I Tried To Stop Sucking At Social Media & Here's What Happened

I actively resent social media. I don't want to conceive of my identity through the lens of Twitter or Instagram, and even though I have no qualms about writing in great detail about my personal life, something about posting a selfie, a picture of my food, or my completely random thoughts has always felt to me like taking things past the point of egotistical no return.

Unfortunately, my aversion is more than just a personal preference — it's a major problem in my line of work. Building your personal brand on social media is extremely important these days if you want to be a writer or editor with clout. But though I knew social media mattered if I wanted my work to be seen, I couldn't see how even more gazing at my navel would make people respect me in the long run.

For the last three years, I'd been posting to Instagram maybe once a month, and shooting off autofill tweets of Bustle articles maybe eight times a day, without much engagement or commentary. Basically, I was a Bustle spambot on Twitter, and a too-cool-for school user of Instagram — which is ironic, since I was actually more addicted to checking the platform than anything but my email. I loved browsing through everyone's public-private life, and looking at all the pretty pictures. It was safe that way. I could unfollow someone for posting one too many selfies or pictures of their lattes, and judge them for being obnoxious to boot — when really, I was the one stalking them in the first place.

I knew I was doing social media all wrong, but I didn't know where to start.

The Experiment

Clearly, I had my work cut out for me. (Before posting this article here, anyway, that photo above had one like. One.) I needed to bring in the experts. So I consulted with two of Bustle's Associate Fashion & Beauty Editors, Olivia Muenter and Marie Southard Ospina, who are masters at social media personal branding, and asked for advice. They had a lot of it — much of which I've compiled in another article about how to get better at social media. But in summary, they advised I try to post to Instagram every day, tweet at least 10 times a day (with at least three random, personal thoughts), change my profile picture and bio on both platforms, target and interact with niche communities I write about (#vegans, #420), and generally be more of a "real person" with a "real personality" on social media. I was also encouraged to of course take selfies and food pictures, and be funny. Oh, and I was supposed to do all this while "being authentic" — when authentically, one of my go-to fantasies is moving to a cabin where I would have no access to the Internet until this whole computer thing blows over.

Still, I would try to do all these things and more over the course of one month, and see how many followers I gained. Despite being exhausted just thinking about all of this, I was curious how I would feel, and if I would be able to get to the root of my social media aversion.

Week 1:

Twitter Followers: 1,678

Instagram Followers: 235

I changed my profile pic on Instagram and Twitter to match, just as my social media gurus had advised me, and made sure each bio linked to the other account. Here was my first attempt at being witty and targeting my vegan community following, like Muenter and Ospina had suggested.

FAIL. I already felt like a moron. I forced myself to Instagram every other day, but posts followed my typical pattern — pictures of funny signs or words that didn't feature my face, often with a feminist or ironic bent.

After just a few days of Instagraming and tweeting, I felt basic as hell. "You have to post all this dumb stuff and talk about yourself and post pictures of food to do this well?!" I lamented to my boyfriend one night. "Or, you could just try saying something interesting," he replied. He had a point.

The next day at work, I at least tried to comment on the links I was posting to Bustle articles, to little success.

I also tried to include a few random thoughts...

I was officially feeling like a loser. It was fine to suck at social media when I wasn't really trying — but I was making an actual effort here, and still basically feeling like I was shouting nonsense into a void. I was beginning to understand firsthand the essence of Twitter, and I still hated it.

But I resolved not to give up. By the end of the week, I couldn't deny I had managed to gain some new followers through replying and tweeting more, and it was beginning to provide a new sort of ego boost. It made me feel diligent, checking my Twitter feed compulsively, like a Real Media Person.

Week Two

Twitter Followers: 1,712

Instagram Followers: 243

During week two, I went to SXSW in Austin, which I was told by my social media consultants was a good opportunity to try to 'gram someone famous. I felt excited to be there, and as often happens when I travel, I found it easier to get excited about posting pictures every day. I was being a tourist, not a self-involved jag! Two different dudes catcalled me, and my first impulse was actually to tweet it. What was happening to me?

In fact, I was on such a roll that I even posted to Instagram twice in one day — something Muenter later told me can sometimes get you unfollowed. Oh well.

The next day, I saw Common speak, and instead of paying much attention to what he was saying (or trying to smell him, like I should have), I tried to take advantage of my proximity by Instagraming some more.

It was my most successful 'gram yet. As I watched the likes pile up, I felt a boost of confidence. The dopamine rush was getting seriously satisfying, and I wanted more. I tried my hand at some live-tweeting, and kept going after the #vegan hashtag whenever possible.

When I returned home, I started to get a little trigger-happy, to very limited success.

Well, I thought it was funny.

But my vegan writing and social media game on Twitter continued to blow up. (Or at least blow up by my pathetic standards.) I was also starting to see more engagement in general, and got some high-profile retweets.

