Or, My On-Going Struggle With Social Media
Every morning in November I got up and made a cup of velvety, floral coffee from the Iconoclast Roasters blend that my friend Amandah brought me. While I did make three Instagram posts this month, none of them were about the coffee. I didn’t take any pictures of the bean juice actually, although I was tempted. There was something lovely about starting my day with a delicious representation of the care someone else had for me. If I could convey that in a photo, I’d probably snap a pic of it and put it on my Insta.
The same friend reliably links very interesting articles in our group chat, which I make a point of reading whenever I remember, one of which was Kathryn Jezer-Morton’s commentary on the commodification of “cozy” and Anne Helen Peterson’s meditation on the same. I let these ideas roll around in my brain box for a few days after reading them and came to the conclusion that so much of what these articles touch on fits into a complete picture of my growing alienation from Instagram.
When I started using Instagram, it was a brave new world. While I hadn’t been an early adopter of Facebook, by the time I signed up for it, I knew what it was for: quippy status updates (“Renée Meloche is waiting for her toast to pop and wondering if bread has feelings.”) that you hope your friends will comment on; untagging yourself from the photos posted by your friend who brought their Canon Powershot to the club; and inexpertly stalking your ex-partners and former elementary school teachers. Instagram, though—that was different. By the time the anniversary of its first-year release rolled around in 2011, it was already pulling household names onto its early adopter roster, including Playboy, Red Bull and Jamie Oliver. The pictures were still largely a mess of blurry stills shot with subpar phone cameras and covered with filters representing the extremes of saturation and contrast. Hashtag play was minimal—there was no Explore page, no way to see how may people were using the same ones. The interface only allowed users to upload “live” shots taken in the app—no camera roll #latergrams, can you believe?
The first picture I posted was a close-up of a neighbour’s baby, looking grumpy in their carrier. I captioned it “This guy looks familiar #PattonOswaltLookALike”. Not my best work (#SorryPatton), and that’s without even trying to quantify the ethical implications of posting photos of children. That was in 2012, and no, I don’t remember my original username. It seemed a simpler time then, and if that’s too broad of a pass, fair enough. I was an absolute newbie to the platform, with a blind-spot the size of a Kardashian’s follower count about the implications of using it and its potential for monetization.
In 2018, six years later, I rebooted by Instagram. I got serious about my writing, set up (‘revitalized’ is probably a more accurate word) my long-dormant blog (started to keep family and friends from home apprised of my doings, having moved out to the uncharted wilds of Alberta) and started attending conferences and webinars for Serious Authors (Aspiring and Otherwise). A common theme wending its way through many panel discussions and presentations was: establish your online Author presence. Virality can happen to anyone! Publishers are more willing to work with debut authors with established Internet Marketability. I was frantic to do this (and not accepting any criticism or rational arguments to the contrary at the time). I archived my old, ‘off-brand’ content. I changed my username to match my blog (arguably still a good choice). I joined follow-for-follow chains and participated in #Challenges spanning the seasonal (#WriterlyChristmas*) to the mundane (#WordCountRollCall*). I was fixated on my follower count (always flirting with 1000 but never quite sticking with it long term) and engagement.
Behind the scenes, I terrorized my dogs and spouse by leaving little piles of clutter everywhere, detritus from staged “shoots” I would take for social media. I fell, rather quickly, into a Bookstagram hole and emerged, only somewhat scathed, in mid-2019 for a bit of a reprieve. I couldn’t keep pace with the aesthetics. I abandoned a lot of my follows, feeling turned off (although some, like Lou @vellichorblues, are so gorgeous I’ll never quit ’em) and made a point of following more Actual Authors. The produced quality of my feed quickly declined, and not altogether for the worse. I felt less pressure to make my own ‘curated’ yet ‘authentic’ posts, although that feeling has ebbed and flowed since then. There’s something so addictive about seeing the follower count grow, watching the little hearts spring up from the notifications bar.
It’s also exhausting. As Kathryn Jezer-Morton points out in “Is ‘cozy season’ a cry for help?” is likely because it comes down to control. When you’re curating an image—whether it’s one or it’s an overall aesthetic (think people who style their grid layout) it takes a lot of effort and you have to account for so many different variables. To ‘win’ at social media, you’re creating images and captions that are meant to be representative of something specific; they have to convey an idea, an emotion, a lifestyle, a relatable sincerity but also an aspirational effortlessness. These are posts with a certain aesthetic appeal and desirability— an attainable “I could do that, if I put in the effort” air about them. That’s what people respond to, and what Instagram’s algorithm rewards. In truth, trying to achieve that takes a lot of work, especially if you’re not a professional. Increasingly, the posts finding the most success are videos and giveaways. Posts with shorter captions get more engagement. Commodification seems to be key. Got all that? More and more, even “stay at home” moms’ living rooms looked like staged show homes; “home bakers” and amateur food bloggers’ photos look like they were taken by professional photographers. Some were.
