Show Me How You Fail – Promoting Authenticity and Genuine Connection through Instagram

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On: October 24, 2019
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By: Deirdre Murphy, Nicola Schmitt, Adriana Munteanu, Brenda Scalco

What is wrong with me? Why do I not have abs like that influencer? Why did my last post not get as many likes as the one my classmate posted? How has that person achieved so much so early in life? How can all these people afford to travel so often? These are some typical questions we ask ourselves after a scroll through our newsfeed on Instagram. Social media networks remain prevalent among young adults with the function of fostering interconnectedness. Controversially, this age group is the one who reports to have frequently sad feelings, more than any other generation (Pittman and Reich 155).

This blog post examines how the youth is influenced by the phenomena of FOMO and social comparison in social media. It also explores how these phenomenons can serve as triggers for sadness, specifically feelings related to: loneliness, anxiety and low self-esteem. By applying the theory of affordances, this project will present a way of challenging the feelings that are usually fostered by social media by promoting a more authentic content and genuine connection. 

To get a better understanding of the concept of “sadness”, this blog will begin by explaining how the concept is framed in social media. Following that,  we will discuss the stressors of social media and explain how Instagram is responsible for affording them. In order to address this problem, we will state what we can do to solve it by introducing and explaining our project idea. 

Sadness and Stressors in Social Media 

The definition of sadness is vague. Suzuki and Shirai state that the feeling occurs when we lose something or someone we value, fail to achieve a goal and or we have the feeling of losing control. Sadness can also be generated by images, sounds, videos or situations that we imagine (288) . A person can engage with his or her imagery as if it was the current situation (Suzuki and Shirai 290). In this sense, social media content can create symptoms of sadness that correlate with loneliness, anxiety and low self-esteem psychiatric disorders (Leventhal 761). In the following, we are going to present how these symptoms can be identified with the usage of social media.

Urban argues that sadness is when reality turns out to be worse than expectations. With the stable influence of social networks, we are bombarded with constant wonderful moments in our newsfeed that make us believe that the people around us achieve whatever they want, creating the false illusion that other users are more special. At the same time, if everyone has a perfect life, we begin to create unrealistic expectations about our daily lives too. So, when the reality of someone’s life is worse than they expected, they are frustrated and disappointed, which leads to sadness. Thus, social networks create a world where everyone succeeds and shapes an inflated version of their own existence. Therefore, struggling people tend not to expose their current life situations, once they feel they do not belong to this perfect world. This creates a vicious cycle of self promotion. 

In the Ted Talk Is Social Media Hurting Your Mental Health?, Bailey Parnell explains that social media has two main stressors that can turn these moments of sadness into serious mental illnesses, if not identified and changed by the user. Similarly to what Urban argues, Parnell believes that the first main stressor would be the collection of the brightest and victorious moments, showing neither the processes, nor the failures of people before they achieve their goals. Thus, the struggle is aggravated with insecurity caused by comparisons.The following stressor can be understood as social comparisons, stimulated by the social currency of a platform.  A “like” is the currency that links value to the shared content. In turn, it develops into a problem when users become hyper-vigilant of social networks, seeking for attention, constantly checking whether their publications are getting the expected reward by the audience (Parnell 2017).

The second stressor is the Fear Of Missing Out (hereafter FOMO). This is a form of social anxiety constructed by the fear of missing a potential connection, event or opportunity. It is the fear of being left out of an experience, which is fostered through the possibility to follow through posts on social media what your network is doing in real time (Hetz, Dawson and Cullen 260).

The more frequently people are exposed to these stressors, the more their psyche are negatively affected from it. Moreover, the world ́s population daily average time on social media is 2 hours and 15 minutes, this is more than the time we invest in eating or practicing sports, for instance (O´Connor). It is also the amount of time that are exposed to these stressors.  For this reason, we will now look at the design of the social media platform Instagram, and its respective affordances that promote social comparisons and the FOMO. 

