Infinite Scroll: Always Looking
This piece originally appeared in print in issue 03 of Hello Mr.
I’ve been single for nearly two years in New York City. That, coupled with the slow crawl to thirty – and my less resilient liver – means that many Friday evenings are spent watching TV on my sofa with a glass of wine. I sit in sweatpants and a t-shirt, a more sedentary, less glamorous reflection of the characters I watch.
During lulls, I pick up my phone and open Instagram. The scroll that proceeds is second nature, predictably liking every fourth or fifth picture--a burger I wish I were eating, a serene beach that feels infinitely distant from my noisy city street, a shirtless guy, or two of them in bed together.
I rarely stop scrolling to really think about those men – some of whom I know well, others peripherally, and a few not at all. When I do allow for a few seconds of reflection, I feel strange. It's not guilt, and rarely jealousy. I wonder, rather, if they ever stop to think about guys like me – in our sweatpants, on our sofas, looking at them and their perfect lives. I wonder, how is a relationship different when it has an audience?
If many gay couples’ photos are, simply put, “double selfies,” some part of what they post must be for validation. Not necessarily validation for their love, but of the decisions they make and of their status as a great (or archetypal) romance of the 21st century. In December, @LukeAustinPhotosThe3rd posted a picture on Instagram of a man lying on his stomach. In murky green briefs, his inked upper thigh and torso punctuate the photo’s centerpiece: his noticeably toned ass. Three red and white stripes from an American flag float at the top of the photo, and it's appropriate: for many gay men, Luke’s photo, captioned, "Husband," is the American Dream.
Nearly 40,000 followers peek in on Luke Austin-Paglialonga and his husband Marcus Paglialonga-Austin (@mpaglialonga) as they capture their morning and evening routines in various states of undress. Strangers have bought them drinks, opened their homes to them, and given them free clothes. Luke is not at all oblivious to the attention: “It’s completely surreal,” he says.
Their accounts are favorites of mine because their relationship in many ways began on Instagram, with “a lot of liking, winking, and emojis,” which led to an in-person date when Luke traveled from his native Australia to Los Angeles and, eventually, marriage.
If Luke and Marcus's marriage is something new, Ashley (Ash) Denton (@foodfaceash) and Paul Dotey’s (@pauldotey) relationship is something old. Ash and Paul have been married for three years and together for nine. They share a dog and a house and an audience of over 22,000. If Luke is gay Instagram’s Terry Richardson—an underwear enthusiast and provocateur—Ash is more like its Ansel Adams: a lover of monochrome and food stylist whose “romantic photos” are no less tantalizing, but a little more SFW.
I know more about the lives and bodies of these four men than guys I have gone on two or three dates with, and I wonder if this is a problem. Just as modern gay porn, with its double-penetration and bukkake finishes, stalls our ability to be satisfied with vanilla, monogamous sex, do Instagram romances represent a similarly unattainable ideal, a more insidious version of the old rom-com complex?
As I fall into a panicky, philosophical black hole, I convince myself that the key to understanding my own loneliness lies is unlocking motivations of the Insta-famous.
Fashion blogger and Brooklyn-based bachelor Richard Haines (@richard_haines) recalls his initial reaction to Instagram as a more visceral reflection of loneliness than mine: “Every fucking guy is in Capri, in love and gorgeous, and I want to kill myself.” At the same time, he knows his own account has its share of envy-inducing photos. “When I’m at Fashion Week in Paris, I post beautiful pictures, but none that involve catching a cab in the rain or [the frustration] of missing a train. All the circumstances that are [everyday] life are edited out."
“The lives [Instagram couples present] are very seductive, but it’s an edited version of real life. Who knows what happened five minutes before the photo was taken?” He qualifies with a sigh, “I have to tell myself that or I’ll lose my mind.”
Luke is quick to admit that though all of his photos are authentic moments, the narrative can be misleading at times, “Our relationship online looks like it was sent from the heavens with a golden halo around each image, and I'm sure it makes a few followers gag, but [newly married] it’s kind of how our relationship is right now.” He adds, “We argue and get pissed at each other like any couple,” and with a smirk, “But that’s not aesthetically pleasing.”
