Skip to content

The Instagram Panopticon

Exhibitionism, voyeurism, and the cycle of judgement.

· 15 min read
The Instagram Panopticon
Photo by Prateek Katyal / Unsplash

Instagram was launched in 2010. The first official photo, uploaded by co-founder Kevin Systrom, featured his girlfriend’s foot and a golden retriever (whose name and owner remain unknown). It has been almost 13 years since the platform launched, and in that time, we have witnessed the rise of the newest form of social currency—a public-facing digital identity more powerful than any of its predecessors.

With around two billion active monthly users, it has long been established that there is a cost to not being on Instagram, like its Meta predecessor, Facebook. Instagram is used for many different purposes, including keeping up with friends, business activities, sharing information, and dating. However, I have not yet seen an attempt to explain why and how Instagram managed to secure its immensely influential position. This remains a poorly understood phenomenon.

The goal of Instagram content

In a saturated digital arena and offline marketplace, the aim of all content and media is the Pursuit of what is Interesting. The natural state of humanity in civilization involves an absence of danger. This produces boredom, which our ancient brains seek to relieve with entertainment. The upshot is a digital arena in which attention is the common currency. In the competition for eyeballs, content must therefore be sufficiently interesting to seize and hold the attention of as many people as possible. Content—be it truth or lies, fiction or fact—has to intrigue the viewer and satisfy their curiosity, providing value to all involved.

The Interesting is manifest in the poster’s appeal to their audience. The Pursuit of it is the attempt to provide the social voyeurism and curiosity satisfaction that the audience craves. Posters are exhibitionists—they know they are being watched and derive pleasure from the likes and followers and messages of appreciation they receive from voyeurs (and even, occasionally, from the messages of hatred and contempt). When voyeurs signal their appreciation in these ways, exhibitionists know what content will generate more approval, and the cycle continues for as long as the exhibitionists can remain interesting and the voyeurs remain curious.

Like Pavlov’s dog, the exhibitionist is trained to associate the Interesting with attention. This may become compulsive, as it smudges the line between the human desire for social approval and the desire to entertain. The excitement of the Interesting and its rewards—not to mention the hole left by their absence—make exhibitionists aware of the need to surprise, shock, or impress the voyeurs. This kind of behaviour may be met with authentic spite (for example, the makeup-free selfies posted by beauty influencers), but it generates attention and engagement nonetheless.

The Pursuit of the Interesting is why Instagram appears to be a curated highlight reel of someone’s life. Posters show only what they want their audience to see. This carefully filtered life distorts reality for the voyeurs, whose perception of the posts provides a further distortion. Furthermore, what is Interesting is also what is unusual—a common experience is unlikely to be Interesting unless there is something extraordinary about it. And of course, what is being photographed and shared may also be distorted, to make it seem more fun, more exciting, and more unusual than it actually is.

From this selective representation, voyeurs can only guess at the actual experience of the exhibitionist. This is deliberate. Instagram posts are rarely throwaway efforts these days; they are attempts to reshape perceptions of reality. This applies to the lonely outcast with three photos and 18 followers as much as it does to a supersized influencer.

Instagram and reality

When looking at a picture, story, bio, or account of an Instagram poster, the curious scroller should focus on one consideration: What impression is the poster hoping to create? If we can determine a poster’s intention, it can help us to infer their reality—that is, the reality behind the photo and the reasons the post was created and shared. This can reveal more than the post itself. The post is, after all, an illusion, yet the motives behind it offer an authentic glimpse of the poster’s self.

If an attractive young woman posts a bikini selfie, we might conclude that she is attention-seeking. But she gets that attention by transforming herself into an interesting object, to which we are invited to pay attention. By removing her clothes, she intrigues the voyeurs. She may not be an exhibitionist in her daily life, but on Instagram, she submits to the Interesting in order to entertain and titillate. Does the bikini selfie represent who she is? Not even close. But the impulse that produced the selfie is an indelible part of who she really is. In this way, her Instagram feed does accurately represent her—a parade of instincts in flux, battling for supremacy.

The Instagram algorithm has only one purpose: to provide as much customised Interesting content as possible. This will provide the exhibitionist with a considerable audience if they are competent enough at satisfying the Interesting. Kim Kardashian was practicing exhibitionism long before Instagram’s dominance. But she has mastered the Interesting to the point where she can become headline news with a simple Instagram post—she knows exactly what the voyeurs expect from her.

Instagram and poster identity

The Pursuit of the Interesting shapes Instagram’s effect on the identity of the exhibitionist. The identity they display on Instagram is not their identity offline because their online identity must be perceived through the lens of the Interesting. To hold the attention of their audience, posters must become characters through the images they share. Characters are actors of the Interesting because they are dramatically unlike the normal, everyday interactions the viewers generally have offline. Communicating identity through characters and stereotypes is so common on Instagram because it is so rare in the offline world, thus posters can use what’s rare offline to attract attention online.

