When Instagram gives you anxiety

By Jane Borges | Mumbai

With USD 1.6 billion likely to be spent on social media promotions this year, the life of the influencer is not just about the freebies and travel but also anxiety and depression from hours spent vexing over likes and keeping followers happy

When the Instagram algorithm changed a few months ago, Ankita Kumar, who has over 42,000 followers saw a 50 per cent dip in her likes. Instead of the most recent pictures flashing on the timeline, you now see pics of the people you interact with often, making visibility that much harder. Anxiety and sadness overwhelmed Kumar, who then decided to take a 12-day detox

Those who follow self-taught yoga instructor Natasha Noel on Instagram, would be aware of one thing — there is zero pretence in how she leads her life. While her Instagram feed, where she has close to 1.65 lakh followers, is inundated with back-bending stretches and acrobatic feats that would put anyone to shame, it is also the place where she has found “a sense of liberation”.

At 25, Noel speaks with brutal honesty about being sexually abused as a child, surviving a knee-injury, fighting weight gain and cellulite woes — an everyday constant — battling depression and discussing the importance of body positivity, in her posts. It’s among the many things that brought the Mumbai girl to viral fame, making her a coveted brand in the digital space. Today, leading sports and fashion houses eye her for advertising their products in her feed — albeit subtly. Their assurance of her worth comes from the steady likes, followers and rampant comments she receives.

Yoga Instructor Natasha Noel who often uses her Instagram handle to discuss body weight and her battle with depression, admits all days are not equal. However, even when depression or anxiety grips her, she is forced to share content for her followers. On such days, she cuts down her photos or stories by half. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Noel is part of the “social media influencer” tribe, which has grown exponentially in the last few years, and is seeing people mint lakhs of rupees, just posting and hash-tagging on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Globally, advertisers are likely to spend at least $1.6 billion on influencer promotion on Instagram alone, this year. And, if Mediakix — a leading influencer marketing agency in California — is to believed, it is expected to cross $5 billion in the next five years. But, while this fancy “job profile” is attracting millennials by the dozen — thanks to the freebies, travel and flamboyant pay cheques — a study by researchers at Bournemouth University, UK, has also pointed to the dark and ugly side of this new phenomenon. Elvira Bolat, senior lecturer in marketing, and Parisa Gilani, lecturer in human resources and organisational behaviour, revealed how “mental health, anxiety, social media fear and insecurity” have now, become common traits among influencers.

Making of the influencer
Karthik Srinivasan, independent communications consultant, who has worked in the social media and digital media marketing space, offers a rather, simple definition to make sense of this new and trending phenomenon. An influencer is someone you look up to, to help you make assorted decisions (often related to purchases). “We have had influencers all through our lives and across ages — our parents are influencers to us. As we grow up, our family, peers, colleagues, neighbours all have been influencers in some way. Social media influencers are different in that they are strangers — they don’t know us, necessarily, but we know them, and follow them, their words and deeds. But they are also not big achievers or celebrities like film stars or sports persons, who use their offline celebrity’dom to build their online follower base. In essence, social media influencers are people-like-us, but strangers to us who still influence [in principle] our decisions in some way,” Srinivasan explains.

Goa-based journalist Flexcia D'Souza joined Instagram in 2014 and her travel, lifestyle and fashion posts started getting traction. By 2016 her follower-list spiralled to 12,000, after which brands asked her to collaborate with them. Since she has a full-time job, she now barters posts for freebies

Flexcia D’Souza, 24, a Goa-based journalist, who became an Instagram influencer, after her travel, lifestyle and fashion posts, started winning the attention in the local fashion circuit, says she never got on to the platform with the intention of making it big. “I joined Instagram in 2014, while I was doing my Masters in media communications in Mangalore. Since I would eat out a lot during this time, and also travel often over the weekend, Instagram became a fun platform to document my life. I also modelled briefly in my undergrad years, so, style came naturally to me and sometimes it would make for pretty pictures,” she says.

Flexcia got noticed organically around 2016. When her follower-list spiralled to 12,000, she began getting invited to be part of panels at key events. Soon after, she began receiving DMs and mails to collaborate with brands and restaurants. “But, I had a job with a publication, and earning money from another source, would have seemed like a conflict of interest. Hence, I opted for a ‘barter’, where I’d [on an one-off basis] talk about the brand or a meal, I had eaten at a restaurant, in my posts.” At 25,200 followers today, Flexcia says her brand has grown, but slowly.

