Take in the price of Finnish tomatoes with me. In winter, when there’s more darkness than daylight, a kilo of tomatoes costs almost €4 ($4.50) in Tampere, a city of 300,000 in southern Finland. “Finnish vegetables are really expensive,” Lauri Vuohensilta explains. “Because fucking cold.” Lauri and his wife, Anni, have a lifestyle series on YouTube. In this tomato-centric video, they wander through a chain supermarket doing their weekly shopping. Vegetables from other countries are available and cheaper, but imported produce spends two weeks in shipping. So the Vuohensiltas are splurging on local.
The video is, it must be said, so mundane. It also has tens of thousands of views and is part of a growing subgenre of YouTube supermarket tours. It’s like that bad joke about modern art: You could have done that—yeah, but you didn’t.
Supermarket tours aren’t trying to inspire envy in you, and there’s genuine relief in that. These days, for every unattainable Instagram post, there is a decidedly unaspirational opposite. Alongside the Kardashian clan, you can find people going the dentist or giving their dog a bath, ASMR videos of people brushing their teeth, live streams of strangers eating dinner on Twitch. Boring Instagram is big: Accounts full of photos of bodega cats, coffee shops, or everyday life—biking, commuting, going to the beach—in North Korea have hundreds of thousands of followers. Compared to other things you can find on Instagram, like foul-mouthed 9-year-olds kicking $400,000 Rolls Royces, these normcore accounts are amateurish and should be deathly dull. Lil Tay shrieks, @onionringsworldwide murmurs. The internet runs on the can’t-look-away attention economy, but it’s also home to regular people inviting you into their regular-people lives. And in a weird Bob Ross kind of way, the boring stuff is sometimes the best part.
Boring should not be best. Being boring is a social media sin: Guides to avoid this road to irrelevance abound. (Whenever Facebook rewinds to reveal what I used to post in high school, back when social media norms were in their infancy, I cringe. Pictures of Converse sneakers and gripes about calculus homework are not what today’s marketers call “quality content.”) We routinely shame people for posting too many baby pictures, too many selfies, too many food photos, even too many dog pictures, all for the same reasons: They’re so overdone and vaguely dishonest that they’re boring—and we, those who curate for maximum sparkle, who bury the desire to share monotonies, resent them for boring us. Dance, monkey, dance, but not too much or too often. That’s gauche.
By prevailing social logic, Casey Neistat, whose vlogs of skateboard commuting and fire escape climbing are so often imitated they’re almost cliche, should not be a millionaire. Sharing humdrum daily happenings is odd and socially risky—but social psychology suggests that’s why you might like an endearingly ordinary post when you encounter it. Something like 95 percent of photos on the internet are posed, says Alix Barasch, who teaches marketing at NYU. He’s found that people almost always prefer the other 5 percent—the candids—and come away with a more positive impression of candid photos’ subjects. Barasch’s research suggests that getting glimpses into another person’s genuine nature makes the viewer feel more connected and even makes the subject “more appealing as a mate.” Checks out, right? The celebrities most often praised for their social media prowess are the rawest: Cardi B is not posing. Even controversial comedian Amy Schumer scored favorable coverageafter posting revealing, unbeautiful photos of her difficult pregnancy.
When they’re candid (or, at least, not edited to a high-polished sheen), the photos that should be cringey or dull are the ones that make us feel good. According to Ting Zhang, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who studies how people engage in reflection, that’s true even if you take everyday snapshots of your life yourself and don’t share them with anyone. “My research shows that while pictures of extraordinary moments, like weddings, are still extraordinary, it’s the mundane ones that increase in value,” Zhang says. “Our contexts change. Children grow up. We are overconfident in our memories. Even two weeks from now, you won’t remember what really happened today.” There’s lots of warm and fuzzy in life’s B-roll. Used properly, social media can deliver that warmth to others—and provide an antidote to the ever-expanding envy industry of which you are almost certainly part.
Social media has made salespeople of us all—even if you are only “selling you” (blech)—which might be what makes mundanity so taboo-yet-refreshing. People have always been interested in the intimate details of the lives of strangers, but everyday calm isn’t a big earner. Before the internet, you might only find it on nonprofit channels like PBS: “Bob Ross is OG mundane entertainment,” says Aymar Jean Christian, who studies television and new media at Northwestern. (OG yet trendy: The Joy of Painting star has found a new generation of fans on the internet. Ross’s soothing art lessons have been livestreamed, used for YouTube challenges, and adapted into makeup tutorials.) Boring Instagram and YouTube do not smell of capitalism. The accounts are more like odd art projects or Saturday morning television—#notsponsored, not screaming for your attention.
Barsach thinks everyone’s social media anxiety would likely improve if only we posted realer, more mundane photos. She might be right: Among supermodels on jet skis, 19-year-olds wearing Gucci that costs more than your car, and perennial brunchers sipping bottomless bellinis, Finnish supermarkets and people brushing their hair are hyperreality checks. Aspirational social media is constantly begging you to unmoor yourself from the everyday and literally buy into a filtered, curated reality you can’t have. Nobody’s trying to go viral or win over brands with their relatable laundry post, but we love them all the same. Beautifully boring posts, as Bob Ross would say, are the attention economy’s happy—and necessary—little accidents.