When I was a sophomore in college, I logged off of all social media for a month. Looking back, I honestly struggle to figure out exactly how I managed this. Was I OK? Had my study abroad months filled with 1 euro beers and eating my first meal of the day at 3 p.m. driven me mad? Probably yes. But also, social media wasn’t necessary for me then — at least not in in the way it is for me now. Do I have to have Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter as someone who works in media? No, not technically. Would it make my job and life significantly harder without them? Yes. Still, though, going from college student who enjoyed social media to adult-with-a-job who needs social media presented the same problem: Very often, it all still made me feel bad.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy social, but for every moment I spent creating content and having fun, there was another moment of comparison or simply feeling not enough of something. In college when other people had similar interests and internships, I would wonder why I didn’t have as many followers as them. In my job, when people had similar careers, I was jealous of other people who were able to build their brand more effectively than I was. And all the while, there was a voice in the back of my head saying over and over again: social media is just supposed to be fun. Carefree. Creative. And, yes, to a certain extent, this is true. But in this, what I failed to ever really focus on (but always knew to some extent) is that social media is a tool.
I know what you’re thinking… ‘Yeah, yeah, Olivia, I know this.’ Right! Yes. I knew that it was a tool, too. But what I found myself doing was concentrating so much on making social fun in order to make it a tool that I didn’t realize that using it as a tool could be fun in and of itself. Lost? OK. Stick with me. My philosophy with social before was this: I’ll post whatever I like, whenever I like, and because of that, whatever I want out of social will follow. But I had no idea what I wanted out of it. And because of that, while my following and engagement still steadily, slowly grew over the years, I wasn’t seeing any major changes. I wasn’t building a brand, following, or true engagement as effectively as I could, because I had no idea what I wanted. I loved what I was posting, but none if it was intentional. When I brought intention into things, it all changed.
When I sat down at the beginning of this year and thought about re-organizing my life around the things that make me happiest (and therefore cutting out the things that don’t make me happy), social media was one of the first things that came to my mind. I loved the challenge of social – the ability to use it to connect, specifically, and to say the things about myself and my work that were often hard for me to express IRL. But I was sick of feeling like it was a competition, and like I was overwhelmed by all the things I could or should be doing via social, but wasn’t. So I did some research, and outlined exactly what I wanted out of social. I asked myself why was I posting anything at all. The answer is that I wanted to create a connection with people — to share parts of myself and my life and, hopefully, have people relate. To have people want to read what I write (both on my blog, or for work, or just in an Instagram caption) because it gave them a sense of something: relief that someone understands, clarity on something they’ve been struggling with, inspiration to do things differently.
Once I answered that, it almost immediately translated into making everything more intentional. And this sense of intention on Instagram is not only how I doubled my engagement in basically a month, but how I’ve found a deeper sense of meaning, joy, and (most importantly) true connection on the platform.
I now ask myself with each post why I’m posting. I ask myself how I could be using an image to tell a better story about myself, or to connect to people on a deeper level. On a macro level, this has lead to me being more vulnerable with captions and images — sharing things that I wouldn’t have felt were good enough to share before, or opening up about things that kind of scare me. This is the thing that has really made the biggest difference, but here are a few more micro tips that have helped me as well. Here are four things I’ve done that have made a huge difference.
1. I *almost* always include other people in the caption now.
When I decided that I wanted my Instagram to be about connecting to other people through my writing and images, it made me hyperconscious of my captions — and how often I isolated myself within them. This is to say, if I want to connect with people, I need to use the caption to do so. Asking people if they can relate to what I’m saying, or choosing which blog post I should do next, or simply inquiring if I’m the only one who feels a certain way is an easy way to talk with people, rather than at people. I want my feed to be about connection, and while I don’t follow any sort of caption formula, I’m now hyperaware when a caption doesn’t serve my ultimate goal, which is to connect with and relate to people. Sometimes this is done through vulnerability or just sharing part of myself, and other times it’s through questions and conversations.
2. I posted more photos of ME (even if I thought they were bad).
I used to only post photos of myself that were 100 percent perfect in my mind. I was hypercritical of how I looked in photos, and this meant that more often or not I would avoid posting full body shots or photos that weren’t selfies because I was self-conscious. But the second I forced myself to let some of that go (and, trust me, it was difficult), took a deep breath, and posted the photos I wasn’t 100 percent happy with, I realized that those fears and insecurities were in my head. And at the end of the day, I want people to connect with me — imperfections and all. This isn’t to say that I started posting low quality photos, by the way, and this is important. Often it is impossible for us to separate how we and our bodies look in photos with the quality of the photo itself. Once I was able to give myself a break and just focus on the image itself, it was like a revelation.
3. I stopped focusing on quantity and started focusing on quality.
I, like most people, used to almost solely focused on follower count. And, admittedly, I still think about this. I still have goals for how I’d like to grow my following in the next month, year, etc. and there’s nothing wrong with that. But. Instead of only focusing on the number now, I try to focus my energy on the relationship I have with people who follow me. The truth is that when you focus on that, the rest kind of follows. Now when I post on social media, I have a goal in mind that I didn’t before — and that goal is connection, for both the sake of connection itself and as a way to engage people with me and my writing. I would rather have three followers who are eager to share and connect and relate to the content I’m producing than 300 bots following me, or 30 people who just don’t care. Once this mindset shift happens, the rest — followers, engagement levels, quality of posts/captions has followed. But that focus is what has built it all up.
4. I stopped overthinking the idea of authenticity.
I often am self-conscious that the way I communicate on social isn’t always the way I communicate in real life. I’m often shy and reserved in real life, something that is often interpreted as me not liking people, or not being enthusiastic. But this usually isn’t something that translates to how I communicate on social. I often worried that this means I’m being fake or forcing something, but I’ve recently realized that social has opened up a world for me that doesn’t come naturally to me IRL. It’s hard for me to be vulnerable and open in real life, but writing posts that are vulnerable and open is easier. Social allows me to access those parts of myself that are harder for me to get to in day-to-day life. I stopped worrying about whether or not things would come off as authentic, and started just posting what I wanted. What I was really thinking. What I really wanted to say, even if I wasn’t able to express that in day to day life. And what happened is everything started feeling more authentic — because those things were and are me, whether everyone sees them every day or not.