[Image: two overlaid images with a horizontal slider for comparing. The first is a blurry, badly lit photo I took of the cinnamon buns I made this week, with no cosmetic editing; the second is a professionally lit and arranged plate of cinnamon buns, which is much nicer. Second photo by Lum3n from Pexels]
I’m not really selling a product, on social media. I’m ‘selling’ myself, hoping to foster a genuine connection (on some level) with the people I interact with, so that one day, maybe, they’ll buy the books I write. True and lasting connections are rare in real life; even more so on social media. In real life, people fall in and out of each other’s orbits when they move a town over or change jobs and don’t see each other at the coffee bar every morning. Online, a bit of code pulls people (and brands! So many brands) it thinks I might like into my cyber circle. It buries others, usually my real-life friends, forcing me to search them out (and only if I remember to). Often, I’m only seeing posts from the same 5 to 10 (very popular, very active) accounts, and by the time I’ve scrolled that far I’m ready to log off.
Putting myself forward like this makes me feel like there’s something inherently undesirable about myself as a person when I fail to grow a staggeringly large audience. Followers are people who watch, and thus, they are an audience (an oftentimes very silent one). I feel compelled to perform for them. I try posting more vulnerable captions, letting them know that I Am Human Too. I post my highlight-reel moments, urging other people to celebrate their successes. It leaks into every aspect of who I am. I think about whether to take photographic evidence of things that it never would have occurred to me to take pictures of, just so that I can share #RelatableContent and hopefully attract some new eyes. I waffle over whether to post anything politically charged—things that are meant to “provoke thought” or interest and might end up alienating anyone who might be interested/have questions.
But then there are some aspects of who I am, like my queerness, that are politicized whether I want them to be or not. BIPOC folks especially find themselves in this position—with social media activism exploding in 2020 with calls to action against anti-Black and anti-Asian racism and every well-meaning white person weighing in on the BLM or Stop Asian Hate hashtag. Hashtag Activism is a good way to spread awareness, sure, but so much of it is limited to the echo chamber of people who already have that awareness. The format also limits complex concepts, forcing them into bite-size pieces of information, and for people unlearning decades of beliefs that have been inculcated at the personal, familial, and institutional level, that may not enough to create real change. On top of that, social media, with its racist algorithms and inadequate eradication of fake news, is a problematic player in levelling the field for marginalized people to get their message out. The less generally palatable the message, the more difficult it is to understand, the less visibility it’s rewarded. Some activists pare down the strength of their messages, or strip off their clothing, in order to get the message across.
There’s something exploitative about it—all of it—leveraging our bodies, our homes, our commodity class signifiers (a new car, a penthouse view overlooking the ocean, an all-white kitchen), our personal vulnerabilities—in order to connect, to educate, to engage—all ultimately in service of besting a biased interface that we’re also feeding limitless content into. And this isn’t a critique—or if it is, it’s coming from inside the house. I’m stuck on the gerbil wheel, pushing it endlessly forward, stopping once in a while to contemplate how I got here and the best strategy to get off, only to flounder in indecision and find myself thinking I might as well start the wheel back up again while I figure it out.
There isn’t a neat and tidy conclusion to this meditation. I still feel alienated by social media, even by my own posts and preformative. I am battling my internalized tendency to ask, “If I didn’t post about it, did it really happen?” Some strides I made in that direction this month: instead of just posting about my little victories, I also shared them with the people I love in my life, telling them IRL. It was much more meaningful (I know; wild, right?) than posting about it online. Those conversations were an invitation for them to share in my joy, and tell me about their wins, which I was honoured and excited to celebrate. I also didn’t do NaNoWriMo this year—I talked myself out of it—and I had some Feelings about missing out on the flurry of online activity (posting updates, banners marking the 50k finish line). Those Feelings quickly turned into a realization that what I missed most about participating was a reason to look busy. I was doing stuff all month—working on my writing, the podcast, my website, etc., but I didn’t have any posts to show for it. My Feelings about Nano were attached to my Feelings about wanting to seem Busy and Important and let people know I Am Working.
If a writer types ten paragraphs alone in a room behind a closed door, does the keyboard make a sound? Do the paragraphs add up into a chapter? Do the chapters make a story? How about a book?
Most of the “good” things that happened to me in November, I don’t have photos of. I hit some personal milestones. I sold two short stories, and have no pictures that adequately convey the enormity of how that felt (except for this one. I tried). It’s been my dream for so long, I actually let out a sob when I got the acceptance email. Later this month, my spouse and I went out for a formal dinner date for the first time in ages. We didn’t take any pictures of it. Aside from the layers of posting anything about it—the privilege that two able-bodied people with access to the vaccine have enough money to afford to go to dinner in the middle of an ongoing pandemic—the time I would have spent “staging” the shot to make it look as aesthetically pleasing as possible is daunting to think about**. One of the best parts of the date—where we came home and our dogs jumped on us because they’re not used to us being away, and the four of us cuddled up on the couch, I had a tea, and we watched the final episode of a Netflix show—was the least photogenic. I spent some time thinking about the angles that might work to make a post. But then my spouse made a joke, and I got caught up in drinking my tea before it went cold, and ultimately, by the time we’d shut off the lights and gotten into bed, I’d forgotten all about taking the picture.
*I didn’t fact-check any actual Challenge Hashtags, so don’t quote me on these.
**Scrutinizing how good we looked in the photo and whether the angle was flattering and if I should have asked the server to take more shots or I should have just gone with a selfie (my spouse’s arms are longer thank mine, so obviously he’d have it take it, but he has no talent for composition or even taking shots in focus).