted me on Friday. “I’m off Instagram till the tagging stops,” said another.
Then it hit me: Quarantine-era Instagram is just the ghost of Instagram past.
When Instagram joined the App Store in 2010, a culture of spontaneity ruled the platform. There was no pressure to see or do something post-able then. A post was a post was a post ... and nothing more. We shared photos frequently and casually. We (by this I mean, I) did not compulsively check our likes or followers, and we worried far less about the balance of emojis in captions. Amid the panic of the coronavirus, this social media lifestyle of yore has returned.
Instagram today usually displays the best of the best of our camera rolls. Only the most flattering selfies, enviable group pictures, and pleasing clicks make it to the feed. We keep tight control over our accounts’ aesthetics, down to the color scheme, sometimes offering them up as our own branded portfolios. A select few follow the lead of celebrities who log on to publicize their lavish lives to millions, turning Instagram into a place to preen and present a reality far above the mundane. And the introduction of sponsored content (spon-con, if you will) only fed this polished, curated, and downright commercial version of the app.
But on March 13, when President Trump declared a national emergency, panic and boredom rushed into the social consciousness. Coronavirus threw Instagram’s unspoken rules out the window. Suddenly, we don’t care about being glamorous, and flashy seems unrelatable. All of us already know what’s going down behind closed doors — the TV-binging, the Internet surfing, and the compulsive bread baking. We are all isolated, un-shampooed, and longing to frolic in the world that existed pre-virus. And we aren’t afraid to show it.
Quarantine has given us permission to once again “act like middle schoolers” online, as Emerson College sophomore Chloe Nanian put it. “We get to do stupid stuff and then get other people to do that stupid stuff.”
When I created my account as an actual middle schooler eight years ago, silliness was rampant on Instagram. Planking videos and “to be honest” posts ruled the day. I posted memes, like Grumpy Cat and Doge, on my account with zero regrets. Returning to this shared culture of inanity is a comfort to us now.
Can’t go outside? Down a glass of wine for the 'gram. Tired of eating beans? Partake in “see a dog, send a dog” challenge. Out of escapist comedy specials? Upload a video of yourself lifting up your couch, like dozens have.
#ThrowbackThursday, another long-forgotten convention, has returned in altered form amid social distancing. Without gatherings and vacations, Instagrammers have resorted to posting old snapshots, wistfully captioned. “Better days,” wrote a former classmate under a host of photos she took in Italy, which has been hard hit by the disease today. Even recent viral phenomena, like “Until Tomorrow,” are about uploading uncouth photos that never would’ve graced the app before — all with the intention of taking them down the next day.
Intimiate, albeit boring uploads are also basking in the limelight once again. I am happily watching people crochet and assemble furniture on Instagram TV from my bed. Or I am tracking those who painstakingly document cooking experiments on the app, using absurd ingredient substitutions from quarantine-era grocery lists.
College students have joined the idiocy on Instagram en masse. Barred from campuses, many created virtual “bingo cards” for their schools. Players cross off the squares, labeled with on-campus activities or character traits that apply to them, and then share the finished cards with others.
Some, like Babson College senior Zack Sette, have raised the bar on challenges. “What’s challenging about posting a picture?” he wrote in a tweet on March 25. “You want a challenge? Eat a whole stick of butter in one bite. That’s content.” Then he did, and he posted it.
The goal of all these random posts is simple — get someone to repost our trend, to keep the chain going, to empathize with our loneliness. We’ve rightly abandoned the app’s usual markers of success: massive numbers of followers and likes or a slew of adoring comments. Each post, story, and comment today is just an attempt to distract ourselves from the world.
This resurgence of “old Instagram” is a much-needed social media reset for these unprecedented times. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. It’s terrifying and dizzying and absurdly painful. So we have collectively decided to lose our minds on the one app where we pretend to hold it together.
And I’m on board.
Diti Kohli can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.