Instagram turns five, releases stats that tell us something about ourselves

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In honour of its fifth birthday, photo-sharing app Instagram has revealed its top five most-followed account holdersAriana Grande is in at number five with 44.6 million followers, Selena Gomez has 45.9 million, Beyonce has 47.2, Kim Kardashian has 48.1 million followers and Instagram queen Taylor Swift has 49.6.

These five have a few things in common. They are all American. They are all relatively young and attractive. And they are all women. This says something, perhaps, about the space American cultural products take up globally (75 percent of the top five’s fans come from outside the U.S.). It certainly says something about the space that women, or more specifically, images of women, take up in our cultural landscape. These passages from John Berger’s art history classic “Ways of Seeing” are food for thought:

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

Is it a coincidence that the most followed people on a photo-sharing app are women, and good-looking ones at that? (By way of comparison, I checked Twitter’s top five. Taylor Swift makes it in here at number 4, but she is joined by Katy Perry at number one, Justin Bieber at number two, Barack Obama at number three and YouTube at number five):

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According to Reuters, Charles Porch, who heads global creative programs at Instagram, puts the top five’s popularity partly down to the authenticity of their feeds. “The type of content we see from these people [i.e. the top five] is authentic and often times really fun,” he said, making reference to  Swift sharing  cat videos and Beyonce sharing holiday snaps. He also said that, “What Instagram is doing is giving all these ladies a direct line to their fans and, by having a direct line, they’re controlling their message.”

But surely, these Instagram stats hold up a mirror to society that goes beyond today’s superstar-fan dynamic. Berger articulated it so well in his book, which was published all the way back in 1972. We are used to seeing images of women, through centuries of art history to more recent popular culture. Women grow up with a sense that they are there to be looked at, that they are seen, that they are objects to be evaluated visually. Instagram, beloved by so many of us who nurse avante-garde photography ambitions or minor narcissism complexes, reflects this perfectly.

(Full disclosure: This is the second time I have discussed John Berger in a post on this blog about women in popular culture. Have a read of the first one here).

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