A Philosophical Defense of “Propping for Instagram”

Social media is like a crowded bar. It may be unpleasant, but everybody goes, because everybody is there. As a result, much like an overstuffed room full of belligerent drunks, Twitter and Facebook have devolved into ideological echo chambers full of vitriol, decorate with all the bad “showing off” and bragging behavior we were rightly discouraged from displaying as children.

I have to say though, Instagram seems different. Yes, you can easily find toxic garbage on it, but you can even more easily find beauty and sincerity. And, unlike Twitter and Facebook, its API prevents third-party apps from posting to it, which keeps spam and duplication to a bare minimum.

Complaints about Instagram tend to focus on one of two areas: its somewhat arbitrarily enforced censorship (legitimate artists often have their accounts shut down for nudity, while aspiring models use tiny blurred dots to squeak their images under the bar), and the artificiality of “propping for Instagram” — artfully styling and posing the elements of a photograph to create a “share-worthy” image that is ostensibly candid, but actually contrived.

Censorship is as censorship does, but the idea of “propping” intrigues me. As a professional photographer, I have had a few opportunities to work with food and prop stylists, and they are fantastic. It makes it so much easier to take a good photo when the subject matter is arranged in an attractive way. So, in that respect, I admire the Insta-propping itself as an expression of creativity and skill.

Certainly this can be taken to an extreme. An episode of “Black Mirror” demonstrates this beautifully, showing a woman taking a bite out of a cookie, spitting the bite into a napkin, and then happily posting a photo of the dantily-sampled confection.

Looks yummy. But of course it’s too much sugar, so the bite is just for show.
Lovely lighting in this café.

Is this kind of thing superficial and borderline deceptive? Yes, probably. But I see something else in it too. I see an effort to create, share, and appreciate small moments of beauty. If it takes a dozen shots to get the angle of your selfie just right, how is that different from a painter moving around his subject in order to find the most pleasing point of view? Or, to use a better example, if the idea of posting your home-baked bread on Instagram inspires you to take extra care with your efforts, and to plate it with a more attractive presentation, doesn’t that add a little bit of real pleasure to your life? And doesn’t that aesthetic experience have real value?

I propose that it does. The world has plenty of ugliness. There are lots of white plastic bags and overflowing trash cans, and an abundance of beat-up cars and power lines. If moving them out of sight, or cropping them out of your view — even just for the time it takes to snap a pic — inspires you to make your experience on the planet a little more beautiful, that is tremendous. Because, you see, propping is not really fake. When you make a conscious effort to improve the way you or your surroundings look, you’re actually making an improvement. In a tiny way, you’re making the world a nicer place, a better place.

And perhaps, just perhaps, if we get used to seeing the world the way it is when it’s “propped for Instagram,” we’ll start expecting it to be that way all the time. Perhaps we’ll stop settling for our lives to be cluttered with things that are ugly, trashy, and tawdry; things that, in the words of Marie Kondo, “do not spark joy.” Instead, we’ll start looking for things that are beautiful, special, and that do spark joy.

Instead of complaining that Instagram isn’t as banal as our day-to-day reality, maybe we should aspire to make our day-to-day reality as magical as Instagram. Maybe we should build lives — and a world — that is, without any additional propping, worthy of sharing.

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