The movie Ingrid Goes West, which arrived in theaters Friday, is a cautionary tale about the grand facade of social media — it might make you want to delete your Instagram. It follows a young woman named Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) who travels across the country to befriend social media influencer Taylor Sloane (played with honey-thick sweetness by Elizabeth Olsen), who has a particularly enticing Instagram presence. Lured by Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes and photos of organic vegetables, Ingrid heads west, not to rope steers or mine gold, but to capture the interest of an influential woman.
The movie quickly explodes into horror movie territory. (The film implies Ingrid is mentally ill, though it is never directly addressed.) But is the idea of falling in platonic love with someone's social media presence really that crazy?
I’m new to Instagram. I would never pursue someone I didn’t know on the site. I hesitate to even “like” a photo from someone I don’t know that well. (What if they think I’m weird?) For Caitlin Hamilton, 18, and Denise Terrero, 16, two girls from Queens, NY, that’s not the case. They became friends over Instagram — Caitlin started following Denise; Denise started following Caitlin. Caitlin, who is heading to college next year, thought Denise was cool. The feeling was mutual.
“Denise has one of my favorite Instagrams. I think she takes really beautiful photos,” Caitlin tells me over the phone. I’ve asked her, in the line of Instagram questioning, which account in her feed is her favorite.
Denise says that 75% of her closest friends are people she’s met online, using Facebook or even Tinder.
When I ask Denise, who is a grade below Caitlin in school, about Caitlin's social media presence, she gushes. “Oh GOD I thought she was so cool,” Denise says. “I wanted to be her friend so bad, and now we are! Kinda weird to think about.” They don't attend the same school and don't even really live near each other in Queens, so hanging out is a little difficult but, in Denise's words, they "make it work."
Their story goes like this: Denise followed Caitlin and Caitlin, after perusing Denise’s photos, followed her back. They’re both from Queens and many of their pictures feature the NYC borough. Ingrid fell in love with Taylor Sloane’s depiction of California; these two both take a lot of photos of Queens. They both also express a love for how the other depicts Queens.
“I liked all her photos after finding out she was from Queens, where I live,” Denise says about her friend’s presence.
For Caitlin, it was all about Denise’s “perspective.”
“The photos that she took...really make you see the beauty in Queens that I hadn't seen before,” she explains. Looking at their two accounts, it seems obvious that they would be friends; Their two accounts reflect each other in the same way that longtime best friends start to read like siblings. They’re big fans of an unstyled selfie. They go for minimal captions. Neither of them seem to use filters.
Denise and Caitlin followed each other for almost a year before they actually met. They attended a concert together in Brooklyn after discovering they had a mutual friend. (The mutual friend made plans for the three of them to hang out. They then flaked, and Caitlin and Denise had, essentially, a blind Instagram date.)
I assumed their friendship was unique; even in this day and age, it’s weird to meet people over the internet, right? But both of them casually drop that this is pretty commonplace. Denise says that 75% of her closest friends are people she’s met online, using Facebook or even Tinder. Caitlin has another close friend, Jo-El, whom she met over Snapchat. Denise has never met anyone using Snapchat — she thinks that’s weird. But she has met people through Tinder and Facebook.
Ingrid Goes West presents Instagram as a venue for inauthenticity, which it certainly is. In 2017, your Instagram feed is just as much a part of your personal style as the clothes you wear. It just that, on the internet, personality is easier to fake. Catfish taught us that. At the same time, Instagram can reveal the truth — maybe even an aspect of personhood that’s impossible to communicate in person.
Ingrid tailors her social media presence to a manic degree, as does Taylor Sloane. It doesn’t help that having a “cool” Instagram is Taylor’s job. In the movie, Taylor takes photo with Ingrid during a trip to Joshua Tree. They take the photo several times, desperate to get the perfect shot. In the movie, this moment is played for laughs; this is how the “effortless” candids get made. By putting in a lot of effort.
On the internet, personality is easier to fake.
For Caitlin and Denise, it’s not that serious, at least according to what they say. Caitlin admits that she used to be more obsessive about her “image,” but these days she doesn’t care as much.
“Lately, I've just been into my raw self. Now, what I'll do is just take a picture of myself in the moment of what I'm doing with the Instagram camera and just post it,” she says.
I ask for Denise’s thought process before sharing an image, and it seems fairly simple.
“[I’ll think] ‘this looks pretty cool, I'll post it.’ Or ‘this is pretty, I’m gonna post it.’ Or ‘I look SO good here, I’m posting it."
It's a fine line. Both Denise and Caitlin could be figures in a story like Ingrid Goes West. They're young women on the internet — Caitlin has 700 followers, and Denise has 1,200. Denise admits to having been creeped out on Instagram. (Haven't we all?) They both seem to like following people who live near them or have similar interests; they keep it local. And they keep it casual. For Caitlin, it's just "what you make of it," and she doesn't make much of it.
As for influencer status, they don't seem interested. Asked if she would post an Instagram ad if asked, Denise says, simply, "Nah." She's got bigger things on the horizon, like high school.
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