Misery on Instagram

In her essay “The I in the Internet,” Jia Tolentino writes, “it is essential that social media is mostly unsatisfying. That is what keeps us scrolling, scrolling, pressing our lever over and over in the hopes of getting some fleeting sensation – some momentary rush of recognition, flattery, or rage.”

Social media, disregarding its capitalist tendencies, is a show performed to evoke emotion. Be it the influencer or the audience, each user logs on, scrolls, and posts in order to feel something, to hide, and unconsciously cry out for help. 

The summer after my freshman year I experienced a massive friendship breakup. Emotional abuse and manipulation… ending our relationship was overdue. When I finally cut the cord, I emerged on the other side stronger and better for it, albeit more fragile. However, suddenly all of my actions online were a performance staged to prove just how great I was doing without her.

My fragility manifested in wholly superficial ways (as was necessary since I had ceased communication with her): maintaining my platinum hair, whitening my teeth, and, of course – posting on social media were all ways to exhibit to her just how much better my life was going compared to hers.

I posted selfies of my clear skin, pictures tagging new friends (better friends, who I was having fun with), visuals of new and fabulous clothes. I knew she was watching, and I hoped all of this would ignite in her the feelings of jealousy and inadequacy that I thought she deserved.

After reflecting on this era only recently, I see just how unhealthy it was that my every move was motivated to make someone think a specific way about me. I was intending to show my former friend – and the rest of my followers – that just by improving my appearance, I had improved my life. Instead, it revealed a deep sadness, a desperation that was practically screaming, Look at how okay I am!

I now would go as far as saying that Instagram, and social media in general, on an extreme level, is just a means of attempting to conceal, and thus exhibiting, our pain. Isn’t everything we post designed and curated to force onto the public a specific view of ourselves? There is the common argument that social media is not and could not be indicative of our true selves, but what if, behind airbrush and good lighting and captions, Instagram, Snapchat, and the like reveal our true selves more than we would like?

On a smaller scale, we see it every day on our own profiles. Because we choose what we post, each photo is, in a way, reflective of our personalities, our thoughts, our aesthetics, if you will. And if, with each post we are giving the world a small nugget of ourselves, we are exposing ourselves, making ourselves vulnerable to all the varieties of feedback that come with going on the Internet. I would therefore argue that the only reason to post is to elicit some reaction from others, be it physical (a like or a comment) or emotional (eliciting a response of like, dislike, jealousy, envy, admiration in the audience’s mind, which doesn’t necessarily make its way back to the poster). In our regular lives, we do not typically act to see others react, but posting on social media is an action that is exclusively performed in order to create responses. These reactions are feeding a need that is not often broached in life outside the internet.

And this need, the desire to seem as we aren’t, reflects what we wish to hide most, that we are hurting. The platform creates a paradox that dictates the more you perform happiness, the more your audience sees your suffering. 

I have noted this tendency not only in my generation of social media-users, my friends with a meager number of followers compared to the Kardashians of the world, but also those with thousands or millions of followers. Every so often one of these Insta-stars will post a photo featuring their tear-stained face and a long caption describing their struggle with anxiety and/or depression, an attempt to reveal the “real” side of their internet persona.

Reading those posts, I think, Honey, I already know. I can’t imagine that one who compulsively works out, spends hours perfecting lighting, follows and unfollows to gain followers can possibly feel comfortable with themselves. I could be projecting, but I also know that the points in my life that I have been the happiest are those when I’m not noting how others may view my actions, living life to live life, not for a picture. When I look at the Insta-famous, I can’t help but feel pity for them. I do not intend to demean successful influencers or suggest that making a living off of Internet-fame is not reputable; I only urge us all to consider looking at them transparently and thus sympathizing with these people more than idolizing them.

Some – mostly pre-millennials – who do not quite understand the appeal of these platforms, claim that we post so frequently and so much about ourselves because we are “narcissists.” Instead, what we are doing is creating a condition that eases the suffering we all experience. Willow Smith, in “Time Machine” off her 2019 self-titled album, points out “…everyone is looking at their phone / Tryna feel like they are less alone.” Instagram presents the sensation of company without supplying it. Perhaps if the colors on my feed work together, if I post pictures at a party, if every week I’m wearing a new outfit, real life can be just a bit more manageable. Given this, and perhaps erring towards hyperbole, Instagram is control, like an eating disorder or self-harm. It is avoidance, like drugs or alcohol.

Tolentino also explains, in “What It Takes to Put Your Phone Away” that, “we have allowed social media to make us feel valuable.” I would say, rather, that we seek out our value on social media, and it is not capable of meeting our needs. This sentiment is not intended to induce shame, but to encourage the questioning of motivations and whether it’s possible to exist on the internet at all without these symptoms.

