What Can We Learn From the Instagram Egg?
A lot, actually.
This summer I’ve been reading Kate Eichhorn’s book Content, which is part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, and I have so many thoughts. Please know that this is the first of many pieces I will write citing Ms. Eichhorn’s incredibly insightful book. I recommend you read it if you find internet culture or content strategy remotely fascinating.
In the opening chapter of her book Content author Kate Eichhorn attempts to rightly define “content” and she concludes that we can best understand content by looking at the Instagram egg phenomenon from 2019—I thought it was from years earlier, but that’s just because the last few years have felt like a decade!
If you aren’t aware of the Instagram egg, here’s an explanation from its Wikipedia page:
The Instagram egg is a photo of an egg posted by the account @world_record_egg on the social media platform Instagram. It became a global phenomenon and an internet meme within days of its creation, and is both the most-liked Instagram post and most-liked online post on any website in history, with over 55.9 million likes as of April 2022.
So what can the infamous Instagram egg teach us about content and its role in our lives?
Content Doesn’t Need a Meaningful Purpose
Some misunderstand content as needing to be a particular kind of media or be meaningful in some substantive way. Content does not need to be entertaining in order to be content. It does not need to be informative. It does not need to be useful. It does not need to improve anyone or infuriate anyone to be content.
Over the years as I’ve worked with dozens of authors and other kinds of content creators, often within ministries or organizations, there is some belief that every piece of content created for consumption online has to be A+ and absolutely perfect, or as close to perfect as possible. I used to work with one very successful Bible study author who would spend three or four hours crafting an 800-word blog post. I had to encourage the author that not every piece of writing demands the same attention to detail and care as a Bible study lesson.
The Instagram egg was not informative. It wasn’t inherently entertaining, even if its popularity was funny. The egg did not enrich anyone’s lives or make anyone angry (at least for any clear reason). The Instagram egg, Eichhorn writes:
…arguably reveals a great deal about the essence of content in a digital era. Certainly, some content does convey a message, share information, or tell a story, but content isn’t obliged to fulfill any of these goals. Content, as demonstrated by the Instagram egg, may circulate solely for the purpose of circulating.
The Instagram egg could have been a kitten or blender or hockey stick, and anyone could have sent or liked the image. What mattered was not what the Instagram egg had to communicate or to whom but that it was circulating at all, and this is arguably what makes the Instagram egg such an exemplary example of content.
Content does not need to be good or helpful or awful to be content. It simply has to be and be shared.
Content Is Defined by Its Existence and Circulation
Eichhorn continues, writing about the core requirement for something to be considered content today:
The Instagram egg may be notorious, but it is not an outlier. Indeed, in many respects, it epitomizes content—the raw material of the content industry. What made the Instagram egg stand out wasn’t what it communicated but rather what it did, and what it did was simply circulate widely. This is precisely why economist Bharat Anand, author of The Content Trap, argues that in an age of content, the most successful companies aren’t those that produce or sell great content but rather those that simply facilitate its management or circulation.
That thought from Bharat Anand, that the most successful companies are not the producers or sellers of content, but the facilitators and circulators of content, is brilliant, and I plan to write more specifically on that idea in the coming weeks as I think it has massive ministry and church implications, but we will just leave it for now.
Content, as the term is widely used today, is best understood as online media, a subset of which is “social media.” YouTube videos are content. Twitch streams are content. Blog posts are content. Tweets are content. Instagram stories and comments are content. Anything that is created and shared online is content.
Skype calls are not content, nor are Zoom meetings. Unless of course the audio and video from these calls and meetings are shared widely, in which case they would become content. Text messages are, strictly speaking, not content. Though we share content like memes and GIFs in our text messages. And I suppose screenshots of text messages shared on social media would be considered content.
The Instagram egg helped clarify that content doesn’t have to be meaningful to be content, and that is what I think is the magic of the internet.
Mundanity Is the Magic of the Internet
As my relationship with the internet has changed over the years amid the ebb and flow of different kinds of media, social platforms, and otherwise, I have come to take the social internet far less seriously than I once did. I think I like to approach the social internet today much more like I did when I was 15-years-old than when I was 25-years-old.
When I was 25-years-old, just six years ago, I was very much interested in how the internet may change my life. I was trying to figure out how what content I created may change my offline life in some substantive way. I wondered how online debates and other forms of communication may impact the organization I worked for or broader evangelicalism.
Today, like when I was 15-years-old, I am far less interested in figuring out how the internet will change my life than I am in how the internet can enhance the life with which I am content. I use social media to follow funny and smart people and keep up with friends from far away, more often engaging around mundanity than content of any real consequence.
I am wholly uninterested in personal platform building not because I don’t want keep writing books, but because if that’s what I have to do to keep writing books than I’m simply not interested. I am interested, however, in posting things I think may be helpful for others in regard to matters like what we’re exploring here. It’s not that I have a totally irreverent, nihilistic view of the social internet. I just don’t think it needs to be taken as seriously as maybe I’ve taken it in the past.
Mundanity is the magic of the social internet—this is part of what makes BeReal so popular right now. Goofy memes from old movies, TikToks of amateur singers covering pop hits, and YouTuber setup tours are usually far from sensational or meaningful. They are often quite mundane. But collectively experiencing such mundanity is, in my view, what makes the internet so magical.
Perhaps our relationship with content is healthiest when we are least interested in how it may add meaning to our lives, something I would argue it can’t even do in the first place.
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