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The insta-sanity of social media

In February 2018 I decided to take a break and not post anything on Instagram anymore. I was uploading twice a week and frantically checking my like and follower numbers as soon as I hit ‘save’ on a new post. Receiving obviously copy-and-pasted comments consisting of random emojis, I started questioning if this is really the way I want to share my work and passion with other people.

There’s a hard fact that we all know but ignore or sugarcoat as much as possible: We’re all slaves to social media.

Today, we are spending more than two hours each day (135 minutes) on social platforms. The formula is designed to create addictive usage patterns with non-chronological feeds, bots and algorithms defining what we get to see every time we open the app. Coupled with the structure and the values that are upheld by society, this creates a strong and toxic cocktail. It was reported, that Instagram is working on a feature which will show users how much time they spend within the app, making it more transparent and at least spreading the awareness and giving its users the opportunity to reflect on usage patterns. However, the emotional impact that the platform has on its users is still immense.

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

On one side lies a very simple psychological scheme which is based on our reward and satisfactory system. We have intrinsic and extrinsic forces that motivate us. Intrinsic being our own internal motors and extrinsic motivators coming from the outside. Depending on your character and psyche you are more or less apt to react to these motivators. Generally speaking, feedback especially praise or criticism from outside leads to a stronger reaction than intrinsic triggers. The heart icon popping up when you open Instagram will lead to a much stronger emotional reaction than you giving yourself praise for the last photo you took. Sadly. And who doesn’t like to be showered with heart icons by other people, let alone complete strangers?

Okay, that got pretty dark, pretty quick. Let Drake sum it up for you:

“I know a girl whose one goal was to visit Rome
Then she finally got to Rome
And all she did was post pictures for people at home
’Cause all that mattered was impressin’ everybody she’s known
[…]
I know a girl that saves pictures from places she’s flown
To post later and make it look like she still on the go
Look at the way we live”

There are positive aspects to social media platforms, too. Families spread across the world can keep in touch and follow the lives of their loved ones, regular you-and-me’s can turn into influencers and brands can create more immersive product and brand experiences than ever before. Social media is everywhere and everyone is using it but even a platform like Instagram is nothing without content. Reaching hundreds of thousands of people has never been this easy. But at what cost?

Many well-known content creators have voiced their unhappiness on topics such as the non-chronological feed, like-boosting and rewarding certain usage patterns with more exposure. People are also trying out and finding new ways to fool said algorithm. Do a simple Google search and you will be presented with countless ways of multiplying your following and like numbers. Humans adapt and they try to get the most out of every situation, system and opportunity. And who can blame them? Especially when they are relying on Instagram to generate exposure, business opportunities and income.

After finishing my Insta-sabbatical in May, I soon picked up similar usage patterns as before: Checking and comparing like counts, posting more frequently and growing obsessed with the performance of every single photo I uploaded. Three months in, I realized that I was exactly in the same place as I was when I decided to take a break from the platform. Even though I decided to switch to a business account which allowed me to take a more analytical approach and understand my audience better, I was still starting to question myself because I felt that my photos were getting better but this wasn’t reflected in the follower and like numbers I was getting. Toxic.

Photo by Sandrachile . on Unsplash

So how do you balance sharing content that you’re proud of with growing organically and keeping your mental sanity at the same time? I don’t know and there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. Everyone deals with praise and criticism and the lack thereof differently, but I can tell you what I did to improve my situation and how I did it. Here’s an idea for you: Accepting that you cannot please everyone, that Instagram is a saturated platform full of talented people trying to find their place and viewing it more like a tool for yourself through which you can track your progress, rather than a source of praise and fame is what helped me. Change your mindset. The last part is especially valuable. Scrolling through my feed I can criticize constructively and compare my old photos to my latest ones, giving me a nice and subjective view on what I achieved, which areas I improved, what I still have to learn and where I want to take my photography. This approach allows me to focus on the craft without paying attention to the numbers and stats behind it. Just because a more recent photo doesn’t get as many likes as one of my old ones, doesn’t mean that I am getting worse at photography. Keep in mind that there are so many cogs turning in the background, defining the content users actually get to see, with algorithms calculating and generating feeds that are personalized to each of your followers’ unique usage pattern.

The bottom line: Distance yourself from these thoughts and focus on improving your skills in photography or any other craft that you pursue. Of course you can use one of the many techniques to try and generate more exposure for your content but ask yourself if it is really worth it.