When I forgot to Instagram for a few days and posted this picture, I thought it would be a loser, but oddly, it ended up surpassing nearly every other post in terms of likes.

I was becoming a woman slightly obsessed, checking my phone more and more often. My numbers were steadily increasing, and I tracked this with satisfaction. It was like my personal stock market of cachet.

Week 3

Twitter Followers: 1,813

Instagram: 270

I traveled to LA to attend BinderCon, a conference for women and gender-non conforming writers. Here was a chance to gain new followers and really engage, and it worked. I didn't tell anyone about my experiment, and instead also focused on networking in the "real world." But all that socializing was draining for my somewhat solitary self, and looking down at my Twitter feed proved to be a valuable escape in between panels. I wasn't being anti-social. I was engaging on a different platform. Right?

I even made myself go up to Roxane Gay to get a picture, which was actually somewhat humiliating, since she was trying to peace out quietly when I accosted her. She was very nice though, and I forced myself to post the picture of myself with her, even though I truly hated how I looked in it, and the predatory spirit behind it. But other people liked it.

Over on Instagram, I was also having more success.

I kept going after my vegan peeps.

And I tried my first random-GIF post over on Twitter.

When I got home, I took genuine pride in this Instagram, even though it wasn't so popular. Who cared? I was carving out an identity on social media, and if I found it interesting, it was going up. My ego was inflating. Who cared if every post didn't land. I was a tastemaker. Of course, none of this attitude was very conscious at the time, because if it had been, I probably would have mercy-deleted myself.

Week 4/5:

Twitter Followers: 1,912

Instagram Followers: 289

Everything was working, but I was beggining to lose steam. The novelty of caring about social media was wearing off, and the more I got used to likes, the less power each like had. The vegans weren't getting bored though, godbless 'em.

When I hadn't Instagrammed in days — it didn't feel authentic, OK? — I panicked one night and posted my most random, forced, and unpopular picture yet.

Another relative fail, in the form of feeling romantic about spring's onset:

I found my motivation to Instagram severely waning along with my likes — and I still hadn't been able to bring myself to take a selfie. It was time to suck it up and at least post a picture of my food.

I felt inauthentic about it, but indeed, it was my most popular Instgram yet. I couldn't see making a regular habit of it, but I was pleased with my cosmically-insignificant accomplishment.

My Twitter game was also getting (slightly) stronger. I'd gotten some high-profile follows, and I also started to experiment more with trending hashtags and GIFs on Twitter (which I should have been doing more of all along).

Ugh, I felt like such a tool for posting that one. But then it started getting kind of addictive...

Look, I used a trending hashtag!

I may have gotten carried away.

By the end of the experiment, I saw a guy falling asleep on the train — and my first impulse was to take picture, thinking it could make a good Instagram. So what if I didn't have his consent? He was in public and unrecognizable, right? Shortly after snapping his image, I realized he was drooling and falling over in a way that indicated he was maybe not OK. I moved his backpack from the aisle in between his legs, and when he woke up from someone shoving him off their shoulder, I asked if he was OK, but I still felt like a total asshole. This was exactly what I had been afraid of becoming, and it had only taken me a month to be corrupted into seeing everyone as a potential tweet or picture.

My Conclusions

It's not surprising that trying to actually engage on social media, rather than being a Bustle Bot, did gain me more followers over the last month. Not a ton more, or an "impressive" total amount, but significantly more followers nonetheless. And I can't deny that has value — I will have more of an audience when I push stories that matter into the world now, even if it's just a few extra eyes. So I plan to try to keep up my newfound social media presence, even if Instagramming my new haircut or tweeting about my bowel movements is just never going to be me.

Social media can absolutely be used for good, but the reason I have feared and resented it for so long is because I know that I am easily corrupted by it. I'm a writer — I already have a tendency to view my own life as an observer, to see everything as copy. But that doesn't mean I like the impulse. I've realized for sure now that it's dangerous and pointless for me to care too much about any of this. But that doesn't mean I have to consider myself above it, either. I've proven to myself now that I'm certainly not.

A few days before writing this, I had a discussion with my boyfriend about what it means to live a life of compassion and kindness, and how that would apply to interacting with the many homeless people we pass every day in New York City. I argued that it means not ignoring them; he said it was impossible to offer something to everyone without imploding. The next day, I literally saw a guy holding a sign that said "Seeking Human Kindness" — and my initial impulse was to Instagram it. Had I, I might have been able to raise awareness about homelessness, #HONY style. Instead, I rushed to work. He was there again yesterday, reminding me of my hypocrisy as I made another excuse not to stop and offer him some non-virtual, authentic human kindness. Today, I resolved to stop and talk to him, but he was gone.

Want to hear us rant about being a woman on the internet? Check out Bustle's podcast The Chat Room right here:

Images: Rachel Krantz/Bustle