As users share images of one another living the good life, Instagram has become a vehicle for both voyeurism and unadulterated envy among urban creative professionals.

Katherine Streeter, New York Times

Do you have Instagram envy?

  • Article by: ALEX WILLIAMS
  • New York Times
  • December 23, 2013 - 8:59 AM

For many social media users these days, it’s not unusual to scroll through one’s Instagram feed and feel suffocated by fabulousness.

There’s one friend paddling in the Mediterranean surf under a fiery Italian sunset. Another is snapping away at a sweaty Jay Z from the third row at the Xcel Energy Center. Yet another is sipping Champagne in first class en route to some beautiful beach vacation.

Members of the Facebook generation are no strangers to the sensation of feeling a little left out when their friends post from that party they weren’t invited to. Yet even for those familiar with the concept of social-media envy, Instagram — the highest achievement yet in social-media voyeurism — presents a new form of torture.­

On Instagram, there is none of the familiar messiness of Facebook (which bought In­sta­gram last year for about $1 billion) or Twitter, where the torrent of wish-you-were-here-but-not-really posts are lost in a clutter of one-liners about lunch or links to the latest Onion headline.

Instagram, rather, is about unadulterated voyeurism. It is almost entirely a photo site, with a built-in ability to idealize every moment, encouraging users to create art-directed magazine layouts of their lives.

Mayoli Weidelich, 24, an Internet marketing manager, said she once spent 10 minutes with a friend composing a picture of a margarita glass over a plate of tacos. The intention was not to show off, Weidelich said. She was simply following an unspoken rule adopted by In­sta­gram users to avoid populating feeds with unedited, mediocre images.

“My Facebook feed is full of mostly opinionated rants and articles links, neither of which cause any jealousy,” Weidelich said. “My Instagram feed, in comparison, is one amazing photo after another.”

Viewers, meanwhile, are expected to let the sumptuous photos wash over them and chip in with comments (“Gorgeous sunset!”) and heart-shape “likes,” which function as a form of social currency, reinforcing the idea that every shot is a performance worthy of applause. It is as if every last image is designed to call to mind Norman Mailer’s book title “Advertisements for Myself.”

Social sinners

Envy, of course, doesn’t operate in a social vacuum. It needs an object of desire. And everyone, it seems, has that friend on Instagram: the one with the perfect clothes and the perfect hair and seemingly perfect life.

Instagram, which grew to 150 million worldwide users this year, became a social phenomenon in part because it allowed people to transform snapshots into magazine-worthy images using built-in filters. Many of these filters imbue the photos with a kind of digital nostalgia by mimicking the look of old lenses and film stock — everyone looks a little younger, a bit prettier.

The stage-managing impulse seems particularly strong among young parents, who appear to conjure the spirit of Norman Rockwell every time they whip out their iPhones to snap a shot of their adorable, smiling children.

Jessica Faryar, 32, an at-home mother in Seattle, remembers seeing one such photo featuring a family that had “leaves shipped in from out of state, just so the kids could jump in them,” said Faryar, who follows about 100 people, mostly friends and bloggers she likes. “Meanwhile, we’re drowning in leaves, and my son just talks about how messy the sidewalk looks.”

A multitude of disappointment

Instagram envy may constitute the most first-world of problems, but it is starting to attract the attention of some lab-coat types like Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist and research fellow at the University of Oxford, who are going so far as to try to quantify FOMO (fear of missing out) and finding that Instagram is the biggest culprit among social networks.

That is hardly news to Anne Sage, 31, a freelance writer in Los Angeles, who follows 1,009 people on Instagram, and therefore has 1,009 opportunities to feel she’s missing out on the party on any given weekend. “It’s incredibly hurtful to find out via social media that your friends or colleagues are gathering for something that you’ve been left out of,” Sage said.

Unless 150 million users decide to go off Instagram cold turkey en masse, Instagram envy may turn out to be an epidemic with no cure.

But at least there may be a salve. Many users are learning to rein it in, adopting their own form of Instagram etiquette.

“I don’t put in photos of myself, or even my shoes, for that matter,” said David Coggins, a dapper 38-year-old Manhattan writer. “My feeling is that you should avoid trophies: no fancy bottles of Bordeaux, no epic trout, no French hotel suites, nothing from business class.”

He added: “If it’s eccentric, then that’s different. I’m for a private plane if it’s a floatplane that’s going to drop you into a remote pond in northern Maine. That’s a unique experience that’s genuinely cool.”


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