Whence the humble beginnings of Instagram and the casual snap and share culture of the early 2010s came, there is an altogether different manifestation of our experience of ourselves and our relations in digital spaces which has emerged. One much more insidious, one based on commodification over documentation.
Fast forward ten years and we have filtered and photoshopped Instagram and the like into something unrecognizable. Feeds are highly curated, themed, and sponsored; and one’s digital persona is not just an avatar, it is a simulacrum, a wholly different entity altogether.
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Guy Debord, in his text The Society of the Spectacle proposes the concept of “the spectacle” as a sort of image-driven manifestation of capitalist phenomena which seeks to pacify and distract the masses. He states “the spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”, and in saying this he alludes to the world of representations that exists as the basis of the spectacle, through which all social relations are mediated. These representations, he maintains, are not simply images, but are “capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.”
It makes sense then, that inherently, the images of our lives that we so innocently began sharing and documenting on social media would become monetized, commodified and warped into pseudo-digital billboards for all manner of personas and lifestyles.
“The millennial generation was all about self-branding. It was the infancy of digital self-exploration,” says Jenny Bukuroshi, a digital strategist. “We were sort of unwittingly branding and selling ourselves on the internet under the guise of self-expression and exploration.” Now, however, the tides are turning.
If Instagram could be restored to its former self, what would we do? Is it possible to revert to the halcyon days when Instagram mirrored reality and posting was a simple and fun way to store and share memories? Well, Gen-Z might have the answer. Ever the cultural disruptors, it’s through the casual irreverence with which the generation posts, and with a distinctly Y2K, pre-social media flare. As if to say, I am not a brand I am a person. Their social presence has a much more diaristic quality. And the motifs of their images, too, reflect a certain air of self-conscious acknowledgement of the bounds of representation and construction within the boundaries of social media.
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Take Emma Chamberlain, for example, the Gen Z wunderkind and Y2K connoisseur was for some, the harbinger of casual insta; and with her specific genre, of messy hair, photo-dump relatability comes an acknowledgment of the inherent artifice of social media. She’s always snapping a purposefully cringe selfie mirror selfie, or capturing the awry skewed images of her likeness distorted by the viewfinder screen of a VHS camera.
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This sensibility of casual irreverence is reverberating throughout the feeds of Zillenial’s. Just ask Shy Smith, a bonafide Y2K influencer whose TikTok showcasing a similarly bratty haute take on the Y2K trend has landed her in the pages of Vogue, and amassed a following of hundreds of thousands. “I think since embracing the Y2K aesthetic, I’ve been freer and more experimental. Back in the 2000 celebrities would throw whatever they wanted (on) even if it wasn’t meant to go together.” The sentiment rings true for a generation whose drive toward intentional bad taste and eclecticism can be seen as a revolt against the millennial era of self-branded perfectionism.
@shycsmith🖤 ⚠️ FAKE EVERYTHING FAKE BODY⚠️♬ so many hot ppl have used this omg – ⋆ ˚｡⋆୨୧˚˚୨୧⋆｡˚ ⋆
There’s a sense, in these images, and these clothes, that we are watching us watching ourselves. With every Von Dutch hat and smudged iPhone lens selfie there is an intentionality, a wink if you will and through acknowledging this, we do away with the heavily curated artifice of millennial Instagram. We know these images are constructed, shall we not revel in the artifice of it all? At a time of such economic, social, and spiritual unrest, the trend seems to be a logical next step in the continuation of social media etiquette.
There is an element of nostalgia at play too. Shy for one chalks her Y2K obsession up to childhood memory. “The early 2000s aesthetic has always been my favourite because that’s what I grew up seeing in the media I’d consume. All of my favourite movies, my Bratz dolls, my idols were all from the early to late 2000s so it was just a matter of time before I decided to finally replicate what I had been fed since I was little.”
@shycsmith Made a paparazzi video like the ones back in the day💞 #2000s #y2k ♬ original sound – Shy
Whether it’s VHS footage or clunky film cameras, wired headphones or obsessively cosplaying Y2K era archetypes a la Paris Hilton, there is a cultural regression at play and an intellectual one too. Some trends as of late have circled around the concepts of “bimbo” and “yas-ification”, but they neatly fit into this certain psychological wish to revert; to the unhinged childlike naivete of yesteryear. For Gen Z and Millennials, this period, to be sure, is the late 90s and early 2000s.
We are unstable, we are nostalgic, and we have given up on trying to be perfect, but through every social upheaval or shift, there is an aestheticization as well. Smith and Chamberlain wear their uber-femme cropped knits and mini skirts with pride; it’s a treat to watch.
Cody is the Editor in Chief and senior contributor at liminul.
He is a photography aficionado, fashion enthusiast, avid Lana Del Rey fan, and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.