Commentary: Instagram’s unrelenting hold on UBC’s culture and student life

Before ever stepping foot on campus, many of those who have accepted their offers of admission to UBC find themselves excited and anxious to learn everything they can about their prospective social lives in Vancouver. Fueled by an obsessive curiosity and desire to connect with other students who are in the same position, many take to the internet.

At this point, it is almost inevitable that one well-connected student will have created an Instagram account with a username (e.g. @ubc_2026) to serve as a rallying call for the incoming class.

Followers will message the account’s administrator with their own Instagram profile to be reposted — often with a flashy caption in hopes of finding common interests, areas of study, hometowns and so on. Even those who choose not to share their personal information may spend hours scrolling through the profiles on these accounts, searching for potential roommates or simply studying faces in hopes of recognizing one or two around campus. Ultimately, decisions on when to start making new connections, who to connect with and the platform with which to connect are all by Instagram’s design.

After meeting someone new in a class, at a club event or in a coffee line, someone usually always asks, “Do you have Instagram?” to show interest in staying connected with whoever they’ve met.

Afterwards, by virtue of campus culture, students are expected to spend a few minutes scanning through their new friend’s profile to check for mutual followers, read the bio message they’ve published and even allow the contents of the profile to amend whatever first impressions had been previously established. Still, if the answer to this leading question is ‘No, I don’t use Instagram,’ or ‘Sure, but I barely use it,’ the absence of a social media presence can lead to a whole host of different assumptions to be made about someone’s character.

Although normalized, this type of interaction can feel awkward and even inescapable. Awkward in that perhaps one’s profile feels too personal to share with a stranger, and inescapable in that Instagram is so widely used and its features (especially the messaging features) are convenient for connecting students across such a large school. Profiles tend to display a version of ourselves, far enough removed from authenticity as to charm and entertain strangers.

Left unchecked, constantly viewing and editing one’s profile to fit in with ever-changing trends and norms heightens self-consciousness and often leads students to compare themselves to their peers.

Further, on a campus so crowded, it is hard for current students to imagine life without group chats. The first instinct felt by many when it comes to organizing study sessions, intramural sports teams or holiday parties is to make a group chat. Nowhere is it easier to make a group chat with a large number of people than on Instagram. It connects people across device types and service providers, and removes the barrier of tracking down phone numbers. In the most extreme case, an entirely new profile may be created to advertise a party or a new course offering. This type of communication is exciting in how it connects people who may have not met before but simultaneously depersonalizes communication.

Situations like these contribute to the dizzying effect of rapidly cycling between feelings of deep social connection and staggering isolation, which accompany living independently for the first time in most students’ lives.

As such a widely-used platform among students, Instagram is responsible for temporary hits of relevance while also memorializing old posts and messages which fill us with nostalgia and keep us competing for the next best experience. Plus, it facilitates the circulation of information on campus with ease and efficiency unparalleled by any other physical or digital media.

Students can view job ads, resources for navigating challenging times (ranging from winter storms to international conflict) and community news within minutes of opening the app. This inundation of information changes how much content students are viewing and how they engage with it. Students’ engagement informs Instagram’s algorithm of how to curate their future recommended content so that usage will increase and the cycle will continue.

It is almost inevitable for students, stressed by new expectations and responsibilities, to look to Instagram for distraction and a sense of connection. However, the endless stream of content designed to spark strong emotions, from news-related posts with inflammatory headlines to well-intentioned highlight reels from a friend’s recent vacation, may actually do little to comfort these students.

Scrolling through Instagram, more often than not, perpetuates feelings of isolation and mediocrity. Viewing other people’s lives through the distorted mirror of Instagram changes how students experience their own lives and the type of experiences they seek out in the first place. Even experiences that call for total engagement such as hiking or dancing at a concert can become performative for the purpose of being able to share the event on Instagram afterwards — or sometimes even during. Students who otherwise may not have felt inclined to participate in these events may feel peer pressure to do so to share their clips on social media, for better or worse.

If student life at UBC were to be viewed as a stone arch, the institution’s first hundred years contribute the height to the two main pillars, but Instagram acts as the keystone that has allowed the current campus culture to bear weight. If this keystone were to be suddenly removed, many students would be forced to practice new methods of staying informed and connected within student life and culture aside from Instagram. In this way, Instagram can be seen as a depiction of student life with an unrelenting hold on the lives it touches.


This article is a commentary. It reflects only the author's views and may not reflect the views of The Ubyssey as a whole. Have something to say about what you just read? Contribute to the conversation and send a letter to the editor in response, or your own submission at https://ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion/.