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Instagram is one of the last online escapes in the Trump era

There are few places left on the internet where you can avoid Donald Trump. News about the president and his administration dominate Facebook and Twitter in 2017. Seemingly every front page, news app, and headline have been yanked into the gravitational swirl of modern politics. Your options so far are limited: you can boldly embrace what it means to be politically active on social media or you can log off for extended periods of time, but not much else.

However, there is one place where our demagogue-in-chief rarely rears his head: Instagram. The photo-sharing app is one of the last places online that has remained relatively impervious to the Trump effect. Instead of confronting a deluge of horrors in the news, Instagram is a still a place where it feels appropriate and necessary to post a heart-warming selfie, or to douse a shot of the sunset with a little bit too much saturation.

That’s partly because of Instagram’s adversity to conflict. The app is centered around liking and striving to be liked. And because Instagram relies almost solely on pictures, with text being secondary if not wholly irrelevant, the app guides us toward pleasing, well-shot, and fancifully edited moments. This has in the past been a criticism of Instagram. It asks us to candy-coat our lives, choosing only the best and most beautiful photos to dress-up with filters, color correct, and blast out to the world. Depending on your relationship with social media, this aspect of Instagram has ranged from appealing to detrimental, yet more likely somewhere in between.

But what used to be one of Instagram’s biggest weaknesses is now — in the Trump era — one of its defining strengths. Instead of feeling forced to display only your best self, Instagram now feels like a respite from the assault of reality. The photo stream is now an escape, a place where people are encouraged to support one another and share the best part of their day with their friends. Again, this is by design: the baseline interaction on Instagram is to send a heart-shaped like, while strangers rarely if ever pop into your feed to give unsolicited advice or deliver harassing messages.

Beyond that change in context, there are also so many unexplored corners of Instagram that go unnoticed and underappreciated. Instagram is filled with spectacular drone photography, NASA satellite images, and four-frame comics. Many of your favorite artists and bands likely have Instagram accounts, offering windows into their world you can’t find on Twitter or anywhere else. The same goes for video game companies like Blizzard and Bungie, which post videos, screenshots, and fan artwork. Hell, even Myspace co-founder Tom Anderson is a professional travel photographer now — and he posts truly amazing photos on Instagram.

Instagram has always had this bright side, even when it seemed like the most puerile of the modern social networks. Back in 2015, Girls creator Lena Dunham made the point that Instagram, unlike Twitter, is a place for positivity. “It’s one of the few things on the internet that has actually improved my life,” she said in a conversation with Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom. Dunham was commenting on her decision to step back from Twitter after enduring yet another anonymous harassment campaign.

Today, harassment and general hostility remain deeply embedded in Twitter’s DNA and the greater modern web discourse. Making the matter worse is the feeling of drowning that’s facilitated by constant connection. We’re never more than a thumb press away from a torrent of depressing headlines, bubbling outrage, and outpourings of grief playing out in real time.

Sure, there are occasional stories of hope. But we are locked in a culture war where battles are waged in shares, retweets, and comments. No amount of careful curation can prevent the fights from coming to your digital doorstep, nor you should shy away from those harsh truths. But it is still times like these that elevate the importance and the value of communities like Instagram that exist not to unearth dark truths, but to highlight the best people have to offer.

You could make the argument that it’s a disservice to the public, and yourself, to put your head in the sand. Atlantic writer David Frum, in his recent cover story “How to Build an Autocracy,” imagines the all-too-real possibility that a Trump presidency could result in few structural changes, but widespread malaise and a frightening consolidation of power. He paints a picture of the year 2021 in which most left-leaning Americans have been driven to greener online pastures.

“Nobody’s repealed the First Amendment, of course, and Americans remain as free to speak their minds as ever — provided they can stomach seeing their timelines fill up with obscene abuse and angry threats from the pro-Trump troll armies that police Facebook and Twitter,” Frum writes. “Rather than deal with digital thugs, young people increasingly drift to less political media like Snapchat and Instagram.”

Perhaps people will become so overwhelmed or desensitized to unending controversy and the assault on decency that some social networks become unusable. Instagram, in that world, could offer a dangerous illusion. It turns into a way to suppress how we truly feel. In shallow and privileged ways, it would ask, “How bad can it really be, if my most recent photo of a ski trip got 52 likes?”

But we’re not there yet. Twitter, Facebook, Medium, and countless other avenues for speech remain active forces in modern American society. Malaise has not set in, at least not for the tens of millions of people who continue to protest, share important stories, and document the historic and often abhorrent events unfolding in the first month of this administration.

So head to Instagram, if you need a moment to breathe. You’ll find selfies and good meals and exquisitely filtered landscape shots. You’ll see memories people cherish, and moments that will live on for years. More than anything, though, you’ll find your friends enjoying themselves. That’s a necessary reminder, to highlight what it is we risk losing if complacency and cynicism take hold and don’t let go.


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