Hi everyone! Today, I want to share something that’s been on my mind for a while. I actually wrote most of this post last year, but then never put it online. But recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about social media and the way we use it (or how it uses us). So I went back to this post about Bookstagram, rewrote parts of it, and here it is.
One of the online spaces where booklovers gather, is Instagram. They have their own community/hashtag called Bookstagram and post photos of – you guessed it – books. For more than a year, I was one of the thousands of people who post there daily. But about a year ago, I… just stopped posting pictures because it was making me feel exhausted and causing anxiety. (To be fair, I have anxiety about tons of things, so it’s not entirely the fault of Bookstagram. But it definitely didn’t help.)
In this post I’ll try to explain why I quit Bookstagram. Some of it has to do with how social media work in general, some deal with Instagram as an app, and some are specific to this book-loving community. Mind you: the people of Bookstagram are generally really nice and I don’t have a problem with them. It’s more with the dynamics within the community that bother me, if that makes sense.
Back when I launched this blog in September 2017, I also created an Instagram account to promote my book reviews. Soon after I posted that first picture, the likes started rolling in. And so did the followers. I looked up how to grow your IG account and learned that you have to post daily, and like and comment on other people’s posts.
So that’s what I started doing
15 followers became 50, then 100, 150, and on and on. The average number of likes my photos got, quickly reached 100 as well. And I loved it! This was a community of people who shared my love for books, and seeing the notifications roll in was so satisfying.
But this growth started to slow down. After a few weeks, the average number of likes my photos got, stabilized between 100 and 150. And while at first the new followers piled up, the next few months my follower count moved upward at a glacial pace. To give you an example: I reached the milestone of 1.000 followers in early April 2018, after just over 6 months. About a year later, in March of 2019, I wasn’t even at 1.500 followers yet.
Notice how my average number of likes stayed the same, even though my follower count increased. Either my photos got uglier (and my followers didn’t like them anymore. But then why start following me in the first place?), or the Instagram algorithm started messing with me. Hint: I’m pretty sure it’s the second one.
Like a drug dealer
I don’t have hard evidence of this, but I am willing to bet it works like this: the algorithm – the way Instagram decides which pictures it’ll show to which users – boosts new accounts to get them hooked on the app, and then starts screwing them over. Why? Because you’ll start looking up how to keep growing your account, and you’ll read you need to spend more time liking and commenting.
Which means you need to spend more time in the app, scrolling through your timeline and stories. And that, as you probably know, means you get more sponsored posts shoved in your face. In other words: the more time you spend on Instagram, the more ads you see, the more money Instagram makes. It’s kind of like how drug dealers work. Which is messed up for an app we all use so frequently.
And I don’t know about you, but I don’t have hours to spend on Instagram every day. Especially not when it feels like I’m doing that just to fight the algorithm. It’s not fun anymore, it’s work. Because there are so many “rules” to this algorithm: a comment has to have at least 4 words, you need to reply to that comment within the hour, use hashtags in your post (or in a comment below it) but not too many, don’t use the same hashtags over and over, etc.
Another thing I noticed, is how some books automatically get more likes than others. Photos with books like the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Maas, or Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, systematically get more likes than, for instance, the Veronica Speedwell novels by Deanna Raybourn.
And I can understand that. You recognize the book, so it catches your eye and you tap that little heart. But it feels a bit superficial as well. Are we not using Bookstagram to talk about books and tell people about new books we discovered? Of course you can talk about these popular books as well, but when you want to gush about some more “obscure” treasure you unearthed, it feels like shouting into the void.
I know what you’re thinking now: but, but,… it’s not all about your follower count and likes. Yes, you’re absolutely right! Quality over quantity, and all that. But! Let’s not forget that these numbers are still important. You can’t deny the little boost of happiness when you see how popular your posts are. So you do whatever you can to make better pictures.
Which leads me to yet another thing that bothers me about Bookstagram: materialism. When you look up advice to create better pictures (or you look at the biggest accounts to see how they do it), you’ll read that you need a proper camera (psst: a decent phone camera works fine, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), a nice backdrop (although a simple white sheet is very popular), tons of props so you don’t have to reuse the same ones all the time, and of course the books themselves. And I honestly got the feeling that for some people, Bookstagram is more “fancy photos that happen to have books in them”, instead of “I want to talk about this book so I’ll take a picture of it”.
Which means there is a bit of elitism involved. If you have money to spend on dozens of books, fake flowers, daggers, candle holders, and so on, your account will generally do better than someone who doesn’t throw money at it. And not everyone has that kind of money to spare, especially not the teens who make up a considerable part of the community.
