Instagram is a bummer

The phoniness and frustration of having to "market yourself"

You know, we weren’t meant to index ourselves against so many people. 

In 5,000 BC, the biggest cities were rarely more than 1,000 people big. We indexed our strengths and weaknesses against a small number of other people and gauged our spot in society accordingly. What’s more, our brains haven’t evolved that much since 5,000 BC. Hell, our brains haven’t evolved so much since 10,000 BC. 

“Career” options were so much more limited, too. Before industrialization, we used to figure out our job, or our skillset, based on our gender, our tribe, our religion, and the immediate needs of our landscape. 

Now the options, thanks to the modernization and diversification of the global economy and the women’s liberation movement, are more numerous. We can choose to live on the opposite side of the world from where we were born. We can choose a career unrelated to that of our parents. We can work in a 9-to-5 day job, or we can be entrepreneurs, or we can be some mix of the two: pay the bills through a more dispassionate contract, and also see how far you can grow a hobby and monetize it and maybe make your side hustle your real hustle one day.

Jobs exist now that didn’t exist… ever. Imagine traveling back in time and telling someone that there will be a real-life job someday called “a food blogger.” This “food blogger” can earn a living through sponsored content on Instagram, or servings ads on their food blogs, or affiliate revenue through Amazon or Bookshop links. Or a Substack!

To create your own income, you have to market your own work. Food bloggers, and freelancers invested in building their profiles, are on a schedule of producing stylized and manicured content for their social media presence in order to sustain and promote their personas and their revenue streams.  

Instagram is part and parcel to this economic diversification, but it’s lately - for me, as someone who has a food side hustle - been a bummer. 

There’s a look to Instagram Food. You know it when you see it. It’s either a ¾ angle, an overhead shot, or a straight-on picture. Often it’s a light and bright aesthetic, probably a faux marble backdrop. 

Posting beautiful food pics isn’t just a way of promoting your recipes to drive traffic to your food blog or to attract clients with your presence. It’s primarily to create an overall aura of your persona as someone that’s “goals,” or trusted, or worthy of listening to or reading or following. 

Having more economic opportunities, especially for women and gender + sexuality non-conforming folks and racial minorities and all the intersections therein, is a good thing. We can create income, maybe even wealth, and a name for ourselves, in ways we never could before. We’re no longer destined to hit the inevitable glass ceiling during our climb up the corporate ladder. 

But am I the only one feeling stuck in a hamster wheel of self-promotion, a self-promotion that has an established visual language and pre-determined look and feel?

In 2017, Amanda Mull wrote about flashy, trendy, stunt Instagram food, saying that “Over-the-top, intensely trend-driven, and visually arresting, Instagram food is almost always something to be obtained [...] It transforms an indulgent meal or snack from a physical activity to a status performance.” 

We’re not venturing out for rainbow bagels or cronuts right now, but we are performing how we eat and what we make, in support of us being trustable resources you should definitely read from and click on. We’re in a hamster wheel of content calendars to support our newfound economic independence, indexing ourselves and competing against more people than ever before in the history of humankind.

And it’s frustrating because this aesthetic and this self-idealization works. When you post a high quality, DSLR-taken picture of a beautiful dessert that really is very rarely cooked, it objectively performs better than an iPhone picture of what you casually, actually eat during the week

We create “#goals” content for our Instagrams to support our independent ventures, marketing assets that reflect our personas well enough but isn’t exactly realistic of the daily truths we live, to position our personas as someone worth trusting. 

The sameness of it all… the sameness of Instagram Food… it’s a bummer.

For me, it’s hard to resist the upward comparison of people with bigger followings and better photography. And it’s easy for me to forget that these people also don’t eat burnt Basque cheesecake regularly and are also kinda faking it for Instagram. 

I forget that we used to be in much smaller tribes in much smaller cities. We didn’t have to compare ourselves to 100,000 other abstract peers from all over the world and didn’t have to index ourselves against so many other people just like us, in order to gauge where we sit in the hierarchy of it all to orient our ability to support ourselves financially. Our brains are overloaded, we aren’t able to correctly assess our self-worth anymore. 

Something I’m asking myself often lately is, do people like me if I’m not of utility to them? Do people trust me if I don’t produce consistent, visually similar marketing assets? Do I trust me if I don’t produce consistent, visually similar marketing assets? What’s my self-esteem defined by if it’s not tied to my productivity and output?

It’s easy to say, it was capitalism all along!! But here we are, still having to pay the bills, and trying to make meaning of the time we spend supporting ourselves.

It’s hard to have it both ways - have the economic freedom to write what you want or cook what you want and make some money off of it - without having to pay the price of putting effort into marketing your work, and without feeling like a phony.  

In the meantime, I’m trying to resist the urge to post things I know are just created for the engagement and be more willing to “lose followers” in exchange for some modicum of feeling more like myself.