In a 2019 article for the New Yorker, Nausicaa Renner worried that we may “lose the chance to remake ourselves” by archiving our past online. Once a certain kind of identity has been communicated to a poster’s audience, it imprisons the poster in that identity. If they try to change it, they may face retribution due to the easy accessibility of their previous online self. An OnlyFans model might decide to interrupt her spree of Instagram thirst traps with a selfie in her graduation gown. Except she probably won’t post it, because she knows that her followers have no interest in that part of her self. It does not reside within the Interesting in relation to the audience. She may want to remake the slice of self she offers on Instagram, but she won’t.

This springs from Instagram’s demand for an unchanging expression of self. But the desire for consistency conflicts with a self that is in constant flux. With Instagram, there is no need for memory—the proof is right there. This tension between the changing offline-self in the real world and the static online-self can produce the kind of anxiety that leads to the deletion of our online past, only to realise that the Internet’s capacity for memory far exceeds our own. You can remove a photo, but everyone’s already seen it, and if you are influential enough, someone will have saved it so that it can simply be reuploaded.

The difference between taking a photograph and offering it up for public consumption illustrates the concept of “social photography.” The photograph isn’t shared for its aesthetics, but to convey a message about the sharer’s experience, and in a broader sense, identity. It is merely another medium for establishing identity in the eyes of others. During a conversation at a party, you might say something to reveal a part of who you are, but on Instagram, you merely do it more efficiently and permanently. A person decides to share for the pleasure of others, and so they will only share what they believe others find interesting about them. This inflates the value of the sharer’s life in the imagination of the recipients, thereby boosting their social value.

Instagram and envy from the poster’s POV

Once an Instagram identity has been crafted within the realm of the Interesting, it will inevitably produce envy in the voyeurs. If, as Aristotle says, envy is the pain caused by another’s good fortune, then Instagram is an envy-driven entity. Everything viewers see creates a feeling of inferiority—the fear of missing out on the experience of seeing a beautiful waterfall, of eating an expensive meal, or of attending a party while you were slumped on your couch. This can, in turn, cause anxiety and a feeling that, “I should be there doing that.” The envy inspires a desire for action, but whether or not that desire is carried out is up to the viewer themselves.

The desire to elicit envy in others is at least a consequence, if not a deliberate aim, of the exhibitionists. Those most deliberate and brazen about this are influencers. Part of their vocation is showcasing enough “life content” to elicit envious anxiety in their followers—a kind of pain that has the option of resolution via purchase. But every person who posts on Instagram is an aspiring influencer in some form or another—the only difference is the scale and effectiveness. The larger the influencer, the more effective they are at generating envy in viewers at scale.

When exhibitionist influencers sell a product on Instagram, the voyeurs must feel envious of the lifestyle with which the product is associated if they are to feel any impulse to purchase it. Every piece of content says, “Be like me!” And the way to be like them, of course, is to buy what they are selling. If advertising teaches consumers what to desire, Instagram explains how to desire by displaying desire-driven behaviour.

The viewer’s goal

For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.
~Niccolo Machiavelli

In 2015, Jessica Alba cut her hair into a bob and posted a selfie on her Instagram account. This monumental event generated over 100,000 likes and thousands of comments. On Instagram, the curious voyeurism of the viewer is so powerful that even a mundane thing like a haircut can find a position inside the Interesting.

For the viewer, the Interesting manifests itself in one of two ways: through the identity of the poster or through the content itself. Alba’s identity as a celebrity makes the content Interesting. If a random woman had posted her bob, it would not have such a strong position of Interest, even if it was just as visually appealing. Virtually anything Alba posts becomes worthy of attention. Instagram viewers want to avoid the nervous boredom that arises from inactivity, so they seek stimulation, not just from entertainment but from education as well. They want truth and representation in a single satisfying experience. In her eagerness to share her new haircut with her audience, as she might with a friend or acquaintance, the viewer finds a simulacrum of intimacy and authenticity.

Part of the enjoyment the viewer derives from this kind of post is the pleasure of judgement. Whether positive or negative, the viewer decides on an impression of what they see, the pleasure of which comes at the price of their attention. To be a viewer is to see, judge, and feel. The feeling that arises from that judgement relieves their boredom by gratifying their curiosity. They watch the poster’s exhibitionistic representations intuitively, for the digital age has trained them to watch as a follower, audience member, and spectator.

Once they are satisfied with a piece of content, they immediately move on in search of more. Once the novelty of the representation fades, it is no longer within the Interesting and so becomes bland and mundane. Boredom returns, and so viewers resume the search for fresh content that will allow them to replicate the pleasurable judgment they just experienced. They are cold without its embrace and want its warmth. Thus, they scroll.

