IG Identity Crisis

IRL, I teach college students. I was twenty-seven and fresh out of graduate school when I started teaching, and I wasn’t much older than the students. I’m always amazed (and horrified) when every new semester brings another batch of kids who are increasingly younger than me. This term, my students report having been between the ages of one and three years old in 2001, which means they have no memory of 9/11.

I’m a relic! And I’m reminded of it often.

The other day I got an obviously scammy but still very flattering message on Instagram from a swimsuit company, asking if I’d like to be a brand ambassador. Hah, hilarious. I’m not quite old enough to fall for that kind of thing yet. On the other hand, I’ll take a compliment wherever I can get one, so I smiled to myself for about nine seconds and then moved on with my life.

But it got me thinking. What in the hell is the point of Instagram as it pertains to me? What am I doing on there? What’s motivating my posts? What am I trying to accomplish? Does anybody care? If so, why? I have no answer to these questions, and I suspect I’m not the only user posting away with a dwindling sense of purpose. This little funk of mine is possibly nothing more than your garden variety case of social media fatigue, but lately Instagram is making me feel old and adrift and kind of distressed, existentially.

AOL. 1998. I understood AOL in 1998, and I was awesome at it. I could talk to my friends (and older boys from school, ooooooh) with very little parental interference, and I could make endless esoteric profile updates to reflect whatever earth-shattering thing was happening in my tiny (but very real) social world.

Facebook ca. 2005 before memes, before hypersensitivity, before Fake News, and before everybody’s parents joined and ruined it with their inane political rants. I understood Facebook in 2005, too. We used it to stay in touch with friends—people we actually knew. We could all keep track of each other. It was great.

I could never make sense of Twitter, which has always been fine with me because I suck at word economy and even a toe-dip in the Twitter pool convinced me that the constantly updating, too-much-too fast, nature would quickly overwhelm me. Who has the time to keep up with that? Plus, I’m nobody. Why would strangers be interested in “following” me. (How creepy, by the way.) I couldn’t imagine that some random person might care a whit what I say or link to or think is important.

I have a Pinterest account, but I’ve never really used it. Isn’t Pinterest responsible for lots of pretty heinous stuff? Perfectionism, one-upsmomship, the promotion of really crappy values, a profusion of tacky theme parties, etc. Who needs more of that in their life? I can’t figure it out, anyway. Do I “pin” other people’s stuff? Do they pin mine? To what end? It’s likely I’ll never know.

Two minutes ago, I Googled “Snapchat,” and I’m still not sure what it is. I know there are, like, cat-face filters. Couldn’t be less interested.

So, it should be clear that current social media trends aren’t my area of expertise (actually, I’m increasingly comfortable with the possibility I’ll never have any area of expertise), but it’s obvious even to me that what was once fun and mostly light-hearted and social (hello!) has become in many ways dark and competitive and selfish and pernicious.

I did eventually join Instagram, about eighteen months ago, very much after-the-fact. I get the sense now that Instagram is over and everybody’s just sort of hanging around, passing time til the next big thing hits and we all scurry like desperate rats to get a leg up as fast as possible on the new platform. True or not, I still feel like an outsider on Instagram, and I’m trying to remind myself why I joined in the first place.

I joined because I’m told starting a business is impossible without a social media presence. Groan. So that’s how it began. I signed up. I logged in. I made a profile or whatever. And I started sending my thoughts (and my crappy iPhone pics!) out into the ether. NBD, as the kids say.

The name of the Insta game, as I understand it, is to get as many followers as possible. Yes? But not all followers are equal for someone like me because I’m not shooting for Instagram Fame or paid partnerships. For me, Instagram is a means rather than an end in itself. I need to get as many of the right sort of followers as possible because I want to turn at least some of them into actual customers. I need people who live in Pittsburgh (or who know/love someone who lives in Pittsburgh—or, better still, Westmoreland County) and who think it’s awesome to have fresh, chemical-free, locally-grown flowers in their life on the regular. It’s pretty targeted, so I think that makes me especially dependent on the algorithmic whatevers, right?

Which seems a bleak prospect. I read somewhere that only 10% of one’s audience actually routinely sees posts. There are all sorts of caveats and hacky ways around this, of course, but, who has the kind of time it takes to increase engagement with algorithm-beating measures? I do not.

Eighteen months in, I have about 700 followers. Of those, I’m guessing probably, oh, 20 or 30 are current or potential Summer House clients. What about the rest of these good people? Why in the world are they interested in my posts? Or are they not interested? (It does seem there’s a lot more strategic following/unfollowing going on lately.) Do people get anything out of what I’m doing? Do I get anything out of what I’m doing? My posts aren’t slick and professional and totally with-it, but even my crappy posts take time and effort. Is it worth investing this? Or should I pull the plug?

I certainly get something out of others’ posts: interesting ideas, instruction, a new perspective, a cheer here or there. Some followers become friends, even. That’s been the really great thing about Instagram for me: the flower and farming communities I’ve found there have been nothing but welcoming and positive and lovely. They’re these wonderful little worlds where everybody gets along and is united in the shared love of beautiful flowers and growing things. Political posts are very rare, and nobody argues about growing techniques or boasts of successes. Everybody’s helpful and happy for one another. These neighborhoods are tiny idylls nestled in the middle of a gigantic, miserable empire, the ugliness of which only rarely seeps into my otherwise happy, flowery, farmy online life.

