The earnest vanity that serves as the engine of Instagram seems generally harmless, sweetly human. The app’s natural topics are babies and gardens, sexiness and ease, wistfulness and longing. At its best—if you follow no celebrities, just people you’re fond of—it’s a castle on a cloud, where nobody shouts or talks too loud. And I’ll be damned if Instagram’s soft focus, and even the odd lurch into blessedness, doesn’t lower my defenses to advertising. The atmospherics of the joint just get me in the mood to shop.
Lately I find myself blowing past the images of friends and yielding to the seductions of multinationals and overfunded startups. Travel clothes that fold up into the size of a deck of cards. A posture pillow that increases one’s airflow, improves productivity, and fosters “social well-being.” A complexion-brightener that, on closer examination, seems like oil from an actual snake. Yes, I know there’s disinformation and propaganda on Instagram, but none of that crosses my mind when I’m drifting through the dreamscape and an ad rolls in that makes me wonder if my entirely satisfactory consumer life couldn’t be just a little bit better.
Far in the distance are traces of bona fide bliss. Somewhere beyond exhibitionism and voyeurism—in the oceans beyond the bikinis and sunglasses—Instagram hints at the possibility of real intimacy with landscapes and humans.
Roland Barthes, the literary theorist who would have been spellbound by Instagram, described boredom as “bliss seen from the shores of pleasure.” That’s it. Instagram is Pleasure Beach: landscapes, still lifes, rosy self-portraits. It goes down easy. But far in the distance are traces of bona fide bliss. Somewhere beyond exhibitionism and voyeurism—in the oceans beyond the bikinis and sunglasses—Instagram manages to hint at the possibility of real intimacy with landscapes and humans. Having a pleasant life but glimpsing a blissful one is just shy of pain, and that almost-pain is boredom.
Boredom kicks off the thought that life could be better. Enter the ads. The best ones come as I’m despairing of ever closing the pleasure-bliss gap, ever waking up from the dopey reverie of buttery, chardonnay photos and into real, unmediated sensory experience. I’m a sitting duck for an advertiser: comfortable enough not to panic about spending money, and uncomfortable enough to crave something new.
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED. She is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico.
Most Instagram advertisements don’t merely “raise brand awareness.” Instead, hit one and you’re four clicks from closing the deal, teleported to the cash register, where you’re dared to unslump and commit. One minute you’re passively receiving post-produced representations of the good-enough life; the next you have a chance to wake up and buy something that will improve your social well-being (what?), break through the screen, and set you free from simulations into the world of verities.
For a bored person fearing psychic annihilation on Instagram, jumping into a deal with an Instagram vendor can even feel a touch courageous. I know that once I Apple Pay up for a leaden Gravity Blanket, as I did a year ago, I’ll be chased down every hallway of the internet with ads for still more leaden blankets and associated things: soft housewares, gimmicks for better health, sleep aids. The dark arts of Customer Relationship Management will tease out the true desires latent even in—perhaps especially in—impulse buys like the Gravity Blanket. (“Desperately lonely with no one to exert the pressure of a hug on you at night?”)
So really, I’m casting caution to the wind and letting someone truly know me, my never-ending discontents, my erratic purchasing habits, my insomnia. I’m letting CRM wizards … hug me.
And then of course I could very well be jumping into a relationship with a drop-shipper. These are the companies that essentially are their ads, formed overnight with nothing but a design concept and social media strategy. Using a service like Oberlo—which lets you find briskly selling dry goods, mostly made in China, to import—anyone in search of a four-hour workweek can advertise on Instagram and coordinate with an overseas supplier to ship the product (reversible umbrellas, say) straight to customers. (Alibaba is rolling in reversible-umbrella suppliers; if you have a social media following and a passion for not working, welcome to your first million here.) The goods themselves are far, far away in Juancheng County or Qingdao, where they have been made, packaged, and shipped by people our work-averse entrepreneur will never meet, in cities they will never visit. In fact, whomever I’m enriching when I shop on Instagram may very well never see the product at all.
Scarier still: I might not see the product. My seller could be one of those “burner brands,” the love ’em and leave ’em cads of drop-shipping commerce. These heartbreakers don’t even bother to set something up with Alibaba. Instead, they collage a few Insta clichés (part investor deck, part Ron Popeil), reel in the fish, and vanish. A year ago I put money down for a towel that was said to dry hair in milliseconds and raise its shine. The supernatural towel—did it ever exist?—never arrived, and the ads disappeared from Instagram. A digital boiler room.
So you see that shopping on Instagram is very different from snoozy ecommerce at Everlane.com. It’s really very reckless and dangerous.
Subscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorite Ideas writers.
Of course, no it’s not. It’s just shopping. But such is the chemistry of Instagram—sweet and easy, then syrupy and agitating—that I imagine that if I pay money for any generic commodity, just any old chunk of stuff, I’ll really come alive. Some shoppers feel that way in thrift stores (I’m a master strategist for getting this good deal); others get the hit from infomercials (I’m gonna get a piece of that magic too). Instagram kindles in me the sense that far-shore bliss might be brought closer. If I’m only willing to risk $50 less 15 percent with the code BUYBUYBUY.
Some of my modest risks have paid off. One mascara I got is a minor masterpiece; it works just like it did on the girl in the video. And my Gravity Blanket! It’s the best thing I’ve ever bought: 20 pounds of dead weight that effectively crushes my weariness with Instagram. The pleasure of that app is that it’s trifling and light; nothing weighs more than a pixel or tells any more truth than a mirage. But bliss has some mass to it, some dimension and some reality.
That Gravity Blanket is sometimes all I need. It puts me into paralyzed, jet-lagged sleep. Under it, my arms are so heavy they don’t reach for my phone. I’m stuck in the real world, which turns out to be the rapture I’ve been looking for. From The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera: “The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is a regular contributor to WIRED. Her most recent book is Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.
This article appears in the July/August issue. Subscribe now.