 

Photo by Johanna Bommer.

Is the Finsta Toxic?

The appeal of a finsta is clear: the ability to be “yourself” as well as to post all the ugly selfies and embarrassing group photos that you would never, ever allow on your rinstaor “real Instagram.”

We use this “fake Instagram” to shit-talk our professors and that man sitting too close to us on the train; we whine about someone from high school or detail uncomfortable situations — it’s supposed to be fun… right?

I had a finsta from my first year of college until my last. I was eager to show a small group of people, who I considered my closest friends, my “funny” and “authentic” side via social media. It took deep trust for me to let you into my sacred sphere. I had to know you for months or years, already have entrusted you with my deepest secrets, and even then, if I had my doubts, you weren’t going to have access to my account.

I went years without ever questioning this need for alternative online space, and in the beginning, I really didn’t have to. But my finsta, which once served as a locale for fun selfies, evolved into a platform that revealed my own deep insecurities. 

A conversation during a therapy session sparked my doubts about the account.

My therapist and I were discussing my hesitation to reach out to friends for help. I was unsure as to how I should go about it as I had no one to model my behavior after, no one I felt I could turn to or necessarily count on to communicate pain. Unfortunately, I was used to toxic friends who would unload everything on me and reciprocate normal, friendly gestures very rarely.

So, out of the deep fear I that I would turn into that kind of person if I brought up my issues, I taught myself that I was a burden and not worthy of support. If I was going through something and texted my friends about it, intense guilt would build up within me. I felt like I had ruined their day, that they already had school, work, and relationships to worry about and didn’t need my problematic additions to those issues. As a result, I would keep my feelings bottled up, write out a text to my best friend and delete it out of fear that she already had enough on her plate and didn’t need my “stuff” on top of that.

For me, there was no middle ground. I either shamed myself for sharing or wouldn’t say anything at all. So I turned to my finsta.

There, I could explain the whole situation and how I was feeling about it — without having to reach out, without having to burden a specific individual, without having to imagine that they resented me for it. It became an outlet that I would utilize whenever I was in need of love and support but couldn’t bring myself to “formally” ask for it. It was a roundabout way of venting and ignoring my desire for human interaction — which is understandable and normal — but not necessarily healthy. 

Soon, I realized that my finsta was falling into the same category as my self-harm habits, which I have struggled with since I was eighteen.

I don’t mean this in the sense that it physically harmed me, but it definitely was an unhealthy way of displaying my pain rather than expressing it. Since we sometimes believe that we are not worthy of seeking help or attention, we rely on these alternative ways of showing it. Displaying my pain online seemed much easier and safer than verbally communicating it IRL; a finsta lets us hide behind a screen, a mode of telling our friends that we are hurting without having to fully confront the conversation. And, again, if we display and don’t express, we don’t have to worry about being a burden. 

I then started to question my actions, and though they were not intentionally malicious, they may have been manipulative. By posting on this account, I was subconsciously telling people that they were not supporting me, even though they couldn’t have had any way of knowing that I needed support in the first place.

I would post a long rant on my finsta about feeling academically inadequate, or an embarrassing run-in with an ex, or someone toxic I needed to ditch. I was indirectly telling friends I needed their help without actually seeking out any real assistance. This was my own unintentional method of guilting them into paying attention to me by making them feel shame for not checking in earlier. Upon seeing my finsta posts, they would text me to see if I was okay or comment encouraging advice. I was then seemingly satisfied but uncomfortable with the way I asked for this help. Instead of letting them know I was hurting, I lured them in by using this odd tactic. I imagine this made them feel strangely about me, maybe even creating some resentment towards me. Maybe they asked themselves if I wanted them to text me about it, or if I wanted a compassionate response.

After this rise in my own self-awareness, I saw that the first step I needed to take in order to remind myself that I was worthy of expressing my feelings was deleting my finsta. And though I’m still learning effective ways of communicating my challenges, this relationship with my finsta revealed so much about myself that I had to work on.

Now, per my therapist’s advice, try to first text my friends something like: “Hey, do you mind if I vent about something to you? If you’re not feeling up to it right now, I totally understand.” It is then their responsibility to let me know if they are in a place where they feel prepared to talk me through a situation. With this preface, I allow myself to avoid feeling the guilt of adding to their problems or wanting to apologize because they had to listen to me for too long. 

This is not to say that finstas don’t play a positive role in our young lives; many of my friends still feel joy from these secondary accounts. But, like any social media platform, it is not the platform itself that is inherently harmful or toxic, but the way we interact with it.

If we are able to reshape the interactions we have with social media and the interactions we have with ourselves, we can teach ourselves that we are never burdens. We can learn that we are worthy of expressing

 

 

Photos by Kama Snow