aesthetics, power and instagram

A few days ago, I was scrolling through the Instagram Discover page and tapped “Read more” on a relatively long caption — a few paragraphs. That tap on the “Read more” button is one way Instagram tracks engagement, a critical data point to weave posts up your feed that you, specifically you, will engage with.

Tech says this: engagement is king, queen and the whole court.

When I was in Miami visiting a friend this past weekend, we talked about how you choose how to use your influence. We also walked through the Wynwood Walls, and before we rounded the corner she said, “just so you know, Miami is pretty superficial. Everyone will probably be taking solo shots.” I hail from the fake-candid-laughing-big-group-shot-with-friends world, where we shy away from asking for solo shots to avoid looking vain. But she was right — lots of solo posing, lots of serving looks, lots of Instagrams, some for #sponsored posts, I’m sure.

Once I tapped “Read more” on that photo a couple days ago, I kept scrolling and saw how the Discover algorithm placed post after post in front of me with the exact same formula: girl, white, pretty skinny, posing profile or with her back to the camera, in an exotic perfectly-saturated location. At least 10 of the same formulaic photo appeared before I got spooked and decided to do something else.

(Engagement is king, right? So we go where the likes are.)

Since brands hand out clout (and money) to those with largest followings, and sponsorship can so easily become aspirational, contrived, toxic — how do you make the choice to be authentic?

There are a lot of words written out in the world about how social media makes us less connected, more anxious — less human. I agree that we can become shells of ourselves, looking for the next trend to show we’ve adopted seamlessly (haven’t gotten on the platform Teva train yet), inducing dopamine spikes which we pooh-pooh in casual conversation because “it’s not an actual drug.”

When people look to you, me, anyone and ask all the existential questions we use to make meaning of ourselves — Who does the world ask me to be? Who should I be? Who do I want to be?  — what words are we giving back to them? Are we giving them image after image of aspirational, manicured photos to mentally bookmark and recreate on another day?

This is my Instagram.

I try really hard to be honest in what I share there because I remember — viscerally — the pit I feel in my stomach when I see someone else’s existence on Instagram and want it. so bad. And I know, and hate, and have come to love the scary hangover-like feeling I get when I finally say something I’ve been keeping close for awhile.

But at the same time, what is this platform if not a way to celebrate the people and places that make your life rich, and what if I just want to keep the damn mask on? And how much control do we actually have over what people feel about we share?

Just like social media can form you into a shell of yourself, I’m firm that social media can also connect us, can breathe the beginnings of meaningful relationship into connection-hungry hearts. Talk about the scary and hard parts. Talk about going to counseling or your eating disorder or body image or anything that you need to say but can’t because it won’t get enough likes. Talk about it for the sole purpose of connecting with the people who will hear you and respond.

If it’s too scary, talk about it on a Finsta (I love that a newspaper, albeit high school, published this, and now I think we have a need for peer-reviewed research on the Finsta phenomenon).

Talk about it and don’t beat yourself up if you want to put the mask back on sometimes. Just try to come back to yourself more and more often (I’m trying too).

Some of the people I look to for examples of how to be vulnerable with who I am and careful with the power I have:

for reflections on life outside the US
Cheers Elizabeth – cheerstomyhealth
Saira Siddiqui – confessionsofamuslimmom
Matt Willingham – matt.willingham

for when you want to connect with a teacher who also feels like a friend
Brandi Chantalle brandichantalle

for sobering reflections on love lost
Anjali Pinto – anjalipinto

for thinking about your relationship with your body
Kathryn DeFatta – theempoweredbody
Megan Bush – adashofnutmegg
Kate Moore – moore_kate
Latoya Shauntay Snell – iamlshauntay
Jessica Dukes – dailyketosis

for an example of bridging the divide
Dylan Marron – dylanmarron

for the big names making a difference with their words
Justin Baldoni – justinbaldoni
America Ferrera – americaferrera

I know some of these people, but I don’t know a lot more of them. Isn’t that cool though? Social media can create huge chasms between us, can make us feel alone. But when I make an effort, when I pursue thoughts from people who are attempting to close those chasms with their words —  that’s when I see how incredible it is that we have this power to connect in the first place.

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