How Instagram Affords Social Comparison and the FOMO

The activities of an individual are influenced by their environment, since human beings orient themselves regarding the significant environmental attributes (Gaver 114). This applies also for online platforms. Online environments are shaped by their design, which affords social relations and social structure (Wellman 228). Specific objects are created to “request, demand, allow, encourage, discourage, and refuse” certain user actions (Davis and Chouinard 241). Affordances indicate how the user interacts with the platform (Bucher and Helmond 6).  They are an analytical tool, which influences the personal and social consequences of any medium. 

“Social media and the psyche have fused, turning life into a ‘social reality’ that […] is overtaking our perception of the world and its inhabitants,” (Lovnik 45). Nowadays, negative feelings are coded into social media platforms (Lovnik 51). We argue that social comparison and the FOMO are integrated in the design and the architecture of Instagram. Registered members post their photos and videos on their Instagram accounts. As a result, they get instant gratification for producing content through reactions of other users, such as likes, comments or messages. Ranking is an impactful pillar of Instagram. The social media platform counts the amount of followers and likes that a registered member has. These numbers are available to other users and encourage comparison among them. A “like” as a social currency is a mode of engagement on Instagram symbolized by a heart, which enables users to convey their positive emotions into one button. The feature produces meaning and therefore functions as communicational actor (Langlois 52). Based on likes and followers, the users feel judged and inferior. Instead of being a space for sharing authentic moments, Instagram has developed into a platform for constant judgement. “Social networking platforms are about working with and producing the self in order to financialize and commodify psychic life,” (Langlois 112). As a consequence, Instagram becomes a self-promotion machine with people posting content in order to present themselves in the best way possible. Instagram provides additional filter for users to edit their content and make it aesthetically more pleasing. After people post the edited photo or video, it is not stated in the app, if it was edited by a filter or which filter they used. Thus, it is even more difficult for other users to differentiate how authentic the visual footage is. The optimized content increases social comparison and the FOMO of an individual. 

The FOMO originates from psychological deficits in the competence of a person and the need to relate to others. People who have a greater FOMO are considered to have an exponentially greater desire to be continually informed about what others are doing. Social media is a possibility to satisfy these needs (Przybylski et al. 1841). Due to the dynamic nature of Instagram, users are provided with a steady flood of optimized content. Instagram Stories make it even possible to check in real-time, what other users are currently doing. The notifications of Instagram let the registered members know, when somebody followed them, liked there content or tagged them. They constantly encourage the users to engage with the app. The pressure of engagement is also put on the user through his or her algorithm rank. If members do not engage with Instagram on a permanent level, they immediately drop in the rank of the algorithm, which favours high levels of frequency and involvement (Lovnik 51-52). As a consequence of the drop in the algorithm rank, less people see the content of the user and therefore reward it with less likes. 

What can be Done to Solve it? 

To overcome the growing gap between the self-image of a perceived social status and the actual reality, we propose to create an authentic space for reflection on Instagram, where we work against unreasonable standards. 

To offset this constant feeling of missing out, being alone, and inferiority, we aim to create an environment within Instagram where a counter culture can exist. This environment would ideally be a place where students experiencing FOMO can sympathize with each other over their daily hardships, such as incomprehensible readings or running late for class. To initiate this space, we have created an Instagram account called @amsterdam_studentfail. This account constructs an inclusive space for students to complain and relate to each other’s day-to-day student dilemmas. 

By creating this Instagram account, we are aware that we are not reinventing the wheel. There are accounts and hash tag followings such as  @fuckmylife or #sadposts on Instagram created to establish a community in which users can send in or tag photos to be shown on a specific account. However, our account is different as it specifically targets students in Amsterdam. Students are a major part of our society that experience high amounts of stress (Morini). With limited time and money, it is easy for students to compare themselves with each other and experience the FOMO.

