The ugly side of Instagram – my experience

May 17, 2016

My last post to Instagram recently was a box of text with the words, ‘On hiatus’. I’d been happily using the app on a regular basis, posting a recent photograph daily and engaging with my followers and others whose work I found interesting. I started using Instagram about a year ago while I was on holiday on my own in Pula, Croatia. I looked out over an unbelievably calm marina just before the sun went down one evening and thought to myself, ‘If only I could share this moment with somebody right now.’ Suddenly, Instagram came to mind. I’d used the app only very sporadically before that point, and not for anything particularly interesting. Suddenly though, due to my beautiful surroundings, I had reason to share my world with the world.
quote01As I was travelling at that time, passing through Rijeka, Brussels, Stockholm and London also inspired visual treats that I just couldn’t keep to myself. A month later I was in the Bay area of California for three months and again, was constantly photographing my surroundings. The architecture, the views of the bay, the fog, the strange flora and fauna. The real buzz I got wasn’t just in making the images, it was in sharing them with the waiting world. Before long I would spend at least an hour after posting seeing the likes roll in, liking back other accounts, following just about everyone I could and generally engaging with anyone who showed the least bit of interest.

Within weeks, I began to sink deeper and deeper into this world. It became a game, the objective of which was to garner as many likes and followers as possible without following more than were following me. I researched which hashtags my favourite popular accounts were using and I created Evernotes with all the best tried and tested hashtags, laid out by category. I began liking everything I saw, not just work which was inspirational or beautiful. I would desperately want to check Instagram every time the thought popped into my head, which was frequently.
quote02A few months went by. I was still posting every day and still compulsively checking my favourite hashtags and liking almost everything posted by the accounts I followed for fear that they might unfollow me if I didn’t engage with their feeds enough. Every time I had a spare hour or two minutes I would be on the app. Tapping that icon became a reflex action and there didn’t seem to be any purposeful thought behind launching it. Sometimes I wouldn’t even realise what I was doing until I was minutes into a liking spree. I became familiar with the lingo popular over the past few months: on fleek, dope, clean feed, killing it, lit.

You can probably guess where this blog post is going. I’m not about to say that hey – this is how to build your Instagram following, you can do it too! Before I go on, just so you know, last time I opened the app, I had around 1,750 followers (while following around 380) – about twice the average of 800 but not massive considering the hours I put into building my following and posting every day. It wasn’t just that I got disillusioned spending my time engaging with a fake audience where each day you were worried to see who had unfollowed you and how many comments and liked you’d received. It wasn’t even that I got bored.

Something happened.

quote03Something in the real world. It led to me hurting the person I love. I won’t go into the details but it was directly connected to our Instagram pages and something that transpired there first. When this thing happened, the feelings I expressed shocked us both. I realised only in the aftermath that my Instagram feed was taking precedence over love, kindness and joy. Something had to change. My addiction to Instagram had to stop.

It was a rude wake-up call that the fun of sharing my photography had turned into an obsession and an addiction. I realised it wasn’t healthy. So I went cold turkey. I deleted the app from my home screen so there is no more autopilot opening. That was a few days ago and so far so good. The memory of the pain I caused to my beloved over a stupid app stings me. However, I don’t blame the app. I blame myself for allowing a shallow numbers game of fake engagement undermine the stability of the thing that means most to me.

The psychology behind Instagram is very interesting. An infographic from Lifehack reveals a number of fascinating and disturbing facts. A study from Harvard University showed that 80% of what we post on social media is about ourselves. This is contrast to 30-40% of daily conversations being about ourselves. Brain regions associated with reward are strongly associated with self-disclosure – talking about yourself. The activation of pleasure centres is greater when we’re told we have an audience. Self-disclosure actually triggers the same sensations of pleasure that we get from eating food, receiving money and having sex, if you would believe that! The knowledge helps me feel faintly less ridiculous for chasing that ‘high’. This Bufferapp article goes into more detail about the release of Oxytocin and Dopamine in the brain.

According to Boost Mobile, 50% of 500 16-25 year olds surveyed admitted they were addicted to social media. That’s a pretty sad fact. The Lifehack article reports that 65% of respondents “confessed” they checked their feeds up to a “staggering” 10 times a day. 10 times a day is hardly staggering! I think this is quite low – when you are talking about someone in the grip of a social media addiction, think closer to 50 times a day. I’m sure it’s more than that, for some. Especially when you consider the number of social networks there are these days (trust me, there are more than you think).

quote04The truly staggering statistic from the Lifehack infographic is this: A University of Salford study among almost 300 participants revealed that 50% of those surveyed said using social networks (like Facebook and Twitter, it says, but I’m sure you could throw Instagram in there as well) made their lives worse. Half of the respondents! It goes on to report, “Their self-esteem suffers when they compare their own achievements to those of their online friends”. I don’t know about anyone else, but this isn’t making me feel like I’d better get back on that particular bandwagon right away.

