To adapt an inspirational saying about pizza, if you believe in yourself (and your abs) enough, you can transform anything into a thirst trap.
Take voting. Voting, as we all know, is every American’s civic duty, a solemn democratic ritual that people died to secure our right to take part in. As such, we’ve always treated it with the utmost seriousness. Until Tuesday, when, as part of voting’s new vogue among young people, the Atlantic highlighted Instagram’s sudden raft of sexy voting selfies. Voting? Sexy? Now this is outrageous!
To back up: When an Instagram user posts a photo in which he or she looks particularly good—and especially when this person is not fully clothed in said picture—it’s known as a “thirst trap,” so named because it’s understood as a fairly obvious ploy for attention. Some accounts specialize in thirst-trapping—there’s a whole universe of Insta-hunnies and hunks out there—while some only lay a trap from time to time. Either way, it’s a mainstay of social media, dating back to the days of MySpace, but one our culture has mixed feelings about: Humans have trouble reconciling our dual attraction to and aversion for people posting hot pics of themselves. It is both tremendously uncouth and exactly what we crave. Hence our impulse to criticize thirst traps in general—and, now, voting thirst traps especially—while really just using that as an excuse to gawk at them.
In truth, for anyone who’s really spent time scrolling through the softly lit wilds of Instagram, the voting thirst trap shouldn’t register as anything out of the ordinary. In a social media–saturated world where Instagram is increasingly thought of as a source of income, we all need something fresh and topical to post about every day. Popular Instagram users are always looking for something timely—why wouldn’t they do election content? Think of it as an updated take on the way some publications maintain “editorial calendars,” which serve as a rough plan to shape annual schedules. For websites like Slate, that naturally includes fun costume-and-candy coverage around Halloween and ramped-up politics coverage around a midterm election. But now we all have editorial calendars: We know we can count on getting a social media post out of certain events. For the Instagram user whose usual M.O. is thirst traps, that means both a sexy costume on Oct. 31 and an “I Voted” sticker on a bare torso a week later. The same people who posted these will be posting themselves wearing slutty Santa costumes come December. So it will go until they die, and we comply with their wishes to make sure they look hot in their caskets.
Is an election categorically different from a holiday as far as Instagrammable—and thus commodified—occasions go? Should Instagrammers stick to so-called soft news when planning their themed content? There are certainly limits: We all remember when Mischa Barton illustrated an Instagram post about the death of Alton Sterling with a shot of her on a boat in a bikini. (She was roundly criticized.) But why should the news cycle only be available to journalists when thirst-trappers are also in need of a constantly updating stream of inspiration? Instagram users aren’t the ones who blurred the lines between disposable culture and our elections; look at the White House. Besides, there’s only so many ways to style a photo of one’s stomach muscles before things start to get repetitive. If influencers are in the market for ways to make their selfies stand out, and we’re trying new modes of delivering the news anyway, why shouldn’t we welcome thirst traps about climate change, or the Supreme Court? “Here is a well-formed butt, and here’s the latest on the Mueller Investigation.” Who wouldn’t double-tap?
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