At some point last year I decided to delete Instagram from my phone for a week. I was having a busy week and needed to focus. It was meant to be a little reset in my relationship with the app. That was more than 9 months ago and I still haven't downloaded it again.
Most of what I learned about social media, online communities and humans during this time has been surprising.
I knew that Instagram could be damaging to self-worth and cause FOMO, but I never felt it too much myself. I didn't follow anything that made me feel bad about myself and I usually wasn't using it so much that it was taking up time from other things in my life. I didn't think I had negative feelings about the app, I thought the benefits of deleting it would just be to my productivity.
The actual benefits have been huge noticeable improvement to my critical thinking and closer relationships with friends.
I think the critical thinking improvements happened because most posts on the app are structured makes it sound like: “this is what we all believe” usually in irresistibly cute colors and graphics. Your option is to like it or not, agree or disagree. There's very little room for nuance. We all know this about Instagram, but I never realized the difference it made to my own thinking as a casual user of the app. It made me lazy.
For example, when I was starting to focus my business on coaching community founders, I followed a lot of coaches on Instagram. Though I liked some of their content, the way they ran their business didn't feel right for me. I didn't want to do Instagram lives and post mid-laugh photos of myself with long captions and 27 hashtags. Everything about that seemed like not what I wanted to do and not right for my business. So for a long time, the conclusion I took was that maybe I shouldn't be a coach, clearly this is how coaching works. Instagram made me feel like the whole universe was in that app and there was a binary choice. Either be like this or be nothing. No offense to past me, but that's so dumb!
The other benefit to deleting Instagram has been cultivating deeper relationships with friends. This was also surprising because I was in touch with so many friends via Instagram. I'd comment on their photos, or participate in group chats where we'd send memes back and forth. Now that I only go on Instagram in my browser, I see these chats once or twice a day.
Instead of feeling a constant shallow sense of connection with friends, I notice I've started to actually reach out more.
If I see a movie or article I think a friend would like, I email them with a little note. I send more voice notes over text. I don't feel like I'm relying on surface mass communication to relate to friends. There's more me and them in the relationship.
So what does my little social media rebellion have to do with building community?
The question I get asked most often regarding community businesses is definitely: "how do I increase engagement?".
I think what most people mean when they ask that is how do I get more people to spend more time in my community, reading, liking, posting stuff so that there's a constant buzz. In other words, how do I get my private community to feel more like an Instagram feed.
But is that the right goal? Why are we trying to replicate a system that can make us feel terrible?
Since deleting Instagram, I've felt much more drawn to joining and contributing in online communities. And it's partly because of that that I've gotten better at thinking critically. It is a much better experience to be able to trace back a thought to one author instead of reposts. Without so many distractions, I have more space to put their thoughts into context with my own. It's quieter in my brain.
I've also made a bunch of actual friends through the communities I'm a part of. Through Wholehearted Coaching's online community I connected with a group of amazing women and have stayed in constant touch with them after the initial 6-month program. I hope to meet them in person soon! Through Ness Labs, I met a fellow community nerd and for the last 4 months we've met for an hour every other week to support each other in our work and find ways to collaborate.
In both of these communities, I would definitely be considered a "disengaged" member. I pop in maybe once every 2 weeks. Yet, I've gotten so much value! I'm actually very engaged in the relationships I've built through them.
We can't productize real relationships.
When you're designing your community experience, embrace messiness. Real relationships are messy, not consistent and hard to measure. We have to be careful not to replicate the systems we're trying to get away from.
I'm hoping that someday I'll be able to interact regularly on Instagram while keeping my new critical thinking skills and maintaining deeper relationships. I do miss the memes.
If you liked this, I hope you'll send it to a friend and start a conversation! 💌