The scroll is how the individual navigates Instagram’s marketplace of content, which is not purchased with money, but with time. The scrolling viewer sees not individuals posting their photographs but an immense, endless ocean of text, colours, and shapes. Each poster becomes just another ripple in the waves of the viewer’s feed. The viewer does not see them as people, but merely as content that is either in the Interesting or something to be ignored.

Instagram and beauty

Aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful consists, to a large extent, in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves.”
~Arthur Schopenhauer

There is nothing more pleasurable to observe and judge than beauty. It offers relief from life’s pressures, redeeming viewers by their proximity to the beautiful. Instagram grants the viewer access to this state of contemplation at any waking moment of their choosing, even if it can also ensnare them for hours on end, if they allow it to do so. The beautiful is so firmly entrenched within the Interesting that it is perhaps the most common and attractive aspect of an identity or image. It takes over the mind, transfixing the attention more than anything else except danger.

There are two kinds of beauty: natural beauty, which occurs without human interference, and artistic beauty, which is the human representation of natural beauty. On Instagram, there is only the latter kind. Bored by natural beauty, the viewer turns to Instagram to appreciate and worship artistic beauty.

Artistic beauty may be either a faithful or unfaithful representation of its natural counterpart. Faithful representation is less true than natural beauty, but at least it attempts to represent the natural accurately. Unfaithful representation, on the other hand, is artificial and its prevalence on Instagram is part of what gives the site its poor reputation. Both kinds of artistic beauty on Instagram, however, are within the Interesting because the voyeur is fascinated by fantasy as well as truth. Both therefore find their place on the platform. If the viewer fails to acknowledge an interest in fantasy, he may accidentally shun a faithful representation for the unfaithful, unsure of which is which.

Both kinds of artistic beauty can cause the viewer to reject natural beauty, as they become convinced that representations are more Interesting. Even faithful artistic representations of beauty on Instagram can diminish the ability to appreciate natural beauty. They delude and distract from the truest kind of beauty—a great waterfall, a snowy mountain range, or a deciduous forest. Why venture outside, when an appreciation of natural beauty’s less true representations requires less energy or commitment? But thankfully, the human brain comes with a built-in safeguard—we know these inauthentic representations are flat, lifeless, and unreal, and in the long run, we derive greater satisfaction from the physical world’s natural wonders.

The viewer response: likes and follows

A “like” is a means of conveying personal approval and confirmation of a poster’s ability to be Interesting. The viewer has been sufficiently stimulated by the poster that they make themselves known to them, just as the poster has made themselves known to the viewer with their content. Some viewers, however, want to remain unknown, and like true voyeurs, they prefer to remain hidden from the poster’s attention. They may not click “like,” but they pay attention nonetheless.

By publicly registering approval, the viewer indicates to the poster and other viewers that they have enjoyed a glimpse of the poster’s representation of their experience. Likes are direct market feedback on the product that is Instagram content, and they are also a display of the viewer’s own digital identity. Viewers do not click the like button to validate the poster; they do it because they enjoy the poster’s representation or idea of themselves. They see the poster as an object, an archetype, a two-dimensional caricature, which posters themselves also cultivate because within it they become Interesting. However, if this cultivation is too obvious, it conflicts with the viewer’s desire for authentic, faithful representation and they will respond negatively. All they want is a small slice of the poster’s life, to confirm the poster is just like me. They want relatability—to see themselves reflected in the poster somehow.

The like precedes the follow because a piece of content is an extension of the poster’s digital identity, the approval of which naturally arouses curiosity about the whole of that identity. A follow is a show of appreciation but also a sign of urgency—the viewer does not want to miss out on the Interesting provided by the poster’s future content. Their follow is a commitment to provide the poster with further attention, which may lead to further likes. But it also tells the poster that their content is within the Interesting so the poster can curate their online self accordingly. This is a success for the poster because the exhibitionist’s pleasure is derived from an audience that always demands more.

Both the like and the follow are binary choices—the viewer either elects to give them or not. This limits the possible expression of their response to content. Unlike on Facebook, the viewer does not have the option of selecting reaction emojis indicating the kind of enjoyment they experience. The viewer’s individuality is reduced to almost nothing as they dissolve into an ocean of public response, which serves as a panopticon of judgement. The viewer’s positive and negative judgement shapes the development of both their digital identity—they like what enables them to escape themselves momentarily, and their follow is a form of self-direction that shows who they want to escape into.

Once they are part of a particular poster’s panopticon, viewers seek to influence and even control the poster and their content. Strangely, they do this while simultaneously accepting the poster’s influence on them. This is most commonly accomplished with comments.

