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Casual Instagram post
via Instagram (@lookingforlewys)

Instagram casual posting is the antithesis to aesthetic influencer culture

Social media users on both Instagram and TikTok are returning to the early app days of uncurated and messy grids, mirroring the reality of everyday life

The year is 2012. You download an app called Instagram onto your iPhone 4. You begin to capture, edit, and upload pictures onto your profile. Some are pictures you’ve inexplicably taken from the internet (a pug wearing sunglasses), others blurry close-ups of random objects (a particularly unartistic shot of the inside of your pencil case, for example) and, every now and again, a selfie (your mobile is the first iPhone to have a front camera) using one of two filters – sepia or black and white. It is quantity over quality and the definition of unaesthetic.

Fast forward eight years and we have filtered and photoshopped Instagram into something unrecognisable. Feeds are curated, themed, and sponsored; it is no longer a photo-sharing app but a universal boasting platform, a place to share a highlight reel of the ‘picture perfect’ parts of your life.

What if we could get Instagram back to what it used to be? Could we return to the halcyon days when Instagram mirrored reality and posting was a simple and fun way to store and share memories? Well, Gen-Z might have the answer. Ever the cultural disruptors, they’re ‘casual posting’ on Instagram.

Casual posting involves posting on a whim. It’s digital anarchy; refusing to fall into the social media pressure trap to present yourself as perfect. “It is about posting whatever you want without over filtering your content,” says Ella Hughes a 23-year-old from Manchester, “whatever you think is pretty or cool without trying to impress anyone, fit a clean, polished look or follow a formula.”

Ella (@oatmllk) has been casual posting since 2015, after deleting all her pictures for a clean slate. “The general consensus with my friends and the people I looked up to at the time was that it was fun to post on, but actually caring about Instagram was lame. Still is, in my opinion,” she says. 

But for most people in recent times, the trend was picked up from TikTok, where pioneers of casual posting began showing off their chaotically random feeds, and urging others to post with the same spontaneity. The casual posting hashtag has 1.7M views.

“Instagram is full of people with millions of followers and often about three brain cells. It’s good to see people can gain a following and have people interested from their personality alone” – Lewys Ball

“There’s something about TikTok that makes it feel as if your content goes out to some other world, a parallel universe where the only people who see it are aliens or something,” says YouTuber and champion of casual posting Lewys Ball (@LookingforLewys). The rise of short-form video app TikTok and casual posting come hand in hand; the app’s success, in part, comes from being the upbeat anthesis to the overly posed world of Instagram.

TikTok inspired 15-year-old Wade Gilkey (@wadeg_) from California to start casual posting too. “Since I started gaining a following through TikTok, I want my page to be an insight into my real life,” he says citing his 51.1K TikTok followers, “rather than just good looking but boring posts.” For Wade, the move to casual posting helped his self-image too; by posting a more unfiltered insight into his life, he gets to express his personality. Wade’s posts are an eclectic collection of teenage memories, from a skateboard at the bottom of a swimming pool to a friend holding a half eaten piece of toast, and the occasional blurred selfie, there is no rhyme or reason to his posting; it is merely for his own nostalgia and enjoyment. 

Personality is undeniably what helped Looking for Lewys grow his 271K followers on Instagram and 487K subscribers on YouTube. Despite beginning his career posting makeup tutorials, the 21-year-old has always maintained an endearing level of honesty with his followers. At first glance his Instagram grid is filled with perfectly posed photos, but swipe left and you’ll usually find they are followed up by goofy outtakes. From Lewys hungover in bed the next morning, to a photo edited to ridiculous extremes or a selfie immediately transformed into a selection of memes; you could never accuse the YouTuber of being too serious. “I always knew I was never going to be able to pull that kind of stuff off. I am lazy and my life is too messy to have that constantly perfect feed,” he says, “so, I thought, instead of trying to make a half attempt at these posed pictures, I just going to take it completely the other way and no one can cringe at me for trying to do something seriously.”

“Instagram is full of people with millions of followers and often about three brain cells,” he adds, “it’s good to see people can gain a following and have people interested from their personality alone.”

Lucy Banfield (@lucy.banfield), a 19-year-old from London started casual posting after realising she was spending hours taking and editing photos for Instagram. Casual posting means “you post what feels right for you, what you think represents yourself in the most genuine way,” she says, “I guess you could say my account is documentary in a way, as I almost upload on the go with no pre planning or editing, it’s just all natural.”

Social media and influence expert Unsah Malik, considers casual posting a trigger response to the content overload on social platforms. “Now, because we see it so often, a part of that exclusiveness doesn’t exist and we’re far more aware of what happens behind the scenes to get that ‘perfect’ picture moment,” she says. “It’s no longer as appealing and actually, can be quite draining and fake-looking to consistently see.”

2020 has seen the start of a real backlash against influencer culture, something the pandemic has undeniably escalated. With everyone stuck at home with nowhere to go and no one to see, the appetite for glamour and luxury is at an all-time low. In a year of protests and a pandemic, unboxing videos and travel vlogs seemed trivial and exceedingly out of touch (remember Kim Kardashian's 40th birthday private Island tweet?). “Who wants to keep seeing mirror selfies of abs and luxury shopping trips when people are losing jobs, suffering financially and mourning the death of their loved ones,” asks Unsah. This is something Lewys reiterates, “with everything that is going on right now, people can’t be bothered to look their best or dress up just for a picture,” he says, “I think that is why I started posting more random pictures.”

“I don’t think we will ever rid the idea of aesthetic perfection completely either. We’ll find new ways of what that perfection means” – Unsah Malik

There is, of course, an inescapable irony in casual posting becoming a trend and an aesthetic in itself. The influencer and YouTuber Emma Chamberlain, who is known for posting an eccentric mix of highbrow magazine photoshoots and blurry 'casual' photos, has 11.6m followers. Much of Chamberlain’s following comes from an appreciation of her ‘messy’ and, therefore, relatable aesthetic achieved through the casual posts. But when Instagram is your job, is the relatability carefully curated to appear casual?

Under the casual posting hashtag on TikTok, you’ll also find a string of videos idealising what people’s Instagram’s might look like if they had the confidence to start posting in this way. Posting casually, for some, requires a certain level of clout in the first place; the privilege of being cool or attractive enough that your version of unaesthetic is still appealing. Nevertheless, embracing the unaesthetic through this style of posting creates a space for individuality that Instagram was lacking before; it offers a break from the monotonous accounts of identical-looking influencers edited beyond distinction. 

As is the case with any trend, casual posting will have its moment of fleeting popularity before the next big thing comes along. But the spontaneity and hedonism of posting merely for your own joy is something that will hopefully stick around. “We will continue seeing this trend come in and out depending on what people feel looks cool at the time,” says Unsah. “We may see people engage with the idea more often – which is a good move – but I don’t think we will ever rid the idea of aesthetic perfection completely either. We’ll find new ways of what that perfection means; an art behind the causal posting, if you like.”