Late last summer, I cut my 3,000 Instagram posts down to 30. It took innumerable hours spread out over weeks to delete them all, using a hyper-specific (and fairly buggy) app fittingly called Delete for Instagram. It let me select batches of 50 posts, saving the images and videos to my iPhone’s camera roll before purging them from the app for good. Gone from my grid were photos of mason jar cocktails from Brooklyn bars in 2012 and awful #ootd mirror shots from 2013. Bad hair decisions, ex-lovers, blurry concert shots — all evacuated.
What remained were pictures that represented me at the time; things I still felt communicated what I would want someone to know about me should they land on my profile. I love to imagine, for instance, the new girlfriend of one of those aforementioned exes looking at my profile and thinking, “Damn, what a cool chick. I hope I measure up but there is certainly no way. Just look at her fine taste, exciting lifestyle, and that unmatchable wit!” Or something.
I was initially inspired to pare down my account when I noticed the minimalist profiles of influential teens (forever a source of personal aspiration). After New York magazine published a profile of then-16-year-old Lilli Hymowitz, a New York City kid with money and mystique, dubbing her “the prom queen of Instagram” in September 2015, she swiftly deleted nearly every image on her account, leaving just three posts remaining that pre-dated the article. Ditto Mike the Ruler, a menswear fashion aficionado who broke out at 11 or 12 (and had his own NY mag profile by 13). Soon I noticed plenty of teens who were not profiled by magazines for their impressive lifestyles or vast followings doing the same thing, bringing their accounts down to post counts around 20, or even less. Partly to wipe away images of tastes that they have since outgrown, sure — and that happens so fast when you’re that age — but partly, I thought, as a statement of ownership over their online identity.
Prior to noticing this phenomenon, it had never really occurred to me to delete an Instagram. Not only had my tastes changed since I opened my account at some point late in college, but so had the reigning aesthetics of Instagram. Out were heavily filtered cameraphone snaps with a vignette blur effect, in were crystal-clear photographs with beautiful, natural lighting and crisp colors. Having recently left a full-time job to freelance, I have become especially aware of my online image, as it has become even more of a “first impression” when it comes to attracting new business. If you Google me (or yourself), social profiles are among the first results to float to the top. Forget the new girlfriend of ex boyfriends — what impression was I serving to editors or interview subjects I hadn’t met in person? Instagram had become more than an amusing feed of my friends’ goings-on. It had the potential to serve as a static homepage, communicating who I am to anyone dropping by.
Instagram itself seems to be acknowledging this shift in how the app is used with its new Archive feature, launched to select users late May and released to everyone Tuesday. Archive allows you to hide — and unhide — photos from your profile page, offering further curation of your grid without the permanence of deleting or the feed-clogging of reuploading. Effectively, one can wipe clean some or all of their Instagram presence and easily tailor what other users will see when they arrive at their profile page.
“A lot of people, including teenagers, use their Instagram profile to represent who they are today,” Instagram product manager Yichen Wang told me by email when I asked about the youth influence on the feature. “We want to give people the flexibility to evolve their profile as they do over time,” she said, adding that Instagram sees Archive as a solution “whether you want to curate your grid on your profile to better represent who you are, move old posts off your profile without losing likes and comments forever, preserve important memories for yourself, or simply share what’s happening in the moment to feed without worrying about it living on your profile.” That last point is not dissimilar from the Story feature, but it has touch more permanence.
“[Your Instagram profile] is kind of your living space online,” Ramon Luna, a sales analyst by trade, and hobby photographer with a meticulously plotted out Instagram profile, told me over the phone. “It’s kind of like how Myspace was before Facebook, like how you wanted to make your Myspace look a certain way,” he said. “It’s like your virtual room, and I want to keep my room clean.” He recalled looking at his 15-year-old sister’s Instagram recently to find a baby picture she’d posted of the two of them. “I went on her feed and noticed she only had like three posts. I have some friends my age who do that, too,” he said. He noted, however, “Maybe it’s different for teens because they’re hitting different stages in their life; like they’re going to high school and they don’t want to have photos of them from junior high. That’s different from an adult who curates it.”
Brands and influencers have also embraced the idea of the Instagram profile as a homepage, serving a specific and consistent image that capitalizes on the grid format, or focusing on a particular type of post. (A food writer friend with an impressive online following told me once she loses a noticeable number of followers every time she posts a selfie instead of a meal.) When launching her label LPA last year, fashion designer Lara Pia Arrobio took advantage of Instagram-profile-as-first-impression by using the grid to create an elaborate, collaged mood board. “I like to try to post things in threes, especially with a launch,” she told me by phone. “When we do seasonal launches, we’ll do a grid like that just to be like, ‘Hey, we’re LPA, this is what we’re all about,’ and that was really good for the [initial] launch.”
The carefully curated Instagram accounts of brands and public figures have duly filtered down to the rest of us. The Verge’s own Lizzie Plaugic, whose Instagram account currently has just 13 photos, told me, “I follow some people with really nicely curated Instagram accounts and so in comparison, looking at mine, I’m like ‘Hmm, I don’t know if this is what I want.’ Instagram is definitely the prettiest social platform, and there’s definitely a pressure to have very nice photos.” Similar to Luna, her end game isn’t to amass followers — her account isn’t even public. “Every so often I’ll go through and spruce it up, by which I mean make it more sparse,” she said. “I just look through what I have and decide which ones I don’t like, or which ones seemed funny at the time and now I think are dumb, or I maybe just don’t like, aesthetically, or it was a photo from a specific moment that I decided I don’t need to see anymore.”
Archive is a savvy response to the way people are using Instagram now — not just to share but also to withhold. With profile manicuring now simplified within the app, it shouldn’t be long before the masses follow the tone set by teens, as pop culture history always has.