The Sky Is Fake on Instagram

Influencer Tupi Saravia tells OneZero why all the clouds on her posts are the same

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

AAsk anyone, “What color is the sky?” They’ll instinctively fire back “blue” without looking up. But on Instagram, the sky is always powder blue, and mottled with a light patina of clouds that look as if they’re lazily drifting down toward the horizon.

At least, that’s what the sky looks like in the world as inhabited by Tupi Saravia (@tupisaravia), an Argentinian travel blogger with more than 280,000 followers on Instagram. Photo after photo on her feed contains the same cloud formation.

It’s the result of a free photo-enhancing app called Quickshot, which can create a picture-perfect sky where one doesn’t exist or has been burnt out by overexposure.

“It’s an app… that I’ve always been opened [sic] about with my followers,” Saravia said in a comment on Instagram, pointing out she has an entire Instagram Story on her profile devoted to showing how she edits her photos using the app.

“I couldn’t believe they were making such a big deal about it,” she says. “I’ve never been dishonest about it. I actually [make] a joke about ‘clouds following me everywhere’ at the digital content workshops I do.”

Enhancing photos is nothing new, of course. Beauty magazines have been pulling the same tricks for decades, brightening backgrounds, erasing acne, and tucking in tummies. The early internet was filled with an entire subsection of blogs devoted to Photoshop fails, where the editor had managed to mangle an extra arm out of nowhere. But photo alteration didn’t begin with the advent of computers: Hitler, Stalin, and Abraham Lincoln have all been featured in retouched photographs.

So what’s the big deal with Tupi Saravia?

It all comes down to authenticity. When we see a picture of a Hollywood celebrity looking superhuman, we know and expect that it’s been processed to the limit. Celebrities are otherworldly waifs sent down from outer space: they’re the American dream of perfection, an aspiration that we’re fine being tuned up.

Influencers are different. The flattening of hierarchies means they are ordinary people like us that have been thrust into the limelight thanks to social media success. They’re relatable and “authentic.”

Enhancing photos is nothing new, of course. Beauty magazines have been pulling the same tricks for decades

Those quotation marks matter. These days authenticity has been redefined. Those parasocial (or one-sided) relationships — first limited to our dedication to the news anchors and soap stars we invited into our homes daily via TV — have now become amplified thanks to social media and smartphones. Now we crave intimacy with influencers, who we think of as friends. Friends don’t lie to each other.

But they do advertise to each other.

“Influencers are also paid to promote products and, just like the older marketing and advertising industries, they want to make sure the products look good,” says Dr. Ysabel Gerrard, lecturer in digital media and society at the University of Sheffield.

“On the other hand, although editing clouds to perfection has fairly low stakes, it nods to a bigger, perhaps more controversial trend,” she says. “The whole point of social media is to capture and share your own content. Social media users have different expectations of promoted content they see online than they see on, say, a billboard, in a magazine, or on TV.” There’s an assumption — rightly or wrongly — amongst many social media users that digital content has gone through fewer layers of editing and is more authentic.

“I feel overwhelmed because people don’t know me and believe they’ve ‘discovered’ something I was always honest about,” Saravia says. “Editing photos means changing color balance, exposure, clarity, and contrast. They’re all to enhance the image to have it fit an artistic vision. Adding clouds to bright, outdoor photos doesn’t change the subject of the photo. It doesn’t mean that I wasn’t really where the photo was taken.”

That’s a barrier internet troll Jacob Wohl can’t even reach. While Saravia amplified the aesthetics of the sky above her, Wohl doctored photos in order to outright lie about the location of the photos he was posting. Both Wohl and Saravia experienced the requisite Twitter pile-on, but in retrospect, Wohl’s seems more deserved.

Increasingly, influencers are more like the celebrities they’ve recently been presented in opposition to, and as much work goes into curating their online personas as it does for traditional celebrities. “People are following this influencer for her ‘curated and professional’ looking images,” says Frankie Hobbs, global director of campaigns at the Goat Agency. “I’m not sure if there should be so much shock that her images are edited.”

Influencers are filling the gulf that used to exist between celebrities and ordinary people, while “traditional” celebrities are borrowing tips and tricks from social media stars in the way they present themselves. And we’re still struggling to discern the difference, says Hobbs. “Celebrities are known to promote and endorse things and it’s been a long-standing industry, and people can see a distance between themselves and celebrities, whereas the nature of influencers, is that they are almost like someone in society.”

“I think this particular issue went viral because people are not used to these types of applications,” says Saravia. “Maybe my mistake was always to put a similar sky, but it’s the one I liked the most.”

“And,” she says, “these are just clouds.”

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

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