From Filters To Fomo: The 6 Unwritten Rules Of Instagram

by Anna Berger

A couple of months ago, I found myself on board a lavish yacht off the coast of Mexico.

Most people would categorize this as a "good day," but I happen to have a history of motion sickness. To say I was nauseous would be an unaderstatement.

While everyone was upstairs enjoying champagne and snacking on three different seafood platters, I was at the front of the ship.

My head was over the railing, and a half-filled plastic bag was in my right hand.

Sexy, I know.

During those hours of feeling like death, my brother happened to capture a photo of me that was more representative of what my yacht experience should have been like.

In it, I stand at the bow of the boat and my cover-up flows in the wind. I appear to be basking in paradise.

Later in the day, when we reached land (which I bent down and kissed), I found the rather misleading picture on his phone and immediately thought about how cool of an Instagram post it would be.

It turns out I was right after I received 129 likes.

But, as the likes kept coming in, I felt more and more like I was lying. That picture was not at all what my day was like.

Instead of capturing my pale green face sandwiched between the railings of the yacht, this picture broadcasted a seemingly perfect moment, one people really seemed to love.

The comments made me feel great, but I knew the picture wouldn’t have received the same attention if I showed what really happened on that (mostly) miserable day.

The picture did happen, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Do my 500-something Instagram followers need to know the whole story? Is Instagram a place for detailed and honest representations of daily life?

No. That is the exact opposite of what Instagram is used for.

Instagram is all about creating and posting the "perfect" image. This trendy app lets you edit, filter, sharpen and crop photos, so by the time the photograph is published, the average person feels like a mini-celebrity.

Posting photographs of "ordinary" life -- moments like going to the supermarket or taking your dog for a walk — have been relegated to other apps like Snapchat, and Instagram is no longer the place for any ordinary picture.

We "enhance" our lives to make our day-to-day experiences seem more interesting and enviable, and Instagram users can curate the stories they want to share.

Let’s take a step back. Facebook is out. Eight years ago, I made my Facebook profile.

As a dorky, overeager freshman in high school, I knew Facebook was the be-all and end-all of social media.

And to be fair, it dominated the scene for a long time. Facebook became notorious for its status updates, location check-ins, ambiguous pokes and 200-picture uploads.

In other words, Facebook became another world we lived in. There was no moment left untouched. The details of our lives were broadcasted for the world to see, and these (often incriminating) tidbits added to our archives.

But then, something changed. An app came along in October 2011 that got rid of all the unnecessary Facebook clutter.

Instagram was brilliant, simple and exactly what Millennials were looking for. Five years and 300 million active users later, Instagram has changed the way we share photographs and the way we choose to share our lives.

This application has become such a universally integral part of our daily lives, and a short list of rules that govern its existence has emerged.

(Disclaimer: These rules are not printed anywhere and are not enforced to any degree, but to know them and to follow them means you have mastered the art of the ‘Gram.)

1. Do not post more than one picture a day

This is probably the most important and widely accepted rule of all. There is simply no such thing as posting two Instagram pictures in one day.

You could do it, and the app does let you, but you'd receive some serious judgment from your followers.

Of course, there are exceptions (like if you climbed Mount Everest in the morning and made it to the Great Barrier Reef before sunset), but Instagram is about choosing one photograph to sum up an experience, and letting everyone else fill in the blanks.

If you have 10 photographs to share, use Facebook.

2. Ratio of Followers to Following

If you follow 1,000 people and only 76 people follow you, you need to reevaluate your Instagram feed.

Generally speaking, you should follow about 100 less people than the amount of people who follow you.

(Warning: This ratio may result in burning a few bridges. But, this is Instagram we are talking about. Not everything is all fun and games.)

3. Like for Like

This rule mainly boils down to getting what you give. If you like your followers’ pictures, it is likely they will like yours back.

And if you're a fan of having a lot of likes on your posts, I suggest liking as many pictures as possible.

4. Hashtags

Please don’t overdo it. You may not lose friends, but you will definitely lose followers #harshbuttrue #iwouldnotlietoyou #honestyisthebestpolicy #getthepoint? #ihopeso.

5. No Filter

Filters are used so much, there is actually a hashtag encouraging you to not use a filter. The irony is real, but so are the 114,429,618 and counting posts on Instagram that are accompanied by a handy #nofilter hashtag.

I'm not sure how I feel about this approach, but I guess it is a case-by-case situation.

If you're standing in front of a magnificent sunset and want people to know you didn't edit this moment, then I guess it's okay.

However, if there is any question about the legitimacy of the #nofilter claim (aka a perfectly flat and dimple-less stomach after only a two-day juice cleanse), then maybe skip the #nofilter.

Basically, proceed with caution. You are really only fooling yourself.

6. Know your days of the week.

Somehow, Instagram has managed to create an entirely new set of names to describe what we used to know as the days of the week. Let’s take a look:

Man Crush Monday

It's also known as #MCM. This hashtag is mainly reserved for the woman or man who loves his or her boyfriend a little too much.

