It's 5.15am. My phone sings a sweet, boppy tune to encourage me to get the hell out of bed. I take a minute to check how my Instagram is faring: not too badly, I suppose. It's day two of my Masters degree. I'm studying to become a high school art teacher. When you're a creative, your only options for financial gain are either be discovered by Miley Cyrus on the Internet, suppress who you are totally for a dismal nine to five, or teach.
It's 6am and I realise that the peak time for social media posting today is immediately after my last class. I quickly take a picture of the latest cool thing I bought, rush out the door, and spend my train ride to university applying all kinds of pre-loaded filters on the image until it is just-so.
"What does the 'Digital Age' mean to you? Write it down," instructs my lecturer. This class focuses on the use of technology in education.
I look down at my notebook. A crude doodle of a television with 'FEAR ME' scrawled across the screen stares back. Do I jot down what I really think? Should I say that the 'Digital Age' evokes naught but dread in my fluttering, anxious chest? That it is utterly overwhelming, hollow, empty, soulless...?
After class, I check my Instagram account for the forty-fifth time that morning. I've lost some followers. Arseholes. Do these people know how hard I work, every day? How many hours a week I spend on this all-consuming grid game?
Technology and the acquisition of knowledge has scared humans for centuries. Each generation hears the frantic street preachers and televangelists announce that the end of the world is upon us, that the book of Revelations is coming true. I look around me on the train home. Countless eyes cast downwards, on smartphones, tablets, and game consoles. A few read books. The girl opposite me ends her phone call and stares out the window. I tell her that I like her handbag. She ignores me. The world already has, in fact, ended.
I reflect on the crowded, inner-city trains of Tokyo. I think about how despite there being hundreds of people on my carriage, I could almost hear every pebble being eaten up on the tracks, everyone glued to their phones. "Manner mode". I never could understand how such a large, cosmopolitan city could be so cold, and so silent.
While I was in Tokyo, I remembered Melbourne public transport differently: people laughing, oafish boys chatting up young girls, teenagers swinging on handrails, people striking up conversations with total strangers... it feels like the icy stillness of Japan has followed me back home, and now I'm solemn on my journey, watching the souls of my fellow riders be menacingly sucked into backlit pocket screens, and eventually befall the same fate myself.
My post isn't doing so well. Only sixty-eight people 'like' that cool thing I bought. Those are pretty dismal numbers for me. I begin to wonder if my cool thing really is all that cool. I scroll through the home page and see a drawing by someone I follow. It's a pretty crappy drawing really, but she somehow manages to amass over eight-hundred 'likes'. My drawings are lucky to get twenty-percent of that. Her doodles are a few sketched strokes on a Wacom tablet. Mine are high quality, hand drawn with brush and Indian ink. She has more than ten-thousand followers. I've worked my ass into the ground to scrape in just a mere thousand.
In my car, I ponder the factors that could have contributed to my poor social media influence. Some girls seemed to just be able to fart onto their screens and gain a thousand followers. Is it because I'm brown? Should I lose weight? Is it because I post too much? Post too little? Should I have used a different filter on my selfies? Am I using the wrong hashtags? Should I start doing YouTube?
I arrive home and spend a half hour complaining to my boarder while I wash the dishes. I tell him I feel old, that I'm on the wrong side of twenty-five. That I'm not getting enough recognition, and that I feel unsuccessful. He reminds me I sold over three-hundred dollars worth of my comic book, 'Drongo', at the recent zine fair. I tell him it was good, but my lack of 'likes' overshadows this. He mentions the stores in Sydney and Brisbane who have agreed to stock my publication. I argue that if my work really was all that great, I'd surely have more followers. He tells me how many people commended me for being one of the only zine-makers who had a consistent brand at the fair. It's nothing if I'm off the algorithm.
The almighty algorithm.
What even is the algorithm?
Last week, I met a girl who didn't have any social media accounts. "Wow! Not even Facebook?" Not even Facebook. A year ago I would have thought this was the riskiest thing a person in this day and age could entertain, but here she was; beautiful, younger than me, an accomplished and published novelist, with a nice boyfriend, and yet the thing I envied about her most was her disconnectedness.
