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The Curation of Casual: The Apparent Authenticity of Photo Dumps

As social media grows more evolved, our photos become less so. Who’s allowed to shoot and post? Who can truly portray authenticity in a world where everyone strives to appear effortlessly real?

From Left to Right. Credit: Instagram/@devonleecarlson Credit: TikTok/@jacimariesmith Credit: Instagram/@emmachamberlain

We hear it time and time again. “Social media is not real.” After all, Bella Hadid did use the phrase in a 2021 Instagram caption, so it must be true. 

We get sucked into “Kardashian photoshop fails” at 2 am and feel a wave of relief—we could never be so meticulous and curated. Instead, we post photo dumps, with 10 “candid” clips of our month. My sister got a perfectly blurry one of me last week when I begged her to snap a shot of me at the beach, and I got a great caption from @yazghotb—“diaries of a homebody” reads as laid-back right? 

For years, there’s been a push to “make Instagram casual again,” but is that really what anyone wants? Will stuffing a picture of the sky between my last 5 selfies give me a greater sense of authenticity?

Why does our greatest thrill come from posting a picture of a stray cat?

Do we want to be casual or appear casual? When we post without a filter, is it truly unfiltered? Taylor Swift’s “not a lot going on at the moment” caption was followed by an entire studio album. Seems like big shoes to fill.

Follow the recipe

My first Instagram post was of a hotdog my mom so graciously made me for lunch. I posted 9 pictures the day I made the account. The captions varied from “at my friends” to “getting ready for school… tired!” I can’t imagine this is the kind of casual influencers so “candidly” crave? 

Of course, it’s not.

Instead, we have photo dumps. The trend allows you to freely post anything from your camera roll, taking your Instagram feed from a collection of over-edited selfies to something far more personal and creative.

Featuring haphazard shots of everyday life, this apparently authentic and nonchalant posting style acts as a strategic way to appear relatable. 

If you think the scrapbook-esque post is merely a collection of 10 random photos, think again. There’s a strict format to this supposedly freeing movement. Influencers such as Jaci Marie Smith have shared their perfect recipe. 

Of course, one isn’t bound to this format, or any format at all— but the video doesn’t have nearly 240k likes and 120k saves for nothing. Even top model Karlie Kloss commented “if you say so ✍️.”

As Smith puts it, “crafting the perfect photo dump is an art form.” Pick up the brush or get left behind. This sentiment is reflected in the broader trends we see today. In mainstream fashion, something is only considered cool once Bella Hadid has worn it. In a photo dump, you can only post a picture of a banana peel if Emma Chamberlain does so first.

Our perception of what is acceptable and desirable on social media often compromises spontaneity and authenticity. We curate our lives to fit these trends, losing the genuine, unfiltered moments that photo dumps originally aimed to showcase.

This rigid recipe promoted by your favorite influencer defeats the entire purpose of casual social media. Sure, you got a “candid” picture of your friends at lunch, but the 10 minutes it took to find the right angle left your $28 chicken cold.  

This curated casualness underscores the paradox of social media authenticity. We proclaim a desire to “make Instagram casual again,” yet meticulously curate every detail of our supposedly spontaneous posts. Even the most relaxed and candid-seeming posts are carefully crafted to fit an aesthetic that aligns with what influencers have already deemed cool.

We hide under the guise of carelessness but turn off our like count so nobody can see we barely broke 50 (and I do mean barely.)

Candid or Plandid?

If a posed shot is a Netflix original then a photo dump is reality television. As explained by @akilimoree, these posts are “attempting to convince the viewer that what they’re watching is in fact, real life, but it’s not.”

Sure, your eyes are closed in the shot, but you’re still having a photoshoot. 

If you’re not the focal point, why are you in the first slide of  the post?

This phenomenon continues on other platforms such as BeReal, an app designed to feature the mundane and regular everyday life. Of course, this would work if the app didn’t allow users to post late, or retake their supposedly candid moments. How much do you really care to see what the girl from your sophomore English class is doing at 3:24 (she posts 8 hours late and consistently has 3 retakes). Is that #relatable enough?

If everyone’s “real,” is anyone “real?”

If the “causal Instagram” movement had a leader it would be Emma Chamberlain. The influencer gone celebrity is notorious for posting the raw and unedited (what’s a photo dump without a picture of your toilet?).

Of course, this casualness came to a halt when Chamberlain attended fashion week in Milan. Photos of ducks and shower beers took the backseat to her designer #fitpics.

In a recent vlog detailing the week, Emma shows the behind-the-scenes of the week. Amidst the silent montages of her eating loaves of bread, and being denied entrance to a French restaurant for not being “chic and elegant,” Chamberlain shares a moment of embarrassment regarding an Instagram caption.

Her original “hey baby, u up?” under a photo of her full Prada outfit was apparently too haunting, as she then commented “i regret this caption so much” and “i had to change it” under the post. The milk glass emoji works too.

Can we post freely when the face of the movement can’t even do the same?

Can we only post casually if we sprinkle in photoshoots with entirely gifted designer fashion?

In the meantime, we post whimsical photos accompanied by Olivia Rodrigo’s “I pay attention to things that most people ignore,” ignoring the satire of the song entirely. Maybe her “perfect all-american b*tch” is an influencer?

Suspension of disbelief

Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” explains “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances.”

This suspension of disbelief—the acceptance of something unreal or unlikely as true for the sake of enjoying its narrative–is ever present on casual Instagram.

Sociologically, Erving Goffman’s dramaturgy too explains social interaction as a series of theatrical performances. In this case, all individuals are actors and society is their stage. As social media users, we take on the role of the audience.

From the moment we are born, we are performing, and as a result, our lives are series of performances. We wear a multitude of different masks to adapt to the roles we’re “supposed” to play at a given time.

@briidgetbrown

Replying to @Elena boyfriend/cameraman/director

♬ original sound – Bridget Brown

This is all based on societal perception, and in the case of photo dumps, these celebrities and influencers play the role of carefree, attempting to control our impressions of them.

As audience members, we play along— suspending disbelief and desperately seeking a break in the exhaustion of everyday life. We zoom in on dimly lit dinner photos, wondering if there’s a new man in your life, and comment “literally marry me” on the latest selfie of a girl we’ve never met in person.

After all, there’s no denying logic goes out the window when you open Instagram. I mean, he viewed my story so he must be in love with me…

Privilege to post

Of course, any casual post looks good amongst a fabulous life. 

A Loomy blog post detailing “The Meaning Behind Photo Dumps” explains how “being authentic is central to social media success because it makes your brand relatable. When your brand is relatable, it’s easier to build trust with your audience.” 

While that may be true, reading a step-by-step blog is not the right place to start.

The how-to guide awards photo dumps the perfect way to “make your posts appear effortless when you’re actually putting in a lot of work.”

This tactical approach is both ironic and a great privilege.

An affluent lifestyle naturally offers more photo-worthy moments than everyday life. 

Your life is the backdrop. While the everyday person works a 9-5, you’re traveling the world. Your casual posts read as authentic while mine read as weird. You gain 200 followers a post, and I lose 20.

We’re playing different games, or we’re at least in a different league.

Written By

Sydney Havlick, a recent Smith College graduate with a B.A. in English Literature and a minor in Sociology, is an aspiring and modern-day Carrie Bradshaw. Don't be too surprised if you catch the “Sex and the City" influence sprinkled throughout her work. Join her as she discusses the most pressing (and most fun) topics in popular culture and beyond!

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