Nearly 10 years into a world with Instagram, its cutesy, kooky perfection is now a mainstream aesthetic. Take Taylor Swift’s ME! video, for example, which manages to pack in pastel colours, butterflies, cats, rainbows, fluffy emoji clouds, rainbows, mermaid dresses, unicorn horns, a lot pink and the lyric “You can’t spell ‘awesome’ without ‘me’”. Like a long scrolling session, the effect is slightly queasy – and that’s even without the avocado on toast, #livingyourbestlife cliches.
It is also in Brie Larson’s Netflix series Unicorn Store, the notebook aisle your local Paperchase and the walls your average tween bedroom. This also means – sorry, TayTay – that it’s kind over. “This is a sign approval this type Instagram aesthetic] by mainstream culture,” says Lev Manovich, author Instagram and Contemporary . “But one the biggest stars in the world is using it in their video – that might mean it’s reached its peak.”
Even ME!, the name Swift’s song – perfect for a generation ten accused narcissism brought on by social media – may be slightly out step. Manovich, who has studied Instagram since 2013, has recently observed that the selfie may be on its way out. “In 2013, ‘selfie’ was the word the year,” he says. “This year, the selfie stage feels over. I have noticed young people are not pulling out their phone in restaurants so much any more. Every four years we have a new generation with different culture and different digital habits.”
Maddie Raedts, founder the Influencer Marketing Agency (IMA), believes that perfection is no longer an Insta-goal. “Gen Z have seemingly had enough,” she says. “Many feel that these generic Instagram pictures are repetitive and not cool any more.” Which begs the question: what is cool? Moving on from the #livingmybestlife culture, there seems to be a kind turning towards a semblance reality, perhaps because with the real world in turmoil, a feed fluffy clouds and kittens isn’t really reading the room. “Instagram used to be the place with no flaws and what we’re seeing now is that people are rejecting the curated Instagram feed,” says Raedts.
See the “Instagram vs Reality” trope that ten appears online. Former Made in Chelsea star Millie Mackintosh recently posted an Instagram shot her on holiday, walking through the waves, hair flowing. It was followed by “reality”: her running out the waves, hair plastered to her face, bikini bottoms in wedgie position. Elsewhere, filters such as Kim Kardashian West’s favourite Perfect365 are losing their shine in favour effects to make your picture look, well, a bit crap. See Huji, designed to turn an iPhone snap into the dud with a red flash in the envelope photos you got back from the chemist in 1998. Alan Bryant, who works at youth consultancy Livity, says something like Huji chimes with how young people are looking at all aspects culture now. “Fashion trends link through to how people look on Instagram,” he says. “So the whole ugly fashion came through into the wider way that people are showing f their lives … Ugly is cool now, not polished.”
Even if it isn’t ugly, “real” is an aspiration. Naomi Shimada is an influencer and model with more than 74,000 followers and a book, Mixed Feelings, about her experience Instagram out later in the year. Her feed is dotted with happy things such as smiles, flowers and rainbows but she is adamant that she has “never thought about a perfect image”. Instead, she says she concentrates on “the sharing joy instead the sharing hate and competition”. “Aesthetics are changing,” she adds. “There is a point where you exhaust that route perfection.” Shimada is particularly struck by the app’s impact on our IRL experience. “I travel and I see women by the beach. They’re not living their best life; they’re not swimming, reading or relaxing. They’re focusing on getting the shot.”
As the hyperreal cartoon world tips over from our Instagram feeds into the pop video, and with Instagram announcing in May that followers will be able to shop the posts alpha influencers, the next gen are resisting mega-trends such as Swift’s unicorns and rainbows and downsizing. According to Bryant, they might post something personal and insider with a specific aesthetic that appeals to a small group people – up to 3,000 – rather than aiming for Jenner-level likes. “That’s the positive Instagram. You can go and find your niche and your community and you can fit in with them.” The latest way spelling awesome? It’s in the post.