Every generation is shaped, in part, by its rebellion against the generation before it. On Instagram, as in life, this means that what was once considered cool is now firmly relegated to being passé. My millennial urge to post a perfectly lit photo where the light finds my cheekbone at just the right angle is now, I have been informed by a teenage cousin, “cringe.” At the time of this exchange with the girl formerly known as my cousin, my immediate reactions were: first, panic at the idea that I no longer belonged to the group of people tasked with deciding what is and isn’t cool, and second, a realization that the rules of Instagram had irrevocably changed.
Instagram “photo dumps” entered the cultural conversation when spon-con was reaching critical levels—every other post was trying to sell you face serum or an electric toothbrush or a pair of leggings. We were trapped in an endless scroll-spiral of aspirational content, condemned to trawl ceaselessly through the (real or staged) happiness of our peers. Characterized by the fact that they are low-effort, seemingly random, and unedited, Instagram photo dumps arrived as an answer to the overly-manicured, influencer-led aesthetics of the app, drawing on the moodiness of Tumblr-era emo sensibilities.
For the generation that grew up on Instagram, the FaceTuned and Juvederm-ed influencer is a figure that looms large. It can be argued that the shift in taste from the obsessively manicured to the obscenely relaxed is owed in large part to the vast shadow that the influencer casts on modern digital life, selling you herbal weight-loss teas and waist trainers in between broadcasting sermons on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. The influencer can be the suburban mother of two preaching breastfeeding supremacy or the 20-something whose only mission in life is to secure the season’s most-coveted It Bag or the teenager who plays video games for an inexplicably entranced audience. Whoever they are and whatever corner of the internet you call your own, the influencer is inescapable, and the newest generation to come of age on the internet has had enough of them and their synthetic attempts at realness.
All of this is to say that most who grew up in the age of social media feel alienated from some kind of just-out-of-reach authenticity. “At the behest of the criterion of authenticity,” wrote Lionel Trilling in Sincerity and Authenticity, “much that was once thought to make up the very fabric of culture has come to seem of little account.” The hustle culture-fueled, hyper-productive landscape that saw influencers explain away brand deals as a means to make money has fallen out of fashion. The bastardization of what was once a space for sepia-filtered sunsets and blurry birthday photos reached a tipping point that called—and mark me, I am no scientist—for an equal and opposite reaction. Almost like a crowd-sourced cure to an Instagram addiction that may now be grandfathered into the very tenets of society.
The night my cousin called me cringe, we were eating outdoors in one of those horribly touristy Milan restaurants. It was late, we were jetlagged, and the sauce on my tagliatelle was watery—but it was my first vacation in two years and I was determined to be dutiful in posting about it. I was angling my phone and face in what I hoped was a discreet way, attempting to get the streetlight on my left and the candlelight in front of me to coalesce and create Good LightingTM. That’s when she struck, soft-footed like a thief in the night and blunt like a boulder. “Can you not?” she said, and for the first time in my life, I could put an image to the phrase “through gritted teeth.” “You’re being so cringe.”
I was wounded, but like any good soldier that aims to persevere in the digital age, I enquired, investigated, and finished my under-seasoned pasta. It made sense, chronologically, that an era that saw plastic surgery proliferate wildly and saw one’s face become one’s brand would be followed by one that aimed to de-center the physical self altogether. “Looking good” was now considered symptomatic of being out of touch, of submitting to the patriarchy and its incessant demands of attractiveness and femininity. Looking good was not “authentic.” Eclectic, out-of-focus ’90s-style snaps shot on 32-millimeter disposable film cameras with barely functional flashes were the cool new thing—or an old thing made cool and new again, depending on how you looked at it.
“Get a shot of your Aperol Spritz, but make sure it’s in the corner,” my cousin instructs me, paraphrasing the rule of thirds. Next, a wide shot of a grandmother eating gelato at the entrance to the Duomo, a close-up of the marbled floor at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a shot of the street sign that says Via Dante, etc. For all of its projections of laid-back punkness, the photo dump was revealing itself to be just as invested in the process of curation as were the filtered selfies of its foremothers. It brought to mind the “sophisticated kitsch” that Dwight Macdonald wrote about, as in: “There is nothing more vulgar than sophisticated kitsch.”
In many ways, the Instagram photo dump sets out to achieve a goal that is diametrically opposed to its very existence: to capture a leaning-against-the-lockers-after-class cool that is manifestly against the very idea of curation. The photo dump sees out-of-focus sunsets and blurry portraits make their way back onto Instagram, nearly a decade after they first appeared, and for very different reasons. Then, it was due to poor camera quality. Now, it is an affectation employed to signify a kind of ennui with modern social media. The Instagram photo dump is to social media what vinyl records are to streamable music—a signifier used by the young and the restless to make it clear that they aren’t one of the overly manicured heads bleating therapy-speak or hawking an eye cream into a front-facing camera on their phone. They are (likely) a liberal arts student who has studied the work of Ryan McGinley and Nan Goldin, and they would like you to know that.
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Finally, I post a carousel of my European vacation: an off-center Aperol Spritz, an Italian pastry shop window, an overexposed shot of the beach in Split, a meme about jet lag, a plate of oysters lit by candlelight, a shot of the harbour in Dubrovnik, a photo of the Via Dante street sign (the Milanese grandmother eating gelato did not make the cut). My cousin double-taps it.