Last April, the social-media giant Facebook bought out Instagram, a photo-sharing program that allows users to make their smartphone pictures look stylishly timeworn, for nearly $1 billion. The acquisition left many scratching their heads; here was a two-year-old, zero-revenue startup (the Instagram app is free) with no more than 13 employees, and overnight the company had a fortune (even if some of it was paid in toxic Facebook stock). The application itself is simple: users snap a photo with their mobile device, choose a filter (a yellowed Polaroid from 1977? a classic black-and-white print?), and share the result online with friends. Why such a large price tag for a thing that, in the incisive words of Jon Stewart, “kind of ruins your pictures?”
On one level, Instagram — which now has over 30 million users — is a practical addition to the Facebook empire, which must compete with photo-sharing sites like Yahoo’s Flickr. But the $1 billion price tag on Instagram is also a valuation on a growing sensibility in modern American culture. That is, many young people are fascinated with older, simpler times — times perceived as more authentic, more real — and strive to mimic those styles today. This has become one of the more telling ironies of the digital age; despite state-of-the-art mobile hardware and software (HDR imaging, panorama apps, and so on), the look of film prevails.
This “authentic” aesthetic has become a hallmark of youth culture, most obviously in fashion — look to Portland, Brooklyn, and Somerville and see spectacles and facial hair that recall There Will Be Blood. Printed dresses and bags appropriate the imagery and typefaces of horse-and-buggy street signs. Thrift stores, antique shops, and flea markets have become bastions for penny-pinchers and aesthetes alike. Once, hipsterism was the domain of snarky, nerdy types; now, a more dominant style has emerged, led by bearded brewers, organic farmers, and heartfelt artisans. It seems that, in our post-recession culture, the mystique of the past comes less from its ironic value than from its perceived genuineness, utility, and simplicity. (This artisan image is also comedy gold, as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have proved in their show Portlandia.)
Our media diets reflect this fascination. Take the case of LA-based singer Lana Del Rey. The music video to her alluring, downbeat 2011 single “Video Games” was drenched in Super-8 footage of California, vintage cartoons, and shots of the singer crooning into the camera with her 1960s-era Diana Rigg coiffure and make-up. Propped up by a mosaic of old-school imagery, Del Rey was endorsed by gatekeepers of cool, like the indie-music site Pitchfork. But, when news broke out that her act was staged (the singer’s real name is Elizabeth Grant and the Del Rey image was essentially just a tactic for pop-star fame), she was torn apart online. “Del Rey wasn’t the undiscovered organically grown rare orchid [bloggers] had hoped,” The Economist wrote last March. “Rather, she was nurtured in the corporate hothouse.” There is much to legitimately dislike about Del Rey, but since when are sugary pop singers required to have such inner sincerity?
Other nostalgic media are more successful. In a funny way, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist was put through one big Instagram filter (the black-and-white, silent-film setting). But the format wasn’t seen as pretentious. Unlike Del Rey, Hazanavicius was humble in his ambitions, using the silent film as a medium to convey a very specific drama in its own history. Period pieces like Mad Men and Downton Abbey have a similar allure on television, praised not just for their cool, old-fashioned look, but for their slow-moving plots and subtle, unassuming themes. Perhaps by combining an antique setting with understated drama, these shows are probing at some bygone truthfulness that a rapid, digital age lacks. This is one popular line of thought: that our nostalgic obsession with times that were slower and simpler is an unconscious reaction against the flux and ambiguity around us in technology, politics, and economics.
Or, our nostalgic craze could be just that — nostalgia. As Adam Gopnik opines in an April edition of The New Yorker, the cultural landscape of each generation is always looking wistfully to the past — specifically, forty years prior. Media executives, usually in their mid-forties, are keen to examine the “fascinating time just as we arrived,” Gopnik writes, “When our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.” It is no coincidence, then, that Matthew Weiner, born in 1965, picks this era for his show Mad Men. Perhaps like a make-believe time machine, Instagram, too, can simply be a fun escape to eras we never knew first-hand.
