High on Instagram

Musings / Thursday, December 27th, 2018

Amongst my friends, I am considered a “heavy user of social media“, i.e. I spend way too much time on Instagram. (Ironically, I was 13 when I owned my first laptop and 15 when I created my Facebook account, a few years behind my classmates. For being the last among my classmates to be on social media, I earned the nickname of “tech noob”).

Admittedly, and I am somewhat ashamed to admit this, I also place too much importance on Instagram. My relationship on Instagram has often been unhealthy and sometimes, bordering on toxic.

Unfortunately, for the longest time, I was neither willing nor able to admit this.

I had stumbled onto Instagram innocently enough. Much like how I had signed up for Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat (the former I rarely use, and the latter two I have since deleted, for reasons which I may elaborate on later), one of my cooler friends in school had created an Instagram account and she encouraged me to join her.

As a proud owner of the then new iPhone 5, I was eager to hop onto the bandwagon of whatever the cool kids were doing, and it seemed harmless enough.

“You can take pictures and share them with your followers; your friends on Instagram”, my friend enthused.

Created in 2010, Instagram had one million registered users within a month of launching, and 10 million users within the same year. As of June 2018, there were one billion active users and even after eight years, Instagram reins as one of the most popular social media platform worldwide.

In the good old days of Instagram, when Instagram still had its OG brown logo resembling an old school Polaroid camera, and boasted heavy filters such as Hefe, Valencia and Clarendon (are they coming back to you now?), Instagram was a smashing success because it allowed the everyday Joe on the street, like you and me, to create artistic pictures by simply slapping on a filter and to connect with friends and family.

Personally, Instagram reminded me of Neo prints – where you enter into a dizzyingly bright photo booth, usually as a large gaggle of giggling girls, take a few pictures, decorate them electronically with stickers, glitter and filters, before printing them out onto little strips to stick into your journal, wallet, or whatever catches your fancy. Neo prints were extremely popular with the girls in school. Given how Neo prints were exorbitantly expensive (they were truly expensive, I don’t know how I arm wrestled my parents into allowing me to waste precious pocket money on Neo prints!) and how Instagram was practically free, and better, I was eager to get started.

Instagram caught on like wildfire because it allowed users to create and connect, effortlessly.

Over the next few years, I would religiously upload a picture almost everyday, paired with what I’d hoped to be a witty or thoughtful caption. I had genuinely believed in chronicling my memories, and felt a sense of fulfilment, even pride, when I looked back at the perfectly arranged squares of memories, complete with dates and captions.

I was also delighted to keep up with my friends. Most of my friends were on Instagram and I was happy to be kept in the loop about their day to day activities via Instagram. In fact, another of my friend would lament that I wasn’t close enough to her if she had to personally update me about her life when I failed to check her Instagram account.

Instagram felt like the cooler cousin of Facebook; more colourful, personal and inviting.

Then, Instagram made me sick.

I don’t know how or why, but the toxicity of Instagram crept up on me insidiously.

As we got older and busier, some of my close (and on hindsight, wiser) friends swore off Instagram, citing reasons that were then alien to me. The very friend that introduced me to Instagram was also among the first of my peers to quit Instagram (this girl was on to something!). It was only until I fell into a deep, dark abyss that I truly understood.

Plainly put, Instagram is a vampire that sucks your soul, if you’re not careful enough.

Instagram, along with Youtube, Vine, Snapchat and other various forms of blogging and social media sites, birthed new, sustainable and well-paying jobs that promised popularity and wealth – social media influencers and lifestyle content creators and producers. I don’t know how it happened, and I cannot proclaim to be an expert on this. Often, when I ponder about this, I always come to the conclusion that it is a chicken-and-egg situation. But, if I may humbly submit, the bottomline is this – advertisers found a way to expand their reach via your everyday friendly neighbour down the street and Instagram soon evolved to become a real-life Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

Instagram feeds became curated, with thematic filters to create an “aesthetic”, coupled with appropriate hashtags and thought provoking captions. There were even “optimal” timings to upload pictures to maximise the amount of likes and comments. Simply scroll through any “perfectly” curated Instagram profile and you will find that every single strand of hair, cloud in the sky and pistachio ice cream in hand was intentional and set up. Zoom out a little and you will find that every single one of the pictures are painstakingly planned to flow into a cohesive theme.

Understandably, those making a living out of Instagram (and handsome earnings at that) have to create beautiful pictures. This is their money maker, and they need more followers and higher levels of engagement to command higher fees from brands and companies. Understandably, Instagram pictures are a form of art and expression, and people naturally gravitate to the visually pleasing – think Pinterest pictures. I love looking at pretty pictures; they are candy for my eyes and soothing lullabies for my distressed soul (dramatic but true). I have nothing but respect for influencers and content creators – it is HARD WORK. It certainly isn’t easy having to constantly brainstorm creative ways to attract, engage and retain your followers and compete with others on what appears to be a saturated and highly competitive market.

