Dancing for the algorithm - #56
My month away from Instagram.
Earlier this week, a friend a couple houses down texted me.
“Come out to your porch!”
So I ambled out in my mismatched sweats, socks and sandals, thermos of decaf in hand.
“You wanna ride bikes today?” she yelled in her pajamas, her dog circling her feet.
“Yeah, you wanna go at 10?” Cooper barked behind me.
“Perfect, see you here then!”
And at 10 am, she rode back over with her dog and we piled into my car to head to a trail. We were riding to a local lake, jumping in, and riding back. We talked about implementing a cocktail banner system, some kind of flag we could raise outside our houses when we were open for happy hour. Why text at all when we could just wave a literal flag of imbibing?
And that’s kind of been the way of things here. Run-ins on the street, finding each other on the hill, yelling from house to house about book clubs and get-togethers and games of corn hole. I barely have anyone’s phone number, let alone their social media handles. But that last part isn’t necessarily a symptom of not knowing, it’s more that the people I’ve met here are less engaged on social platforms. Most people have Facebook, but only because there’s a local version of Craigslist on the platform, a closed group you have to provide your address to join because the actual Craigslist for this area covers the entire Western Slope of Colorado. Instagram is something they open a couple times a month.
It often feels like I’m the only person pulling my phone out to take pictures, because when I’m engaging with social media, I take a lot of pictures. A beautiful ray of sunshine through the tall grass, a mountain bike ride through the changing aspens, a rainbow after the day’s monsoon has exhausted itself — it’s all fodder for posts, stories, and reels.
But should it be?
In December of 2021 — nine or so months ago — I had around 5,000 followers on Instagram. I was engaged with friends from every era of my life: from advertising, from the many cities I’d lived in, through writing, and especially through sports like cycling and trail running. I enjoyed it. I started making Reels and found that I loved it. It combined my great loves of being silly, acting, editing, and writing all in one. What a joy!
And then, December. Our first in this cabin. The skies opened and the snow dumped and our doors were buried. I went downstairs to the front door to see the damage, and when I opened that door, I was met with a wall of snow. Only the very top of the frame was open to the world of white outside. I ran to get Ben and Cooper.
“Here, take this.” I handed Ben my phone. “Stand here, and record me opening the door. I’ll tell you when to stop.”
And he did. It was all one video, maybe 20 seconds long, of me opening the door and then lifting Cooper to look out the gap at the top. I edited the video into bite-sized clips, and the whole reel was maybe 7 seconds.
By the next morning, it had 20,000 views, and I was delighted. The next day, it had 100,000 views. Then 300,000. Then 1,000,000. And by the end of the internet tailspin, it had accrued over 125,000,000 views and 6 million likes of me opening my door to a wall of snow. People still like and comment on this video, and many people still rip this video from my Instagram, post it to their own without permission, and make money off of it from the Reels Bonus program. By the end of January 2022, just a month after posting the video, I had 67,000 followers. If you look now, I have just over 59,000, dropping by the day.
I don’t know what those followers were expecting. I don’t even know if they’re real people. For all I know, they could be bots or just a never-ending slew of aggregator accounts hoping to pounce on the next viral moment so they can profit from it. Whoever they are, they do not engage with what I post. And because they don’t engage, the algorithm doesn’t favor those posts. In fact, because I got so many followers so quickly, my account was flagged as suspicious and has yet to recover from going to algorithm jail, the infamous “shadow ban.”
It feels mind-numbingly dumb to complain about this, but as a writer, Instagram was the platform I relied on the most for getting work, and more importantly, getting my work seen. On posts that used to garner thousands of views and hundreds of likes, now I’m lucky if I crack 100, and when you have some 50,000 followers, getting 100 likes on a photo looks bad. It looks like I bought my followers, and I find the idea of someone thinking that about me to be so excruciatingly embarrassing that I’d rather not be on Instagram at all.