But, it can also be the designated hashtag for the obsessed teen posting a picture of his or her celebrity heartthrob. (Caution: This is not to be used for real crushes.)

Transformation Tuesday

This is the one day of the week where it is "acceptable" for people to post their new and improved summer bodies or whatever other self-improvement they have accomplished.

Woman Crush Wednesday

#WCW is the day for anyone to broadcast his or her female crush. Though I have yet to experiment with this hashtag, I'm looking at Beyoncé.

Throwback Thursday

I honestly can't remember what it was like to wake up on a Thursday and not have to immediately troll my archives for the perfect baby picture. #TBT is by far the most popular (and my personal favorite) weekday hashtag.

It's either an opportunity to show the world your younger, cuter self, or it's your chance to post a second picture of an event that you couldn’t post earlier (see rule one).

Flashback Friday

Friday's hashtag is a bit of a stretch, but it's prevalence means it can't be written off.

If you somehow missed Thursday this week and don’t feel like waiting another seven days, you can use Flashback Friday (#FBF) to share that important #TBT.


Saturday, as far as I can glean from my extensive field research, is hashtag-less.

The Millennial college student tends to be too hungover to compose a witty caption, and the rest of the world is too busy actually doing things. Go figure!

Selfie Sunday

#SS is apparently the only day of the week when posting an Instagram selfie is acceptable.

I would argue that posting an Instagram selfie is never acceptable (head to Snapchat), but I also do not belong to the main demographic for the #SS hashtag, which is dominated by high school-aged young adults.

So, these are the rules. Because our culture has adopted them, certain implications have followed.

For example, if we have a one-photograph-a-day limit, our story changes. With one picture standing in place of a whole day’s experience, certain moments are inevitably left out.

This selectivity starts to tell a story, highlighting the moments we want seen and remembered.

The singular Instagram allows the audience to fill in the gaps with what they imagine is happening. This empty space provides the curator with the platform to communicate an illusory, imaginary and ideal self.

In other words, instead of people experiencing multiple joys in one day (like a nature hike followed by a seven-course meal), Instagram forces its users to pick and choose the prettiest, most "important" moment to share on their feeds.

As Instagram users, we are no longer mindlessly posting photographs of meaningless things. Instead, we are paying very close attention to the rules of the game and the details of our lives we are choosing to share.

This devotion to Instagram law is impacting our self-presentation. The 180-degree flip from the Facebook mentality means we no longer feel like “over share” is the best strategy for our personal brands.

Our brands are the way we interact with friends, the photographs we post and the appropriateness of the content we share.

By exposing ourselves on such a vast platform, we are acknowledging that anyone who wants to see it can see it.

And if you are at all concerned about this public image (hey there, potential employers), this trend has made you more selective and particular about the content you're broadcasting into cyberspace.

Instagram has redefined self-broadcasting. You are the pictures you choose to share with your following, however accurate or inaccurate they may be.

In the world of Instagram, likes are the currency that measures worth. Knowing this, it's clear why we don’t share photographs for the sake of remembering a moment.

When we sit on our phones and wait for the likes to trickle in, we are anticipating the approval and reassurance of our personal brands. And frankly, it feels good to get likes on a photo.

This virtual ego-boost means people are paying attention, which is a rare feat among the generation that has revolutionized narcissism and self-obsession.

Instagram is about liking and being liked, but it is also a commentary on how technology has changed us. Technology has made us dependent on other people’s opinions, but it has also forced us to question our self-worth. It's making us both self-conscious and narcissistic.

We want likes, but we don’t want to risk not getting them. Solution? A few minor white lies here and there through editing and filtering.

As entertaining as this fake reality is, if everything is idealized, we as a society are unconsciously creating an unattainable standard of perfection.

We are completely disregarding the power of authenticity. We have redefined what it means to present oneself publicly.

Through these little Instagram “lies,” we may gain likes and followers, but what do we lose? We lose focus on the moments that matter.

We detach ourselves from the quiet, intimate and important moments of our lives.

They are the moments we don’t broadcast, the moments we preserve for ourselves and for memory’s sake.

Our truths are then lost in exchange for fitting into an unrealistic mold.

We have stopped holding onto important moments in exchange for moments of instant gratification that are affirmed by a social construct we created.

Now, I don’t want to just share moments of euphoria, indulgence and self-obsession. I want to share the moments that matter, the moments that change me, regardless of how “like-worthy” they are.

Though I may not agree with all of the social constructs Instagram has created, I won’t stop using it to share important photographs.

Instagram is both a vehicle for photography and a platform for the brand we want to create for ourselves.

As long as we remain conscious of Instagram's ability to create a huge divide between the real and the fake, the luxurious and the nauseating and the person and the persona, we can continue to use Instagram to capture it all.

With all of that said, please go follow me on Instagram.