“I don’t really like it, but I keep doing it,” says teenager Emma Crockett about her experiences with Instagram. For Crockett and millions of other teens, Instagram is just a way of life, a way of documenting her own life and an opportunity to encounter the seemingly perfect life of the famous. Crockett makes Instagram sound exhausting, as she spouts off the rules of the photography app. Don’t post more than one photo a day. For maximum likes, post early on weekdays, later on weekends. Two selfies in a row is a major faux pas.
Some might wonder why Crockett would even bother going so deep with an app she doesn’t even care for. In Jonathan Ignatius Green’s first feature-length documentary, Social Animals, the director shows the online life of three of the Instagram obsessed, and shows while it can be harmful for people like Emma, it can be used as an integral tool to others. For some people, that possibility more than outweighs the downsides.
Kaylyn seems like the sort of Instagram personality that both Fyre documentaries tried to warn about. Kaylyn lives in a mansion in Calabasas, and her bubbly personality could come off as grating, but instead feels like a genuine reaction to her excellent luck in life. Instagram started as just a fun interest between her and her friends, and now as she climbs near half a million followers, Kaylyn is in the process of becoming a model and starting her own clothing line. While most people try to post their best self on Instagram, Kaylyn admits that her life doesn’t really have a downside.
In NYC, Humza is a skateboarder who started taking photos with a secondhand iPhone 4. After climbing bridges in the city for the perfect shot, Humza became notorious as a daring photographer while also criticized by his former friends for selling out. Humza’s success story is a prime example of how Instagram can be used as a force of good, a way of elevating a personal brand in a way that wouldn’t likely have been possible without social media.
In rural Ohio though, Emma simply uses IG to make friends and talk to people in her school. Her story is more of a cautionary tale, as friendships and romantic entanglements have been made even more difficult with the added problems that social media brings along.
The pros and cons for social media usage are of course going to vary based on the user, and while Green uses Emma as an example of how harmful Instagram can be, her story is secondary to the more successful and flashy examples of how IG can work for its users. If Kaylyn and Humza can find popularity and influence beyond their wildest dreams, why wouldn’t someone attempt their own version of this, regardless of the potential downside? Green presents a very uneven reality of Instagram popularity, making the more likely scenario the background. In reality, more Instagram users are going to be more like Kayla from Eighth Grade than Kendall Jenner.
Green does wisely avoid experts on social media, and simply questions its young users on the subject. These interviews include discussions of likes and the word “like” almost as much as “fuck” is used in Scarface. While it’s a smart choice to have this story told through the kids who live it, there’s very little in the way of revelations as to the usage of social media. These interviews simply point out that yes, there are people who are pervy creeps on Instagram, and yes, people’s comments on the app can be incredibly hurtful and cause people to take drastic action. Yet at the end of the day, this is all information known long before watching Social Animals.
To its benefit, Social Animals doesn’t want to demonize social media, but rather Green just presents how these kids see the world through Instagram. In the end, it showcases how harmful social media can be and tries to focus on that, despite showing primarily just how IG can be positive. Like the photos themselves, the filter through which we see these lives is integral to the story itself, and the story Green wants to tell just doesn’t find the necessary balance for a story like this.