Swimming Against the Internet Stream:
Finding your voice when everything looks the same
Too much looks the same. Isn’t anyone else bored?
When I launched my blog Prêt à Voyager in 2007, it was about the intersection of travel and design, and I always had a penchant for Paris (I launched on Bastille Day after all!). Less than two years later, I found myself moving to Paris to pursue a Masters in Global Communications. I had been working as a graphic designer, but wanted to pull in my background in travel and interest in cross-cultural communication. Without knowing it at the time, my blog helped focus me, and get me there. Travel is not about where you go, but how you see the world. My blog was stronger than any CV.
In 2009 I joined Twitter knowing that if I was going to study communications I should know how this key platform worked. Little did I know that it would help connect me to some of my now closest friends and lead to future projects and work. I appreciated the ability to express ideas be smart and clever in 140 characters or less. Curiosity always wins and many of my best opportunities have less than 140 characters to thank. My profile bio got refined over time taking advantage of the 160 character limit. Defining what I do — or aspire to do — as “connecting creatives across continents” was a moment of clarity for me.
In the process of moving abroad, I started hanging out with more bloggers and internet people. Soon everyone seemed to become a blogger. I started to fear that we were all writing about the same things. It wasn’t until later I realized we’re really just sharing the world through our own point of view (well, most of the time).
At some point in the past couple years I turned away from regular blogging and Instagram became my micro blog (or at least personal visual memory and alternative note taking device). Instagram is one of my favorite tools for discovering new places, yet also one of the things that can make me cringe.
Fact: my life isn’t charmed, I just work really hard. While the Internet has done so much to get me to where I am today, it bothers me how much it frustrates me too. Over time, blogs and social media platforms have become more refined in the way that people share information (mainly a good thing), yet can feel more formulaic and all look and sound the same, not to mention giving people complexes that their lives aren’t perfect. I think living in Paris has made me hyper aware. It turns out friends around the world feel the same way, but you’d never know unless you talk to them in person.
The reality is I get bored by Instagram. It often all looks the same and the same style of images are repeatedly rewarded. If I never see an overhead shot of a latte again, I wonder if my life will feel more complete. It wasn’t until I took a week off to focus on my own projects that I truly realized how much time went into scrolling through this feed every day, and I was finally OK with not having to see everything.
You’d think because everything looks the same, it’d be easier to stand out, but instead I feel like I continue to see more of the same, same. While there are no steadfast rules on how to use the Internet, the time has come for me to create my own personal manifesto as a reminder of why I do what I do.
- Show the world through your own eyes. In a week everyone is going to forget what everyone else posted. Not sharing something just because someone else did isn’t a valid excuse not to add your twist to the story. But on the flip-side, the rat race of being the first person to post a new place is over-rated. For the record, just because a place is new, doesn’t make it awesome.
- Share what you love. Most of my favorite images get the least amount of likes. Likes are a definite ego boost, but for most people ‘likes’ don’t pay the bills. At the end of the day it’s more important to have a vision or perspective. Even if they’re not the accounts with the largest following, individual voices can still rise. I didn’t decide to visit all 39 Paris pools in order to get likes; I used Instagram to share a project I was doing for myself.
- Support what you love and connect the dots. I love the accounts that I follow who take the time to credit, tag, hashtag (when relevant) and location tag the image. It takes time to do it right, but thankfully Instagram has an edit feature where you can update a post if you discover someone has an account after the fact. I don’t feel the need to be elusive, my hope is that I can inspire others to go on their own adventures. It’s never been my own goal to be a pro-blogger or to make money from Instagram, but I’m always inspired when I know that someone is really making a living with the help of these tools.
- Be more than than just pretty pictures. Embrace the imperfect. Move past the predictable clichés. My favorite images that appear in my feed are the ones that I can immediately identify the photographer. Find your style and subject matter beyond what’s “in” in 2015. Soon we’re going to look back and say, “that looks so 2015”, in the same way we say things look like the 80s. It’s more than OK to be the girl who loves garden gnomes, swimming pools, and maps — own it. Conversely, my friends and followers know when to tag me in someone else’s comment because they know it’s something I’ll love. It’s more interesting to get known for something other than having a lot of followers.
- Tell a story, but also add to the story. This starts with your profile, and extends to what you share. But don’t just share. Words can enhance images. Do your homework, dig deeper, make the connections and get beyond the surface. Use other people’s feeds to help satisfy your own curiosity and discover new places and people. When you have these moments, you know you’re on the right track. Also, do everyone a favor and read the caption before commenting with a question.
- Know that what you see on the surface isn’t necessarily the reality, or full story. Life isn’t always picture perfect, so realize that it’s not something everyone will choose to share. There’s no need to give yourself a complex when there’s so much you don’t, and can’t, know. It’s always been my goal to help share a bit of “unglamorous Paris” to balance out the super idealized, hyper clichéd version that many people share. That is my perspective, but everyone should have their own. On a personal level others will be going through things that they will choose not to share — accept this, and realize you never fully know. And that’s OK.
- Question things and look with a critical eye. At some point in the Internet game, being critical made you a bad guy, rather than constructive. Don’t be a hater or a cyber bully, but use your influence to enhance the conversation. Also, be savvy enough to be able to recognize styles, the originators and the sources. You don’t have to like something just because everyone else does. And just because you didn’t click a heart doesn’t mean someone didn’t like something.
- The Internet can be dangerous and make people feel excluded. You don’t have to do everything with everyone, but take a step back from time to time and reflect on how some things may be interpreted by an outsider. It doesn’t take a detective to piece together Internet clues.
- Celebrate your voice. Some accounts post a lot of photos of themselves. I realized long ago that is not my style, nor my personality. Instead, I stick to my mission of supporting and celebrating creatives and interesting places when I travel. I’ve learned first hand the importance of the art of self-promotion, so anything I can do to help support others, I try to do what I can. Furthermore, sharing on a platform like Instagram is the best form of self-promotion, without feeling like promotion at all. Illustrators are my favorite example, as their style is distinctly theirs and recognizable. Now more than ever we hold the keys to our own success and these platforms are the perfect excuse to explore — if we let ourselves.
- Foster relationships. Just because something is online doesn’t mean it doesn’t function the same as ‘offline’ friendships. The Internet makes it easy to connect with people, so there is no excuse for impersonal outreach emails. The first point of contact should never be an “ask”. Use the tools, connect, and don’t forget your manners. You can not only make connections, you can maintain them.
Creating an online presence is a process, it takes time. It’s something you should start long before you actually need its powers (students, I hope you’re listening). I didn’t pursue social media for a following, I did it because I was inquisitive and wanted to know more. Until you use the tools they’re not something you’ll totally understand, nor the potential.
I miss when the Internet felt more genuine, raw and unfamiliar. These days we’re rarely disconnected. The Internet is free, and easy in so many ways, but is not always used to its fullest extent. There’s room for refinement, but also imperfection, and each of us can use them in our own way. It took me awhile to figure out why so many people love Snapchat: the individualized ephemeral nature of not overthinking what we share for once. While I can’t seem to muster one more thing in my connected life, it’s a good reminder that when you’re having fun, you’re probably sharing your best self. We may need reminders at times, but if we stick to our own course — even if it’s not the main, or direct course—it can help get us to where we want to be. Sometimes without even realizing it…
Anne S. Ditmeyer is an American writer and designer in Paris, France. She shares a slice of life — which includes swimming pools, garden gnomes and bureaucracy — on her blog, and as @pretavoyager on Twitter and Instagram.