Cover photo by Blair Speed
I joined Facebook in 2005, the year I graduated high school. Initially Facebook offered a way to keep in touch with my hometown peers. I checked it on occasion and felt a certain gratitude for the social connection the medium offered, yet my way of thinking and being was still largely grounded in the circumstances of a childhood sans Internet.
If I wanted to know how a friend was doing, I called her. If I was bored, I read a book or practiced my guitar. I was eighteen years old with a New York Times subscription; I read the physical newspaper to stay current on world affairs.
Over the next decade, Facebook grew into a largely impersonal and toxic interface. My feed offered political rants, friends of friends’ photos from trips abroad, depressing headlines, and the occasional post from a friend sharing an authentic peephole into her life. Filtering content I wanted to see from content I didn’t proved to be a time-suck.
In comparison, Instagram seemed like the promise land for social media: one photo with a pithy caption. I joined the herds migrating from the ‘book to the ‘gram in 2015. My first post was of ice covering a pond, no text. It received a few likes from my twenty or so “followers.” I knew the photo was cool and I thought very little about the amount of engagement it had received.
Four years later and I’m pressing the cheery pink camera on my phone’s screen five, ten, twenty times a day. I scroll through the dozens of images populating my feed, liking this one, not liking that one, commenting on this one, un-following the person who posted that one.
I post an image of myself, taken by my professional photographer-friend and accompanied with a meticulously calculated caption. I open the app to check how many hearts I’ve earned. Again and again and again. Did I snag any new followers with the twenty hashtags I chose based on my “brand image” and hours of research?
Oh! A comment! Did someone find the caption interesting?
You look so pretty!
Thanks! I write back, accompanied with the little blushing face waving its yellow hands.
But I didn’t feel like that emoji. Not at all.
The evolution of my relationship to Instagram happened slowly, subtly—subconsciously.
I initiated the changes in 2016, when I decided to commit to writing as a career. Eager to make a livable wage from my passion, I underwent extensive research on how to build a business as a writer. Every article and book stressed the import of an author platform.
Be on social media, often. Commit two hours a day to growing your following. Have a theme. Be consistent. Be professional.
The advice consolidated into a seemingly undeniable truth: to succeed in a world where a thousand writers “fail” for every one who prospers, I needed to get down and dirty with some self-promotion.
No agent would sign my book if I didn’t have a solid platform. No one would read the content on my website if I didn’t share it on social media. The years I spent crafting my book and the hours I spent writing articles would all be wasted if I didn’t grow my following on at least one social media account.
Terrified of failing and what that would mean for my self-worth, I took the advice as gospel.
I chose Instagram as my primary social media account because I initially enjoyed it. At first I stayed with my M.O. of posting pictures I found intriguing or beautiful, but I did it twice a week rather than twice a month.
A few Internet articles recommended I spend time researching “successful” social media accounts, so I perused content on Instagram’s search feed. The photos on these accounts were good—really good—too good to be taken with any phone.
So I began sharing photos I took with my mirrorless camera, edited in Lightroom, uploaded to Google drive, downloaded to my phone, and then uploaded to Instagram. I still mostly shared photos of things I saw—landscapes, wildlife, art. I stayed on-point with my brand image, and I thought the photos were pretty good. Not really good, but perhaps good enough.
Yet my following remained stagnant. I did more research. The accounts with large followings, apart from professional photographers, shared a common element: the photos these people shared were of themselves. I had posted a few selfies at this point, but I didn’t find my face particularly interesting. I decided to try sharing more photos of me.
And it worked. My following doubled. I felt inauthentic, but I told myself it was for my career. My livelihood depended on it. I believed in my message as a writer, and I would play the game for the greater cause.
I continued my study of accounts with large followings. Somehow these people managed to consistently post photos of themselves in front of dramatic landscapes, smiling broadly, holding a handcrafted something. Their captions were long and full of motivational hooray about being true to one’s self and life’s not perfect but we choose our attitudes and so on.
I envied their following and the success their number of likes seemed to guarantee in their lives. If only I could write a perfect caption under a perfect photo, then maybe I’d earn more likes and followers and the book deal and the happily ever after.
So I played the game harder. I hired my friend to take photos of me. She’s an amazing photographer pursuing her own creative dreams. While I enjoyed spending time with her and I appreciated her work, I felt anxious throughout the entire process, from shoot to sharing.
My friend would send me the photos: they were stunning, artistic. Perfect, really. But I wasn’t even sure what to write half the time. Be consistent. I needed to be consistent, so I somehow managed to craft caption after caption. I tried my best to be genuine in the writing, but I felt so far from my authentic self that I wasn’t even sure how to write a sincere caption anymore.
A writer who could no longer write for real: this is who I had become.
The breakdown came at once, and it was anything but unexpected. In the midst of tears and torn pages of my manuscript, I temporarily deactivated my Instagram accounts.
A little voice reminded me I had spent years building that account—the content, the following, the potential. Despite being clearly overwhelmed by my self-imposed stress to be “successful” in our modern world, I knew I wasn’t in a stable mental state. I told myself I’d reactive my account once I settled down.