The problem with the “Golden Forty-Year Rule” is that it does not explain nostalgia outside of Hollywood and HBO. Nowadays, executives are not the only ones deciding what is fashionable — people on Twitter are. And the cultural proletariat who grew up with iPods are fascinated with every decade before 2000, not just 1972. The varied portfolio of Instagram filters reflects this, each era mined for its style, sound, and look. In a word, British music journalist Simon Reynolds refers to the current zeitgeist as “retromanic” — obsessed with its own immediate past. Reynolds thinks something deeper than whimsical nostalgia is at hand, a standstill of the entire motor driving cultural change.
Kurt Andersen, author and host of WNYC’s Studio 360, took this position in Vanity Fair last winter as well. It’s a familiar, postmodern story: true creativity is dead so we (the empty, high-capitalist vessels that we are) have become a mindless, confused pastiche of past decades’ ideas and styles. Andersen is deeply bothered by the fact that culture has stagnated for the last twenty years (while developments elsewhere, like technology, have soared) and he claims that the regurgitation of “authentic,” Civil War-era flair is just a continuation of this narrative: “I feel as if the whole culture is stoned, listening to an LP that’s been skipping for decades, playing the same groove over and over. Nobody has the wit or gumption to stand up and lift the stylus.” (Funny how the complaint these days isn’t “kids are cut off from history” but “kids are looking backward too much.”)
Andersen’s take is piercing, and it is certainly true that for Instagram and its pop-culture equivalents like Mad Men, the appeal is usually mindless. I would even agree that something different and enduring has happened to cultural change itself. But perhaps the feedback-loop of style, our growing fascination with old-and-earnest things, indicates something underlying deeper: a skepticism of the free market that requires us to constantly consume new material.
This brings us to the most exciting take on authenticity: that maybe, for a small core of young people, the authentic aesthetic is a genuine rebellion. Cultural critic Ted Gioia seems to think this is so. In an essay in AdBusters last year, Gioia writes how today’s counter-culture, disillusioned by the excesses of capitalism and intellectually charged by new developments in science and sustainability, recycles tried-and-true things to subvert an economic system that relies on provisional trends and rapid consumption. We’re entering a “postcool” age, he says, when phoniness is out and self-made, artisanal, taupe-colored authenticity is king. Fashion, by his logic, has simply followed the lead of organic and sustainable ideals that have hopped off the fringe and into the mainstream.
This poses a problem for corporations and advertisers. As they scramble to profit off new attitudes among young people — they are no longer leading the charge — companies end up self-mutilating the brands they’ve aggrandized over the last half-century. Ads for Odwalla fruit juice, Gioia points out, are shrouded with hokey organic imagery and commitments to sustainability. But even the finest print on their website fails to mention that they are wholly owned by Coca-Cola, the Death Star of mass production. Acutely aware of a distinct cultural and social shift, multinationals must hide or dramatically remodel the brands they’ve worked so hard to make seem hip.
True, Instagram is not exactly an anti-capitalist force, but it is neutrally reflective of an underlying “postcool” sensibility that could last. Instagram, like Coca-Cola, is only putting on a mask of authenticity — but in a subtle way it is also promoting simpler times when film cameras were actually used. Newness is passé. And, as this attitude continues to disseminate thanks to Facebook’s acquisition, I think there is much to celebrate. There are some prolific words from the late David Foster Wallace who, speaking on German television, asserted that
the people who are rebelling meaningfully don’t buy a lot of stuff and don’t get their view of the world from television… In America, we think of rebellion as this very sexy thing and that it involves action and force. My guess is that the forms of rebellion that will end up changing anything meaningfully here will be very quiet and very individual, and probably not all that interesting to look out from the outside.
Maybe rebels are, as ever, the trailblazers of style. But the subversives of today — the most authentic ones — have abandoned changing, easily marketable appearances. Instead, their (lack of) coolness simply stagnates — and now each day, on Facebook.