My finger shakes as I hit the redownload button; the adrenaline rushes to my head at the thought of being on Instagram again, of being connected. I missed the instant gratification of having my ideas and words seen by so many people. I type in the password I swore I would forget, and I let my feed flood my screen. For a moment, I’m happy to be back. There are countless group threads I’ve missed and dozens of big announcements I didn’t comment on. But then I remember that there’s a reason I quit in the first place. Social media sucks up hours a day, and not because I’m particularly active on it. In fact, I’m usually scrolling endlessly, wondering how I’ll ever get my work “out there.” If I want to work as a freelancer, I’ll have to learn to how to use social media to my advantage. Suddenly, my worries don’t revolve around how many likes my selfie gets. They revolve around my future as a creator.
I’ve never quite figured out how to “be myself” online. I’ve had anxiety since I was a kid, and social media seemed like the perfect antidote. YouTubers and Tumblr users in the early 2010s were quirky, weird, open—I looked up to creators like Dodie Clark and Dan Howell, people who were comfortable sharing their lives and work on camera. Years later, both of them would come forward about their mental health struggles, the way they constantly hid parts of themselves from their fanbases, but I didn’t see that. I saw a way to fully express myself. Maybe I could work up the courage to post my writing online, and I wouldn’t have to be confined by my own anxiety. I loved everything from fashion to comics to music, and I wanted to write about it all. Mostly, I loved fiction. Countless authors touted the value of a platform, a place to be your authentic self and sell a product. Now influencer culture is in its prime, with people casting glamours over their ordinary lives and monetizing their own personalities. For me, being online becomes a marketing of the self, from college admissions to publishing opportunities.
And what if I give the Internet too much? There are plenty of ways to fall into a spiral of envy and comparison, watching the genius of others from a screen. The real poison, as Joseph Gordon Levitt says in his brilliant TED Talk, is viewing other young creatives as competitors instead of companions. We’re all adrift out here, waiting for someone to notice us. The lovely thing about being online is that there’s enough space for all of us—so why do I feel resentment toward my peers? I’ve become so preoccupied with finding an audience that I’ve forgotten about the wealth of inspiring, creative content made by the people that surround me. So I obsess. I curate. I become someone else.
The poet Kate Tempest puts it plainly: “Here’s me outside the palace of me!” Carefully-pruned Instagram feeds, Twitter bios that read like resumes, even the deep recesses of Tumblr: they show us the highlight reels and daydreams. They show us the streamlined, market-ready, newest versions of each other. We call it art, and it is: the opportunities are endless. Since we’re the first generation to grow up with this power at our fingertips, we throw ourselves in headfirst. Sometimes, though, we forget to take stock in anything else. I erased the aspects of myself that didn’t “fit” with my online personality; I become a thousand mirrored versions of myself, reflecting and refracting until I’m gone. Sometimes I don’t even remember why I wanted to write in the first place. Where’s the girl who wanted nothing more than to write sci-fi and explore imagined worlds?
I deleted Instagram again after two days. There’s no healthy way for me to be active on social media, at least not right now; I’ll focus on seeking out advice from other young authors instead of searching for answers I’ll never find in hashtags or explore pages. Breaking the cycle is harder than I thought—harder than it has any right to be. I need to regroup, to recenter my view of the Internet as a playground rather than a battlefield. As I remember why I make things in the first place, I’m also remembering why I sought after social media. I wanted a community, something I never had as a quiet, introverted kid. I’m finding new ways to feed that curiosity and sense of belonging every day, whether it’s through community art classes or reaching out to my favorite content creators. Though the future is tilted toward digital portfolios and online personas, they aren’t all consuming. Until that connection is healthy again, I’ll do the impossible: take a break.
By MJ Brown
Illustration by Nhung Le for The New York Times