Can ‘casual Instagram’ ever truly be casual?



“It was a refreshing change to see more natural, authentic and seemingly less edited photos coming from influencers.”

I posted my first Instagram photo 11 years ago, minutes after joining the app with my recycled MSN username. It was a simpler time. You chose a photo from your camera roll (the main categories being scenic landscapes, food, dogs and bad selfies), edited it beyond recognition (using Valencia or Nashville, obviously) and added a punny hashtag. Your mum usually liked it.

In its infancy, Instagram was inherently casual. It left me a little confused (it took me a month to realise it wasn’t just a photo editing app), I was mildly disinterested and preoccupied choosing my next Facebook profile picture. 

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This was until bloggers and businesses discovered the powers of a solid Instagram following – and the platform quickly exploded. Our feeds shifted from pixelated vacation snaps to meticulously curated, professional quality images. 

During my years as an Instagram-using fashion blogger, the ‘photoshoot’ process became increasingly more involved. As embarrassing as it is to admit, a typical Instagram photo required: a short drive (with camera wielder (my mum) in tow), a DSLR, hair and makeup, a carefully chosen outfit, multiple poses and at least one round of Photoshop processing. Like I said – involved. 

After a while, ‘casual Instagram’ happened very naturally. I quit the paid gigs, sold most of my wardrobe and started working full-time. There was no way to keep the ‘shoot’ process up and I’d lost interest anyway.

In the last two years, it was a refreshing change to see more natural, authentic and seemingly less edited photos coming from influencers. It felt like a relief after years of highly performative posting. But is ‘casual Instagram’ really as casual as it seems?

Where did ‘casual Instagram’ come from?


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A post shared by emma chamberlain (@emmachamberlain)

If we look at external influences, the catalyst is fairly obvious. At the beginning of the COVID pandemiqué, we found ourselves abruptly locked inside and collectively bored beyond belief. As Dazed writer Alice Crossley explained in 2020, “with everyone stuck at home with nowhere to go and no one to see, the appetite for glamour and luxury is at an all-time low. In a year of protests and a pandemic, unboxing videos and travel vlogs seemed trivial and exceedingly out of touch”.

Instead, we were searching for relatable distractions. This gave rise to flippant, humour-driven content on apps like Twitter and TikTok as influencers searched for new ways to connect with their followers. In protest of a ‘curated’ feed, Instagram slowly became a parody of itself – a place to selectively empty our camera rolls to give ‘real’ insight into our everyday lives. 

Why we like less curated feeds

The photo dump – “a visual moodboard of images caught ‘in the moment’” – reigned supreme, coupled with ‘shitposting’ and anti-aesthetic behaviour. A ‘close friends’ story feature allowed us to share our most candid content or gain a glimpse into the private lives of our internet friends.

Instead of working its way down, the trend had a trickle-up effect. As more people started ‘casually’ posting on their personal accounts, influencers and celebrities did too, like LA content creator, Emma Chamberlain.

It’s also fun to feel close to the people you admire. As followers, ‘casual Instagram’ mimics a friend-like feeling through its ‘raw’, frivolous approach to the social media app.

We know there’s a filter, a flattering pose and likely a hundred other photos behind the one we’re looking at, but something about the subtlety of the trend feels so… authentic. And despite the occasional Forbes shoot thrown in her feed, Emma Chamberlain is very casual. It’s probably the closest we’ll ever be!

Performative or not?

“We made Instagram casual again! Now, not only do I have to post a photo of myself, but also aesthetic first-person photos that look like they were taken on accident.”

That quote comes from TikTok user @chrisidek, whose 18-second video summarises the irony of the ‘casual Instagram’ trend. In its faux-effortless nature, it means working harder to appear you’re doing… less.

As the top comment on Chris’ video reads, “Casual Instagram is an even greater performance”.

Inspired by this comment, TikTok user @cozyakili made his own video explaining the anti-aesthetic social media movement. Akili compares reality tv and ‘normal tv’ to explain the marginal core differences between performative and ‘casual’ Instagram.

Chances are the posts and stories that seem ‘on a whim’ were carefully photographed and selected by the user. But as Akili explains, “we all know it’s bullshit, yet we all still buy into it”.

It’s a privilege to have a beautiful-looking life and it’s not one we’ve all been blessed with. My day-to-day life doesn’t look like the ‘casual’ photos I see online. I have a messy closet, an office job and eat my lunches primarily from Tupperware containers. In order to be truly casual, one must be completely themselves – and I’m just not sure that exists on Instagram. 

For more on anti-aesthetic Instagram, head here.

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