Talk of the Crag: The Instagram Era

Fighting jealousy in an age of virtual spray
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Julie Ellison
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Fighting jealousy in an age of virtual spray

This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of our print edition.

Left to right: @heyflashfoxy, Alton Richardson, Alex Manelis

Left to right: @heyflashfoxy, Alton Richardson, Alex Manelis

I’ll be the first to admit: I spend too much of my life on Instagram. Any time my brain wanders from the task at hand, be it painfully mundane or frustratingly difficult, I reach for my phone, swipe right, and tap that little cartoon camera. As a matter of fact, I checked Instagram three times while writing those first two sentences. I’m not proud of it, but I suspect I’m not the only one with such a bad habit.

My love affair with Instagram coincided with the beginning of a real-life love affair. I tend to avoid technological trends until the last minute, not out of any sense of hipster superiority, but more out of a total lack of interest. My phone usually stays on the oldest version of its operating system until it shuts down, but the guy I was enamored with, a photographer, encouraged me to try it out.

“It’s just a fun way to edit and share pictures,” he said.

“But what’s it for?” I asked insistently.

“What is any type of social media for?” he said.

Good point.

This was back when Instagram forced the user to take pictures in the app itself—you couldn’t take photos with another camera and upload them—so it was more about the moments the pictures represented, not the pictures themselves, hence “insta.” Quality didn’t really matter, because you were just going to slap a drastically toned filter over it, resulting in a heavy-handed image that would make Ansel Adams roll over in his grave. You shared experiences as they happened, not weeks or months later. In those early days, I would sit and wait for my love interest to like my photos, because out of my whopping 36 followers, his like was the only one I cared about.

Now, Instagram is a billion-dollar business with more than 300 million users, and I follow 1,359 of them, from an account for my friend’s liquor store back in Alabama (“Grab a bottle of the famous Popcorn Sutton moonshine!”) to an account called FluffyPack that’s just a constant stream of cute puppies and piglets. But the majority of accounts I follow are fellow climbers who post envious images of soaring sandstone walls, top-down try-hard faces, and vans parked in front of breathtaking vistas. I wish I could say that I see these photos, smile, and think, “Oh, she must be having so much fun!” But au contraire, my friend.

When I see images that are particularly rad, my head burns with jealousy and my stomach sinks with the thought: I want that. Sometimes it’s a place I really want to go, or sometimes it’s a girl climbing harder than me, but most often it’s simply a picture of someone climbing outside when I’m stuck inside. My melodramatic brain ignores the fact that I am lucky enough to climb almost constantly, both for fun and for my job.

“Ugh, does she have to post another picture of climbing in Bishop?!” I recently said with a whine that should only be associated with doing your taxes and eating lima beans.

“Julie, you were just in France for two weeks!” my boyfriend, the aforementioned love interest whom I blame for my Instahabit, responded. We were on the drive home from the airport, where he had picked me up from a “work” trip where I climbed alpine lines in Chamonix, multi-pitch sport in the Verdon Gorge, and 400 meters of limestone over the Mediterranean in Les Calanques. Not even an hour after a lifetime trip to three European climbing meccas, I was already resenting somebody else having fun.

Jealousy comes quickly when you only see the most beautiful, perfectly edited, carefully curated moments. We all do it. It’s human nature to want people to see only the best of you. When was the last time you had just a single photo taken of yourself—selfie or otherwise—and then moved on to something else? The invention of digital photography afforded us the ability to take multiple pictures at once, and we narcissistically inclined humans have taken full advantage. My parents’ photo albums only contain images that I would scroll right past today. Eyes are closed, stances are awkward, clothing is unflattering, and 90 percent of the time it’s unclear what the subject of the image is even supposed to be.

