A few months ago, a friend went on a technology-free retreat in rural Sweden. Run by an organization called Home, it was billed as a five-day course in ‘making sense of the mess the world is in’. The screen-free aspect of the programme was intended to bring people together and, in freeing them from distractions, stimulate a discussion about the ‘broken culture’ that we live in. Needless to say, it did not end well for this friend.
Googling ‘technology-free retreat’, I find articles like ‘12 Unplugged Destinations for an Epic, Digital-Detox Vacay’, published by Well + Good, which includes The Camino de Santiago and notes a sign on the famous pilgrimage route that reads: ‘Look up, look inside, but don’t look down’. Then there is the company ‘Digital Detox’, which sells packaged retreats to both individuals and corporate teams: ‘We help you slow down. We remind you to look up’. The promise of this institutionalized time off is that, in staying away from technology, you might just learn something about yourself. Connect to the world. ‘Look up’.
A recent example of the ‘noise’ these refuges purport to save us from: this past weekend, a photograph of an egg became the most liked image on Instagram. An upright, brown, slightly speckled egg against a white background. The handle of the (verified) account that posted it is @world_record_egg, although its owner remains unknown. (When BuzzFeed News contacted the account holder, they were informed that it is run by ‘Henrietta’, a chicken from the British countryside.) The image in question, posted on 4 January, was captioned: ‘Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram. Beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)! We got this #LikeTheEgg #EggSoldiers #EggGang.’
In nine days, the egg more than doubled Jenner’s likes. A common observation amongst the many articles that followed was that the number of likes was initially comparable to, and then greater than, the population of Australia (25 million, which the egg surpassed by 14 January). ‘At that scale’, writes Daniel Victor in the New York Times, ‘internet frivolity starts to look a little less frivolous’. But the population of egg-likers has little in common. Liking is easy and the stakes are low. To thumb-down twice on an image and smile, to even tweet about it or talk about it, amounts to little more than another indication that huge amounts of people spend huge amounts of time in front of screens and, sometimes, they seek a reprieve. But this particular joke should not be seen as further proof of the now-hackneyed idea that social media (and, possibly, the internet at large) is a space of noise, chaos, jokes, soundbites and hypercirculation. Instead, it should be taken as evidence of something harder to admit: we’re exhausted.
The egg has a digital history. For seven years, until 2017, the default profile photo on Twitter was a white egg against a monochrome background. Twitter’s design department, writing on the company’s corporate blog, explained the set of traits that a default, placeholder profile photo should have: it should be ‘generic’, ‘universal’, ‘serious’, ‘unbranded’. None of this explains why the most-liked photo on Instagram is an egg, nor why it prevailed in the face of Jenner’s post, but the ‘generic’ and ‘unbranded’ aspect of @world_record_egg is certainly its allure. In a world where more photos are uploaded to Instagram every single day than existed a hundred years ago, there is solace to be found in blankness.
The egg exposes a fatiguing power of images in a culture that trades on resonance. Instagram proves just that: to sustain attention, an account must be updated daily, if not every few hours. Jenner, who has 124 million followers, posts every four or five hours, a healthy mix of branded content and selfies. (Her record-holding, most-liked photo was the first image of her baby girl, Stormi, her little fingers holding onto Jenner’s thumb.) This is where the egg comes in: yes, there is a cynicism to the record-breaking egg, but the support for the blankness of the image also represents a communal defiance of the recognizable brands that are the Kardashians, Cristiano Ronaldo, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (the top-five accounts, in order, aside for number one, which is @instagram, because 275 million users have no imagination).
Avert your suspicion, momentarily, and behold the simple humanity of the egg. The only incentive to start something like this is to see what is possible. The Atlantic’s tech reporter, Taylor Lorenz, who was light-heartedly live-tweeting the egg’s progress, connected this latest internet craze with accounts that she wrote about last year, run by teenagers, which post the same picture every day, in an attempt to go viral or find another, low-pressure way to engage. One such 15-year-old started posting an identical photo of a toaster every day (@samepictureofatoaster), after seeing a similar account: ‘“I called my friends and we decided to all do it as a race to see who could get to 1,000 followers first”, he said. He now has almost 50,000 and has received three free toasters from Hamilton Beach, the manufacturer of the toaster featured in the image he relentlessly reposts.’ Here, three identical toasters (likely lingering in this teenager’s parents’ cupboard) become a sign of the simple, joyful futility of his endeavour. It’s a useless, harmless refusal of the pressure that Instagram places on teenagers to participate via an overexposure of the self. We follow the toasters and the egg because, in the face of Instagram’s relentless uniformity, they allow us a rare moment’s peace. On Monday, 14 January, after passing 30 million likes, the egg account posted a series of Instagram stories that included a note: ‘this is madness. What a time to be alive.’
To go back to Kim Kardashian: ‘breaking the internet’ has never seemed more pertinent. Excuse the pun, but no one else could control themselves, either. The Verge said a ‘plain little egg has poached the title of most-liked Instagram post’, while my local news station tweeted about a ‘cracked’ world record and CNET’s report was ‘No yolk’. All the turns of phrase would indicate this is an unimportant colour story – the New York Times coverage began: ‘please don’t expect any of the following to make sense’ – but of all places, it was The Onion’s food site, The Takeout, that waxed poetic the most: its egg report ended: ‘And so, 2019 begins in a way none of us could have predicted: a simple egg is more popular on Instagram than Kylie Jenner. No dream is impossible.’
The hot take may be a joke, but we can’t stop telling it. We can’t look away, but nor should we. I teach digital culture and, on the first day of class, I ask my students to take things seriously. I think of it as a methodology: to direct the same critical eye to cat videos and video art; to look with the same curiosity at what is popular and what is revered, at what they have watched five billion times (literally) and what is new. It took the egg nine days to reach 18 million likes. In all probability, it will take it less time to be forgotten. Five million people will one day realize they follow an account that only posted one photo, a joke that expired, a bit of internet history that may not be told again. So, why pay attention at all? Exposed to so many images, we look quickly and allow the contemporary image economy to numb us with another sunset, another celebrity, another routine scroll that keeps our attention on the app. And then, a blank image – an egg! a joke! – offers something simple: the possibility of escape. What’s not to like?
Main image: world_record_egg instagram account, 2019, screenshot. Courtesy: Instagram and @world_record_egg