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‘I had to mute my best friend’: How pandemic Instagram became the worst of us

During the coronavirus crisis, Instagram’s close friends tool found new users in those bending Covid restrictions. Natasha Preskey examines how the pandemic changed the face of the app we hate to love

Friday 15 January 2021 18:55 GMT

When Ellie began shielding, the pictures and videos her friends posted on Instagram became her only window into their day-to-day lives. “My screen time is through the roof,” the 27-year-old tells me over the phone from her parents’ home in Dorking, Surrey, where she moved when the pandemic began. “I feel like I need [social media] more than ever, because I feel so isolated.”  

Before the first lockdown, Ellie, who has a heart condition, was on the typical treadmill of a twenty-something London office worker, commuting into the city each day and, somehow, still having the energy to go to the gym five times a week. “I've never thought of myself as being a vulnerable person,” she says. “That was quite difficult to come to terms with.”

As the months drew on, tapping through her circle’s stories turned from a source of much-needed social connection to a painful reminder that, through a combination of ignorance and indifference, many of her friends were breaking Covid-19 restrictions.  

She tells The Independent that a large proportion of these were posted using the app’s “close friends” function, which allows users to restrict stories to a small group of their followers, making it more private (and covert) than general stories. Ellie says her friends have been using the tool to “do whatever they want” - ranging from minor infractions like not standing two metres apart, to drinking in friends’ gardens, to full-blown house parties.  

“At times, I've sat in my room and cried about it,” she says. “But, on the other hand, that's the only lifeline I've got to know how my friends are.”  

If we thought the internet, and social media, defined our lives and identities in the before times, March 2020 showed us we hadn’t seen anything yet. Last year was the year of the rise (and fall) of the HouseParty pub quiz, of your nan making a TikTok, and everyone and their dog taking pictures of a sourdough starter for Instagram. The switch to our new digital-only lives was so quick that shares of video-calling apps like Zoom skyrocketed. According to some early estimates, revenue for the Silicon Valley company rose 355 per cent in less than a year.

Lucy, 22, from Manchester, says she also used the close friends function much more since the pandemic. In her case, this has been to share TikToks, memes or “funnier photos'' of herself with a select group of 45 people, rather than her full following of 2,000. But, like Ellie, she has noticed an uptick in the number of close friends stories that reveal restriction breaking. “They used to post about it quite publicly, and then they got fined for having a party,” Lucy says. “Now, if they're ever with a bigger group of people, that will only be on close friends.”  

Instagram rolled out its close friends feature in late 2018. It is seen by many as the app’s response to increasing numbers of users creating ‘Finsta’ accounts - private profiles usually only followed by their inner circle. Pre-Covid this might have just been content they wouldn’t want their boss, mum or a distant acquaintance to see. Now it seems to be being used by many to share instances of rule-breaking. The app told The Independent it doesn’t have any up-to-date statistics on how many people have made use of it during the pandemic.

“They used to post about it quite publicly, and then they got fined for having a party"

Lucy, 22

Of course, this type of usage poses the question: if you’re self-aware enough to consciously only share with a few people, why post at all? Jaimee Stuart, a lecturer in applied psychology at Griffin University in Brisbane says for younger users, sharing a picture of them at a mate’s house during lockdown is similar to other kinds of “normative rule-breaking behaviour” in adolescence and early adulthood, like underage drinking. Some people do this in an effort to “connect with their peers” through shared boundary-pushing, she adds.  

Although, Stuart insists that it is only a “small number” of young people who are breaking the rules, and that rule-breaking is likely to cluster in social groups. She says people may absorb what are known as injunctive norms - an understanding of what behaviours are accepted in a group - and descriptive norms - what behaviours are common - from they see on their timeline.  

Bernie Hogan, senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Internet Institute, agrees that levels of adherence to rules are likely to be common to members of social groups. “I suspect there's a lot of reconfiguring of social groups towards shared levels of risk tolerance,” he says.  

