If you know how to operate a smartphone, you more than likely have an Instagram account. Almost everyone I know is active on Instagram and for a good reason: It’s fun. Long distance friends can keep up with each others’ lives, pictures can be edited in cool ways and important events can be published for all to see.
Instagram has all but replaced the family photo album–however, when family photo albums were the main mode of presentation of vacations, graduations and birthdays, there were no “likes.” You simply offered people a book filled with pictures, and they would gush over the images taken on a roll of film. There was no record of anyone “liking” your photo album–you showed it to the people closest to you and they commented on how nice your beach pictures turned out or complimented the dress you wore to Grandma’s 80th birthday party. Unfortunately, these days are gone, and Instagram is far more complicated than any photo album ever thought about being.
The root of what we will call the “Instagram problem” is likes. My generation is all about the likes. After posting a picture on Instagram, we nervously wait for that first heart notification as a form of validation. Yes, Sally liked my picture in less than two minutes! It must not be too ugly. We then close the Instagram app to give our followers time to notice our glorious photo. It could take all day to reach a sufficient number of likes, so we check in every ten minutes or so. Our worst nightmare occurs when our post has been live for three hours and only 30 people have liked it. That’s only ten likes an hour! What’s wrong with my picture? Things only go downhill when we realize that the posts our picture is sandwiched between have garnered twice the number of likes as ours. I guess Ben’s picture of him sitting in his backyard is more like-worthy than my picture of me accepting a scholarship. Ultimately, all we can do to save ourselves is delete the picture and maybe repost it later.
We shouldn’t have to delete our picture just because 100 people didn’t like it on Instagram. Do you think 100 people have seen your family photo album that now sits dormant on the bookshelf? Can you even think of 100 people that are actually active in your life? Your 400 followers on Instagram are not your friends. Maybe 30 of them are, but the remaining 370 are acquaintances and maybe even strangers, because we all know we will allow random people to follow us if it increases our odds of getting more likes. Forget when we used to fear Internet predators–we now welcome them to take a look inside our personal lives. We live in a virtual reality where likes from people we hardly know determine our worth, and it’s just not right.
Keep in mind that when people actually do like your picture, half of them do not give a rip about your life. Your picture is just another square they double tapped as they scrolled through their timeline. In fact, they might just be liking your picture so that you will, in return, like their’s, further fueling the competition as to who will get more likes. Do you really even want these people liking your picture? If they hardly know anything about you, how are they supposed to “like” your photo? They don’t know how hard you worked to make the dance team or how sad you were when your cat died, so why do you care if they like the photo commemorating these moments? Well, you probably care because you think your number of likes represents your popularity and likability. It doesn’t.
The little number that resides beneath your Instagram post will disappear as soon as you delete the picture. It means nothing. It bears no weight. It is easily forgotten, just like your picture everyone either scrolled past or double-tapped. The people who liked your photo of you outside the White House have already forgotten you’ve ever been to DC. They are already distracted by a cute puppy picture, which they will also soon lose memory of. Ultimately, your friends will be your only followers who remember your post, and they are the only people worthy of seeing it in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong—Instagram is one of my favorite apps. I love seeing pictures of my friends working at summer camps or interning at huge companies or volunteering on mission trips, and you better believe I like their posts. The key to Instagram is following people who have invested in your life and liking photos you actually like. Let’s work together to utilize Instagram as a true virtual photo album, where our friends and family can see our photos and celebrate the monumental moments of our lives with us, even if they are geographically far away. Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter how many people liked your picture—what matters is how many people smiled when they saw it.