The greatest thing about social media is that you can truly be anything you want. People only see the positive aspects of your life. They only see the pictures you post of you hanging out with friends, traveling, enjoying quality food, etc. Little do they realize that these pictures are just that... pictures. Pictures that if you are anything like me, you probably spent hours taking and editing to get it just right. It is so easy to create that perfect life on social media, hiding your problems behind a mere post.
In the past, I have fallen guilty of using Instagram as a way to create this perfect life for myself. Becoming so known around campus because of my account is a pretty cool accomplishment, but has also resulted in some negative attention.
Being bullied growing up, I needed an outlet, a way to make myself feel like I was less alone. I was always on the more shy side and I did not start to break out of my shell until high school. By this point, it was too late though....everyone had already formed their friend groups and made up their minds about me. There was no chance of me expanding my social network, so I turned to the Internet instead.
I started to reinvent myself the summer going into high school through Instagram. Gone were the days of me taking pictures using my laptop and posting whatever I felt like. I deleted all my posts and changed my username. I was a "new" me.
In order to build my following, I read countless articles on how to boost your online popularity. I started using hashtags like crazy, following other similar accounts, and posting better quality pictures. I reached out to other guys in similar positions as me and we mutually shouted each other out. Being that this was a time when Instagram had fewer rules and restrictions, I was starting to see results and people were definitely noticing. Before long, I was starting to be recognized at local fairs by students at the surrounding high schools asking if I was "@ej.will." People at my own high school started referring to me as "that kid with all those followers" instead of "the shy, weird kid." I finally felt like I mattered—that I was one of the cool kids. This was such a great feeling, as before this I spent most of my days alone. I felt included for once all by strategically pressing a few buttons.
The funny thing about Instagram is though that once you have a decent amount of followers, people will start to follow you randomly. They think that you have to be "famous" in one way or another, so they start following and liking your posts. Between this and the shoutouts, I was not only gaining followers from Pennsylvania but other users in different states as well. Upon attending Penn State freshmen year, my following reached an all-time high.
Between promoting myself on the class Facebook page and having a large Instagram following, I was instantly known on a campus as large as Penn State, something that I never thought would be possible. No one knew me as that socially awkward kid who struggled with making friends or that was severely bullied. All they saw were my aesthetically pleasing posts and the high number of likes. Matched with my bubbly personality, I easily started to make friends, finding my home away from home at last. This escalated to the point where I could not even leave my dorm without running into at least three people who knew me or knew of me. It was so cool having all these people recognize me when I had no idea who they were. I had come a long way from the old me and finally felt accepted.
So I was living the dream... right?!?! This was partly true as I started gaining a sense of belonging and self-confidence for the first time in my life. I was able to comfortably be myself without feeling like an outsider. However, with all this popularity came a cost. People began to constantly question my following, asking if I bought them. People began to judge me without getting to know me first, thinking that I was conceited and pretentious just because of my followers. People started to spread all these insane rumors about me. People began to accessorize me, liking the idea of being seen with me rather than genuinely being my friend.
Basically, I felt like I was under constant scrutiny, which was in some ways better than being a nobody, but still not ideal. I just wanted to make friends and have people get to know the real me for a change, not the me from middle school or the one from Instagram, which is why I studied abroad this semester.
Studying abroad in Italy this semester has shown me just how wrong I had been about using social media for validation. I have found friends who like me for the person I am, rather than the number of followers I have. I no longer care about the number of likes I get so long as I personally enjoy the photo. I am more concerned with truly making the most of each moment, rather than ensuring that I document it. This sense of clarity is something that I hope to bring back with me to Penn State. Sure, at the end of the day, I will always be known as that kid with all the followers, but I now know I am so much more than that. I am confident in the person I have become and am content with others either liking me or not, as long as I am truly being myself.