This is ridiculous and I hate admitting it, but every now and then, a supermodel or a lifestyle influencer or a twenty-five-year-old magnate encroaches on my feed and I find myself questioning everything. Should I be taking more selfies (God)? Should I try to perfect the Baby Giraffe? Hm. The muddy rubber boots I’m usually wearing won’t make for a very interesting #EvaChenPose in the backseat of my Subaru, but I’m pretty sure I could get my leg up over my head like Victoria Beckham if I just….

Are not crises of identity something we were supposed to have gotten through in adolescence? Didn’t it used to be true that people figure out by about age 22 (or earlier!) who they are, what their place is in this world, and then they, you know, start, like, actually living or whatever? I thought I had done all that, and I’m bummed I’ve allowed stupid Instagram to throw me for this weird identity loop. 

In the fourth chapter of Beyond Good and Evil (Aphorism 146), Friedrich Nietzsche, admonishes: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Gazing into the Instagram abyss can be a disheartening and disorienting experience, indeed, and I don’t want to become an Internet monster, but, really, who am I on IG?

Here’s who I’m not:

I’m (obviously) not A Celebrity. Celebrities, especially those who are ‘famous for being famous’ as we used to say in the early 2000s, crush it at Instagram, and they do so with seemingly very little heavy-lifting. Kylie Jenner has 120 million followers. Did you read what I just wrote there? ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY MILLION PEOPLE want to see her posts, which fall under one of several categories: close-ups of her poreless and perfectly contoured—ugh—face (showcasing the cosmetics that have purportedly made her a billionairess); whimsical shots of her young daughter; fashiony snaps from what seem to be editorials of one kind or another; and selfies (of course). For celebrities, IG seems to be especially image-driven. In terms of accompanying commentary, they needn’t say anything witty or astute. They don’t really need to say anything at all. They’re famous. People—hundreds of millions of them!—are just dying to follow along. Don’t throw your phone at the wall in frustration, but Kylie Jenner reportedly makes $1 million per Instagram post. Ours is a very sick society, indeed.

I’m also not an Instagram Model. These girls are harder working (social media-wise), I guess, than actual famous people. They’ve gone to great lengths and have invested tremendous resources to build their Internet fame. They, too, don’t need to say anything especially good in their posts—there’s not much going on in terms of intelligent content creation (whoa, who am I?) here either, but they look good in whatever clothes they’re wearing (or not), they’ve gone to the trouble of curating elaborate photoshoots to show off their perfectly glossy Insta life, and they’ve bothered to reply to every ridiculous comment people leave them so kudos, I suppose, and good luck with the inevitable restraining orders.

I’m not an Online Expert. I don’t think anybody is interested in my skin care routine. I’m not technically qualified to guide you through nightly lymphatic drainage massage. I can’t teach you to crochet or to paint with watercolors. Most of my recipes aren’t worth sharing. I won’t take you through workouts or yoga practices to motivate you to finally get your ass in shape, and the thought of me posting inspirational messages like some sort of life coach is downright laughable.

The good news for me is that I don’t want to make a billion dollars hawking shitty make-up. I don’t want to travel the world in a bathing suit, spending every day fiddling with my phone in an effort to capture the perfect Instagram photo. I don’t want to use social media to assemble a group of weirdos who track my every move and buy whatever I tell them to.

So what do I want from this?

Am I a blogger trying to increase readership? Partly, I suppose, and it’s not going very well! I love writing m’little blog entries, you guys, but it’s been hard to get that ball rolling. Didn’t blogging reach critical mass, like, five years ago? Nobody reads my blog, not even my actual friends and family. I’m always all sheepish, like, “Hey guys! I just wrote a new blog! Check it!” I’ve become freakin’ Barney Stinson and it sucks (I’ve recently dived back into HIMYM on Hulu—totally holds up) because I’m pretty uncomfortable with self-promotion, especially when it comes to things I’ve written. Who cares, you know? And I’m not great at accepting criticism, which at this point, with so few readers, is mostly theoretical, but still.

Humpf.

I’m a grower of flowers. I suppose there’s at least some audience for gardening tips, but aren’t there enough gardening cooks in the instructional Internet kitchen? Besides, I’m hardly Sarah Raven or Peter Seabrook or Erin Benzakein.

If what I really want is to influence my local gardening culture in a particular way, what’s my move, social media-wise? Is there one? I know I can’t commit social media suicide because at the most basic level, it’s the easiest way to stay in touch with current clients. But I want to use my time and energy as judiciously as I can. And, you know, it would be great to maintain my own mental health in the process, which is a bit of a challenge these days because the nature of the social media beast, that tyrannical master, is kind of depressing, is it not?

We used to friend. Now we follow. We used to make connections. Now we comment or like for what are at bottom selfish (algorithmic) reasons. For somebody like me (a super self-conscious serial over-analyzer with an admittedly fragile ego), Instagram can be rough. “What the hell, man? I lost six followers today?! Was it something I said? Note to self: don’t say such things in the future.” This is unhealthy, and it’s something I’ve been curbing in my actual life. How best to combat it in my online life?

I’m open to suggestions.