Originality is dying: how social media is hindering self-expression

Last summer, I moved into a new house and like many other new homeowners I couldn’t wait to head to Instagram for some inspiration on interiors. Before I’d even signed on the dotted line, I had immersed myself in beautiful pastel kitchens and intricate bathroom tiling. But it wasn’t long before I felt wholly uninspired. The exact same styles, in the same homes were cropping up again and again. Was this really all the world of interior design had to offer?

Over recent years, there has been a huge growth in the use of “visual discovery” social channels. These platforms have been key in inspiring millions of chefs, home owners, beauty addicts and globe trotters with new ideas, and have allowed those with a creative passion to connect from across the globe. A whole new generation of style influencers have emerged who are able to express themselves without the constraints of traditional media institutions. Never before have we had access to so much visual inspiration from so many different voices.

But recently, when I scroll through my Instagram feed or look at the content of top influencers and brands, it all looks strangely familiar. In reality, has social media created a vacuum for creativity, and have all our tastes started to become homogenised?

Predictable content

Katherine Omerod writes “Social media has become an echo chamber of mainstream and predictable content”, in her book How Social Media is Ruining Your Life. In our obsessive quest for likes, people and brands are learning the recipe for a popular post and recreating the same images over and over again. Even top influencers on these platforms have admitted to identifying which of their competitors’ posts received the most likes, and then recreating it.

The phenomenon is best shown by the Instagram account InstaRepeat which pokes fun at the #wanderlust generation of travellers, the group who are supposedly the embodiment authenticity and independence. The account collects identical travel posts and then reposts them as a collage with a suitably sarcastic caption. As a new generation of travellers are fed the same images over and again, we are seeing a big impact on the decisions they make on where to travel.

In the world of interiors, when prominent influencer Erica Davies posted a picture featuring a rug from the retailer La Redoute, the Instagram interiors world went crazy. Not only did the rug sell out six times within a year, but it was even honoured with its own Instagram page with over 6,000 followers. Now there is hardly an interiors post which doesn’t feature a very similar monochrome, Atlas mountain rug.

However, is there really anything new happening here?

It has always been in our nature to mimic what we see around us, and there is certainly nothing new in people being influenced by aspirational celebrities and brands. Academic studies have even put the scientific proof behind this (Chartrand & Bargh call it the “Chameleon Effect”), and we also now understand more about how images and pictures are much more likely to influence our decisions than text – the “picture superiority effect”.

But since the dawn of the digital era and the explosion of social media, a lot has changed.

How social media has changed

Firstly, the sheer quantity of images we’re exposed to has grown exponentially. 95 million images are uploaded every day on Instagram, more than 100 billion pins currently living on Pinterest and the average person spends 116 minutes a day on social media. Previously, when we had much less access to this kind of content, we would just make our own rules when it came to fashion, design and culture.

Secondly, the way we are able to control which images we see within visual discovery platforms means we narrow the pool of potential influences even further. Eli Pariser’s acclaimed book “The Filter Bubble” exposed the way we limit the variety of content we allow ourselves to see, particularly on platforms like Amazon and Netflix, but we’re still doing it. And now we are now seeing the impact spread to the clothes we wear, holidays we take and the furniture we buy.

Finally, the seamless purchasing routes that social media platforms are starting to offer means that with the touch of a button users can instantly buy whatever they see in posts. Consumers are able to recreate a style or experience, without any opportunity to shape that decision through future experiences and influences.

Beyond short term engagement

Some brands have fallen foul of this trend in the same way that influencers have. Flatlays, motivational statements, 90s photos with a witty caption – we see the same posts over and over again, all designed to maximise engagement within a specific platform. As audiences start to get bored it’s important that brands start taking a different approach and think beyond just short term engagement.

Brand authenticity is at the heart of creating a unique voice on these platforms. “Perfect” posts may get the most likes, but do they get remembered? Instagram Stories have been a huge success since they launched in 2016. The raw, unedited nature of the videos have resonated with people, and allow us to feel closer to the brands and influencers we follow.

Diesel is one example of a brand who have rejected the idea of perfection and “sameness” on Instagram, opting for rougher, more authentic visual content. In 2017 they made the decision to delete their entire Instagram feed in order to focus on the spontaneous, the flawed and the imperfect.

Following this model, brands can use experiments with the formats they use to standout. New formats like Instagram TV have allowed brands to start using the platform as a broadcast channel for longer form videos. Instazines are another example of this. Ballantine’s created a whisky magazine entirely on Instagram and was one of the first brands to use Instagram as a publisher back in 2015.

Social media shouldn’t just be about surrounding ourselves with what is comfortable. We have an opportunity to embrace diversity in all its forms and make ourselves more unique people in the process. So, follow people and places on social media that challenge your thinking, that broaden your understanding of style and design and travel and food. The opportunities for inspiration are endless. Don’t let yourself just see one part of it.

Hannah Gillett is strategy director of Spark Foundry UK

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