I wrote in my journal, talked to a counselor, and meditated. A clear realization quickly surfaced: my self worth as a human had become inseparable from achieving success as a writer.
Instagram had become one of the few tangible ways I gauged my progress in pursuing external standards of success. Writing is a slow, tedious process, with little to no external motivation until a book deal is struck or a freelance gig secured. The work is done in solitude and by one’s own will. And unless one is in a writer’s group, there’s little to no feedback until the story or article is published.
Instagram seemed to offer an immediate solution to the isolation inherent in the writing process. Yet over the last couple of years, the more time I spent trying to develop my online presence, the less confident and inspired I felt. The excitement I initially had for my book and online journal diminished until one day, the joy of creating had succumbed to the terror of failure.
It wasn’t Instagram’s fault I lost the hope and happiness I once felt for my writing, but rather the narrative I had created about it: if I don’t have at least one robust social media account, no one would buy my book. Surely my own insecurities and doubts intensified this narrative, but a certain level of fear-mongering pervaded those articles I read when I initially set out on my quest to become a published author.
I knew I needed to begin the process of untwining my self worth from my work as an author, so I decided to take a week off of writing. Of course this would take longer than a week, but I had to start somewhere. At the end of the week, I planned to reactive my Instagram account and continue pursuing the dream, though hopefully with more resiliency.
For the first few days I’d pick up my phone and open the folder where the Instagram app once lived. I’d stare at the screen before remembering I had deleted it.
Ten minutes later, I’d do the same thing.
On a hike midway through the week, I noticed the beauty of the mountains around me. I reached to take out my phone, thinking I should snap a photo for my Instagram story. Once again I remembered—there was no Instagram, not me for me, not for now. I left my phone in the pack and stood for a long while, contemplating the ancient rock searing into a cerulean sky.
With Instagram gone from my mind, I simply thought: what a wonderful world we live in. What a wonderful thing, to be present with fresh air, solid earth, the warmth of sun. What a gift to be alive.
Between creating posts and stories, liking and commenting on other people’s photos, and searching for new accounts to follow, (as part of the “how to a build your own following” regiment), I averaged an hour a day on Instagram.
Without social media, I suddenly had time.
I read a book in a week with that extra hour a day. I used to read a lot. Yet immersion into a book had grown increasingly difficult the last few years. The first few days I noticed my attention wandering every other page. By the end of the week, I found myself in flow again with literature and loving the experience.
I also picked up my guitar for the first time in three years. When I realized I still remembered how to play the songs I used to play, I cried a little.
I was still the woman I had been before I used my free time to interact with my phone. I still knew how to play the guitar. I could still get lost in a book. My attention span had been compromised, but that, too, could be reclaimed.
It’s too simplistic to conclude social media deprived me of happiness. My self worth dilemmas require healing, and I’m taking responsibility for my wellbeing.
Yet it’s also too simplistic to entirely blame myself. “Free” social media accounts like Instagram profit off the currency of our attention and time. In an effort to keep us on the app at more frequent and longer intervals, the interface mimics the addictive qualities of a slot machine.
When I compulsively opened the app for those few days after I deleted it, an engrained habit was dictating my actions. I was no longer consciously engaging with the technology; something had fundamentally changed in my mind, an unnerving thoughtlessness.
Whether we use Instagram for business or for fun, we are all subject to the addictive technology employed to encourage our frequent and extended use of the app. We also know social media often offers highlight reels of our friends’ lives and little more. The quality and authenticity of this social “connection” seems minimal compared to what we are potentially sacrificing—our attention spans, sense of reality, sense of self worth, mental energy, and above all, our time.
In addition to spending less time reading and playing music the last few years, I noticed another trend: I was spending less time with my friends in person. Time and convenience always seemed to be the limiting factors when it came to making plans to hang out, but since I’ve quit Instagram, I’ve had more lunch dates and drinks and hikes and hugs and heart-to-hearts than I had in months.
Again, this may not be causal, and it may not be any single app’s fault, but something in me changed when I quit Instagram. Something opened. I made the decision to deactivate my account for my mental health. I had been happy before, and I was determined to be happy again.
In one of my journaling sessions, I wrote down times in my life I remembered being content. When I examined the qualities and circumstance of these periods, a startling commonality emerged: they were all times when I didn’t have cell phone service.
This may speak more to my personal sentiments than any general rule for happiness. Yet one truth is undeniable: time, attention, and energy are our most precious resources. How we spend these finite resources determines who we are and who we will become. And above all, given basic needs are met, how we spend them influences our overall happiness. If or when I return to Instagram, it will be the intention to use it as a tool, rather than the other way around.
I still want to pursue my dreams of sharing my work with the world, but my self worth as a human needs to expand beyond the standards of success I established at the beginning of my career. Developing innate self worth requires on-going explorations and reinforcements of my spirit and psyche. So the work continues: the writing work and the real work—the self-work.