I think about her after checking my notifications, wondering what constructive and productive things she gets up to while I waste my life watching videos of dogs posted by people I don't like. Seventy-two 'likes' now. Why did my other drawing get over two-hundred 'likes'? I used exactly the same hashtags! I close my eyes and count mopey, malnourished sheep.
Another morning. I reach for my giant, expensive phone that is too big for my hand. I've lost more followers. Dammit. I let myself sulk while I get dressed and then leave for my appointment. Today I'm going to tell my psychologist that I feel hopeless, and that my sense of self worth is waning. She takes a look at my haunted face and comments that it looks like I've come in at the perfect time.
We discuss my online self. I inform her I want more recognition for all the hard work I've put in over the last ten years of running various businesses. I mention how I miss the glamour of my teens, running amok in the city clutching big band concert tickets, stamped 'INVITED' across the headlining act. I lament the forgotten magazine pages, my face glossy next to large text. This was me. Is this still me? I miss the celebrity I enjoyed, being a teenage entrepreneur - briefly holding a leash on the attention of Melbourne media. My collection of newspaper articles, free concert tickets and VIP wristbands worth the equivalent of half a million 'likes' today, now hidden in the top drawer of my dresser. I'm miserable.
The issue of recognition comes specifically from knowing. It's very romantic to imagine people happening upon my work by chance, or taking a photo of some rad poster I've done. Unfortunately, the wistful daydreams are dissolved by the blatant black pixels telling me my follower count, or how many people have double-tapped on my photos while they sat around bored on their lunch breaks.
Instagram and its brethren are vapid and devoid of substance on their own. Social media relies totally on its users for content creation, and the more people and businesses it facilitates, the more sponsored ads they can generate income from. Despite its blank canvas, Instagrammers have been absorbed into a vacuum of competition, a false sense of worth, and a trivial sense of urgency. And it appears I'm not the only one getting mad.
"Everything cycles," says my psychologist. "There will be a revolt eventually." We consider, from a business point of view, the relevance of my Instagram account. I divulge that despite my dedication, not a single one of these 'likes' or 'followers' have translated to sales.
All of my online sales have so far come from people I know, and all the purchases from strangers have taken place in a situation where they can browse the books in person. Whether or not I post on Instagram two or three times every day has any affect on how many copies of 'Drongo' I'm moving. I complain about the multiple hours a day I spend making original content specifically for the 'gram, and that I could have been putting all that energy into another more rewarding endeavour.
I mention that I do enjoy some of the newer features Instagram has to offer, such as live streaming and video stories, akin to Snapchat. I probably won't abandon the platform totally, as the ability to share updates that are significantly less stressful than an individual post provides more enjoyment to myself than my current strategy, and in the end I don't mind how many people are interacting with these, as no one else can see the numbers. They disappear after 24 hours, or immediately if it's a live stream.
As a nostalgia chaser, perhaps it's time to dig my fingers into more traditional ways of DIY marketing. I know that my work is worth more than a bunch of salmon-red 'hearts', and I'm tired of comparing myself to people who may have even purchased their ten-thousand followers and eight-hundred 'likes'.
For a while, I've been sitting on just a little over 1,060 Instagram followers. I see maybe four genuine individuals add to this count every month. The rest are bots, advertisements, or businesses that follow en mass, wait for a few thousand people to reciprocate the gesture, and then unfollow everyone again, making their companies look like they are relevant, active, and successful. For a business interacting with its potential clientele on Instagram, I find there's nothing more distasteful than luring a following, making people believe that the company could really be interested in their content, and then dumping them harshly for the sake of numbers. Freelancers and their friends are not excused from this behaviour, either.
I'm tired of people being cheated. We are tricked, on both sides, into believing that our presence on these superficial engines are important, and that if we do not use them then we may as well not exist. Given the correlation between "good numbers" and dopamine, social media on the whole can literally be addictive, no better than smoking or drinking. A company should not have such a hold over an individual, to the point where it can actually dictate someone's self-worth.
All this, without even touching on the flimsy façade that we choose to show to the public, a vacant veneer, while our spirit struggles underneath.
No 'likes', just love.