Me, Myself and Instagram
Nominated by Bronwen Rees
I crouch in wait of validation, refreshing my screen, hungrily pouncing on each notification as it flies in.
I – because what better letter to begin an essay on vanity – have been thinking about how I look. Or, to be more accurate, I’ve been thinking about how I appear to others. How I come across, and what people think, has been a preoccupation of mine for years. It comes with being a self-diagnosed People Pleaser. I possess the incessant, inherent desire to be liked, loved, approved of and admired by everyone. The growth of social media has only exacerbated this. Now I have thousands of people to potentially seek approval from, not just my nearest and dearest. Love is something I can now see, and it’s thumb- or heart-shaped. Acceptance lives in the palm of my hand. There’s tangible evidence of their validation. There’s a reason why the experts call these ‘vanity metrics’. It’s the shiny stuff, lacking much meaning or depth. It’s an instant reaction, a knee jerk; one double-tap, and then the audience moves onto the next shiny, distracting thing. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I find myself gazing at my own social media profiles for far too long. I’m like some sort of digital narcissus, staring at this pixelated reflection of myself, examining my flaws (the posts that didn’t perform so well) and my assets (that one post that inexplicably seduced 10 new followers in one week). I pore over my recent activity in a bid to see myself as others do, trying to work out if my joke was really that funny, or how my feed looks from the ‘outside’. I crouch in wait of validation, refreshing my screen, hungrily pouncing on each notification as it flies in. This is, perhaps, the modern-day equivalent of staring into a mirror for hours on end, or waiting for the latest weekly update from some Lady Whistledown-esque gossip columnist. Since I’m spending so long fixating on how I appear online, I have to wonder if this social media addiction brings with it an obsession with myself. Is social media making me vainer? I should clarify, while the definition of the word vanity technically focuses on the excessive pride that comes with self-obsession, I still think you can be vain without confidence. Vanity is, in my view, a fascination with yourself – regardless of whether it’s always positive. For now, I’ll focus on Instagram – which is the worst platform of all for latching onto my insecurities. It’s overtly visual, and being so image-based lends itself well to this idea of vanity. It begs for more selfies, the perfect photo for your grid, the cleverest Reel. It’s also vain to assume what you share about yourself is of interest or importance to others. Posting an image or a story suggests you feel it’s worth everyone’s attention; that it may, in some way, benefit your audience, brighten their day, or educate them. You may not be oozing with confidence about what you post – but you could argue that the act of offering it up in the first place is possibly just as vain as the selfie itself. I try my best not to count the likes; not to feel disheartened when content doesn’t get the response I’d hoped for. I try not to pursue polished posts, but focus on what brings me joy. I try to use the platform for myself, above others. But it gets to me. I just want to be liked, and so a small part of me will always carefully consider how I present myself, even if I’m desperate to offer up my own, true, authentic self. I don’t want to be so hollow though or, for want of a better word, this vanity to be in vain. Can I see my social media usage, and its focus on my self image, as a good thing?
Maybe this digital vanity of mine is just another way for me to explore myself, become more confident and reach my ambitions.
In a bid to step outside of my own head, I decided to ‘ask the audience’, and popped a couple of yes/no questions on my Instagram stories. I wanted to see if others felt the same; if they saw vanity just as negatively and whether or not social media has made them self-obsessed. The results really surprised me. The majority of people who responded said that they felt that social media had not made them more vain, and vanity could also be a positive and empowering thing – which completely goes against my own perceptions of it being shameful, oppressive, and feed-fuelled. While the very definitions of the word itself include hollowness and shallowness, it’s interesting to consider that being vain may actually be all part and parcel of being an empowered, successful, and brilliant human being. When you study something, you become an expert. So maybe self-study, whether you consider it vanity or not, is just another way of becoming more comfortable and more attuned with yourself. There’s a fine line, of course, between this empowerment and just being downright arrogant. But a little confidence here and there – and consequently, perhaps, a little vanity – might actually do this people-pleasing, socially anxious soul a bit of good. Maybe this digital vanity of mine is just another way for me to explore myself, become more confident and reach my ambitions. After all, I tell people my social media use and pursuit of a ‘personal brand’ of sorts is just self-promotion – a way of hopefully getting people to read and enjoy my writing. My self-obsession comes with a purpose – or an excuse, depending on how you see things. It’s important to remember that I’m viewing this all from one perspective, too. Social media doesn’t have to be – or shouldn’t be – a completely self-centred experience. It’s designed to be a conversation starter, not a one-way observation. If you’re using it to engage with people, listen, discover new things, learn, build relationships and forge a path towards achieving your goals, then I’d say it balances out that self obsession, because you’re not just focusing on what you have to offer. The obsession I have with my online self – the hours I spend re-reading my posts and keening over empty stats – is vain. But if this vanity is improving my work and helping me to move towards my dreams – and if I’m balancing it with other things, like engaging with others and consuming inspirational content – then I may as well embrace it. I want to improve how I use this tool, instead of letting it use me. It’s time for me to see my phone screen not so much as a mirror, but as a window.
Jo is a writer, poet, editor and creative based in Southampton, UK. When she’s not copywriting, crafting essays, reading books or scrolling excessively, she spends a lot of her time trying to make things rhyme. She’s been known to dabble in spoken word and performance, and is currently embracing her love of art and food. You can find her on Twitter (@joannefisher), Instagram (@jo_fisher_) or on her website (jofisherwrites.com).
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