Stuart insists most young people are following the rules

Hogan, however, suggests that many of those restricting who can see their rule-bending, but continuing to post anyway, may not see what they’re doing as wrong, but still be aware that it is not a good idea to share widely. “They see themselves as happy,” he says. “And they want to share that happiness with other people. They think that, because something didn't happen to them, or they don't think something happened to them, that it was okay.”

But for friends like Ellie, who are socially connected to these rule-breaking groups, but not taking part, she thinks people are mis-reading the room. “Maybe people who are breaking the rules and posting it on their close friends story don't have as good a gauge as they think they do of what the attitudes are of the people that they've added to it,” she says. “At times, I've had to mute some of my best friends because I can't look at it."

“We’ve been under the illusion that online life is not real for a very long time" 

Jaimee Stuart

“We’ve been under the illusion that online life is not real for a very long time,” says Jaimee Stuart. “This is a misunderstanding that I think a lot of people are becoming really, really aware of now - that online life is an extension of our lives, and we were already using it that way.”

Whether we give people the benefit of the doubt or not, it is clear that, for many people, it isn’t as simple as just not posting, when apps like Instagram throw fuel on the fire of self-branding. Alexandra Georgakopoulou, professor of discourse analysis and sociolinguistics at King’s College London, says they are “ego-centred” platforms, which previously revolved around visual, aspirational content and us “sharing on the go”, which of course is now limited.

In lockdown, this has all changed. For most people, holidays, restaurants and parties have been replaced by solitude, walks and Zoom. “We have seen a demand for authenticity in postings, as the backlashes to influencers’ postings of glamorous homes and lifestyles during lockdown show,” she says, adding that stories have experienced a shift to “mining the mundane” and “imperfect sharing”.

One platform which has provided opportunities to create content that can easily gain traction without having to leave the house is TikTok, which Georgakopoulou calls “the big winner of social media engagements in lockdown”. 

Ellie says she has actually found behaviour on Instagram so frustrating she’s moved to alternative apps, like TikTok and YouTube. “They're much more positive spaces and maybe that's because I don't know the people on there,” she says. “So it gives you that degree of separation from whatever's going on and it doesn't feel quite as personal.”

TikTok reached 100 million users in Europe in 2020

TikTok, which launched in the UK in August 2018, had a great 2020. It reached 100 million users in Europe in September. “2020 was crazy for TikTok,” says TikTok’s editorial lead Yazmin How. “When people go away from it, we've had so much feedback to say they leave the platform feeling really happy. Whereas I think, on other apps, you might leave feeling bad about yourself or feeling like you're not living up to people's expectations, TikTok’s really raw and authentic.”  

Others have changed their social media use during the pandemic, but for different reasons. For Ella Bull, 24, using Instagram’s close friends function has provided an opportunity to freely share the kind of off-the-wall content she enjoys consuming on TikTok. Isolating together, she and her flatmate film themselves doing dances or generally being silly, and she shares it with her close friends list of 20 people (she has almost 1,000 followers). “The other day my flatmate was in the shower singing really loudly and I was filming him,” she offers as an example. “Or like, he’ll be wearing a silky dressing gown, or stupid, funny stuff like that.”

“I am continuously trying to get across the fact that Covid is real"

Dr Emeka Okorocha

As well as being a place that people can share Covid rule-breaking and disengagement with public health messaging, social media has also been somewhere that medical experts are trying to reach and educate younger people. Dr Emeka Okorocha, a 28-year-old A and E doctor in north-east London known just as Dr Emeka online, has gathered a following of over two million by combining public health information with dances and trending pop music. “I thought this would be a great platform to engage with the youth,” he tells The Independent during his coffee break on shift. “I am continuously trying to get across the fact that Covid is real. A lot of people still don't believe it is - you’d be very surprised.”

If 2020 showed us anything it’s that our relationships with social media are becoming more complicated than ever before. Now they are not just platforms for envying holiday or brunch spots, but places to make your adherence to the rules visible and to make moral judgements on other people’s behaviour (or misbehaviour). As usage continues to grow and we are forced away from any IRL interactions with loved ones for months more, the nuance and grace we afford to those we follow appears ever-diminishing.

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