Most mornings as I sip my tea I spend an indulgent half hour or so scrolling through Instagram reels. I have several little excuses that I use for the terrible brain-melting waste of time, attention and energy that this sucks out of the early part of my day. For every positive laugh, ‘micro-learning’ moment or adopted kitchen ‘hack’, there are countless utterly banal and pointless minutes and hours of ‘content’ passing through my swiping finger, and my dopamine-hungry brain. I am ashamed, and sadly, addicted.
One of my favourite pastimes it seems, is to scoff, incredulously at the ‘content creators’ who seem to – quite literally- do nothing other than that. By which I mean, they are not makers, or entertainers, or comedians, or chefs or musicians, or writers or gardeners, who are, I assume, joining the rest of us in maintaining (or feeling like we have to maintain) an online ‘brand’. One example of this is someone – with nearly 300 thousand followers on Instagram – whose ‘content’ is literally opening parcels that they have ordered off the internet, and that their followers order off the internet for them. While we watch. WHILE I WATCH! Now and again they complain that they’ve had negative feedback, about them opening parcels from the internet… on the internet.
This insanity aside, I really feel the anxiety, more than I ever have, of maintaining this online presence. Just recently, I gave up the day job as part of a considered effort to escape grind culture and my issues with institutional hierarchies. I decided to start teaching a yoga class, just the one. No pressure. I also have a minor side-hustle/hobby selling second-hand clothes. Thinking I probably had to do something to promote these things, I decided to try and understand Instagram a bit better. I thought that would be an interesting hobby too. In this quest, I followed some Instagram coaches for tips. Whilst I definitely learned some stuff, I also noticed my anxiety levels increasing quite markedly. In the guise of smiling, upbeat ‘encouragment’ I was being fed the message that not posting the right content with the right viral soundtrack, regularly, meant that I was essentially contributing to my own failure.
Increasing my anxiety was not in the plan.
The anxiety aside, I also observed that the Instagram coaches’ ‘job’ seemed to be entirely based on getting thousands of instagram followers, who themselves are people who want to get thousands of Instagram followers…
You can see where I am going with this.
If I had thousands of followers I would inevitably feel the anxious pressure that (I imagine) these influencers and content creators must feel. My stomach and chest tighten as I think about it. How can they go into each day in a normal way? Also, what happens when it all falls apart and they’ve spent two or three, or five years of their lives opening parcels on the internet? They have to continuously create, post and duplicate on-brand content that commodifies and monetises an online version of themselves. One that they cannot deviate from, or take a holiday from. Taking a break risks losing ranking, or followers, and that of course means losing income. I saw one reel recently from someone (whose creative content I actually value) who was posting, from their bed, with a barely audible virus-stricken voice.
You can’t even be ill.
I have been thinking about this for some time. I was reminded just yesterday that in 2012, a friend and I ran a free, and very popular, workshop for Social Media Week entitled ‘Switching Off: Mindfulness and Social Media.’ Even then, I was fretting about the loss of time, energy and identity. I can’t even begin to imagine running such an event now. Not because there is no need, but because I guarantee I would be competing with countless others – the genuine practitioners and the online grifters – for the same audience. And my lack of an audience rules me out before I even start.
This reflection comes at a timely moment as I seek to extricate myself from any and all aspects of grind culture. I am also reading Naomi Klein’s latest book ‘Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World’. In it, she writes about her own experience of being often (and worryingly) mistaken for the ‘other’ Naomi (Wolf) which leads her into a deeply insightful analysis of the online ‘mirror’ world and its social, political and cultural implications. ‘Self-branding is an internal sort of doppelganging,’ she writes, ‘There is you, and then there is Brand You.’ All of us who use social media will be conscious of some degree of curation of ourselves for the online world. The extent to which we lose ourselves in the process is the part that both intrigues and horrifies me.
As Klein writes,
‘[this is] fast becoming a universal form of doppelganging, generating a figure who is not exactly us but whom others nonetheless perceive as us. At best, a digital doppelganger can deliver everything our culture trains us to want: fame, adulation, riches. But it’s a precarious kind of wish fulfillment, one that can be blown up with a single bad take or post. One that can easily become a kind of addiction.’