Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Instagram Filters for the Self: Autonomy and Internet “aesthetics”

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Astute observers of life online may already be familiar with “Dark Academia”—a stylistic trend currently blowing up on TikTok that draws liberally from Donna Tartt novels, T. Hayashida’s Take Ivy, goth culture, and Dead Poets Society. One practitioner of the style sums up Dark Academia as “young people trying to dress like old people” and encourages initiates to immerse themselves in ancient Greek tragedies and stock up on tweed blazers. Others have compiled lists of guidelines and tips on adopting Dark Academia and visual guidelines for Dark Academia apparel.

If you’re scratching your head in puzzlement at this point, here’s a brief explainer: Dark Academia is just the latest of a number of different online styles or “aesthetics” that have spread largely through social media. Some of these—such as cottagecore, VSCO, and e-girls and e-boys—have attracted a decent amount of mainstream attention. But what’s notable is that these styles barely scratch the surface of a bewildering array of online aesthetics that includes goblincore, pastel goth, and yes, even Karencore.

It’s the goal of the newly established “Aesthetics Wiki” to compile a comprehensive record of each of these aesthetics. The mods of the wiki give the following account of the term “aesthetic” as they’re using it:

An aesthetic, as a noun in the internet sense – not in the philosophical sense – is a visual-led theme reflected consistently and often memetically throughout a given subculture. When describing a group’s aesthetic, you might first jump to the visuals reflected in their art, social media posts and fashion, and note repeated imagery and colour palettes. But you can always go deeper still – almost every distinct aesthetic is underpinned by its very own attitude to modern life.

But what should those of us interested in aesthetics (a singular noun) in the more philosophical sense make of the rise of “aesthetics”—a plural noun in the internet sense?

Start with a few of the most notable aspects of internet aesthetics: First, adopting an internet aesthetic is pretty easy; the barriers to entry are as low as stringing together a few themed posts on your Instagram of Tiktok. Second, these same social media platforms allow for the rapid formation of communities and subcultures surrounding particular aesthetics. By tagging your posts with the requisite hashtag, you can connect with all the other users of the platform practicing the style. (Have a look at #darkacademia on Instagram, for starters.) Finally, the majority of these internet aesthetics are the subject of intense codification and standardization on the part of those who’ve adopted it; searching for any of the aesthetics I’ve mentioned above will yield countless guidelines, rules, and other info on what does—and what doesn’t—count as part of the aesthetic. Some of these guides—like this how-to for cottagecore—even go so far as offering appropriate typefaces and editing settings for photos. The Aesthetics Wiki is just a further step in this process of standardization.

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Aesthetic styles associated with particular subcultural communities aren’t new. Think of punk culture, or queer ballroom culture. In each case, membership in the community depends on adopting a particular set of stylistic choices. What’s more, these communities are generally self-aware and self-policing; the community itself generates the boundaries of its distinctive styles. So: what’s so significant about internet aesthetics? Aren’t they just a manifestation of the same old phenomenon, transferred to the domain of social media?

There are two notable differences between more traditional aesthetics and internet aesthetics—both of which are relevant from the perspective of aesthetic agency and autonomy. The first is that internet aesthetics are easy. As I already noted, adopting an aesthetic is as straightforward as trying it out on social media. But more importantly, we’re encouraged to view internet aesthetics as different styles that we can try out and play with in the same way that we might apply different filters to our images on Instagram. We can easily flip back and forth between dark academia, cottagecore, or any other aesthetic in just the same way that we can select “Juno” or “Inkwell” to make our photos look a bit different. (It’s no accident that one of the most prominent internet aesthetics, VSCO, is named after an image-editing and filtering app.) The mods of the Aesthetics Wiki explain that one of their goals is to give readers a buffet of styles to try out so they can find out whichever aesthetic is right for them at a given moment.

What’s significant about this ease is that it encourages us to make lots of our own aesthetic choices about our personal styles by giving these choices especially low stakes. This can have certain benefits: we’re encouraged to think explicitly about and actively choose our personal styles, thereby expanding the range of our aesthetic agency. We can also adopt a sense of playfulness here that encourages aesthetic experimentation. This is because a great deal of adoption of internet aesthetics is, while not completely insincere, nevertheless pervaded by a tongue-in-cheek recognition of its own evanescence.

At the same time, this ease can come with certain drawbacks. The second notable difference between internet aesthetics and more traditional aesthetics is the extent to which many internet aesthetics are pre-packaged and codified. Adopting any one of these internet aesthetics will often involve taking on a fairly rigid package of visual cues, stylistic choices, and ideals expressed in the countless online guides and how-tos I mentioned earlier. What these aesthetics represent is a kind of online shortcut to gaining a style–something that is coherent and comprehensible, and which probably looks pretty cool. This isn’t too different from the way that Instagram filters, which I’ve already mentioned, provide quick shortcuts to visual styles that many photographers worked years to develop on their own through more traditional means.

The worry at this point is that by adopting an internet aesthetic, we run the risk of eliding the sort of aesthetic education and personal reflection that can go into developing a style one’s own—of practicing what Nietzsche called the “great and rare art” of giving style to one’s character. My ultimate worry is that in trying to commit ourselves to one or another internet aesthetic, our role as aesthetic agents will ultimately be the narrow choice of which aesthetic we like—our job becomes one of picking from a number of pre-set packages of stylistic ideals.

But maybe this conclusion is a bit too hasty. First off, there’s a big difference between Instagram filters and internet aesthetics. The look of Instagram filters is a product of a corporate social media platform, and this platform is very much a top-down affair; we can’t in any meaningful sense alter or change them. This is what’s so pernicious about the platform; although we do gain a set of stylistic choices by using it, we narrow our prospects for genuine aesthetic agency to just the set of choices offered. (This line of criticism is similar to critiques of Facebook that hold that the platform offers a diminished model of friendship and interpersonal relationship—one which we happily sign up for, given that we can have so much more contact with others.)

By contrast, Internet aesthetics don’t develop in a top-down way. Instead, like internet memes, they’re the product of a community of individuals who practice the aesthetic. This means that there is room for alteration of the rules and guidelines that structure the aesthetic over time. We can see evidence of this in the proliferation of different sub-aesthetics. Have a look at all of the different offshoots of the core academia style, including “Darkest Academia”—an aesthetic for those who find that dark academia isn’t, well, dark enough. I think it’s clear that even those who are immersed in a particular internet aesthetic see room for both expanding the style and developing new aesthetics to better fit their own individual styles.

And, even if there are extremely clear and codified rules for internet aesthetics, there may also room for aesthetic choice in determining whether or not to follow these rules. Think of the role of recipes in cooking: it’s open to the chef to follow the recipe exactly or to depart from it. (In this respect, norms for recipe-compliance differ from, say, norms for score compliance in Western music.) Departing from a recipe can offer a way of making a dish one’s own. The rules that constitute various internet aesthetics give us something like recipes for styles—recipes that we can choose to follow exactly, or which we can use as stepping stones to develop our own individual aesthetics.

Image credit: Judy Dean via Flickr
Edited by Alex King

One Comment

  1. Fantastic post! Thank you. I thought I would add a link to my related Aesthetics for Birds post. It makes the point that when you take a photo using a camera and don’t apply any filter, the photograph is still effectively filtered in a way that is not aesthetically neutral. Apple, for instance, has made a bunch of choices about how colors will be reproduced, how bright photos will be, how much contrast will be applied, etc. I think this is relevant to thinking about aesthetic autonomy, because the seemingly neutral option (don’t apply a filter after taking a photo) is not actually neutral.

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