(Graphic by Storey McDonald | The Daily Utah Chronicle)
February 28, 2022
In the past year, Instagram Stories has become one of the most popular places to spread information rapidly, succinctly and aesthetically, likely due to intuitive design and utility in social justice causes. Sharing a post on a hot-button topic only requires a few simple clicks, without ever having to engage with the account’s main profile. However, with the explosion of Instagram infographics in the advent of Black Lives Matter’s online presence and accounts like @chnge or @soyouwantthetruthabout, users are calling out the performative nature of sharing political statements on social media.
In a Vox article called “How Social Justice Slideshows Took Over Instagram,” graphic designer Eric Hu points to Instagram’s algorithm as key. “Instagram privileges certain content, like attractive people, vacation photos, and graphics with inspirational messages. But now, you’re seeing a lot of infographics trying to Trojan horse these tropes to trick the algorithm,” he said.
The article goes on to describe how Instagram’s algorithm “actively fights against” the trends of these slideshows, but the sort of inspiration quote-quality to the inviting pastel colors, the bold fonts and accessibility of design make even the most apolitical of users buy into the style of these posts even before the impact of the text takes root.
Hu invokes the metaphor of the Trojan horse for a reason — it’s a useful strategy, but one that masks ulterior motives of increasing one’s social clout on the backs of movements that matter.
In the Bustle piece “Are Instagram Activism Resources Helpful Or Performative?” contributor Diyora Shadijanova says, “[Infographics] may give the illusion of making change, but without actively committing to it, or addressing their own contributions to the problem, it becomes a case of performative activism or ‘wokewashing.’” Simply adding the initials “BLM” to your bio or sharing a single post to plant a tree somewhere isn’t contributing anything beyond fluff.
But is performatively utilizing social media in this way necessarily negative? According to a study from Pew Research center, 48% of U.S. adults say they get news from social media “often” or “sometimes,” and while the Digital News Report from Reuters finds that the COVID-19 pandemic increased the consumption from traditional news sources, social media is a main contender for how we stay informed.
While these platforms are rife with misinformation, if an account on Instagram will remind you when and how to vote, introduce you to climate change statistics or teach you how to use someone’s pronouns properly, I’d argue that it is political and cultural engagement in some minute form. I don’t believe infographics are a trend we should condemn, but rather filter more thoroughly.
The University of Utah’s main Instagram account has over 100,000 followers, and almost every department or office on campus has its own account that features its news in similar cheugy-yet-appealing red and white posts.
My own feed served as a solid point of connectivity to campus during the 2020-2021 school year — when I wasn’t on campus every day, I still saw event posts from the Center for Student Wellness reminding me to practice self-care. I saw friends and peers at the College of Fine Arts featured for their work.
Most notably, with elections fast approaching, each ASUU presidential ticket for the 2021-2022 academic year had its own Instagram account, a trend I assume will continue in the next election. Voters could actively follow the Paul ticket’s swooping blue and yellow aesthetic selling campus safety, the Sanchez ticket’s royal purple theme pushing voting reminders into the feeds of their followers and the winning Wojciechowski ticket featuring bold pinks and reds with their message of promoting the voices of female students and leaders.
Each account only boasts a couple hundred followers, but I think it again speaks for the duality of performative and appealing posts. They’re eye-catching and cohesive. Maybe they’re vapid, but their presence is valuable.
Social media isn’t going away on our campus or in our culture, and it’s something that can make a powerful impact if it’s used properly. And sure, the same swirling, aesthetic fonts might appear performative and annoying, but it has potential to change our engagement for the better.
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