From February to August, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to weasel my way back into the algorithm's good graces. And that meant not just capturing life, but being at the ready to capture the absolute best of life. Walking the cats? Bring my phone. Climbing a mountain? Bring my phone. Have to walk the dog? Let’s wait until golden hour and then go through the field with the yellow wildflowers because they’ll pop better against his black and white coat, then we can use the video for the dog food sponsor by turning it into a reel.
I mean good god, that’s bad.
Then, one pretty day in August, the day after I celebrated one year of this newsletter, I opened Instagram to make a reel, and to my surprise captioned it with an announcement that I was taking a break. I closed the app, and I have opened it once to like my mom’s post about her mother (my grandmother) passing.
That’s really bad.
Since then, the little red notification bubble has tried its hardest to lure me back. I have 23 unread direct messages. I don’t know from who, or what about, but they’ll have to wait until I’m ready. Until I’ve made the call to come back. The only issue is: when?
Last year, I emailed an old colleague and friend to catch up. He’s not on Instagram and I didn’t like the idea of texting or calling him. We’re just not “phone call close”, but he is someone whose life I’d like to know about. I loved working with him, so I sent him an email. Here’s what I’m up to, here are some things driving me nuts, how’s that project going, how’s the wife, etc. But the response to that email was — well it made me not want to email people. He replied weeks after I sent the email, citing stress and busyness, and apologizing for not replying sooner, which is the opposite of what I wanted. It’s not the weeks-late reply that I minded — that’s how pen pals work! — it was the palpable stress emanating from his reply, that my email had obviously caused him more social anxiety than delight. My email to him became a thing he had to check off his to-do list.
That’s something I genuinely love about Instagram. I stay in touch with so many people who I otherwise would not. Instagram, for me, is a friendship prompt app.
While I write this, I’m in Snowmass, Colorado at a mountain biking clinic with a group of women, only one of whom I know, and until yesterday, I had never met her in person. We started following each other on Instagram through cycling, and then connected over our work, and then like many great starts, became friends when we realized we shared a common enemy. She posted a few months ago in her stories that she had signed up for a MTB clinic. I replied, “I wish I could find one of these on my side of the mountains,” to which she replied, “this one is!”
So now, because of Instagram, I’m at a condo with her and her friends, who know some of my friends, and we’ll all be friends together. But how would we stay friends? Am I supposed to get their phone numbers and then just text them random things about bikes? Or should we all pretend it’s 1998 and just admit that after the weekend is over, it will just be a fond memory? Can you smell the social anxiety emanating from this paragraph?
A couple months ago, I was shopping for a pair of cowboy boots. There is an unbelievable supply of very ugly cowboy boots available for purchase in this world, and as I sought my perfect pair, I shared the worst of what I found on my Instagram stories. Lime green crocodile, six-clawed bear “rips” across the side of the boot, boots covered in stars or paisley or guns or all three. It was a blast. I had such a laugh with pals near and far on the gram, and then an interesting thing happened: my friends told me their Instagram ads starting serving them cowboy boots, all because they’d engaged with the cowboy boots I’d posted.
I laughed, classic case of algorithm, until friends began to share a common sentiment: it was a relief to see cowboy boots after always seeing diet pills, shapewear, and fast fashion.
What? This was weird to me. I had never seen an ad for diet pills. I was never served shapewear, and most of the fashion I was served was deeply aspirational in cost and one hopes in the wages they paid their workers. One of my friends sent me her Explore page:
She hates it. She hates the mom tips, she hates the diet culture, she doesn’t care about celebrities — her Explore page was useless to her. She told me Instagram made her feel like a shit mom, and that’s why she barely uses it.
My Explore page had a fair amount of Bachelor related content (subscribe to the recap podcast/newsletter here), but the rest of it was usually some combination of skiing, mountaineering, cat videos, and stand-up — essentially a list of things I genuinely enjoy.
