When Instagram first came out, I was so enthralled with it. I followed people all over the world who were doing interesting things, things I didn’t know people still did, like packing mules over the mountains out west or running a chuck wagon at a dude ranch. I followed mountain climbers, polo players, ranchers, other amateur equestrians, and even “met” some horse people I would consider friends despite never having actually met them. I think most of us are voyeurs at heart, and that is why social media has become so phenomenally successful. We love to see (I know I do) what everyone else is up to.
The longer I’ve been on Instagram, the less enthralled I’ve become. I follow mostly horse and adventure accounts (hiking, camping, backpacking, etc…). It seems like everybody is sponsored by a clothing or gear company, and the content of the images is so perfectly curated that the raw, gritty, “this is the real me” vibe is disappearing. The feeling of getting a glimpse into someone’s day has been replaced by the feeling that I’m watching a commercial.
Instagram has become all about product placement. Make sure the brand name of that cooler is facing the camera when you’re snapping pics on your camping trip. And make sure you remind all your followers that your brand new, made in China, vintage “inspired” t-shirt came from So and So Company and this is their website. My least favorite type of account, and there are thousands of them, are the ones that simply repost the best of everybody else’s pictures. They end up with a beautiful feed and a bazillion followers without ever having a single creative thought.
In the early days of Instagram I was very inspired by the people I followed, not inspired to buy a certain piece of camping gear or saddle pad, but inspired to do some of the things I saw other people doing. Instagram is largely responsible for my newfound interest in reading about the American West. The pictures of working cowboys on modern day cattle ranches opened up a world I knew little about. I am East Coast born and raised, and even though I vacation in Colorado every year, that part of the West was something I never got to experience. I saw other people’s pictures of hikes and waterfalls in north Georgia and got out there and took my own. The Instagram pics were better than what I could find by googling “north Georgia trails.” Real people’s pictures made me think, “Wow! That place is only an hour from me and I never knew about it!” Next thing you know, I was planning a trip.
I feel like Instagram used to do for me what social media can be good for- it was inspiring me to get out there and live a more adventurous, more informed life. I was learning about subcultures, places near and far that I wanted to visit, and connecting with like-minded people. As its popularity grew, I felt like my Insta feed became cluttered with product placement and shout-outs to sponsors. It started feeling too perfect.
Like everyone else, whether they admit it or not, I am affected by what I see on social media. I started noticing that I didn’t have a perfect outfit complete with buffalo plaid and Hunter boots when I did my barn chores. I wore threadbare pajama pants and old college sweatshirts that did not photograph well. It made me wonder why I’m such a slob and all these other farmer-goddess-type women look so ruggedly beautiful while mucking out the chicken coop. When I go on hikes how come my dog doesn’t have a cool bandanna that complements my ensemble? How come my camping gear is a mish mash of REI hardcore gear and cheap stuff I bought at Wal-Mart? Did I really have an epic trip if my coffee mug said Ozark Trail instead of Yeti? Of course I did, but the pictures aren’t quite as fetching.
Everybody on Instagram wants to be an “influencer;” they want to get a ton of followers so they can get free gear that they will then talk up and not so discreetly post in their images. I will never be an influencer, at least not visually. I’m not thin enough to be sponsored by any clothing companies, I shop at Goodwill almost exclusively (which means I don’t stay up to date on trends), and I don’t care very much about brand name gear. I buy what I can afford at the time and many times that’s the REI clearance sale or Wal-Mart brand. When I look at Instagram I have to remind myself that my adventures are not any less fun because my pictures are not magazine quality. Not being able to create a stunning memento with my camera phone for display to the world does not in any way lessen the mental pictures I took, the memories I made, or the good that was done in my soul by being outside. In fact, leaving my phone behind altogether and not worrying about taking a picture is often a better way to experience a moment. Instead of worrying about capturing it and displaying it, I simply live it. I’m fully present and what I have to show for it afterward is an image in my mind, uncluttered by the need to preserve it.
The other day I had my first ride on my mule, who is finishing up 6 months of rehab for a ligament injury. It was a big day for me and I wanted a picture, one of those “between the ears” shots that you take while on horseback. It was evening, the sun was dropping lower in the sky and creating soft, pink light, and it had just finished raining so all the trees glistened with raindrops. My mule is white, and her beautiful, long ears would stand out in contrast to the wet country road. I whipped out my phone and snapped one quick picture because I could hear a car coming around the bend and I didn’t want to be distracted longer than necessary. When I finished my ride and pulled out my phone to look at the picture, I realized it hadn’t taken. I had no evidence, no photo to share with the world of my first ride on my mule. For a minute I was so disappointed, and then I reminded myself that all of my triumphs do not need to be shared. It is possible to do something wonderful and keep it all to myself. The privacy of it doesn’t diminish its goodness.
When I get on Instagram now, which is less and less often, I remind myself that I’m there to be inspired in the best way- to get outside, to notice the beauty in the world, to look at pictures of a place I’m thinking about going. Social media can be a positive force in my life, as long as I can keep some perspective.