For the longest time, Instagram felt like a frenemy, one that I’d been personally burned by. The highs, lows, and unpredictable algorithm made it overall detrimental to my emotional and mental well-being, and it’s been one hell of a tumultuous ride. However, this self-quarantine period has given me ample time to reflect upon all of my relationships, and while for most people that means figuring out that their ex is, indeed toxic, for me, that includes the relationships I have with social media. Out of a pandemic (of all things) my relationship with the social media platform had a surprising and positive shift. And, *Carrie Bradshaw voice* I couldn’t help but wonder: Is quarantine making Instagram better? Am I just so bored that I’m falling back in with a toxic (digital) ex? Or is something more going on here? I spoke with a few users and creators to see if it’s just me who feels like the pandemic has made Instagram a better place.
Content Creator and Editor Olivia Balsinger has written for the likes of Forbes, the NY Post, and Business Insider, but admits, “I had a love/hate relationship with Instagram for the better part of my twenties because it was that constant dick-measuring contest we didn’t want to (but felt pressured to) participate in.”
Before quarantine, Instagram was all about being aspirational. Posting in exotic locations, wearing expensive clothing, and having just the right lighting—it exploits the psychology of self-worth, and can prey upon people who lack inward self-confidence (points at self). But now, because we can’t visit a locale more exotic than our yards, people are changing the game completely, and it’s resulted in a refreshing influx of “ugly” posts. Celebrities like Hailey Bieber, Jessica Alba, and Katy Perry are posting themselves in sweatpants, hair tied, chillin’ with no makeup on. It’s a distinct departure from the perfectly poised, Photoshopped pics we’re used to. All of this has made Instagram feel endearingly real. “Now even the coolest of IG superstars are quarantined, and suddenly the human playing field is that much more level, “ Balsinger says.
B.C. (Before Corona), Balsinger would feel a tinge of insecurity and mild envy at influencers who appeared to live lavish lifestyles (which I have also felt—who hasn’t?), but says these thoughts and feelings have since changed.“I’m opening my IG app inferior to MissTravelGirl sitting there in her hot little bikini in Bali anymore,” she admits. “Instead, actually feeling empathy for everyone—even celebrities—because we’re all fighting the same scary, god-awful disease.”
I’m in agreement. Even though celebrities might be quarantining in mansions versus tiny apartments, the playing field does have a semblance of balance, and more importantly, this “virtual environment” somehow feels more genuine and intimate. As someone who has been diagnosed with a litany of mental health issues (depression, borderline personality disorder, trauma, etc.), in pre-pandemic days, I was frequently pressured by industry peers to use my personal Instagram account to further my career as a journalist. As a result, my posts felt forced and fake. And even when I was working as a social media manager for various spirit brands, interacting with fans felt phony too, since there was obviously a motive behind my interactions.
Up until recently, professor and journalist Kiran Nazish shared my sentiments. As the Founding Director of the Coalition For Women in Journalism she remarks, “I was never a big fan of Instagram, and a terrible user as well, with no sense as to how to engage with the public on this platform.” But in the thick of an unprecedented pandemic, we’re somehow navigating pathways to salvation with the app. For me, in these last few weeks, it began with memes and therapy-related accounts I follow. As a means of seeking out humor and levity in dark times, I would screenshot my favorite posts and share them on my IG stories.
Although I still don’t feel comfortable posting on my feed regularly, posting on my stories has been cathartic. I wasn’t expecting any responses, and yet, I’ve been getting upwards of 30-40 DM responses (compared with the previous 0-10), reactions, and new followers, so it appears that this content is resonating with people. It’s also acted as a gateway to engage in further conversation with people around the world by asking how they’re doing in these unpredictable times, which ultimately reinforces the notion that we actually are all in this together.
