Once a month, Ellie Moore, a 17-year-old high school student in London, deletes every photo on her Instagram. It’s so ritualistic that she even sets a reminder on her phone to do so. Her pictures are neither offensive nor illicit. Nope, according to Moore, her photos are “usually just pictures of me wearing a face mask in bed, or out with some friends — things you’d probably see on any teenager’s Insta.” Over Instagram DM, she adds that she’s “never posted anything slutty or sexy.” In fact, her Instagram, like many of her friends, is private, and she only follows people she knows IRL, along with a few celebrities and fashion brands.
For Moore then, these routine purges offer a sense of control over how she presents herself to the world. Or in her words, “I only want people to see the photos that I think represent me the best. How I feel about my photos changes, too — sometimes in a few days, sometimes over months. Sometimes, I’ll post a picture because I want to feel good and get some likes. Other times, I’ll post a picture of me and a friend just to show people in our class, but those pictures don’t define who I am or how I feel.”
In other words, posting photos isn’t about archiving moments of her life to look back on years from now; instead, they serve as more of a screenshot, capturing the experiences she wants to show her friends in the moment, but maybe not forever.
I tell Moore that this confuses me. After all, I’m someone who has yet to delete a single Instagram photo since I joined the app in 2014. She responds that her behavior is more of a reflection of her generation, and how they view platforms like Instagram. “It makes sense that you would be confused,” she says. “You use Instagram differently than I do. If you’re older, you see Instagram like a photo album; for me, it’s more about how I feel in the current moment of my life.”
As with all things Instagram, I turn to my 18-year-old cousin to ask why these kinds of purges are becoming more common. It turns out that he and the vast majority of his friends do the same thing. “You like looking through all the old photographs, maybe because you want to relive some old memories,” he tells me, like Moore, explaining that older people enjoy Instagram for its “photo album” quality. His account, on the other hand, is all about who he is at THIS. VERY. MOMENT. For example, one of his pictures shows him candidly staring into the distance while he wears AirPods and clean white Nike Air Maxes. Another shows him at the wheel of a high-end car, an iPhone X to his ear, with the caption, “hear me calling.” Each has received more than 400 likes, a number that far surpasses my top post, possibly the most important moment of my life — seeing a stack of physical copies of my debut book for the first time.
Yet despite these objectively successful posts, my cousin will probably delete them sooner rather than later. “It feels good to get the likes at the time,” he says. “But after a while, it’s kind of whatever. Then, somewhere down the line, I’ll look at the pictures, and I’ll find them [a little] embarrassing, like I won’t want to look at them. So I’ll just get rid of them. It’s nice to have a fresh, clean grid, you know? Like you can post whatever you want without worrying about it messing up how your other photos look.”
Amanda Knoll, a 16-year-old based in Washington, says that “deleting everything is like therapy — it gives you the chance to start again and reinvent yourself.” Meanwhile, another 16-year-old, David Jones from Brighton, U.K., deletes his Instagram posts every week largely for aesthetic reasons. “I want to keep my grid clean,” he explains. “When you see someone’s Instagram and it has hundreds of photos you have to scroll though, you just get bored. It also gives off the vibe that the person who’s uploaded all these pictures doesn’t actually care about how other people see their page. When you keep it clean and have only a few really good pictures, you get way more people liking and commenting.”
None of this is completely new, of course. In 2017, Inc.’s John Brandon wrote about Taylor Swift deleting every one of her posts on Instagram, and more importantly, “why you should too.” At the time, Swift was about to release Reputation, a long-awaited album that was supposed to be a rebrand for her. Many viewed the decision to delete old Instagram posts as part of the album’s wider marketing campaign, one that would allow Swift to redefine herself beyond her country-inspired discography and a series of high-profile relationships. “Social media is like a digital footprint,” Brandon writes. “You can trace it back for years and keep a record of every post, but that’s not always beneficial or even wise. For some of us, that means companies can see what we said when we were at a different company or in a different time of life. Most of us forget to think about that, and we keep the archive forever. Why is that?”
The Instagram purge, however, even pre-dates Swift. Three years earlier, in 2014, Richard Koci Hernandez, one of Instagram’s best-known photographers, deleted years’ worth of images that had served as both a portfolio and digital gallery. His reasoning was related to how he saw his work in relation to the purpose of the internet. He told TIME magazine that social media doesn’t “really respect time in the way I think it should,” and that artists can’t evolve when anything can be archived regardless of its quality. In his exact words: “A teenager on Facebook or Twitter is going to say and do a lot of dumb, immature things. Does he want to be remembered by these things? Probably not. In the same way, my photography and my work on Instagram is an evolution of who I am as a photographer. And on my Instagram feed, there’s some immature work there, and it’s there forever.”
This, too, though, seems like more of an older person’s concern. Because few of the teens I talk to bring up fears of being “cancelled” for past indiscretions. For the most part, they’re well aware of the pitfalls of social media and are savvy enough to know what to avoid posting. As 19-year-old Nina Knight from London tells me, “It’s not really about people trying to hide their pasts or themselves. Everyone who is on Instagram a lot, or on [social media] a lot, knows what they shouldn’t post or make public.”
For Knight, this is a marked difference from older generations, ones who grew up on Friendster and Myspace before the advent of Facebook, and certainly, before a time when Snapchat and Instagram became the dominant medium by which young people communicate with each other. “I’d hate to see things I posted years ago stay online forever!” she laughs. “I’ve changed so much in the past few years, and there are definitely things I’ve posted on Tumblr that I wouldn’t believe now. I’d hate if people could find those things and define me based on them.”
How teens post on social media is indicative of a larger cultural shift in what platforms are supposed to do, according to Amelia Tait, a London-based technology writer and former digital culture correspondent at The New Statesman. “Gen Z has a different view of what they’re supposed to use social media platforms for,” she explains. “Partly it’s because of things like Snapchat and Instagram Stories, where you upload a photo or a video that deletes a short time afterward. Older generations grew up on platforms where you upload whole photo albums from a party, which probably still exist on Facebook. But teenagers today don’t view photos in that way. It’s more about capturing a moment immediately, rather than keeping it as a memorial.”
“There’s a sense among Gen Z that millennials have sort of over-done it when it comes to posting things online — like they’ve posted so much that they think that we don’t actually value the things we upload,” Tait continues. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that further down the line, Gen Z’s selective uploads and decisions to remove things won’t affect them. “Millennials are at a stage where we’re starting to be nostalgic, and we look back on our old websites and social pages and relive some memories. But for people who are growing up, the nostalgia element isn’t there yet. It won’t be surprising then if some of Gen Z might be upset that the memories they had might be lost, or that they won’t be able to share them with their loved ones.”
When I suggest this to Moore, however, she says it’s unlikely. While she’s selective about what she uploads, she also holds onto the photos she’d like to keep to herself. “We still value cherished moments,” she laughs. “In fact, I’d say we value them more than older generations — that’s why we don’t want any random [person] commenting on them!”