I joined Instagram in 2011—ten whole years ago.
This was back when the app’s icon was a retro camera and hitting eleven likes on a post was a mini milestone (props to anyone who knows why that was). My username was parischic14 because I wanted to be trendy and also somewhat anonymous. I think I posted selfies and semi-artsy snapshots for the most part. Oh, and I overused hashtags.
There are many moments when I yearn for these simpler times of Instagram. When the preloaded filters were just right for photo editing. When posting more than once a day (or. I guess. more than once a week now) wasn’t a social media faux pas. When DMs and stories and reels and the shopping tab didn’t exist.
And especially when influencer culture didn’t run rampant.
It’s extremely likely that you’ve heard the term “influencer” before. But there still exists some confusion as to what that really means. I like how Paris Martineau described it in a guide to influencer culture for Wired magazine in 2019:
It is simultaneously an insult and an aspiration, the scourge of small business owners and the future of marketing, and a moniker for kids with middling social followings and megacelebrities alike. It’s how the Pope describes the Virgin Mary, for some reason, and the title given to computer-generated (inexplicably Trump-supporting?) teen DJs. Some elected officials are influencers, as are many infuriatingly well-dressed pets.
At the risk of sounding obvious, influencers are people with influence, particularly on social media. Blending technology and consumerism, social media influencers create content that features brands and promotes products, thus having the power to impact the actions or buying habits of others. It’s often done in a seemingly casual way, making users perceive a genuine authenticity and view the influencer more like a trusted friend than a paid endorser. Because influencers often get lots of free stuff, go on paid promotional trips, and have enviable Instagram feeds with the best of filters and lighting and Photoshop, it’s a lifestyle that many yearn to have.
For us regular folk with a couple hundred followers, it can be a lot to take in. It’s difficult to spend a few minutes scrolling through Instagram and not see something that makes me kind of jealous. A quick Google search of “Instagram and comparison” yields millions of results that all point to the fact that influencer culture feeds into a harmful, preexisting counterpart: comparison culture.
I wish I could say I was one of those people who uses social media for the simple fun and joy of it (although I’m not sure if that’s even possible anymore). Yet I’ve fallen into the comparison trap time and time again, especially when posts from influencers show up on my feed. I wish I were more photogenic. I wish I had more followers. I wish I looked like that. I wish my life could be like that.
In the summer of 2016 I was sick of it all, and I decided to delete my Instagram account. This was before influencer culture was so prevalent, but comparison still festered. I noticed how Instagram was negatively affecting my self-worth and I decided to step away.
This only lasted about a month. During that time I transferred to Calvin, and joining Instagram again seemed like a feasible way to connect with new friends and stay up to date with family and friends at home. I tried to be selective with who I followed on my new account and did my best not to preoccupy myself with numbers. Of course, this was easier said than done.
Now, almost five years later, I’m not sure what my relationship with Instagram is really like anymore. I still post somewhat regularly, but I close out of the app as soon as I do and won’t check my notifications until much later. At the beginning of this year, I unfollowed several accounts that didn’t make me feel good about my own content. I even set a daily twenty-minute time limit on Instagram and my other social media apps.
I guess I don’t love Instagram, but I don’t hate it. These days I’m just feeling … indifferent. Maybe I’ll delete it again. Maybe I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and try not to give it a second thought.
I’ve heard that comparison is the thief of joy, and it’s true. Perhaps having some awareness is enough to keep comparison at bay—awareness that all of the highlights reels, all of the stories I thumb through, and all of the ultra-whitened smiles staring back at me through the screen belong to people who are probably searching for the same thing I am.
I hope we can all remember to search for joy by looking up from the screen.
Kayleigh (Fongers) Van Wyk (’18) graduated with a degree in writing and resides in West Michigan. She works as a reporter for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and Grand Rapids Magazine while also making time for freelance writing. When she’s not behind a screen, she enjoys going for walks, eating ice cream, and buying more books than she’ll ever read.