It was never about the likes.


The original title of this post was “Is Instagram emotionally abusive?” It got dark pretty fast. Then I noticed it sounded like I was complaining. And I rewrote it a couple times. I had to remember that mantra Tina Roth Eisenberg uses all the time: don’t complain, do something about it.

While I will explain all the reasons Instagram has given me a complex—stirring up memories of my emotionally abusive landlord—I’ll also push past that. I wanted to write a post to prove that no one is invincible to the invisible forces of business, no matter how much experience they have. Running a business has mental hurdles to get over too. I think it’s important we talk about the less sexy sides of business, not just the glorification of success.

The origins.

A few weeks ago a friend who is a business coach and strategist announced that she’s doing a 30-day experiment where she steps away from Instagram after realizing that it not only caused her a strange anxiety, but also she’s not convinced that’s where her ideal clients are hanging out.

A few days later there was a post in a Facebook Group I’m in with creatives. The post started: “Has anyone else been struggling with Instagram lately? This has been so frustrating for me.” It went on to explain how little engagement she’s getting these days despite consistent posting. It wasn’t about just not getting likes, but that it was affecting sales in her business. (That’s another notion we’ll return to, but for now know this is a good lesson as to why your business success should not 100% be linked to a social media platform you don’t own and can’t control.)

I’ve realized for me, it’s something that often comes up in conversation, because it really does bother me more than I want it too. You put time, energy, and thought into something, and it seems to punish you instead of reward you. (At least that’s how it may appear.)

This winter I realized I was having Instagram-induced angst conversations with people who don’t use Instagram at all, who really couldn’t grasp what I was talking about. Turns out there are more people out there than I realized who really don’t know—nor care—about the app. While I’m slightly jealous of that, I thought I’d share some context.

Here’s the back story on how Instagram plays mind games with me. (Hopefully in a few years it will provide some context to where we were, and where we are now.)

Tinges of toxicity.

So much marketing focus online is about growing your audience. Funny. Mine has not only stayed the same for over the year—maybe two or three?— and I’ve actually lost followers, gradually ticking down. Ironic because I usually get 5-10 new followers a day. Is there a word for this? It seems like a bit of a talent. When you put a lot into your work, it can be difficult to see no—or reverse—progress for it.

I can post an image that gets 90 likes or 900 likes. It’s extremely hard to predict, except what brings me the most joy doesn’t necessarily do the same for my audience if I were to only look at likes. It burns the most when I’m sharing things because I believe in them and want to support different people, places, and projects. Sure, I could get more likes if I had a perfectly curated Paris feed, but that’s not who I am, or what I’m striving to do in life. Hence, it can be frustrating when certain types of content is rewarded over others.

My comment above is by no means meant to downplay the work and talents who do find success this way. I love some perfectly curated feeds too, but I like there to be a story and a link to the person for why it looks like it does. My beef comes when models and styles just feel like they’re copy and pasted repeatedly. And that is what I I tend to see rewarded by the platform.

Did I mention I have 23.2k followers? And I can get less than 100 likes on a post. I don’t know much about statistics, but part of me wonders if posting a picture of dirt would get more likes than some of my recent posts. My non “influencer” friends seem to have far better engagement. It’s almost as if I’m too far into “the game”.

Six months ago I had 23.4 followers. Then one day it was 23.3 followers. Because I kept getting new followers, I assumed it’d go up soon. Except it didn’t. Last month I achieved a new level: 23.2k. Yep, I ticked down. I’ve had to learn to expect this from Instagram, but it kind of bruises the ego a bit. I try to think of it as a special talent.

All these factors make me inconsistent in how often I post. One of my passions is sharing my experiences. My hope is to help people travel vicariously, and even if they can’t come to Paris (or wherever I may be). But when an app messes with me, even I can lose sight of why I’m sharing. I want it to encourage people to seek out something closer to where they live. Unlike so many top performing posts celebrating luxury, I want to prove there are awesome experiences you can have for free.

When you run your own business, you have enough forces to learn to deal with, the last thing you need is an app playing mind games with you and the psychology behind them trying to addict you. When Instagram brings me down, it sucks energy and motivation from what I should be working on, and sometimes even goes as far as having me question what I’m doing at all.

It all reminds me of my toxic landlord. He was nice enough, but I realized over time his lack of communication and way of communicating with me was very trying. (So much so that a medical doctor told me to cut the toxic people out of my life.). The thing about emotional abuse is it doesn’t have the signs of physical abuse, but that doesn’t mean it’s not present. Emotional abuse—like burnout—is invisible, so I’d rather deal with it head on, rather than letting it bubble up. I often ponder what Instagram-induced medical issues will emerge in the future.

And yes, I could quit the app, leave it behind like an emotionally abusive relationship, but the app still serves me. It’s my archive and database. Even if it’s not how the app was created, I have my ways I use it that do serve me, and my business. On many days I do like it, even love it. Now it’s my friendly reminder to myself about what it’s really about.

REMEMBERING what it’s really about.

I know ultimately the app was never about likes for me. It’s about connection.

I not only connect with new people, but it allows me a window to stay connected with old friends and people I care about. When you live far away it’s also a way for me to feel more connected.

It’s also about discovery. It’s an incredible research tool. I love that I’m constantly learning about new people, places, resources thanks to the people I follow. I’m so grateful for all the amazing people and places I’ve discovered through my own curiosity through the tool.

It is also an archive of my experiences. While I wish I’d been as diligent about blogging as I once was, Instagram is a place where I can capture these experiences. I reference it in conversation far more than you’d expect, particularly when I want to share with someone.

I’ve come to really enjoy Instagram Stories feature. It feels raw, and human. It always me to keep up with friends from my past in a way I never could before. There’s a certain magic of that.

I’ve even gotten business from it just by sharing mundane moments on Instagram. (Reminder to self: you can’t always see all the ways a platform is working for you.)

Algorithms can get into our head and distract us from the actual goal: connection.

Part of the intention behind this post was to help get how I honestly feel out of my system. I haven’t mastered how I handle it all, but this post is part of my self-imposed therapy. It’s been lingering there for awhile now. In writing this post, I hope I can move on.

I may not be able to change the app itself, but I can change my mindset.
I will:

  • Post what I like and what brings me joy.

  • Post because I want to, not because I feel external pressure.

  • Post in a way that shares experiences and spreads ideas.

  • Post in a way that feels authentic to me.

  • Post according to my own rules, not ways to beat the algorithm.

  • Share and connect in a way that feels enriching for me.

  • Remind myself: you’re not doing this for the likes.

Now that I’ve gotten all that out of my system, look for a future post on my favorite way to use social media: a tool for research. 🤓

You can find me on Instagram at @pretavoyager where I also share geeky stuff like what I’m reading, and do my best to celebrate independent shops and creators. From time to time I also post on @navigateparis.

Now, I want to know. How do you feel about Instagram? What’s your relationship with the app? Do you think about this kind of stuff? Share your take in the comments below!

Every week I send out a newsletter called Connect the Dots where I share a story, along with my favorite things I’m reading, watching, and listening to each week. Don’t worry, I keep it short so you’ll actually want to read it!