As I write this, I'm sitting on my living room sofa tapping away on my MacBook. To my left there's a half-drunk martini on my (vintage) G-Plan writing desk, right next to my Anthropologie vase of hydrangeas.
Were I to take a picture of this scene and post it on Instagram (filter: Earlybird, obviously), the caption would say something like 'hard at work'. But every one of my 92 followers would know what message I was really trying to send (I'm a cool creative with a stylishly shabby apartment who's allowed to indulge in a cocktail while working) because we all speak the international language of Instagram now.
If I had taken that shot, it would have been just the sort of covertly gloating image that swamps all of our Instagram feeds. But what it wouldn't show is the towering mountain of unread magazines to the right of me, the pile of dirty washing in the middle of the floor and the congealing remnants of a 3am drunken takeaway on the kitchen counter.
And it certainly wouldn't reveal that I'm writing this on a Sunday night, woefully close to deadline - and that the cocktail is an unsuccessful attempt to calm my looming panic. These are all things that my Instagram followers will never know because - like all Instagram users - I've taken the one tiny sliver of sophistication in my otherwise chaotic world, stuck a filter on it and presented it as my life.
Much has been written about the warped way in which we present ourselves online. But even for the social media generation - those of us who hit our 20s armed with smartphones and already only too well-versed in the agonies of Facebook envy - Instagram presents an even more torturous way to feel both good and bad about our lives all at once.
For a start, its more calculated than other social media. On Facebook or Twitter, your dreamy aspirational shots of Diptyque candles framed by freshly cut flowers are apt to be lost in the tide of artless, stream-of-consciousness updates about your irritating cat/child/ commute, not to mention usually-not-very-funny YouTube clips and birthday wishes from aunts and ex-colleagues. Nothing on Instagram is quite so candid (or, dare I say it, mundane).
"For a start, Instagram is more calculated than other social media"
The unspoken truth is that on Instagram, every supposedly nonchalantly snapped picture has, in fact, been not only carefully selected, but meticulously art directed and styled, too. From our tastefully arranged shelves (colour-coded books look fabulous with a Sierra filter) to our fitness routines (a water bottle propped up next to your luxe new trainers before a post-dawn run), every seemingly casual moment has, in fact, been curated and composed with the sort of precision and eye for detail that would do Anna Wintour proud.
The key to Insta-success is in its apparent casualness. To look like you've devoted more than a moment or two to shooting a snap would appear gauche. My friend Sian, 34, a PR professional, is a regular Instagrammer (followers: 250). She recently posted a carefully lit image depicting an artfully dishevelled pile of clothes, shoes, sunglasses and a guidebook, all thrown haphazardly into a suitcase. The caption read: Last minute packing panic - eeeek!
What made this image interesting was that I have never seen Sian throw an item of clothing on the floor, let alone pack a pair of shoes without a dustbag. After a bit of cajoling, Sian admitted that when she placed everything neatly folded on top of each other it looked too straight and boring to be Instagrammable. So instead, she messed it all up, took the picture and folded it all up again. "Everywhere else in my life, being super-organised and a bit anal is a good thing. On Instagram, I want people to think I'm really laid-back and effortless. I naturally try really hard at things, but I don't want my followers to know this."
It's all part of the relentless personal branding exercise that is Instagram: every casual retro-hued shot of, say, a Bellini against a Venetian sunset subtly tells me and everyone else you know not only just how fabulous your life is, but how little it impresses you. (New Valentino shoes? No biggie. Upgraded to Business Class? Oh yeah, that.) The fundamental point is that our lives are so blithely perfect, we don't even have to try.
Social psychologist Ben Voyer, whose research focuses on how individuals define themselves in terms of interpersonal relationships, says it is image-driven Instagram's capacity to broadcast multiple conscious and sub-conscious messages visually that makes it such a natural vehicle for implicitly bragging about our lives.
It is not really socially acceptable to post a Facebook status saying, "I'm looking hot in a cool dress at a Fashion Week party" - but a single picture can communicate all these ideas and more, without the need for words and, therefore, is a much more acceptable way to boast about oneself.
My friend Laura, 32 (Instagram followers: 123), wouldn't describe the way she uses Instagram as boasting. But even she'd admit she uses it to present a distorted view of her life. Laura works in a fairly dull administrative job, but a glance at her Instagram feed suggests otherwise - thanks to the fact that, once a year, she flies to the Cannes Film Festival for work to support her boss in an also fairly dull administrative role. "I take so many pictures when I'm there," she confesses. "The glass of champagne I'm having at the airport (with my plane ticket artfully propped up against it), pictures of my hotel room, pre-party selfies ..."
Laura posts lots of the images while shes in Cannes, but also likes to scatter a few more throughout her Instagram feed over the next few months. "I never outwardly lie, but the inference is that I get to do that sort of thing for work all the time, which is simply not true. But you can get away with it on Instagram in the way that you can't do with a status update. With a picture, everything's implied rather than stated outright. And I'd never spoil the illusion by putting up a picture of the windowless office I work in the other 51 weeks of the year."
And it is all those other weeks of the year - the one's spent trapped in cubicles working on spreadsheets that are conspicuously absent from our feeds - which explain why the briefest trip to Instagram is liable to make you feel so dissatisfied with your lot in life. Quantifiably so. Andrew Przybylski, from Oxford University's Internet Institute, recently found that Instagram makes users feel 11 per cent worse about their lives than other social media networks. Meanwhile, Instagram use - and, consequently, Instagram envy - is only likely to spread, with the number of users having doubled in size in the past year, from 80 million to 150 million.
