This Is Your Brain on Instagram

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“Instagram is a weird, weird world.”

When I asked my co-workers about how their social media habits have had an impact on their sense of self and their idea of “authenticity,” the question sparked a thoughtful, lengthy, and nuanced debate in our group chat.

But the simple observation above—voiced by a former colleague—seemed to encapsulate it all. For the innumerable and abstract ways that social media has influenced how we perceive ourselves and others, one thing is for certain: This is strange territory.

It’s something I’ve pondered extensively over the past several years from both a professional lens and a personal one, especially as social media has blossomed from a relatively harmless distraction into the ubiquitous beast we know today. My career, for example, puts me in the unique position of relying on Instagram as an extension of my livelihood.

I despise the word in this context, but it is, for better or worse, a reflection of my “brand”—a significant touchpoint for the actual larger brand I represent. And in many ways, I really enjoy this. I really value the fact that it elevates the relationship between editor and reader, and that users can actually get a glimpse of the face and personality behind my writing.

But even though I technically exercise complete control over my feed, I struggle deeply with the authenticity of the person I portray on social media because it is very much a performance. I don’t care how self-aware, autonomous, or “real” you are: You’re still curating the images and the life that you present to the world. And in my experience, grappling with the overlap between my digital and IRL self is, at best, very confusing.

It’s not just a matter of identity, but validation. As that co-worker described, Instagram is in fact a very “weird” world in that it’s a potentially dangerous and overexaggerated, oversimplified expression of the human psyche. It’s a world in which our egos are concretized as photo grids, a world in which we can actually quantify validation by way of likes.

And when we’re feeling unfulfilled in our real lives, it’s all too easy to turn to the digital version. “Sometimes when I’m bored, I’ll search for something to post because it’s this weird recognition that I swear has a chemical reaction in your brain,” says Byrdie senior editor Hallie Gould. “When the likes roll in, that’s some serious serotonin shit.”