Ctrl: Instagram’s “Active Now” Feature

Caio Brighenti, Maroon-News Staff

Weekly readers of this column are probably used to it grappling with complex, nuanced issues that are critical to society. Technology shapes basically everything we do in one way or another, so there’s never a shortage of big issues to tackle. This column has gone over how societal biases are perpetuated through algorithms and questions the role of corporations in war-making, but this week’s topic may just be the most important one thus far: Instagram’s new “Active Now” feature.

Yes, I’m serious. I guess it’s plausible that you may not have even noticed this feature yet, but the gist of it is that if you slide over to the messages section of Instagram, it’ll tell you who’s “Active Now” on the app.

I recognize I may have slightly overstated the importance of this issue, but it’s nowhere near as trivial as it might seem. Sure, an Instagram feature seems irrelevant when compared to cyber warfare or data security, but if we actually think about it analytically, it begs some fascinating questions about the social structure of our internet society.

Consider this: what does it even mean to be “active”? There’s the easy, literal definition: simply having your phone screen on and the app open. It’s the intuitive answer, and it feels good because it makes perfect sense. This definition brings me back to fond memories of staying up late, talking in MSN chat rooms during the early 2000s.

A friend, presumably on their glorious Windows XP or Vista, would open up the app and you’d get a nice pop-up in the corner of your screen. You knew then without a doubt that that person was sitting in front of their computer, ready to get a message. They weren’t doing anything else, aside from maybe some light web browsing. At least for that moment, that person’s activity was “using the computer.”

Let’s return to the present and consider how that differs from browsing Instagram on your phone. First of all, Instagram isn’t really a chat app. Sure, slide in the DMs all you want, but the primary purpose of Instagram is to scroll through the endless stream of sunset pictures, group photos, corporate ads and the occasional dog picture. It’s social media, but it’s an inherently anti-social practice in the sense that you can’t really do it with someone.

So why then does it matter whether or not other people happen to be on the app at the same time as you? Think of it this way –– when you pick up a book, would you want to know who else is reading at that time? In this comparison, it’s
a feature that seems strange, not particularly useful and toes the line of invasion of privacy. I’m not quite sure if I want everyone that has me on Instagram to know when I’m on it.

Perhaps then, it indicates Facebook (which, in case you didn’t know, owns Instagram) wants to turn Instagram into more of a chat app. The feature doesn’t make sense because we see Instagram as a content consumption application, and not a necessarily social one, even if its content is itself social.

I remember growing up, I’d have allotted time to use the computer, maybe one hour on weekdays, and two hours on weekends. I’d sit down, launch up MSN and be thoroughly in “computer time.” When it comes to interacting with our phones today, that concept just doesn’t apply. There’s no such thing as “phone time” because our phones are always on us, ready to notify us when some- thing happens. It’s not even that all time is phone time, it’s that there’s not even a way to conceptualize that anymore. Phones are completely embedded in our day to day, almost as an extension to our conscience. The line at the boundary of “phone time” has been completely erased.

So what in the world does it mean to be “active now?” I honestly have no idea. Does having the Instagram app open make me any more “active” than just being on my phone, or even just having it in my pocket, ready to buzz? It’s an unbelievably simple feature that begs surprisingly complex and practically unanswerable questions. See, I told you it was more interesting than it seemed.

Contact Caio Brighenti at [email protected].