You'd think the ubiquity of social media would mean that we users, those of us whose thumbs are weary from refreshing our feed with Pavlovian determination, would be becoming wise to the perils of social media envy. But Catalina Toma, of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an expert on the social and psychological effects of communication technologies (ie, social networks, online dating and instant messaging), says that the fact were all complicit in sharing rose-tinted moments doesn't lessen Instagram's power to distort our perception of other people's lives. You spend so much time creating flattering, idealised images yourself ... but you don't necessarily grasp that everyone else is spending a lot of time doing the same thing.
I'd love to be able to say I'm immune to all this, but I'm as Intsa-guilty as anyone. I recently lost my phone, and it only struck me how much I missed it when I went into town on a sunny Saturday with friends. The city was looking especially beautiful, and our day culminated in cocktails in a particularly cool, hard-to-get-into rooftop bar. And because I didn't have a phone I couldn't Instagram a single bit of it.
This is probably the point where I should say that I had a far better time because I wasn't trying to capture everything in a photograph, because I was actually living the moment. But the sorry truth is, I couldn't enjoy it because it felt like a missed opportunity to record a fabulous day. As much as I'd like to deny it, today, for those of us who spend our days nearly permanently tethered to the digital realm, if it doesn't pop up on Instagram, it might as well have not happened at all.
What I should really do now is turn to the right and take another picture of the mess and detritus next to me and stick that up - no filter, no witty caption. Or, I could just put my phone down and resist the lure of shooting anything, no sharing, no humble bragging, nada. But then again, as I cast another eye around my living room - the way my cocktail glass looks against the backdrop of my fabulous Anthropologie vase of hydrangeas, the way a quick snap of this would make me look like I'm equal parts cosmopolitan lady of leisure and innate domestic sophisticate ... My thumbs are itching at the thought of it.
We asked five passionate Instagrammers to pull back the curtain on their Insta-perfect snaps.
Zanita Whittington, photographer and blogger
1 I drank this delicious raw almond milk after a long flight and promptly puked up the whole amount. Seems I hadn't quite recovered from a strange bug/virus I had contracted. Wasn't so #instaworthy coming up in the other direction.
2 A casual blue-eyed selfie? Not quite. It took 20 outtakes, staring into the sun for so long it made me cry in pain before I scored this one.
3 This is the first healthy meal I had eaten in two days after spending 48 hours in my pyjamas on a deadline. I had subsisted on muesli bars, a six-pack of hot cross buns, a bag of Allens Red Frogs and about six litres of coffee.
Heather Taylor, LA Homewares designer
1 My friend, shoe designer Beatrice Valenzuela, and I were recently photographed for a magazine. The piece was for an autumn issue, but we had to shoot it in the middle of an LA heatwave, surrounded by balls of wool and in our autumn dresses. After the crew left, we stripped down to our underwear and knocked back jugs of ice-water.
2 After driving into Mexico, my husband and I got lost in the hills of Baja, where there was zero mobile coverage. We were annoyed and it’s nothing short of a miracle that we ever arrived at our funky hotel.
3 This was taken the day of a good friend's wedding, but I'd just spent a week in bed with the flu. I opted for bright-pink lips and a fresh-cut rose from my garden to make me look much better than I felt.
Cindy Chen Melbourne photographer
1 I was about to travel to Taipei/ Osaka and posted this pic of my packing. Look at those labels: Isabel Marant? Tick. Prada? Tick. Gillian Tennant? Tick! They might be a few of my favourite things, but more often than not you'll probably find me in an outfit that consists of a T-shirt that cost $2 at an op shop and a random pair of cropped skinny jeans.
2 I might seem composed and calm in this image, but that day I was so stressed it felt like my brain was about to explode. Then, to top it all off, I somehow managed to spill my third coffee of the day on my laptop...
3 I accidentally covered my make-up bag in loose powder as I unzipped it in preparation for this shot. I had to spend an hour cleaning and wiping down all products in my bag to make them look presentable again before snapping this.
Louise Bell, owner, Table Tonic, Sydney
1 Our lounge room is where the whole family hangs every night, so it never actually looks like this. Before I took this shot, I had to do a frantic whip around for a good 10 minutes. And look how dirty the windows are (I only noticed after I'd posted the shot)!
2 This shot of The Boathouse restaurant at Sydney's Palm Beach looks serene and totally Zen, but I was actually tired and grumpy as all hell. The only reason we were out to breakfast was because we had been forced out of our house as a shoot was happening there.
3 I had heard mustard greens were extremely nutritious, so I added them to my morning green juice. It was completely undrinkable! I could only take about five sips and tipped the rest down the sink.
Georgia Rickard, Australian Traveller magazine
1 This shameless travel selfie didn't capture the small bump on my chin that had begun to turn into a giant, weeping sore. I'd been bitten by a white tail spider in my sleep! It took two weeks and a course of antibiotics to get rid of it.
2 This pic was from a work trip to Bright, Victoria, on a Valentine's Day weekend. As usual, I was travelling alone and I was so exhausted that, at one stage, I had to pull the car over and have a proper cry before I could pull it together enough to do my job.
3 This pic of the Flinder's Ranges in South Australia was taken in the middle of summer in the outback. Looks beautiful, but the heat was so intense that I ended up with a severe migraine and spent the following night and day in bed, vomiting with pain.