However, these unattainable and unrealistic levels of perfection seeped into the everyday Joes and Janes. I, too, was and still am, a victim of this. Because these Instagram influencers are influential, and because they are models that we want to emulate, #inspiration, #goals, our Instagram feeds, too, have to be #aesthetic. Instagram is the worst social media platform for your mental health.

Instagram must eat first before we eat.

That’s in Singlish, but it rings true. I had morphed into someone who wanted to document every “cool”, “fun” aspect of life on Instagram. Sometimes, my friends would be thoroughly upset with me when I made them wait before digging into a meal as I wanted to take a picture of our food at the most delicious angle possible before eating. Other times, my travel companions would whine about having to take 130843975 pictures of the same mountain / sunset / castle before moving off to our next destination.

Strangely enough, I felt the pressure to look pretty, be slim, and be surrounded by 230845977 equally pretty and glamourous friends. I’d only post the most flattering pictures of myself, my food and my environment.

It was exhausting. Creating a picture perfect life is exhausting.

Worse, I began comparing myself to others online. As they say, “Comparison is the thief of joy, and Instagram is the biggest robber of all time” (I made the second part up).

I’d find myself, alone on a Friday night, stuffing my face with fries or chips (Kettle chips, anyone?), sitting on my couch and scrolling through my Instagram feed. I’d be inundated with mouthwatering pictures of tastefully prepared food from Michelin star restaurants, branded bags and shoes from yet another shopping haul, or picturesque sceneries of far flung exotic countries with names I can’t even begin to pronounce.

It was a rabbit hole. I was sucked into this Instagram highlight reel and I wasn’t unable to extricate myself out of it unharmed.

Call it #FOMO (fear of missing out), call it social anxiety – whatever it was, it wasn’t making me happy.

It was exceptionally tough when I was undergoing a painfully devastating period in my life and everyone else’s life on Instagram just seemed perfect – someone completed a 42 km marathon, someone else lost 5 kg, yet another bought a new car.

Of course, I am fully aware that Instagram is simply portraying a fantasy. The world of Instagram is OUR embellished truth. It is the person we HOPE we are; 5 kg lighter, always positive and jet setting to the other side of the world with money to spare for charity and a Balenciaga purse or a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch.

Instagram is a highlight reel – only the best pictures make it to our profiles. The unsightly is airbrushed or filtered away, ceasing to exist in the world of perfection.

Granted, I sound like a sour plum, bitter over the successes of my friends and too selfish to share in their joys. This might be true (no it isn’t), but the more significant implication is that I am comparing my bland, everyday reality to their highlight reel.

Not everyone wakes up with a beautifully made up face and a bouquet of balloons outlining their large, King sized bed overlooking the deep blue sea. Not everyone has an adorable pooch with trimmed nails willing to pose for the camera amidst a backdrop of a cosy living room. Not everyone’s breakfast looks like it was styled right out of a food magazine. Of course, the comparisons would be stark.

But futile as I am in my attempts to consume less cookies and chips, I could barely stop myself.

Once again, I base this on Instagram’s ability to allow us to create and connect. As social creatures, it is my belief that, much as we may deny it, even misanthropists desire to be desired.

And Instagram fulfils that need. Somewhat.

Whenever my friends like or comment on my posts, I feel a rush of dopamine. I feel validated and desired, “My friends like my pictures, hurrah!” This motivates me to continue to post pretty pictures on Instagram, so that I can continue to feel the rush of affirmation from my friends. Where does this stem from? It stems from the need to be loved, desired, and to feel belonged. What better way to determine social acceptance in the 21st century than electronically, with the tap of a “Heart <3” button and a comment if one is feeling particularly generous?

Whenever I’ve tried to go cold turkey on Instagram (and this has happened with increasing frequency of late), I’d feel lighter, and freer (free of comparisons!) for a brief moment, before experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms (“Just let me mindlessly scroll through my feed!”) and shamefully succumbing to reinstalling Instagram on my phone. Instagram, with its bright kaleidoscope of colour and notifications of likes and comments from our friends, is designed to be addictive. Yet, even with the knowledge that Instagram is addictive, I struggle to quit it.

Clearly, this is unhealthy and not to be encouraged.

There are some important issues that need to be addressed to nip this unhealthy relationship in the bud.

First, and most importantly, I have clearly placed too much value on Instagram. Just as how I struggled with my weight (an old story for another time), the number of likes and followers I have on Instagram DOES NOT EQUATE TO MY SELF WORTH. In my hurry to gain social acceptance, I have unwittingly swerved to the other extreme.

Of course, this is STILL a work in progress, and this realisation came about with the wisdom that only maturity can bring. For the longest time, I was neither able nor willing to admit that I was developing an unhealthy relationship with Instagram. The hours spent mindlessly scrolling through Instagram chipped away at my psyche.