Fishing for freebies
But there’s a way to get free stuff through Bookstagram. Either books or props. Both publishers and owners of small businesses that sell hand-made items (candles, bookmarks, etc) regularly send out freebies to Bookstagrammers, in return for some promotion. You posts pictures of and talk about this upcoming book, or that candle, which gives them exposure. And they might repost your picture too, giving you some extra exposure.
Don’t get me wrong. For both publishers and these small businesses, it makes sense to do this. That’s just how marketing works. But from a marketing perspective, they will (generally) choose the bigger Bookstagram accounts over the smaller ones. And because these accounts get their hands on not-yet-published books, or boxes upon boxes of merch, they tend to attract even more followers.
This creates a vicious cycle: if you have money to spend on books and props, you can make pictures that are aesthetically pleasing (for instance: by matching the colours of the props to the book. But for this, you’ll need tons of props in all different colours). These pictures attract more followers. And when you have more followers, it’s easier to get more free stuff. Meanwhile, smaller accounts with limited financial means have to stand by and watch.
Beating the algorithm
The problem is: you depend on other people’s behavior for these things. If no one follows you or comments on your photos, you’re screwed.
Although, there are some ways to get more comments. You could do it the “organic” way and spend lots of time commenting on other people’s posts in the hopes that they’ll return the favour. Which not everyone does… Or you could use a few other tricks. Like promise a shout-out in your stories to people who comment on your posts. Or join a comment group. That’s a group of people who notify each other when they have a new post, so everyone can go comment. This way, they try to beat the algorithm (which reasons that “more comments = an interesting post = gotta show this to even more people”).
I’ve been part of such a group for a while. And while the other members were all really fun and nice people, it still rubbed me the wrong way. You’re artificially boosting your interaction to get more likes and followers. Where’s the fun in that? And again, this started to feel like work.
It took me nearly an hour every day to catch up on the posts of my fellow group members. Since I have other things to do as well in real-life, I didn’t get around to scrolling through my feed and commenting on other, non-group members’, posts. Sure, the number of likes on my posts increased slightly (I’m talking a rise from 125 likes to 140, so nothing spectacular), but it felt fake. I want people to give my photos a like or drop a comment because they genuinely like them, not because we have some pact to game the algorithm or because I promised them a shout-out.
And it’s this feeling that’s my biggest issue with social media in general. It all feels so fake and superficial. Yes, it can be a wonderful place where we meet new people and have conversations about the things we love. But it’s easy to get sucked into a spiral of wanting more likes, more followers, and more free stuff that goes with it. To get dragged along by the algorithms that manipulate you to spend more time in these apps.
But is that fun? To me it no longer was. It felt like an unpaid job with work that’s never finished. I have to check my notifications, I have to reply to comments as soon as they appear, I have to go like and comment on other people’s photos. It took away the joy and my time (seriously, I’d rather spend an extra hour every day reading instead of scrolling through that feed), and it even gave me anxiety.
I’m not saying Bookstagram is bad. There are so many great people and I discovered tons of books through it. But it has some issues, most of which are related to how social media in general – and Instagram in particular – work.
And yes, I let myself get sucked into the maelstrom. That’s totally on me. I should have set strict boundaries on my use of Instagram from the start. But let’s be honest, it’s a lot easier said than done to not get addicted to likes and followers. I guess that’s just human nature: we want to belong to a group, but at the top of the hierarchy. We want the biggest car, the most followers, and so on. The everyday ratrace is bad enough as it is, without the added pressure of social media.
So that’s why I decided to take a step back from Bookstagram. At first, I had planned to still post from time to time, mainly to promote my blog posts. But honestly? Not that many people click through from Instagram to my blog.
Up until February 3rd of last year, I had posted every single day for almost 18 months. After that, I posted about once a week for 2 months, to promote my blog posts. And since April 2019, I haven’t posted a single photo on Instagram. And you know what? I feel more relaxed and I get to read more. My love of reading is what drew me to Bookstagram, but it sure feels good to return to the basics. And who knows, I might start posting again in the future. But if I do, it will be less intensively than I did in the past. Bookstagram – and Instagram, and social media in general – should be a bit of added fun in your life. Your life shouldn’t revolve around showing off online and basking in likes.
Live the life YOU like, not the one you think your followers will give a “like”.
PS. If you’ve made it this far: congratulations! I am aware that this is a long and rambling post, but I needed to get it off my chest. And what better way to do that than to write? Anyway, feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comment section below!