We chose Instagram as our platform because a good majority of students engage with it (Alhabash 1). It is one of the four leading social media platforms, besides Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat (Alhabash 1). Initially, social media was designed to connect and maintain social ties with friends, family, and even acquaintances. In recent years, the user’s primary motive for using social media platforms has shifted away from connection, “and more on personal identity and self-promotion, in addition to other motives, including surveillance and knowledge gathering about others, documentation of life events and general coolness,” (Alhabash 4). This account would help change the user’s association with the app. Instagram clearly harbors an environment in which people present their best selves. The aim of our account would be to show the true reality of a student’s everyday life, rather than just the “insta-worthy” moments. Through creating this account, we hope to develop a community that intervenes in the self-promotional social constructs that the platform has developed. 

In order to promote the page, we discussed using traditional mediums, such as putting up flyers in the library or encouraging peers to follow the account through word of mouth. We do not want to target people to follow through mediums such as mailing lists, as we want it to be their choice to follow. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, this is not the ideal way to use the app but as stated before, we are not creating this account for the likes and follows. We are doing this to create an authentic space for students in Amsterdam to relate to each other. 

We decided it would be more appropriate to represent a city of students rather than a specific university to create a more open environment. The ideal goal for this space would be for it to spread to other cities and universities in the future. An example of a space spreading in this way is the Instagram accounts under the title “food guide”. These accounts represent different cities, but are managed under the same uniform logo. Instagram users can then send or tag photos of their food at restaurants in the city, and the admins of the account choose the photos they want to recommend to their followers. 

How Does it Work?

For a better understanding of how it works, we have uploaded some posts on the account @amsterdam_studentfail. Below are some examples for illustration:

“When you haven’t seen the sun in 10 days…” need to start taking those vitamin D tablets.”

“I ate a whole glass of nutella today while working on the theory essay.”

“Who else constantly pro-caffeinated? I had months to start this project and of course waited to the last minute.”

As seen in the examples above, we are trying to encourage authenticity in social media by posting moments in which things are not entirely perfect. In this way, we hope to reduce the sad feelings that social media fosters, particularly through the fear of missing out and social comparisons. The goal is to change the way in which users engage with the platform. 

By changing the content of the Instagram posts, we hope to reduce the social media stressor – the FOMO. Posts about travelling to Bali, earning the first place on a chess competition, or “having a sushi night with my bestie” will not be accepted by the admins of the account. In other words, our page will focus on a specific content aimed at reducing the FOMO. On the other hand, awkward situations and embarrassing struggles will be encouraged. In this way, we aim to show the audience that there is no fear of missing out; that everybody goes through difficult situations and it is absolutely normal to feel lonely, anxious or inferior sometimes.

Every person wishing to post has the choice of uploading posts on an anonymous basis. The admins will decide what content appears on the page to make sure that the content fits our aim. Moreover, by encouraging anonymity, a place closer to anti-platform will be created, in which users will not care about likes and popularity. Liking, commenting or sharing are not strictly encouraged, but users can like if they wish so. We are aware that there will still be judgement through the likes and comments. However, the likes and comments will not be connected to the identity of the person anymore, but the content of the post. In this way, the social comparison fostered by the social currency will be reduced. By changing the purpose of the content, users will not feel inferior by seeing how other people spend the best time of their lives. 

Conclusion

In this blog post, we examined how students are confronted with social comparison and FOMO, through the use of social media. In order to address this, we proposed the creation of an account on Instagram that re-establishes the social purposes of the platform. The idea of this project was to initiate a movement on Instagram by creating a page where users could share real struggles from their daily lives. With this initiative, we hope to increase authenticity on the social media platform Instagram, with the focus of student life in Amsterdam. Of course, we hope that this project will eventually spread to other cities as well. We suggest that social platforms can not only be used to show the sunny side of life, but also to emphasize the struggles people try to overcome. In this way, our aim is to reduce the social media stressors addressed in this paper, particularly the FOMO and social comparisons fostered by the social currency. To achieve this, we suggested a way in which the stressors could be reduced, particularly through encouraging authenticity by changing the focus of the content and providing the choice of posting anonymously. 

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