Every day, each of us faces a choice in how to think about our lives: do we manipulate the truth to make things seem better than they would otherwise, or do we live in light of complete honesty about our experiences, no matter the cost?
Both options are compelling. On one hand, we feel a strong pull to remember things exactly as they happened; anything less feels inauthentic. On the other, we consistently romanticize past relationships and hardly feel guilty about it. As storytelling beings, humans are hardwired for drama and a certain aestheticizing of our lived experience. Sometimes we push honesty aside and feel deeply, truly satisfied while looking at the past through rose-colored glasses.
For our generation, this contradiction has become especially public. Instagram and other social media platforms provide ample opportunity for the public curation of our life story, as users can add filters to the photos they post and even use apps to edit their waistline and face, effortlessly glamorizing their experiences. At the same time, a commitment to honesty in social media is embedded in the millennial conscience. Secondary profiles — Finstas, or whatever you want to call them — are created for more privacy and honesty. Their very existence suggests an awareness that most Instagram accounts are rife with an inauthenticity we condemn.
Finding a way to reconcile an honest portrayal of life with an aestheticized one is difficult enough when we tell our story to ourselves. But with Instagram, we aren’t just telling our story to ourselves; we are telling it to other people. How should we go about striking a balance?
Stanford philosopher Lanier Anderson can help. In “Nietzsche on Truth, Illusion, and Redemption,” Anderson outlines an apparent contradiction between Nietzsche’s praise of honesty and artistry. At first, Nietzsche seems utterly committed to truth as an ideal and views the pursuit of it as crucial to living a good life. But he also encourages people to live as the artists of their own existence, advocating for a sort of artistic manipulation that seems at odds with his praise of honesty.
Anderson argues that Nietzschean honesty and artistry are not mutually exclusive. Instead, he suggests, they serve as counterforces for each other. “Truthfulness and artistry,” he writes, “could each be goods for us, just as sweet and sour are both good in sauces.” He believes we should “tell our lives to ourselves in the most beautiful way possible consistent with the demands of honesty, and as honestly as we can, given that they must be attractive enough to affirm.” Honesty and artistry don’t repel each other; each reigns in the other.
On Instagram, we can easily identify people committed to either extreme. One kind of person approaches social media with a firm commitment to honesty: they post things to remember them and to see their life as it is. To saturate one’s photos and adjust contrast features is to betray one’s commitment to authenticity. These tools make the moments less real — “artistry” is relegated to a convenient euphemism that masks a more insidious grab for social status.
Another kind of person sees Instagram as an artistic project. Some people “grid” their photos or use color palettes and themes to achieve a sense of coherence across their profile. Selectively posting your best moments that show you as the sort of person who visits certain places and interacts with certain people, and making moments seem better by adding certain filters, are all ways of making our lives seem more attractive.
This sort of artistry does paint a “better” picture of one’s life to others, in one sense of the word. But it is admittedly difficult to disentangle the kind of “better” or “good” that comes from telling an interesting and beautiful story from the sort of “good” that comes from the social status gained by projecting a certain image. In contrast to telling our story to ourselves, when we tell our story to others, the morally questionable rewards of inauthenticity are heightened. Meanwhile, the rewards of honesty are less obvious.
Disavowing artistry entirely in order to avoid the temptation of seeking status, however, is not the answer. Pretending that Instagram isn’t about a life highlight reel to a degree and pretending that it isn’t for other people to a degree misses the point and is counter-productive. Even just by taking photos, we are magnifying certain moments over others and distorting reality. We can’t preserve a sense of honesty in how we tell our stories to other people if we are dishonest about the very fact that our Instagram is in part for other people and that crafting our narrative through photos is inevitably an artistic process.
Just because we can’t pinpoint an exact balance doesn’t mean we don’t know when we’ve gone too far in either direction. Blatantly lying on social media — pretending you went to an event that you didn’t attend, for example — to make yourself seem a certain way is going too far. An exaggerated, larger-than-life public persona that strays unrecognizably from who you take yourself to be is going too far. That’s artistry at the expense of honesty.
Conversely, we shouldn’t condemn people for posting pictures with filters or pictures that glamorize moments. While a healthy distrust of Instagram as a reflection of reality is important, and a shift towards honesty in our social media use is probably warranted, honesty alone is not a realistic or even desirable end goal for our social media use. Storytelling and image construction as an artistic practice, approached without the intention to deceive or mislead others, is crucial to capturing the genuine joy we often find in effective and beautiful connection on social media.
All other things aside, the process of telling our story to other people is still about us; after critically examining our own feelings, being able justify our own levels of honesty and artistry in the creation of our social media presence is entirely personal and the result of deliberate internal reflection. At least for me, this is comforting; we have complete control not just over what we present on social media, but also how we feel about it. Although it’s not easy, each of our narratives — whether for us or for others — deserves this kind of attention.
Contact Tristan Wagner at triwag ‘at’ stanford.edu