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I write about things I see and what they might mean.

Freunde von Freunden: Pics or It Didn’t Happen memorializes the banned images of Instagram

Freunde von Freunden: Pics or It Didn’t Happen memorializes the banned images of Instagram

First published in Freunde von Freunden

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The next time you’re caught up in an endless social media scroll, it might be worth reflecting on what you don’t get to see. What kind of images are allowed to take up digital space, and which get the cut?

Pics or It Didn’t Happen began, fittingly, on social media. In 2015, Arvida Byström sent a tweet calling for a ceremony to commemorate the world’s deleted Instagram posts. In reply, Molly Soda suggested that they make a book. So, from the ashes of this digital graveyard, Molly and Arvida began a shared ritual. They appealed to their collective 207,600 Instagram followers: send us your nudes. Send, also, your bloodied underwear, your body hair, your self-inflicted scars. Anything that breached Instagram’s community guidelines, that was just “too much” for social media.

Instagram prohibits violent, unlawful, discriminatory or nude images on their platform. Pics or It Didn’t Happen, however, is almost entirely made up of the latter category. Sometimes these are explicit—nipples and butt selfies—and sometimes more abstract, perhaps close-ups of amorphous skin folds. The images are contextualized by a series of essays, including one by Chris Kraus of I Love Dick fame.

The book troubles the idea that this kind of censorship unconditionally protects us. At times, Instagram’s ban-hammer seems to strike entirely at random. One image, by artist Isaac Kariuki, shows a figure in a green hijab and wrap-around sunglasses, a phone clamped to their ear. Other images show women fully dressed. It is impossible to figure out how these images violated community standards.

As a collective project, Pics or It Didn’t Happen is completely absorbing. These ephemeral digital images—lost to the algorithms—are given posterity in print. In a bizarre turn of events, these images will now last longer, and be returned to more often, than had they not been removed at all.

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