Instagram Is Coded Crack, and It’s Making Us Lose Touch with the Real World

 Playing with an iPhone on the SI Ferry

Playing with an iPhone on the SI Ferry

This article was originally published on Extra Newsfeed.

NEW YORK, NY—I spent the better part of this morning trying to understand something only a few of us really grasp: what is a hashtag, and why does anyone use them?

Yes, I know that hashtags help to sort content on social media — I’ve tried to use them, with little actual interest, for years — but what meaning does this have for the content that’s actually being posted to apps like Instagram and Twitter?

Personally, I only use Instagram, and even then, I make an effort to ensure that it’s a gallery of my photos and not a detailed record of my life. As a photographer — sometimes paid, oftentimes not — it’s an important medium for showcasing my work.

It’s 2017, and you can’t profess to be someone that makes their money with a camera in hand and not have an Instagram account. You must feed the fetish-like imperative to share as much content as possible at all hours of the day, and get as many people as possible to follow you.

Instagram is a media platform that allows us to share images with each other. In theory, those with the best images will be the most popular, with the most likes, the most comments, and most importantly, with the most followers. Right?

Believe it or not, there’s an entire industry dedicated to getting you as much exposure on social media as possible. Search “how to get Instagram followers” on Google, and you’ll find 54 million hits, among them a Forbes guide to increasing your followers.

Tip #21 (of 50) has to be my personal favorite, encouraging the reader to

“Really engage. All the tips, tricks and strategies in the world can’t compete with really engaging on the platform. Be intentional about liking photos, and leaving thoughtful comments. Regularly find new people to follow, and engage with them by responding to comments and questions.”

On the one hand, Instagram is like everything else in life: spend more time on it, and you’ll see a greater return on your investment. Engage in a meaningful way often enough, and people will begin to engage with you back. That makes sense. But is it healthy?

After an hour or so of browsing various sites showing me how to tend to my flock of Instagram followers, I found one piece of advice to be curiously lacking: produce better content.

Instagram is a social media platform and serves many different purposes: personal branding for freelancers, traditional advertising for established brands, and the sharing of daily life amongst friends. There is no right or wrong way to use it, but regardless of how you engage, there is a dangerous tendency to live within the world of Instagram rather than use it to showcase what’s going on in the real world.

Instead of rewarding real-life accomplishments like taking a better photo or having a superior product, social media rewards those who are most active on social media. You must create a separate internet identity and spend time cultivating “relationships” by engaging with other internet identities. By design, social media encourages you to spend as much time as possible posting, scrolling, and being active.

It’s nothing new that the quality of your product or content doesn’t matter as much as how aggressively and effectively it’s marketed, but there’s a fundamental change in our relationship when the marketing medium is at our fingertips all the time.

For many people it’s a necessary evil to have social media accounts: you need it if you want to be “known” at all. Self-marketing is imperative in this day and age, but the active engagement that is necessary to cultivate any sort of reasonable following detracts from our ability to live in the real world. It’s no longer about the quality of the content that you’re posting on Instagram, it’s about the frequency with which you post and the depth of engagement with your “followers”.

If you follow the aforementioned Forbes 50 Rules, you’ll find yourself manically clicking, liking, commenting and following on the accounts of other people, simply so you can get them to notice your own content. It’s the epitome of narcissism.

In the end, social media “rewards” not those with the best content, but those most dedicated to cultivating their internet persona, and the hashtag is only a small part of that. To live in this world is abject insanity; social media is coded crack and it’s making us lose touch with the real world.