The viewer response: comments

In contrast to likes and follows, comments are not binary, allowing a greater range of expression. However, all comments are united by the viewer’s decision to make their response to the poster public. This explains why comments tend to be so strongly opinionated—only those who react strongly to content will feel the inclination to publish a comment on it. And controversial content elicits the largest number of strong reactions from viewers, which is why it is rewarded with so much attention. Because comments allow many kinds of reactions, they intensify the perceived reaction to a piece of content much more than likes. The strength of a positive reaction is heightened and the full strength of a negative reaction now finds an outlet for public display.

Comments will only be made by a small percentage of viewers because the vast majority do not react strongly enough (in a positive or negative sense) to expose themselves. These people have a similar exhibitionistic tendency to the poster, for they too want a slice of the attention pie and get off on being seen in the same sense. They want to communicate to the poster, of course, but they also want to communicate to the other viewers. To do so, they must be seen, which forces them to phrase their comments in the most Interesting way they can.

Positive comments function as encouragement. To maximise the chances that a poster will continue to upload similar material, positive comments tend to offer hyperbolic moral approval of the poster’s identity. Negative comments provide corresponding discouragement and moral disapproval of the poster’s identity—the viewer’s shared sense of that identity creates a conflict when the poster does something that the viewer would not do themselves. For instance, when Katy Perry sued an Australian fashion designer, Australian followers bombarded the comments section beneath one of her posts. In situations like these, commenters feel the poster, with whom they have an aspirational relationship, has violated not only their connection but also the viewer’s own sense of identifying with the poster.

The vast majority of Instagram users rarely comment on or like or follow most of what they see. They are usually driven by benign envy, which is strong enough to motivate positive comments but not negative ones. In the small percentage of viewers who feel strongly enough about a post to comment negatively, however, benign envy’s more sinister cousin emerges. This envy is malignant enough to transform the viewer who experiences it from a mere voyeur to an exhibitionist envious not of the poster themselves but of the poster’s position within the Interesting.

The resulting status and attention the poster enjoys in the eyes of the malignantly envious viewer becomes no longer neutral but dangerous. They feel they must compete by attempting to diminish the poster’s status, usually through moral condemnation. This serves to warn other viewers in the poster’s audience about the new danger posed by a poster’s digital presence. The truth about which side is wrong or right becomes irrelevant. Victory in digital conflict is usually determined by who gains or loses the most attention. In general, comments do not aim at truth but instead aim to express sentiment within the Interesting. Only the intention behind the comment reveals its truth.


On Instagram, a user experiences the perspective of both viewer and poster. Although they alternate between these roles, both experiences combine to form an overall impression—an attitude towards the platform that will dictate its future. Most of a user’s time on the site is spent as the viewer, engaging in the voyeurism the platform invites, punctuated by brief experiences of posting. A cycle of judgement is created, in which the user goes from judging to being judged, and the more time they spend judging, the less willing they are to be judged. Thus, there are users who spend more time using the platform in order to be seen and judged (influencers), while others use it primarily to see and judge (voyeuristic followers).

The experience of Instagram is completely different to that of the physical world. The platform itself is part of a much larger digital world that serves as an escape from the apparent mundanity of the physical world. The fact that it is the fifth most visited domain name on the planet shows that it now occupies a significant place in the ever-expanding digital world. The presence of Instagram has become a digital destination for the physical world’s bored human occupants—it is a place they visit when reality is no longer entertaining enough. The human experience in the 21st century is characterised by a split between these two worlds.

Ever since we evolved our advanced cognitive powers tens of thousands of years ago, we have become increasingly bored by the physical world as we gain greater dominance over it with each passing century. Technology allowed us to attain this dominance, but we increasingly invent new forms of technology simply to entertain and titillate our senses. This has culminated with the creation of the digital world of the Internet, a hyperstimulating mixture of paradise and hellscape.

The digital world used to be dictated and controlled almost entirely by the physical—Justin Bieber’s first Instagram post was a complaint about the traffic in Los Angeles. But over the last 10–15 years, the digital world has amassed more influence over the human psyche than its physical counterpart. The physical world is now even being designed with Instagram in mind, which demonstrates that the world does not dictate Instagram now so much as Instagram dictates it.

Instagram’s future is as uncertain as any other facet of human life in the present moment, for change is accelerating at an exponential rate. The platform itself will last as long as it takes for new technology to fulfil the needs and desires Instagram presently satisfies. Perhaps a kind of AI-generated virtual reality will emerge that subsumes the user in a world where any whim can be satisfied at a moment’s notice. Or maybe it will be something else entirely. And when something better does come along, Instagram will become an archive of the 2010s and 2020s, a relic of the near past and eventually a quiet and distant memory of the way the digital world used to work.

On Instagram @quillette