I was writing at a café this weekend when I noticed a nearby couple setting out an elaborate spread. At first, I was baffled by the size of the assortment because they were two wispy individuals who didn’t look like they would be able to name a carb with a gun to the head. But it all made sense once, upon elaborately staging the food and beverages, they pulled out a large camera and began a photoshoot. This included shots of the woman dreamily stirring soup, demurely smiling while dipping bread into hummus, and staring into the distance while cupping a warm mug. Throughout the charade, the boyfriend diligently snapped photo after photo. He would occasionally direct her to look in a specific direction, but most of the process was silent.
Immediately following the photoshoot, the couple stood up, discarded their mostly untouched food, and left the coffee shop. I sat at my table feeling irked by my assumption that the sole purpose of the couple’s experience had been to portray a “perfect” coffee date on social media. I was surprised by how suddenly the annoyance hit me, and after some thought, I realized that the irritation was stemming from something more profound than a passing frustration aimed at influencers.
Earlier this year, I worked for someone with a sizable social media following, and through my job, I quickly garnered close to 2,000 new followers on my Instagram account. As someone who was used to having 100 people viewing my content, I was initially taken aback by the realization that over 1,500 strangers would routinely watch my story.
At first, I loved the attention and affirmation that came from people I’d never met commenting on what I was doing. This led me to begin posting more often, and I soon felt a constant pressure to update the world on my life. It didn’t matter if I was feeling tired, depressed, or anxious about my job; a post would go up to portray the image of a smiling, witty young professional.
That pressure to display a certain image intensified when I left my job in early May. As word of my departure spread, I began receiving a large number of messages from people who had become wrapped up in my carefully crafted online narrative. Not only was I dealing with my difficult decision to upend my life, but I was also trying to figure out how to respond to all of the people who were asking me for more details.
I desperately wanted to showcase the perfect post-resignation life I assumed my followers wanted to see, but the harsh reality was that I was moving to New York to live with my parents, hunting for jobs, and worrying about the future. It was immensely overwhelming, and I stopped posting as a result.
As someone who had become so accustomed to daily affirmations from my small but dedicated group of followers, I initially hated the silence that came from my lack of social media posts. But over time, I began to relish the fact that I was actually living my life rather than showing it off. I no longer painstakingly arranged my meals for a photo or shot a video updating my followers on what my morning had consisted of. I began to order food based on taste rather than aesthetic, I took gorgeous hikes without a phone in sight, and I started spending time with friends without the thought of sifting through our conversation for funny quotes to share.
It was one of the most freeing periods in my life, and it significantly contributed to my ability to heal from an incredibly difficult time in my life. Once I finally began to make my way back onto social media, my follower count fell. I assume it was partly because I no longer posted exaggerated stories of me going through a schtick that I thought my followers wanted to see. Gone were the flashy stories that showed me traversing New York City or highlighting a resort in Arizona, and in their place was real life.
So when I saw the couple at the coffee shop, I initially felt judgmental towards them but then realized that in a small way, I understood the apparent desire to showcase an enviable lifestyle. I don’t say that to prove I’m a more self-actualized human; instead, I highlight it because it’s a reminder to think about why we do what we do, especially when it comes to social media. I have firsthand experience portraying an image that is appealing on the outside but hollow on the inside, and I can confidently say it’s simply not worth it.