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How empirical judgment affects self-worth

David Foster Wallace said in his 1993 essay, “E Unibus Pluram,” that something is malignantly addictive if it causes real problems for the addict and offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes.

Instagram is not an inherently malignant thing. The application has the ability to connect us with and share in the meaningful aspects of our friends’ lives. It is also a great tool for promoting positive self-image. However, does Instagram have the potential to be malignantly addictive?

Try to delete Instagram from your phone right now with the intention to never use it again. 

For some, this might be difficult because of the loss of the popular and enjoyable social sphere Instagram offers.

Like coffee, social media such as Instagram can transform into mostly practical addictions. The application allows the user to navigate the social world with greater ease. Because of its popularity, however, that ease has transformed into an invaluable dependency for keeping up with the influx of change in the world around us. What was once a fun luxury has become a social necessity.

There is nothing inherently malignant about this.

How much of a person's social media presence is taken into account when someone judges their self-worth? 

There are applications that allow users to beautify themselves — whiten teeth, filter photos, clear skin and so on. These abilities allow for aesthetically upgraded portraits, selfies and landscapes. This ability for beautification is not inherently malignant either.

If there is a threshold at which the desire to beautify one’s image for the internet becomes malignant, it is when the user defines their self-image by that beautified Instagram persona and adheres to that personal expectation in other parts of life. 

That is, when a user becomes addicted to their doctored and perfected Instagram self-image, they are destined to be disappointed by their reality.

This phenomenon of addiction and resulting disappointment is often subtle if not completely invisible. At the very least, it is not detectable as an “addiction.” It can take form in a user’s daily life in ostensibly innocuous actions and thoughts. 

It can take form as unwillingness to post a photo without running it through the required cosmetic touches. Outside of Instagram, it can be anxiety over perceived judgment for wearing a piece of clothing one really wants to wear, or insecurity in public without a certain amount of beautification. Instagram users may not realize they are holding themselves to any higher expectations. Rather, they believe this high bar is the norm. 

It is important to stress that beautification in real life or on Instagram is not, by itself, malignant. People enjoy beautification for its own sake. Many enhance their looks — online and in life — to feel confident or simply for their own contentment, as Indiana Daily Student fashion columnist Adele Poudrier discusses. Those media posters do not take their online image seriously for any reason other than personal satisfaction.

Another subject to consider is Instagram’s “like” function. Some users, when they post a photo to Instagram, know how many likes to expect on average by looking at the data from their previous posts. This expectation can result in disappointment and even tiny crises of self-worth if the photo in question does not receive a certain amount of social acclaim. Users might even delete a post if it does not meet a certain requirement.

Even if the expected amount is met, this empirical judgment of how “liked” a user’s online appearance is presents potential issues. It perpetuates the need be constantly beautiful and socially perfect because everyone they are connected with is actively judging them. 

The passing of judgment is not just a novelty of Instagram, it is expected.

Instagram is not inherently malignant and does great things for self-image and socialization. It is important to recognize the potential pitfalls in a social system that revolves around the promotion of a beautified self and the empirical and expected judgment of that self. These pitfalls are subtle and can result in problematic self-perceptions and behavior long before it is easy to notice them.

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