Rather, my self worth should be based on the love and support I can shower my family and friends with, the effort I put into my work, the times when I did what was kind and right, when being kind and right was not the easy choice.

My self worth is not reduced to the likes and comments on Instagram.

This is embarrassing to announce, especially for a twenty-something whose main focus should be on building her career, her REAL life and not REEL LIFE. Which brings me to my next point.

Second, THERE IS LIFE BEYOND SOCIAL MEDIA. As mentioned earlier, my wiser friends slowly quit Instagram citing reasons that were alien to me, but I find myself nodding in agreement now.

My priorities have shifted, as it is expected when one is entering new, unchartered territories in life. I worry about being financially independent, building a life of my own that my parents can be proud of, I worry about my dog and how I can be a better dog mom to her, I worry about how I can shoulder the responsibilities of the future that my parents will one day become too old to bear.

Additionally, the validation that one receives on Instagram is fleeting. Sure, you may have x number of likes and comments on a post today, but will you be able to keep this up indefinitely? If you tie your self worth to your Instagram likes, how will your self worth plummet when you lose those likes?

Furthermore, if you place a premium on your looks, which are superficial and WILL FADE WITH AGE, how will your self worth plummet when you can no longer hide behind three layers of Instagram filters and one round of extensive Mei Tu Xiu Xiu?

Nobody cares what you had for breakfast.

Harsh, but true. One of my friends, frustrated with my reliance on Instagram, blurted the cold truth to me as I was busy editing the photo of our croissants and coffee.

And he is right.

Sure, your friends are excited for you when you succeed. But how many out of those 459753 followers will truly be there for you when you need them?

Frankly, maybe less than a handful.

Is Instagram all bad? No.

Has it brought good to my life? Yes.

Thanks to Instagram, I am able to journal and share precious memories of milestones – birthdays, graduation, my dog, my family and my travels.

Thanks to Instagram, I can easily stay connected with my friends and be GENUINELY happy for their successes.

Will I quit Instagram forever? Maybe.

I believe that Instagram, like Friendster or Myspace, will eventually give way to another more personable social media app. Sooner rather than later. The disillusion with Instagram is growing by the day; and the decreased levels of engagement on Instagram is also contributed by the revelations that I’ve shared on this post. More and more people are quitting Instagram.

In a similar vein, Instagram Stories has outpaced Instagram in terms of popularity. People prefer to simply use Instagram Stories, and are inactive on the main Instagram platform while remaining active Instagram Stories. The reason for this, I suspect, is simple – Instagram Stories is genuine, and less curated. People are more predisposed to posting quick and short posts that are more accurate reflections of their lives. Plus, it feels more intimate. You are privy to your friend’s private life, and Instagram Stories’s newest “Close Friends only” feature is a clear indicator of that. Strip away the bells and jingles, and what we ultimately crave for is intimacy, and a sense of closeness and connection with our friends.

Personally, I enjoy Instagram Stories more than the actual Instagram platform because I don’t feel the need or pressure to present a polished version of my life. The ability to individually reply to my friends’ Instagram Stories also allows me to connect with my friends, without the veneer of the Instagram perfection.

As a self-confessed addict, quitting Instagram permanently might be a tough thing to do. And it might not be what I want either. But, as the dawn of the new year inspires resolution-making, I aspire to spend LESS time on Instagram, take MORE BREAKS away from social media, and be more MINDFUL of the PRESENT, to truly soak in the ACTUAL company of my friends and companions. (Given how spending less time on Instagram has shown to also reduce levels of loneliness and depression, I believe I will be on the right track.) I aspire to be OK with posting less than perfect pictures, as these pictures are the true, genuine, reflections of life that IS sullied and blemished. I aspire to consciously remind myself that not everything I see online is true, and that my friends, in spite of their glamourous posts, could also be fighting battles of their own that I know nothing about.

How will I do this? For starters, the latest iOS includes a “Screen Time” function, which allows me to track how frequently I use my phone and on which apps. I hope to cut my Instagram usage by half (Ambitious, my friends would caution). When I find myself harbouring negative or self-defeating thoughts from pictures on Instagram, I will have to consciously remind myself that “This is NOT real!”. When I’m in the company of friends, I WILL put my phone away, look into their eyes (and creep them out, lol) and engage in genuine conversation with them.

Whether Instagram is a force for good can be a polarising topic. To most, Instagram is simply a tool that can be wielded either for good or for evil.

My old boss used to tease me for my vain pictures on Instagram, and nudged me to use my Instagram for good, such as the girl who used her Instagram to raise awareness about the pollutive effects of plastic straws. His advice was well-intentioned and makes sense. If one has influence over others, why not use it for the greater good?

I have not yet found a neat answer for my predicament, and I don’t yet know what charitable causes I will champion for, but for my sanity and mental health, I will take more frequent breaks from Instagram.

And stop comparing.

Cheers to the new year!


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