My Instagram experience, and what I learned from it
24 February, 2019
Last year in April I embarked on an experiment: I decided to put some of my Sydney photos on Instagram. This may not sound like the most exciting of projects, but for somebody as ‘old school’ as I am it was a rather giant step. I am not particularly social media savvy, and I have always smiled about colleagues who tweet their lives away and snap venue pictures of professional development courses, expressing their excitement about the event before the speaker has even uttered their first word. And after every event of such nature, there is the deluge of tweets and retweets and frantic hashtagging of those who spoke and those who listened, a breathless, exhausting type of networking. I can’t keep up. And frankly, I don’t want to keep up. I find this social media circus rather meaningless.
I should also mention: I am a teacher, with a strong focus on pastoral care and mental wellbeing. I have spent a lifetime telling my pupils about the risks of social media and the harm they can do to self-esteem: the obsession with body perfection, the obsession with the number of likes and followers. I have spent many hours in my professional career counselling young people through the turbulences of teenage identity search and trying to guide them towards a critical attitude with regard to social media: a recognition that the number of virtual followers means nothing, and that the quality of their real-life relationships and friendships means everything.
So why did I join the Instagram game?
Well, it was (and continues to be) an experiment. I wanted to see
1) how easy or hard it is to build up an online following;
2) whether the number of my followers would actually matter to me;
3) why these things seem to matter so much to so many young people.
I am now 10 months into this experiment, and these are my observations and conclusions on my three guiding questions so far.
In terms of social media savviness in playing the Instagram game, I am a complete loser. In the Christmas holidays I spoke to one of my nieces (she is 14) who at the time had more than 100 Instagram followers (I had less than 70). At that stage I had posted more than 300 pictures; she had posted absolutely nothing. I found it fascinating to watch her count go up, and to see how it mattered to her, even though her account was only virtual. So, when I returned to Sydney, I silently decided to overtake her, just for fun. I posted more, I used more hashtags, I began to interact more with other Sydney photographers, and I achieved my goal: at the moment I have a narrow lead!
But in Instagram terms my meagre number of 110-ish followers is paltry: apparently people who don’t manage to build up a following of at least 1,000 in their first month are considered abject failures. There is plenty of information online how to achieve such lofty goals and how to skip the steps of building a following authentically and organically, and I learned a lot from watching the behaviours and tactics of others. The most insidious tactic is the ‘follow-unfollow’ game: people follow other accounts in the hope that these will follow them back, and if they don’t (or worse still: even if they do!), they unfollow them straightaway. Apparently there are even apps or robots for this: they follow 100 accounts and then automatically (after 24 hours, or 48) they unfollow them all, in the hope that at least 50 or so will have followed them back. This explains why I sometimes go to bed with 115 followers and then wake up with 109 the next morning. (Disclaimer: I am speaking metaphorically here. I am not advocating a promiscuous lifestyle). It is a rather sad strategy, and rather desperate, but as a tactic it seems to work for others. I don’t do that: I follow accounts that I like, and I ignore those I am not interested in. Consequently, I get unfollowed more often than followed, but at least those who stick around seem to enjoy my photos, and I often enjoy theirs.
Another tactic is the purchase of fake followers: you pay money for people to ‘follow’ you, but of course they will never engage in any genuine interaction with you. It is an easy way to gain an impressive follower count, but it is also a meaningless path to Instagram fame. Building up an authentic following of people who are interested in the same subject matter is hard work and needs patience and authentic communication (unless you are Justin Bieber or Harry Styles).
Funnily enough: when I caught myself getting frustrated about those who followed and then unfollowed me, and about the resulting fluctuation and slow growth/stagnation of my own follower count, I found my own emotional and visceral response really interesting: a tension between the real me, the adult, the teacher who understands the shallowness of such virtual numbers and assesses it critically, and the social media user who inadvertently gets caught up in this addictive game. I admit that it still gives me a small thrill to welcome new followers to my page, and that Instagram becomes a whole lot more fun when people begin to leave friendly comments on your pictures. You also, slowly, gradually, build up a small network of people who genuinely want to learn from each other. I take all my pictures on my iPhone, and I found it amazing what I learned from online tips and from looking at the pictures of other iPhone photographers. There is not just silly game playing on Instagram, but also plenty of kindness and encouragement for novice users of the platform. When used in the right spirit, it can be plenty of fun.
In terms of my third guiding question: I think I have developed a better empathy for young people caught in this cycle of needing validation from numbers that don’t matter: likes, followers, online comments. As teachers, we need to know what we criticise, and we need to understand what young people contend with, and the psychology behind it. Social media take up a lot of time, they can be addictive, they can affect mental health and self-esteem if young people, whose self-identity has not yet been fully formed, get caught up in that spiral of competitive comparisons between their own number of likes and those of their peers. Add to this that, while I am posting pictures of Sydney’s beautiful sites, young people often post about themselves, their social life, their friends, their appearance. Their anxiety, when waiting for online validation, is very real and very personal for them. There are schools who, with the best intention in the world, inadvertently undo the hard work that goes into their own wellbeing programs and give shout-outs to pupils on social media for particular achievements. Sometimes they are unaware of the anxiety this can cause in young people: ‘Will I get as many likes as my friend who had a shout-out last week? What if I don’t? What will it say about me? What will people think of me?’
Social media will not go away, and if used in the right spirit, they can be an amazing communication tool, but we need to continue to develop a complex set of digital and emotional literacies for our young people (and increasingly for adults, too) to cope with the relentless pressure of internalised expectations of external validation, and with the addictive nature of social media. Let’s face it: if you had the choice, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, to go for an energising walk with a good friend, then putting the world to rights over a cup of tea (or a glass of Pimm’s, for that matter), or sitting at home by yourself, watching your virtual follower count increase: which one would you choose?