These apps are a noose around your neck. You feel obliged to post regularly once you start using them, especially when you do so for business as a neglected feed doesn’t look good. Nor does a feed with very few followers. Adding content to them isn’t enough, as to get the follower and engagement level up to scratch you must spend time and energy cultivating an audience that actually cares about what you do. You do that by looking at what they do and leaving likes, comments and follows and see who takes the bait. Many businesses and individuals with large followings don’t actually bother to look at the work they are liking, commenting and following. Yes, people use other apps to do that for them. You’ve maybe seen it on your own feed. A clearly copied-and-pasted comment that’s been spammed to many users’ pages, and the tell-tale sign is that it sounds insincere and makes no sense in the context of the picture you’ve actually posted.

quote05Instagram for photographers is a fake world. There is something noxious about all the ego-stroking that I have come to expect on the app. Why do I seek that kind of validation? The ‘feedback’ offered by others is unswervingly positive – so does it mean anything? (‘Positive vibes only’ is something I’ve seen bandied about on some feeds). I’ve noticed that when someone does dare to say something with a critical tone, it feels abrasive and unwarranted. More than once I have deleted a snipey or sarcastic comment someone has left – and then blocked them too.

It’s a perfect little bubble in which you can get your psychological needs met. You talk about your own experience exclusively which activates the Nucleus Accumbens, the same brain region that lights up when someone takes addictive drugs. Your brain is flooded with feelgood chemicals like dopamine because of the reward cues elicited every time you check your notifications. You publicise only the edited version of your life, thus creating desire and getting to feel pretty smug. You receive solely positive feedback about your images which is not how the real world is.

For me, the love affair with Instagram has come to an abrupt end. For the thirteen months I was using it prolifically, I felt it was unhealthy and took up too much of my time in exchange for a hollow reward, but I carried on regardless. Perhaps I was telling myself I ‘needed’ this for my photography career to take off. It took something big to happen to shake up my habits. I will post again whether in days, weeks or months and when I do, I am going to resolve a few things.


Ten things I will do

  1. I will take some time off from the app completely
  2. I will use the app in a healthy and non-compulsive way
  3. I will be inspired by great photos from other photographers
  4. I will stay current on visual trends but with a tongue-in-cheek detachment
  5. I will enjoy the odd compliment from genuine fans
  6. I will keep my attitude to the app fun and light-hearted
  7. I will monitor my relationship with the app and stop if I’m relying on it
  8. I will find other outlets for my photography and desire to communicate
  9. I will use the time freed up to get out and engage with people around me
  10. I will network more effectively in the real world


Ten things I will not do

  1. I will not use the app as a crutch to help meet my psychological needs
  2. I will not spend hours liking other accounts in the hopes they return the favour
  3. I will not try to get featured and upset when I’m not chosen
  4. I will not get angry when I see my follower count decrease
  5. I will not spend more than a few minutes on the app each time I post a picture
  6. I will not post to the app every day
  7. I will not open it mindlessly and start using it without realising
  8. I will not become addicted to the app or take it too seriously
  9. I will not put the app above real people that are important to me
  10. I will not make the mistake of believing that anything on Instagram or indeed any social network, actually matters! People I actually know are more important.

Very good post. Thank you for being brave/honest enough to write about your experience. I believe that you hit the nail on the head with your analysis. Instagram, like other social media sites, can become very addicting. I find myself doing the same things, though not as frequently. I usually have my iPad next to my chair and it is the first thing I pick up in the morning as I drink my coffee. I recently moved it away to a different place so I wouldn’t be Tempted. relicfinder2

Thank you for your kind words, John. It is incredibly habit-forming and creates a high, which the psychology findings back up. Ultimately the emptiness of the cycle can seem like a waste of time. It used to be fun, but it took on a life of its own and became for me, shallow and meaningless. The problem was, it began to matter too much. I’m glad to take a step back so I can devote more time – and better quality, uninterrupted time – to other endeavours.

I’ll miss your work, but definitely respect your decision. I’ll try to keep up with you here, keep shooting, you’re very talented.

Hi Zoe
I’ve read your articles about ViewBug and GuruShot too – a really helpful big picture look at what’s going on. I’ve been a ViewBug Lite member for a bit more than a year now and have and indeed still do actually enjoy aspects of it. It really has inspired aspects of my photography. in terms of widening my genres and expanding my post processing skills. But I completely agree with your assessment regarding ego stroking, empty wins and addictiveness. That’s why I’ve remained a Lite member. Even before reading your assessments I sensed that taking the payment step would just take me further into a black hole. For my own ego, I take a small pride in being able to win challenges and things while remaining a Lite – but there yu go, that’s just me illustrating the ego stroking mind games that we fall prey to.
I also have a gallery on National Geographic YourShot. I think this is closer to what you might be looking for, if you haven’t already reviewed it. It does still stroke egos with likes and followings, but there is a much stronger emphasis on “assignments’, which are run by real photographers and writers and are very difficult to get featured in – the standard is pretty high.
Anyway, as a consequence of reading your words I will not get into GuruShot, I’ll remain Lite at ViewBug and I’ll take your advice and treat all this stuff with grains of salt – see it for it is and don’t lose sight of that.
Happy shooting 🙂