Peonies envy: do I really love blowsy flowers or has Instagram destroyed my ability to think?

Lifestyle

On an enforced mid-walk pause as the elderly dog licks a lamppost in confusion, my husband’s eyes alight on the nearest garden. “Ugh,” he says. “That’s ugly.” A thrill of delicious horror runs through me: he is pointing at a peony. A bubblegum-pink one, sure, but a peony: it’s like saying you hate puppies, or your mum.

“You hate those?” I ask him, scandalised. “But … they’re peonies!”
He shrugs.

The thing is, I don’t think I could have picked a peony out of a lineup five years ago. The reason I can now is not (just) my advancing age: it’s Instagram.

The peony is the main event of the botanical Insta-year, dwarfing even big hitters such as #wisteria – cascading purple catnip for influencers (728k posts) – or the 2021 lacey upstart cow parsley (“What IS it with cow parsley?” said my best friend recently, glaring balefully at a hedgerow, inexplicably not feeling the impulse to run it through a Juno filter). Instagram adores the peony: 4.1m posts (plus 3m for “peonies”), layer upon layer of blowsy, extravagantly aspirational petals gracing the grid. Peonies are peak Instagram, the mascot of this rose, gold and pink place where nothing bad seems to happen.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Instagram. Some find the relentless positivity mentally draining, feeding into their insecurities, but I enjoy pretty micro-treats for my tired eyes.

I do worry, however, about what it is doing to my taste, and taste more widely. I have no knack for the beautiful and unusual. My home is a bland time capsule of what was vaguely fashionable five to 10 years ago (knock off Farrow & Ball Scullerymaid’s Impetigo crossed with that episode of US sitcom Portlandia where they put birds on everything). Previously, I copied more stylish friends; now I just copy Instagram.

This week, Instagram showed me a 1930s French greenhouse, a cake stand shaped like a cabbage leaf and a ‘refreshing Japanese snacking experience’
It is not a deliberate thought process, more a gradual bleeding of all those variegated house plants and maximalist wallpapers into my consciousness. The Instagram algorithm sees that I like looking at hens, cakes and videos of porcupines eating, and kindly gives me more of them. Then, like a subtly patronising friend, it suggests what else I might like, nudging me in towards the age appropriate and inoffensively pretty until I find myself thinking that maybe I do need Murano glass tumblers, or a reclaimed Irish linen dress. This week, it showed me a 1930s French greenhouse, a cake stand shaped like a cabbage leaf and a “refreshing Japanese snacking experience”: give it a week and I will doubtless be longing for all three.

Does it matter? It’s just nice pictures, no obligation to buy. And I don’t buy (immediately – though I fear it shapes what I might buy later). There are, of course, serious questions around selling us stuff based on our data, but surely that ship has sailed: we have accepted it as the price we pay for our social media dopamine buzz.

But what about what it is doing to aesthetics, and, by association, creativity? Because it is so easy when you are insecure about your taste, or simply overwhelmed by the infinity of possible influences out there (an unmanageable, overwhelming array of art, decoration, food and plants) to fall back on default curation by algorithm.

When that happens, taste – what excites us, what we like – becomes flattened and homogenised. The algorithm commoditises aesthetics: it isn’t in the business of showing us anything shocking, challenging or even particularly interesting, just what is saleable. It is as though we’re consuming Huel, the meal replacement powder, for the eyes – blandly sustaining, the online equivalent of identikit high streets that are so dull there is no reason to go there.

I am probably condemned to a life of ogling rattan chairs and Berber-style patio rugs. Do I even, intrinsically, like peonies? I have no idea. But living with someone as resolutely offline as my husband offers a bracing corrective. He might not understand hashtags, but for good or bad, his taste is entirely his own.

“So what flowers do you like?” I ask him cautiously. “Dandelions,” he answers, firmly (he feeds them to his tortoises). Looking at them afresh, I realise, excitedly, how beautiful they are. Then I check the app: 2.1m #dandelion posts. Turns out, Instagram got there before me.