I remember a time, as I’m sure many of you do as well, when Instagram and social media in general were ways to share photos with friends – an archive of moments, memories and artistic photography, if you will. It seems to me like just yesterday we would be happy to have 10 followers, all having private accounts because it was supposed to just be something for our close friends. Today, Instagram has grown into one of the most powerful marketing platforms ever. Not only that, but it has become an extremely common part of our every day lives. Notifications, stories, reposts, tags, IGTV, polls, DM’s, followings and of course, ads… lots of ads. It has lost its innocence as a place to share, and has turned into a place to sell and a place to buy. Both the developers of Instagram, as well as the businesses that use it’s powerful visual marketing capabilities capitalize on its features to keep us hooked, quite literally. While this may be good for business, what does it mean for us, as users? It can be kind of scary, no? To be constantly comparing ourselves to what we see on Instagram, asking questions not only of others but also of ourselves, thinking “why don’t I have that?” or “how come ____ has more followers than me?” We now use Instagram in a time where we live more by “pics or it didn’t happen” than by actually going out and exploring the world, or even better, getting to know our inner selves.
Before I go any further I would like to admit, that I know I have built an entire brand on Instagram, and therefore this is an important topic for me not only because my work depends on it, but because it constantly reminds me that I am not only a provider on the platform, but also a consumer. I have a strong belief that there are, in fact, a lot of benefits to it but they are not always easy to spot, and unless you know how to properly gauge your use of Instagram, it can truly affect your mental and physical health and ultimately, our generational culture. Therefore, I have trained myself to constantly redefine and reflect on my relationship to the platform, and do everything I can to maintain healthy usage of it. There are two ways that I would categorize Instagram’s usage outside of people you know, and while they are generalizations, I hope that my simplification of this concept will help you revisit how you use the platform.
The first category is something I call the “insta-life” approach. This category thrives off of a culture built around the concept of perfection, something that Instagram’s visual nature allows us to falsely assume is the case. The digital age has enabled visual information to be manipulated in any way we like, meaning that with a platform as powerful as Instagram, people can post whatever they need to post, in order to sell you their product. That product does not necessarily have to be a physical object – there are companies, or individual brands that are based simply on this notion of the “perfect life.” Posts of this nature often contain content related to endless travel, perfect health, perfect tans, delicious food, beaches, incredible sense of fashion and lots of other “lifestyle” elements that make the consumer strive to achieve such perfection. We sometimes call these kinds of people “influencers.” We constantly compare ourselves to them, trying to be like them because whatever they are posting is what the “perfect life” is supposed to “look like.” We forget, however, that a perfect life is not something to see, it’s something to feel.
Now here I have to make a distinction, because being an “Influencer” does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. The real question comes down to, “what kind of an influence are you having?” This is a critical question to ask yourself when you hit that “follow” button on a new account. Is the influence simply a false notion of perfection? Believe it or not, selling a “perfect” lifestyle is a money making strategy, and many people have made their livelihood this way. It’s not so much as to put the blame on such people, but rather to make us, the consumers, aware that the content we follow on Instagram is the way in which we begin perceive our lives. If we follow people who are constantly promoting perfection, but we don’t feel perfect ourselves, we enter a downward spiral of mental health issues that I won’t get into now, but I’m sure you are aware of. This notion of “following” somebody because they have something you want, actually hinders your ability to take steps towards achieving what you want, because they make their money off the separation of you, and them. They make their money because they are not like you, trying to get you to be more like them is what enables them to live this way. This is not the case with all “influencers” however. This leads me to the second category of social media usage and content. Creators/artists.
I speak about this category with a passion because this is the category that strive to be a part of. Instagram’s visual nature has now allowed a new generation of creatives, artists, musicians, and any young entrepreneurs to build a following. These people use the platform not as a means of selling, per se, but as a means of growing an audience. They do this through many ways, each depending on the kind of content they produce. There is, however, a common theme with such people – building something in your life is not easy, and Instagram becomes a way to show that process in a somehow raw and authentic way. Not only that, but the “influence” these people have, is very different than that of the “insta-life” category. These people tend to inspire you. They tend to share content that can help you motivate yourself to start something of your own not because they are better than you or perfect in any way, but because they are actually just like you. They are average people who have decided to use the platform’s capabilities to share with the world something that makes them unique, something that could help others, or something from which vasts amounts of people could learn. They’ve taken a more “philanthropic” approach one might say.
Influencers like Jay Shetty, Prince Ea, Tom Bilyeu, and Greta Thunberg, have used the platform’s mega infrastructure to share positivity as well as teach people on the importance of global matters that unify us. This shows the true beauty that can exist in the world when we build communities based on kindness, and a belief that everything you want to achieve in your life is possible. These influencers influence things that matter. Things like mental health awareness, self empowerment, climate change, and entrepreneurship. They help us remember that it is okay to be a unicorn, and stand out from the crowd. They remind us that artistic careers are equally as important and that you can in fact follow your passion. The notion that positivity can go “viral” is something that fascinates me, and with social media that is now possible. When you follow these kinds of influencers, people who are working towards something, and sharing with you their process, you begin to “learn from” them, not just “follow” them. This is a critical difference in redefining your relationship with social media, and using it as a foundation for starting a business, marketing your creative work, building an audience etc. These types of content creators are still businesses, don’t get me wrong. They are still selling you something at a certain level, myself included… (www.zuluechocollection)… ha ha! However, they are not selling you something by making you feel lesser of yourself. They sell you their services as a means of empowering you and you, as a consumer, have the ability to simply learn from them if you so choose.
As you continue to use Instagram I challenge you to try something. When you go to follow somebody from now on, instead of reading it as “follow,” read it as “learn from.” Is this a profile you will learn something from, or simply one you will follow that will make you feel lesser for not having the same “influence” that they have? Don’t follow people, learn from them. This is one of the first steps to shifting your usage of Instagram into something positive. If Instagram was a textbook for life, which chapters would you want to read? Those are the people you should “learn from”… don’t just be a “follower.”