It’s been a month since I last opened Instagram, and I miss talking to the people I only talk to on Instagram. I miss sharing little moments and having those moments shared back. I miss the ease in which I felt connected to my friends' lives. I miss seeing someone I don’t know that well post about a mountain biking clinic only for me to end up at that clinic with them. And honestly, I really miss having a channel to broadcast my need for a cat sitter over Thanksgiving. (This is not that broadcast.)
I’ve been waiting to learn a lesson before I return to Instagram. Any lesson. And I may have found it while working on a photo project for an upcoming newsletter. There are little moments in our high-alpine town that make it sing: the swings in the cemetery, the “beware wildlife” sign that looks like it’s been attacked, the permanent lemonade stand built into a grove of pine trees. These are photos I know many of you would enjoy because they’re vignettes, they’re stories. None of them will be perfectly framed or deeply saturated, and unless I can teach Cooper to sit on a swing, these are not the kind of photos that garnered engagement on my Instagram feed.
On a walk recently, I captured one of these vignettes, and as I kept walking, I had the thought, “maybe I’ll get back on Instagram this week.” Even as that thought was just a little egg in my nest, it started to change how I saw my environment. The light wasn’t good enough to photograph the old bridge. The colors weren’t deep enough to catch someone’s eye. Maybe I should make those videos I’ve been planning for a reel where I pretend I’m a real estate agent and walk through the abandoned buildings in town from the 1800s and say they’re all selling for millions of dollars to make a commentary on the local housing market.
It’s not that I don’t want to make that video. I’ve been thinking about it for literal months and I think filming it sounds fun. But I was seeing everything around me through the lens of the algorithm. And that? That is bad.
My personal lens has recalibrated. I pick up my phone 17% less. I spend about an hour less on my phone per day. Sometimes I just forget where my phone is. That, I think, is the lesson. I love Instagram, but I also love ice cream and shopping and getting so stoned I can’t hold a conversation. All of those things have a special place in my life, and by special I mean rare, lest I end up spending my life savings on oversized sweaters because I got so high that I ate a gallon of dairy products. I needed an intervention, and I gave myself one.
This break also gave me room to ask and try to answer another question: why did I want to be successful on Instagram? For what purpose? For many years, it looked like an escape hatch, a financial backup plan in case I needed to back away from the W4. Like many an American seeking solvency, if there’s an opportunity to make money from something I am already doing, I am deeply tempted to try. I’ve been through nine rounds of lay-offs in my career, somehow always making it into the shelter before the bomb. The soil of these companies is never rich enough to sustain their farm, so is it any surprise so many of us are throwing up literal and metaphorical hoop houses in the back yard? Now, Instagram looks less and less appealing. Even successful creators are grasping at straws. It’s not a backup plan — it’s just gambling.
I’ll likely return to Instagram this coming week, but with a new mission. My plan, now, is to shun the algorithm, like the best days of rebellion. Earlier this week I went to the next town’s library for a community dinner they were hosting. It was held on pop-up tables in the street where you drew a card from a jar to see which table you were at. The intention was to bring different people together. When I was getting ready for the dinner, I had a dilemma in my closet. I knew that most people would be in their Colorado Casual — jeans, flannels, fleeces, maybe earrings to spice up the occasion — but I wanted to look fancy. I struggled with this. I was worried that looking fancy might make other potential friends think, “she doesn’t look like she can hang.” But I am fancy. I love dressing up. I love doing my makeup and wearing costume jewelry and clip-clopping around town in nice shoes and wild dresses. And if someone wasn’t willing to take the time to see that was only one dimension of my personality, then what kind of friend would they be to me?
I wore the dress.
That is my plan for Instagram. When I’m debating about what’s going to please the algorithm, when I find myself attempting to summon another viral reel through anything remotely resembling witchcraft, I’m going to wear the dress. I’m going to make the choice that makes me happy.
And then I’m gonna ask who can cat sit.