Marcus concurs that the relationship they present on Instagram isn’t contrived: “We aren’t staging a romance novel. We walk around a lot, eat a lot, lay in bed, and watch movies.” They just happen to do most of those “normal couple” things in with their briefs pulled down just barely, tan lines exposed and filtered to more starkly contrast. Despite the obvious adjustments and enhancements, the pictures come off sincere; there’s no second-guessing that they are in love. But their Instagram history is not without moments that give pause to the notion that their lives are perfect.
Luke’s move to the USA was documented with confetti-peppered pictures of farewell and welcome parties – American flags ceremoniously and seductively draped below six packs. To what extent were those pictures and the thousands of "likes" he received the push he needed to know he was making the right decision to leave Australia and move in with Marcus? Where are the moments of anguished indecision? Where are the photos documenting the hellish process of an intercontinental move? What about the photos documenting the bureaucratic American immigration process? These questions are impolite to ask and difficult to answer honestly.
There are moments of darkness on Instagram. Marcus once posted a photo of himself pinching a thin layer of stomach padding. Below this, the caption revealed that he was seven days sober. It was a surprisingly private moment to appear on the tightly curated forum of Instagram, a startling plot twist in what had appeared to an endless procession of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. The photo is uncharacteristic and tough to like without knowing exactly what it means, or what Marcus wants. Is he looking at his followers as a network of support or, less seriously, is seeking a bit of validation that he looks great as is? What does it mean to "like" such a post? Is it simply a crude way to express generic support or is it simply the way we do things now, genuinely or not? Either way, nearly 2,000 people liked it whether or not they'd thought too hard about it.
When nudged, Ash shrugs that he doesn’t post dark or tense moments of his relationship – they aren’t photogenic. But like Luke and Marcus he is similarly quick to assert authenticity; “I’ve never staged a photo of us. If I did, I would probably caption it genuinely with, ‘We are actually fighting right now.’ We don’t pretend.”
The fact is we are most likely to share when we are happy, when we are living our best life. Brett P. Kennedy, PsyD, is a gay clinical psychologist with over fifteen years of experience working with gay men and couples. His work, which focuses on heartache, has made him unsurprisingly wary of putting it all out there. He points out the paradoxical nature of digital openness, which we can’t immediately reconcile: While we’re quick to document new and burgeoning love, “When a relationship turns South and dirty laundry or façades are exposed, you hear people asserting their need for ‘privacy’ and ‘respect during this difficult time.’ Twitter accounts close, and Instagram goes dark.”
Brett argues that the way most couples on Instagram invite followers to bed is more narcissistic than generous. “We all have a degree of narcissism that defines and showcases who we are – our strengths, weaknesses, accomplishments. The operative word is degree." He distinguishes between healthy and superficial varieties of narcissism, and argues that social media, including Instagram, encourages the latter. It’s a cynical, maybe depressing view of who we are and where we’re headed, reinforced by the fact the most-followed gay men on Instagram aren’t making profound political statements or even posting pictures of their families like popular straight counterparts: they’re giving fitness tips (Almog Gabay, @almog9, 29,000 followers) and selling clothes (Adam Gallagher, @iamgalla, 611,000 followers.) In fact, most Instastuds work in fields that benefit from stripping down or layering up for followers. Creative pursuits like fashion, photography, and personal training are at the root of the most suave accounts. On Instagram, narcissism is a business, and business is good.
Brett warns that whatever looks too good to be true – too filtered to be a real photo – likely is. “You don’t see crying, fighting, or boyfriends injecting one another with steroids, the maxed out credit card statements, and the drugs that some people need to get through life off-camera. In other words, the dark side of life, the smoke and mirrors, and reality are often privatized.”
Or, to put it more bluntly: “You never see people on TV take a shit and you certainly don’t see it on Instagram.”
