• Ellen Dorrington

The Burden of Proof: Fatherless Squares on Instagram

Last week it was Father’s Day in the UK. Similarly to Mother’s Day, people took to posting a well-meaning, endearing paragraph for their dad, and a smiling photograph to accompany it. Although perhaps not as widespread as Mother’s Day (according to the office for national statistics, lone mothers make up 86% of single parent families, which maybe explains why), there still is an expectation for posts honouring our fathers. This is a symptom of an online world that has become deeply visual – we now are expected to curate online personas, and this has lasting effects in all aspects of our lives. Employers see our online portfolio when we apply for work, we gain friends and potential romantic interests from our very best selfies, and we try to appease friends, old school friends, family, work colleagues, enemies and nemeses. The presence, or absence, of a Father’s day post can inform an assumption of that person – or even, create an assumption of ourselves.

Like Mothers Day, there’s a call to remember those who struggle on Father’s Day. Illustrated graphics inform us that the re-sharer is thinking of the new dads, people who want to be dads, people with distant dads, people with dead dads. However, the perspective of our private holidays becoming public in the age of social media doesn’t allow for much private grief – in the absence of sharing, this can be an admission of something else entirely; that perhaps, maybe, we must be one of those groups in the graphic. “You can tell a person’s relationship with their dad based on whether they’ve posted a picture of them on social media or not.” A Twitter user posts. Although misguided, and called out, this statement solidifies this expectation: that what we post has spectators. The statement ignores the fact that public displays of love, affection, or honour, can often mask a complete and nuanced relationship behind the photograph. And although lots of Dads’ are on social media, lots aren’t, and the expectation of a public post, even though the person who it’s for probably won’t see it, alludes to our wider expectation: that we perform for our watchers, our followers, rather than our personal and familial relationships.

It extends deeper into our sense of identity and self – If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one there to insta it, does it really fall? This question fuels a series of anxious posts. Did we really graduate if no one saw the picture of me in my cap and gown? Did I have a birthday if there’s not a photo of me, and an assembly of my closest friends? We perform for an invisible audience, that reveal themselves through likes and comments – but mostly, they scroll past, only glancing at what we’re trying to present. It’s a paradox of worrying that people care and then not caring yourself. The quality and arrangement of these photos matter more than their contents – the bluer the sea, the better the holiday. We edit and colour and filter, trying to reflect our internal selves as best we can in our feed.

We try to be moral and good people on the internet. It fuelled the dilemma of the black square – erasing a whole hashtag of informative content and activism in one fell swoop, the black square was used by white people everywhere to ‘make a statement’. But what statement were we making? We were posting out of fear of accusation, of being racist ourselves. We were posting because not posting at all had become unacceptable. We wanted to say something without saying anything much at all, so we could stay off the hook, unscrutinised for the part we play in upholding racist systems, unwilling to admit we benefit from and perpetuate white supremacy. The black square was a way to be an ally, but the easy way, and eventually many peoples’ feeds turned back to normal, the black square being pushed further and further down their page.

We fear people's judgment on what we post (and what we don’t). But more and more internet cultures have developed in order to avert this gaze, to have freedom in how they portray themselves online. Finstas, or ‘fake instagrams’ act as anti-surveillance accounts, where users are free to utilise the platform as a safe space in order to express their emotions. By reclaiming private digital space they are free (at least in part) to subvert the internet’s collective gaze away from themselves, and post messy, ugly, unfiltered posts and long captions as a form of emotional expression. In a post exploring Finstas, blogger Victoria Daka describes the experience as ‘having a private account where you can ramble and vent and not make sense, (it) can be great because there’s no pressure to have a coherent conversation with someone. You’re just saying things out into the world, without expecting a reply, without being interrupted and without any judgement.’ She goes on to say ‘having a private account is like having a diary. It (is) just a literal private space.’

Seeking privacy in a world with mass monitoring (whether we’re actively aware of it or not) can count as an act of rebellion. By selecting who we want to see our accounts, and who we want to consume or content, we can harvest small, safe and selected groups, free from unwanted eyes, or worse, unsafe commenters. The permeance of the internet is never fully visual, however: a user can delete bad feelings by deleting old tweets or posts, they can block people who follow them, and hide from the world. Writing our feelings in a diary can make our inner worlds discoverable, or too tangible and concrete. On the internet we can shapeshift, present the image we want the world to see, or conversely, post the opposite.

We’ve invited this surveillance and these watchers into our life willingly. We know that they can bring us happiness and satisfaction. To have a visual record of the good times in your life is refreshing and makes us feel present and seen. However, we can also have feelings of inadequacy, low-self esteem and judgement from being on the platform too. Instagram rewards those with money, those who can curate a certain look, who can show off their experiences and activities and stylish homes. They need to be wealthy in time, as well as money. Even in quarantine, an ultimate leveller (you can’t post your fun adventures if you can’t leave your house) this still has little effects on those lucky people who can work from home, posting aesthetic corners of their houses. For a lot of us, the content of our life can’t fill those squares – or at least, not in our public Instagram accounts.

Instagram hiding likes addresses a surface level, visual representation of this inadequacy, but in reality, the Instagram bug, and what we put in our squares (and what we can’t) is a deeper question that we need to ask of ourselves, a question that requires us to review our relationship with the platform, to remove the square-shaped goggles from our eyes.

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