Last fall, my photographer boyfriend posted an image of me on Way Rambo, a 5.12- in Indian Creek. With perfect tape gloves and just the right colors on, I’m high off the deck and wincing, trying hard to clip the rope to a cam. It looks like I’m crushing the crux traverse to the anchor. What the photo doesn’t show is me asking my boyfriend, who was hanging on a nearby fixed line, to pre-place the cam because I was too pumped to do it myself and too scared to take the fall. It also doesn’t show the 40-plus minutes I spent hangdogging the route because it is way out of my realm of sending possibility. At one point about halfway through, I had been hanging so long that my boyfriend rapped down to see if I was OK. I was physically exhausted and mentally defeated, so he said a few comforting words and squeezed my shoulder. One passing climber on the ground saw the interaction and commented to my incredibly patient belayer, “I remember needing a pat on the back right about there too.” None of that made it to Instagram.

Hundreds of diverse communities have embraced this photo-sharing platform, from competitive cheerleaders to fitness fanatics to a group called “rich kids of Instagram,” where teenagers post pictures of $100,000 bar tabs, Rolex-laden wrists, and massive yachts floating in bright blue water. (Look it up. It’s disturbing but oddly fascinating to see how the offspring of the 1% live.) One social media study by a German university describes an “envy spiral”: Person A posts a beautiful photo, person B tries to outdo person A by posting an even better image, then person A has to one-up person B, and so on. This keeps going until the social media–sphere looks nothing like reality.

Our community of climbers and adventure seekers flocked to Instagram thanks to our beautiful playgrounds and cool hobbies. Generally speaking, we’re anti-materialistic; we don’t seek money and the things it can buy, but rather experiences and the renewed perspective they can offer. Of course we want to share those experiences with the rest of the world, but with Instagram we’ve just replaced one numerical judgment system with another. Money in the bank has been superseded by likes and followers. At least you can trade money for burritos.

Like any creative social medium that starts out fun and lighthearted, Instagram now features an endless scroll of advertising and promotion, but the marketing song and dance isn’t limited to companies selling products. Everyone is pushing a blog or a tank top or a light beer or just themselves. “Exciting projects on the horizon, can’t wait to share with you guys, so stay tuned! [insert some sort of high-five emoji here] #linkinbio #blessed #humble” in Instagram-speak translates to “Pay attention to me!”

It’s not all ego and self-obsession, though. Instagram really does connect people. When I showed up solo to the Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop in February, the girls I had “met” through Instagram greeted me with big smiles and warm hugs, like we’d been real-life friends for years. Any apprehension about being there immediately dissipated when I realized these girls kicked just as much ass as their various social media accounts claimed. Flash Foxy, the organization that put the festival together and has been a driving force behind getting more women into climbing, started a few years ago as a simple Instagram account. Eventually there was enough interest for creator Shelma Jun to build a website and organize an event.

Unknown talents in photography and climbing have rocketed from relative anonymity to social media stardom because of Instagram. Keith Ladzinski and Andy Mann each busted their butts for more than a decade to be respected photographers in the outdoor industry, then almost overnight they both became household names and National Geographic contributors. Not that they couldn’t have done it on their own merit, but having a large number of followers can get you more publicity, more work, more compensation, more sponsors, or more swag. It’s wonderful for those individuals, but focusing on what other people are doing distracts from your own life, your own goals and objectives.

When I first joined the Instagram army and before it became the marketing-tool junk show it is today, I ran into a professional climbing photographer that I greatly admire at the gym. I told her I was ambivalent about it, and she said, “Oh, I love it! It’s like a constant stream of inspiration I can hold in my hand.” I had never thought of it that way, and even though that encounter was four years ago, I still think about her comment when I’m staring at @ladycrusher656’s Bishop photos. I try to replace those feelings of envy with pure motivation. Maybe I can’t go climb High Plains Drifter in the Buttermilks right this very second, but I can go do a lap on the Second Flatiron here in Boulder, breathe in the fresh air, and remember that exactly what I see in front of me beats what I see on a tiny screen every time.