All the same, I believe that Luke and Marcus and Ash and Paul are genuinely happy – these men are matching-tattoo-level in love. Their Instagram feeds are a less-than-true reflection of a nevertheless true romance. The subtleties here can be ignored or misinterpreted. But there are many more couples whose hyper-sexualized posts are less sweet and more manipulative.
Ash in particular is hyper-cognizant of privatizing certain aspects of his life. He recognizes that the false sense of familiarity engendered by Instagram can be dangerous and weird. Before he takes and posts a photo he asks himself if he's making his followers feel too close: “It’s amazing how many people have come to [our house] for the first time and say they feel like they’re on a TV set.” More pragmatically, he is careful not to post his exact address or other details that compromise his safety. When he considers his ability to reach 20,000 users rather than empowered, he admits resignedly: “It’s strange.”
It’s not the place of the follower to question to motivations of the couples we like or lust after. After all, we choose whom to follow. The best we can do is hope that our Instastuds are at least cognizant of the impact they have on the thousands of guys who look into their lives. And with that, hope for their sake, that they set boundaries on what and how they share. Richard puts it nicely: “Seeing people in a relationship twenty-four seven is sweet, but it’s too much candy.”
At times, the constant sweetness can turn sour. Jeffery Self (@jeffreyself), an actor and writer in Los Angeles with 4,500 followers, is one half of a formerly Insta-famous couple, and he's been (sometimes uncomfortably) vocal about the demise of his relationship on Instagram. But despite his sometimes guttural emotions, his feelings toward the photos with his now-ex are pretty mild: “They were usually quite accurate. Our relationship went through the same ups and downs as many others. I'm sure there were days when my relationship photo didn't always match my feelings, but I felt like I was just documenting my life as I was living it.”
Jeffery’s biggest problem with Instagram aligns with Brett’s cautionary words. He is less concerned about what a couple posts but how the app can accentuate problems and overtake the relationship. He bemoans, “the weird culture of following the lives of people you want to fuck, and putting your own photos out there to make people tell you you're sexy.” For Jeffery, the validation that can fuel a happy, healthy relationship can just as well fuel jealousy and breed betrayal. He puts Brett’s psychological advice to be hyper-reflective more forcefully: know the power of what you post; it’s more than just a picture. Instagram didn't cause Jeffery's relationship to end, but it may have accelerated and aggravated the process.
For their part, the couples I spoke to weren't concerned about the dangers of subconscious flirting and thinly veiled insecurities. Ash says nonchalantly, “Posting to Instagram hasn’t hurt us, it hasn’t made us stronger. It’s just something that we do.”
There’s a restaurant on my street corner that is stereotypically New York. Its rustic but modern interior is visible through floor-to-ceiling windows. It serves New American cuisine to beautiful people who glow in candlelight. I look in on my walks home from work and casually scan the patrons - mostly couples. Sometimes my gaze involuntarily lingers on the impossibly happy and the tragically quiet – the couples who seem most and least in love. If they look back, I break away, turn the corner faster.
It’s Friday again: TV, red wine. And after many conversations with the Instafamous, I place my phone on my coffee table and open Instagram. I stare at the app and for a minute or two wonder what to do... Do I unfollow the strangers I've accumulated over time? Do I make my own feed private? I wait for a moment of clarity, some great revelation. I want things to feel different now that I know more about the photos – what they can mean and how difficult it is to understand that truth.
But nothing comes. Nothing changes.
Friday scrolls on, past photos of strange men and Capri cabanas until I like a picture of a pastrami burger that would go nicely with my glass of red.I don’t unfollow Luke or Marcus. Instead, I like a photo of Luke. He’s in a swimsuit on a rooftop, a smog or cloud-streaked LA sky contrasts his perfect skin – he’s looking fitter. It's the kind of thing you notice in a friend you haven't seen for a while.
For a second I wonder if he’ll know I liked it – now that we’ve spoken. But I accept that my like will probably get lost among 2,300 others. Just like the couples I look in on at the restaurant, I only look away when they look back.