Source: Flickr

I don’t have a particularly emphatic presence on Instagram. I find the whole process quite stressful, mainly because I worry about the reception each post and story might have. It’s a mundane worry, and one that is in itself self-centered; I’m sure the girl I met once when I was 15 couldn’t care less about my dad’s birthday. And yet this is the nature of Instagram – fundamentally appearance-based, performative and powered by social validation. 

If it is fair to say that a post or a story is inherently based on what others see, and in this way becomes an affirmation of outward perceptions of our own character, then it is also fair to conclude that the purpose of these two components is to represent to others our “principles” and appearances. When we combine this superficial foundation with important, meaningful messages as we so often see purported in Instagram, we begin to see the performative culture of virtue-signaling take its place. 

Virtue-signaling is problematic in many ways. Primarily, it allows the virtue-signaller to validate the perception of themselves as do-gooders without actually having done any tangible good, and in this way divulges them of the responsibility to do so. It prevents us from thinking about what is being said, and instead allows us to use the image of progressiveness as a cover for our own inaction. It is essentially an illusion used to tell others – and ourselves – that we are ‘good’ people, without genuinely caring about the issue at hand. This much is true of not all, but many who take an active role in sharing posts that concern prevalent social issues.

Whilst virtue-signaling is by nature shallow and contemptible, this should not distract from a question of impact. Although a story sharing posts on, say, Pride Month may mean nothing more than an addition to the sharer’s portfolio of empty progressiveness, there is the chance that one follower might just open their mind to an opinion not previously considered. If these posts, be it from the foundations of virtue-signaling or authentic passion, begin to engender a culture of awareness that has not previously existed, should we not encourage this kind of sharing? Should we perhaps not be so quick to raise our noses at those we believe to be inferior in their intentions? 

Instagram is, as I have already said, based upon appearances. But there is the potential for it to be more. We’ve seen the rise of LADbible from orientating itself around humorous content to a company that is driving social change, particularly with men aged 30 and under. Instagram too taps into a demographic other informative outlets are unable to reach. If this were not shared on social media, these demographics would not access vital information in the same way. 

Yet it is also important to recognise that according to what is shared and how, the impacts we have will change. Posting links to funds and charities will have a direct causal relationship with an increase in donations, and this in turn will effect positive change from the ground up. There is a clear difference between this kind of message and one that is reposting images with little or no information. Consider the value of your post; is it helping the cause you say you are supporting, or is it simply a way in which you can affirm your social media image? If you posted a black square on Blackout Tuesday, did you consider the detrimental impact this might have on information being provided by the hashtag BlackLivesMatter? We need to be more aware of the space we take.

Equally, criticising such posts could be taking up valuable space on your social media.Your choice to condemn others could have meant that the opportunity to make a practical and positive impact around you was lost Can you wholeheartedly claim that you too are not a virtue-signaller, that you have in your actions now and in the past contributed to the cause you say you are defending?

We should all be able to agree that posting according to a social trend is not enough. It’s a start, but it doesn’t – and it shouldn’t – stop there. We need to start putting our money where our social media image is; we need to donate, learn to challenge others, get out and protest, educate ourselves on the issues that really matter. 

I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from sharing informative or supportive messages. But if you are looking to validate your conscience, take your empty words elsewhere. What we post can, and does, matter. One well-directed message can lead to real change, both in perceptions and in society. One meaningless, performative piece of activism can devalue an entire movement. 

Flora Windebank

Flora is studying French and Italian at Christ Church. She would like someone to believe her when she says the scar on her knee came from a shark and hopes this biography will make it happen.