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Monday, 22 January 2018

The Bland Fundamentalists of Instagram

Instagram is a strange and alien tool that panders to our need to click and seek digital approval for our images. It is absurdly addictive and turns many of the people who use it (myself included - let's not pretend here) into like-seeking refresh junkies. You're on Instagram, that's what you do.

It's a conformist application with a form of censorship that is infuriating and seemingly random, while at its heart is part of a corporate cultural imperialism with a spectral Anglo-American perspective on the world with weird and diverse religious undertones that pander to double standards and hypocrisy on a global scale. It's a weird kind of bland fundamentalism. Or something. I really don't know what it is.

The book Pics of it Didn't Happen  gives an overview of  one side of the argument, showing pictures that have been censored by Instagram, with an emphasis on  'how taboo very ordinary elements of female bodies, such as hair, fat and blood, have become.'

So there's that. And when little patches of blood are taboo, or bodies that are large, or fringes of hair, there is definitely something odd at work.

You get famous photographs that include nipples including these by Imogen Cunningham censored. But you can post works of art featuring nipples. So that's OK then.

If they are male nipples, then you are allowed to post them, hence the site Genderless Nipples.

So you can have pictures of men and boys showing nipples, but not of women or even children. This picture from All Quiet on the Home Front was censored by Instagram when I did Instagram takeovers on both the BJP and Photographic Museum of Humanity, possibly for that reason. However, it wasn't censored from my personal site, so the suggestion is that it's not an algorithm doing the job on this one. But I would venture that the image below is far more obscene than the image up top, not because of anything it shows but because of the view of childhood and family that it presupposes. Not to mention the blatant sexism of covering up a girl's torso while allowing a boy's torso to be shown. This is a kind of Instagram hijab for 6-year-old girls, and with it comes a misogyny that is being spread globally at a speed and with a spread and depth that surpasses almost anything.

It would be really interesting to sit in the meetings and uncover the layers of misogyny that lie at the heart of this. They are multiple, they cut across all religions and ideologies, and they are male and conservative.

The image up top, which shows an image from my German Family Album (which I'm sharing on my Instagram account as I try to get to grips with it) was also censored after being online for a few days. I'm putting it back on with a big censored sign across it.

The image is from 1929, and is titled, in translation, The Judgement of Paris - which is a great title. It's funny but a bit odd. But because there is a penis showing, a 1929 penis, it is banned.

Ins its  'community standards', Instagram states that childhood nudity is questionable because 'even when this content is shared with good intentions, it could be used by others in unanticipated ways.' There are plenty of places in the world where this kind of childhood nudity is not questioned, yet here is Instagram questioning it on our behalf.

But it's the doublespeak of the language that Instagram uses that confounds me. I know we should all pretend social media is a community and that we're sharing, but every now and then let's call bullshit on the language of sharing. So first of all, posting a picture is not sharing and Instagram is not a community. Second of all the idea embedded in this text that predatory paedophiles are trawling through Instagram for pictures of semi-naked children is absurd.

Rather Instagram is imposing a particular view of women, of childhood, of sexuality on the world. It's a form of cultural imperialism that comes directly out of Anglo-American fear of the body, in particular the female body and the child's body. It's a worldview that is completely at odds with large parts of the world,  and is continuation of a war against the body, a shaming of the body (especially the female body), laced together with a commodification of the body and the family that has been going on in various forms for hundreds of years. Anne Higonnet's Pictures of Innocence and Philippe Aries' Centuries of Childhood are good starting points for this discussion, as are the religious right of all religions but I feel we are entering fresh territory now with the overlap of social media into these areas.

And it's massively important. How the body is represented affects how we see the world, how we behave, how our children behave. You can see in places how religious fanaticism (and it's not just one religion either) has entered the mainstream and transformed the way people dress, behave, and interact with each other.

You will get the same with Instagram and other social media. It communicates ideas of what is acceptable and what is not and people adhere to it very quickly. What appears on social media becomes part of a global way of thinking and seeing and doing. And it's not a community way of seeing, thinking and doing. It's a US corporate way of seeing, thinking and doing. It already affects what we post, for many it affects what they photograph, and that means it affects the way we behave, but on a huge, amplified scale.

And the best thing is I'm still on Instagram, because it's the ultimate tool of narcissism (or is that Facebook, or Blogger, or Snapchat...) and  that's how they get you.


amolitor said...

Top be honest, I assume pedophiles ARE trolling instagram, but the real question is "who cares?"

As a father of daughters, as well as a photographer and occasional commentator, I have had to wrestle with this one. Imagine, people have asked me, that a pedophile uses a picture of your daughter for self pleasure. And so I do. And, while I am not particularly comfortable with it, I cannot actually locate where anything evil has occurred, and so in the end, I guess I am OK with it.

This is precisely the sort of question that informs Instagram's approach, though. These questions arise with the more or less puritanical population that appears to be running the asylum at this point, and that population doesn't bother to think things through. They recoil in horror at the image of the pedophile (which, let us be honest, I do as well), and implement some policies (which I do NOT).

The point that this population IS in charge and that it's not working out that well is well taken, of course. While it is oft repeated, it bears frequent repetition.

The question, what should be done about it? There are community mores of every conceivable stripe across the globe. To we respect all of them? None of them? Or just the ones that happen to hold the reins of power?

I don't find any of those solutions particularly palatable. My solution is to bin the whole thing, but so far I'm not having a lot of luck pitching this to investors in Silicon Valley.

Instagram in particular and social media in general do seem to present some genuinely intractable problems. I suppose a Marxist would recommend Transcending The Dilemma, but so far I'm not having a lot of luck with that.

colin pantall said...

I have had the same and reached the same conclusion. I wouldn't stop my daughter going to the beach for example. Or the swimming pool. Or school. Or a church if she was religious.

Similarly now she's older I wouldn't stop her going to town, school, university, on public transport because there might be (no, are!) rapists there. I'm very much more in favour of the Reclaim the Night approach.

Yesterday somebody suggested on Instagram that the image in the post is child pornography which it obviously isn't. Child pornography is pictures of children being abused and raped - and this image is very different. I think the policing of Instagram is made from this level of ignorance and hysteria and is informed not by law but by a reflexive self-generated hysteria. The community mores across the globe are applied selectively by Instagram, and again, they end up being sucked up in to a social media feedback loop. And mores are not constant and have been affected already by religious, colonialist, and other misogynies.

That is what is so dangerous.