Life Unfiltered: The Real Story Behind Perfect Instagram Posts

I keep seeing stories about how different our social media lives look from our real lives — how the filtered photos we see on Instagram and Facebook are harmful because they make us jealous of our friends and unhappy with what’s happening in our own lives. But this is a problem that doesn’t bother me all that much. In our culture, we’ve been inundated with Photoshopped, color-corrected images of celebrities and models for years. I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be reminded that the perfection of celebrities is an illusion in the same way that our own Instagram-filtered images are.


On the other hand, it can feel very lonely, especially from the perspective of our own messy lives, to be inundated with perfection from our friends on Instagram and Facebook. I’d like to balance that perfection perception a little bit; not by posting messy photos on my Instagram, but by sharing the stories behind some of my posts that were messier and more chaotic than what the pictures implied — kind of a behind-the-scenes Throwback Thursday.


I think The Localist book tour is the perfect place to start, because the Instagram pictures I posted make it look like all I did for two months was have fun and eat local burgers and share local beers with friends and booksellers. I did all those things, but I there was a good bit of trouble — sleepless nights and stressful train rides and missed deliveries and sickness — that I didn’t post about, too.


What Instagram Said Was Happening …


First up: Here’s a picture that I posted on Instagram when I was on my way home from New York on the train. The story it tells is that I’m relaxed and ready to brainstorm about new projects — my coffee and legal pad are ready to fuel and receive all my glorious insights, and I’m ready to check out some great scenery out the window.


What Was Actually Happening …


In reality, this particular train ride started when I somehow got the time wrong and almost missed the train — in a scene worthy of a romantic comedy, I realized halfway to Penn Station that my train left an hour earlier than I’d thought. The whole way from Brooklyn, I was counting down the minutes and totally freaking out. Traffic was crawling (it’s New York City, so obviously), and Russell and I had to jump out of our Uber car several blocks away from the station and literally run the whole way. I had my backpack, and he had all our other luggage (uh, sorry, Russell), and we got through the doors of the station literally five minutes before the train was supposed to leave.


An incredibly understanding Amtrak employee scanned my ticket and pointed in the direction of my train even though it had already boarded, we raced across the platform, and I basically said goodbye to Russell over my shoulder while he pushed my suitcase in behind me. Three minutes after I got onto the train, it pulled away, and it took me a good hour to calm down and realize how lucky I was to make it.


The ride didn’t get much better after that. I’m wearing my down jacket in this picture because I was freezing (the blanket I was snuggled up in, my other jacket and my scarf aren’t in the frame, and I took my gloves off for the picture), and I had switched to a note pad because a nice but chatty man next to me had been reading my computer screen over my shoulder as I typed. (This same man got drunk in the dining car later and mentioned that he might try to snuggle with me in the night — I didn’t sleep too much after that.) The trip from New York to Birmingham, which was supposed to be about 24 hours anyway, took four hours longer because of delays and a car accident on the tracks. (The delay at Union Station in D.C. was fortuitous, since I was able to hop onto the wifi signal of a commuter train as it passed by ours for long enough to send a story I was on deadline for. Oh, and our train’s power was out at the time, and my computer battery was dying. Obviously.)


The train is always an adventure, and that’s one of the things I like about it, but after a couple of months away from home, this trip was definitely a struggle. (It seriously took everything in my power not to hop off and beg sanctuary from my friends John and Alison when we stopped in Atlanta.) But even though this Instagram photo doesn’t reflect how I was really feeling, it’s not untrue, either — I actually did make a lot of notes on the train (perhaps for a future book, for all of you who’ve been asking), and obviously I enjoy my coffee anytime.


I’ve worked on enough sets to know that a huge mess is usually waiting just beyond the image that we see. Just out of frame sits furniture that’s been pushed out of the shot because it made the picture look too cluttered, paper towel rolls in case anything looks dusty or streaky, and about five people waiting to pounce if anything looks out of place. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy looking at the perfect pictures in magazines — I love looking at them. But I know they’re not 100% real, either. That’s an attitude that helps me not be jealous of other people’s Instagrams, because the same principles are usually true in those shots, too. Do I want you to follow me on Instagram? Yeah, I do (I’m @crollwagen on Instagram, by the way). But I also want you to know that the perfection you might see on my feed isn’t usually what’s happening in real life. That doesn’t make real life bad; it’s just unfiltered.


Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream, creator of 30 Days of Local Praise and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.

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