Nazish also felt compelled to give IG another chance. She says, “since the pandemic and the lockdown, Instagram has become a forum where I have been following accounts both for work as well as health,” and says she also feels more of an openness on the platform that wasn’t there pre-pandemic. She’s seeing people share things like “feelings about a sunset, preparing your grandfather’s recipe, thinking of your childhood, or openly speaking of depression.” These moments are special, she says, because “they’re representative of who we are as people: flawed, moody, powerful, powerless, impactful, creative, and at times, just bored. I love it. It feels real.” As Balsigner observes, this pandemic has created a strange sense of unity amongst us all: “it’s a silver lining in what otherwise feels like a really weird/scary Stephen King novel we’re living in.”
JQ Louise, a travel and food influencer, has definitely had the pandemic affect her content, but she’s taken more of the #TBT approach to posting content. “My focus has shifted from sharing tips and tricks for travel to opening up about my daily life, and in particular, all the details from my destination wedding last year,” she says. Despite initial concerns that her followers would get tired of her bridal images, she prioritized her mental health: “I’ve always been a private person, and yet, having the time to review, revisit these happy moments, and then post about my nuptials is getting me through these difficult times.” Moreover, she feels that, at least for the time being, the IG atmosphere is a safe and kind enough space to share these personal details. “There is an overall tone of gratitude across the platform, because we are all dreaming of being able to do simple things like see our friends or go to a restaurant, which we took for granted before.”
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Her followers don’t seem to mind. “My followers are reaching out, saying that my posts are a fun escape, and enjoying the personal connection,” she says, adding, “I am loving it too.” Branching outside of her usual travel posts also opened up another avenue to connect with people: “couples who have had to postpone their wedding due to COVID-19 have reached out to ask me about planning/strategies for destination weddings,” she says. She’s been able to share and swap ideas and help couples focus on the positives and brainstorm ideas for their new dates.
Jamie Milne, a food influencer, also attests to authenticity as being a successful driver of metric performance. Since lockdown, she’s doubled her engagement levels, increased story impressions, and seen over 1,000+ saves/shares of her recipe content—even when boosting numbers was never her intention. She, too, adjusted her posts and tone in response to the pandemic. “My content has been more personal now—rather than solely focusing on food/recipes, I always make sure there’s a personal element in my captions,” she explains. The vulnerability goes both ways, as she’s also encouraged people to reach out to her via email and/or DM. “It was my way of telling them they’re not alone and I’m here for them if they need to talk.” She’s also using her platform to help businesses that are struggling.
With celebrities and influencers relinquishing the picture-perfect Instagram aesthetic, Nizah says, “Instagram has significantly changed from a noisy place to a go-to place where I seem to be learning new ways to communicate while we are all locked away from actually meeting people in person.” However, the cynic/realist in me worries that this is all just a fleeting moment waiting to pass, so I remain ever-so-slightly cautious. It can be too easy to be sucked into this digital vortex with no safe exit strategy. Dr. Yusra Ahmad, MD, FRCPC, a community and academic psychiatrist, says that while there’s no harm in being optimistic, it’s important to exercise mindful and healthy boundaries if you feel you’re too caught up in Instagram, or any social media app, or relying upon it for validation. If this is the case, she advises you “consider setting time limits, and use your phone to set up such gentle alert reminders.”
Louise also takes Instagram with a grain of salt: “never take any social media platform too seriously even during these crazy times,” she warns. “It is still just a highlight reel that someone has chosen to put out there. Watching people constantly work out or organize their perfect homes gives me stress too, and makes me ask, how can they be doing that right now and why aren’t I? But just remember that it’s not a competition, it’s really not.”
Ultimately, we’re all doing our best to cope, so if an app can spark a little more joy in your life, by all means, use it—but do so thoughtfully. And remind yourself that once this is all over, there’s a big beautiful world out there to be explored, and in it are amazing humans who are waiting for me and you to connect with IRL.
Images: Daria Nepriakhina / Unsplash; jessicaalba, jqlouise, everything_delish / Instagram