Gen Z and the Metamorphosis of the Instagram Aesthetic
It’s a plotline you’ve heard a million times: a new generation comes of age and the previous generations look at their lifestyle choices with confusion and thinly-veiled disapproval – often accompanied by eye-rolls and scoffing (OH the scoffing). These transitions invoke the primal fear of change but are these changes that drastic or do people overreact because, on the surface, what they’re seeing is unfamiliar? Although it has continually attracted a younger audience since it’s inception, Instagram isn’t immune to this pattern – the social platform with more than 1 billion monthly users is coming of age and witnessing its own generational shift.
In April, Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer for The Atlantic, rather famously declared that the “Instagram Aesthetic is Over.” It seems as though carefully curated photos of pink walls, matcha lattes, and avocado toast aren’t cutting it anymore, even though those perfectly posed photos were the foundation of the platform. Lorenz argues in her article that Gen-Z consumers want authenticity over curation and fast-rising Gen Z influencers are purposefully posting candid, low-production value content – all in the name of authenticity and keeping it real. Reese Blutstein, one of the Gen Z influencers interviewed for this article, was quoted in saying “for [her] generation, people are more willing to be who they are and not make up a fake identity.” While there are definitely valid points within this argument that authenticity prevails when it comes to content, it’s not as black and white as it’s being presented.
The Instagram Aesthetic isn’t over – it’s evolving and expanding. While it may look different on its candid, casual surface, this Gen Z approach to content is still, at its core, a calculated aesthetic featuring online personas. This new content isn’t necessarily more authentic than the OG Instagram Aesthetic just because it looks more candid and less posed. Influencers do not become successful by being solely aspirational or relatable – they have to be both and these newcomers aren’t different in that regard. For instance, a recent Vox article outlines how a Gen Z subculture of “e-girls and e-boys” is creating influencers that are building clout solely on online personas.
Rebecca Jennings, the writer of the article, says “…while traditional influencers traffic in making their real lives seem as aspirational as possible, e-girls and e-boys’ clout comes from their digital personas…they’re not amassing followers by going on vacations to St. Barts or Santorini every other week. More likely, they’re in their bedrooms, alone… To be an e-girl is to exist on a screen, mediated. You know an e-girl by her Twitch presence or the poses she makes on her Instagram, not by what she wears to school.”
She also points to TikTok as a catalyst for this cultural shift: “The app, whose wild popularity over the past year has given rise to a host of slang words, memes, and comedic forms, also happens to be a window into the bedrooms of millions of teenagers, where they lip-sync and act and laugh and cry to a faceless audience, in search of the internet’s sole meaningful metric: clout.”
Ultimately, it’s not a matter of this new generation turning their backs on the aspirational content Instagram has become known for – it’s a matter of us asking: how are the aspirations of this generation different and how are those aspirations shaping the kind of content they want?