I was 20 when I first got an Instagram account, which to many Gen Z’ers will feel incredibly late to the party as nowadays people are getting their first social media account around 14 – the same age I was when Bebo first came into play. (If you know, you know and if you don’t then just be grateful!). Downloading Instagram from my first ever iphone felt really exciting. At that time it was literally a space for sharing only photos of pretty poor quality (phone cameras have improved tremendously in the last decade) and mostly of pointless things no one would even bother to like. I literally once shared a photo of a drunken midnight snack – marmite and toast – hardly riveting content. The most exciting thing about it was having a choice of around 10 filters that you could apply to your photos and being able to follow friends, collectively observing and liking one another’s pointless photo uploads. Influencers weren’t yet in existence and none of us could have predicted how the platform would grow and develop beyond innocently sharing our own camera rolls.
I first started actively using Instagram when I was travelling in my early twenties, sharing photos of the incredible places I was visiting. This was around the time that I first discovered how many people were monetising from their accounts and I was instantly jealous. I began hashtagging my photos, started a travel account and was dangerously close to ‘live, laugh, love’ territory. Although I never became the next ‘Gypsea Lust’ , it did leave me with a thirst for that #influencer life and in all honesty, it’s only recently started to dry up. It’s been a long time since I was craving to be a part of the #wanderlust community and no shade to anyone who is a part of that, but it’s just not who I am anymore. I’ve evolved and so has Instagram.
The past couple of years my Instagram grew into a space where I would share my social / political views. The introduction of stories allowed me to start indirectly sharing my thoughts by re sharing posts of others that I aligned with. I swapped backpacker accounts for activists and in all honesty it became a tool for learning about issues that I had previously been ignorant to. It was no longer a space for me to casually share my life, instead I turned to it as an informative platform, which I so desperately wanted to be a part of. I turned to stories myself to air my views and thoughts, which at first felt terrifying. It’s scary to think you’re exposing a level of vulnerability to the world by sharing what you think about a certain topic. But once I moved past that fear, I really enjoyed being what felt like a truer version of myself. This was happening around the same time of my podcast release and as we were entering the first (of many) lockdown due the the pandemic. This is when my relationship with Instagram started to get a bit blurred. On the one hand I felt really great that I’d finally found a ‘purpose’ on the platform – to share resources, connect with like minded people and boldly speak my mind. However, the flip side of this was becoming ever more reliant on the app and obsessed with how my voice was received. I thought it was making me care less what people thought, when in fact the contrary was true.
I sucked on external validation like a leech, thirsty for likes and comments on my posts and getting a real sense of euphoria as my following increased. I recall at one stage being absolutely buzzing that I managed to get over 1000 followers, which in the scheme of Instagram is still a really small audience. I became fixated on what I would post, panicking if I missed a prime time ‘slot’ as the algorithm wouldn’t favour me. I would spend hours agonising over a ‘thought provoking’ caption and waste time taking multiple photos of myself to upload alongside it. I felt like I had to provide a ‘hot take’ on everything and prove to my followers that I was ‘in the know’ about timely social issues. Essentially, it became virtue signalling.
It takes a lot for me to write and admit that. It’s still not easy to say aloud, but on reflection I think that’s what a lot of it was. I don’t think I’m alone in this either, I believe there are a lot of people who want the likes and the follows but their ego doesn’t want to admit it. I feel there is still a shame attached to the dopamine hit that we know the like button provides. We’re not supposed to care about the likes, but we really do. I’m not sure why there is still such a stigma around enjoying the external validation provided by an app that was deliberately designed to be that way. However, I have to say I had a hard realisation at the end of 2020 and ended up coming off the app entirely for almost a month due to my mental health.
A lot of people who haven’t tried to ‘break through’ the social media sphere by aim of actively growing an account will have no idea how utterly exhausting and time consuming it is. It was such an energy drain for me and incredibly pressurising feeling I had to be present all the time. Having a month away from it as we entered our 4th lockdown over Christmas was necessary for my mental health and taught me a lot about how reliant and obsessive I had become over creating content and trying to prove myself in some way. There were other very deliberate motives behind me wanting to grow an account that weren’t just based on vanity metrics. There is very clear evidence that a solid social media account can lead to great opportunities in the right industries, which was one of the driving factors for me. We can’t ignore the career chances presented to those with larger followings and that likes are literally currency for some accounts. However, having spoken to some friends who have recently had large growth and been rewarded with swipe up links, I’m confident that chasing a following online is no longer for me. They described feeling more anxious and pressurised than ever since having the collectively desired 10k audience, which is really interesting to me. Obviously this isn’t reflective of everyone’s experience, but for me I’m definitely happier away from it.
This isn’t to say I’ve come off Instagram altogether, but being away for it in that time I felt like I reconnected with being IRL – and this is during lockdown! I watched films in full and read books without turning to my phone or double screening, I was less anxious, had more time and felt way less stressed. It dawned on me that I’d become so caught up in being online that I had forgot there’s an offline world too. I think this is true for many of us, but we’re in denial because the surge of shame we feel at admitting we’re reliant on an app is all consuming. I’ve gradually distanced myself and I can now confidently say that I couldn’t care less how many people are following me on there! It feels so freeing to say that and mean it. A lot of this has come down to personal reflection on how I was using the app and the realisation that it just wasn’t serving me.
A lot of this was in the context of the online activist / influencer world and I have a very different way of thinking to what I did a year ago. I’d like to share more thoughts on this as a specific topic and why I think a lot of online activism is virtue signalling and that there is a difference between being informed and educated, in my opinion social media can do the former but the latter is going to need some offline work too.
Since choosing to come away from Instagram the most valuable thing I’ve gained is time. I now had time to read more. Write more. Paint more. Learn more. DO more. My screen time is way down and I’m also comparing myself a lot less. I have been feeling more at peace in my own life because I’m not constantly looking at other people’s highlight reels. I definitely feel that Instagram and other forms of social media serve a purpose and have a place, but it’s amazing how much I find myself pining for the times pre their existence.