Mumbai resident Dev Dodia quit a job in the hospitality industry in 2015 to turn into a full-time social media influencer. A travel photographer who collaborates with cellphone companies, he now charges anywhere between Rs 12,000-Rs 16,500 per photo, and Rs 1,000 per second for each video he posts. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Mumbai-based Dev Dodia, a passionate photographer, who runs @devdxb on Instagram, where he shares pictures shot by him from across the world, has become a leading brand to reckon with, for mobile phone companies, which started reaching out to him after his pictures were showcased on Apple and Billboard. “It all started with me sharing a photo of the Dubai Metro,” says Dodia, 27, who had briefly moved to the UAE, to work in a hotel. With 51,500 followers, Dev now demands anywhere between Rs 12,000 — Rs 16,500 per photo, and Rs 1,000 per second for each video he posts, which has been shot from any of the phone brands he promotes.

He has long quit his job in the hospitality industry, and now works as a full-time influencer. “But, I’d rather call myself a content creator,” he says, without offering an intelligible explanation. Kavya D’Souza, a fashion blogger for the last eight years, and a social media influencer, however, sets the record straight. “I think the word influencer is being highly abused. It’s become an umbrella word for everyone and anyone. Not all the followers on an influencer’s page, are necessarily genuine,” hints Kavya, 28.

Karthik Srinivasan, independent communications consultant

Sohini Mitter, a writer, who has been tracking the digital and social media space for the last six years, reveals how one can buy about 100 Instagram followers from online agencies for less than $2 (R143). “In India, it takes very little to become an influencer. You just need to have tens of thousands of followers, and since that is the only requirement, many people just buy the followers to inflate their numbers,” says Mitter. When contacted, Instagram refused to comment on whether they had made any attempts to prevent users from “buying likes and followers”.

Srinivasan agrees. “On social media, marketing is now an organised industry where anybody with the right entry credentials can join — and that credential right now is followers,” he says, adding, “Using followers as the primary criteria means, brands get reach and visibility — it’s like going to the highest selling newspaper or TV channel for advertising, not the most trusted one or the most meaningful one. But, trust is a tough object to quantify. What the ecosystem is using now is numbers by reach — it’s not wrong in any way, but is tuned towards a different direction of mere numbers.”

Lavin Mirchandani, founder of Mumbai-based GetEvangelized, an influencer marketing agency, which helps brands connect with the most relevant creators, says in order to tap quality over quantity, they have come out with “a scientific process that analyses multiple aspects of an account”. “This helps us weigh down those who have been artificially boosting their profiles,” he says.

For followers’ sake
It’s the obsession with “followers,” which led Bolat and Gilani of Bournemouth University, to investigate the influencer phenomena. “Initially, the whole project had nothing to do with issues of social media influencing and relationships with followers,” says Bolat, in an email interview. “We were interested in the commercialisation aspect and how hobbies are turning into business in the context of the social media influencer. Over the course of project we came up with the notion of curation (curatorial logic), where content is curated, followership is curated and also skills and knowledge are curated. The curatorial logic is key to social media influencing,” she says.

Kavya explains how the “curatorial logic” works. “There is a lot of planning that goes into how the feed binds together. You need to be different from the rut. I’ve been using UNUM, an Instagram planning app. It helps you design your perfect feed. So, I experiment with my grids on the app, before posting,” says Kavya, who has over 1.1 lakh followers on her Instagram page, @streakhuefall. One of the grid formulas that have worked for her and helped her win likes and followers, is choosing a certain colour palette like orange, green or golden, and posting a set of pictures featuring that colour, to create an interesting grid of photographs.

Bolat says it was during the process of understanding how influencers curate their feed, that they “discovered the dark sides” of the flashy title. There is no doubt that social media influencing is leading to confidence admits Bolat. In fact, many influencers are empowered by popularity and the circle of followers — they feel much more confident to talk to others, do public speaking, and be open about various topics.

“But then this confidence is a false state as many influencers are empowered by followers, who start manipulating and fully controlling, what is posted by the influencer. It is done by liking, but most importantly comments. If less likes appear, influencers tend to overanalyse why this happened, what can be done to get back likes. Some of the things that can be done to return likes might not be truthful to the influencer’s personality, but they still on carry on satisfying followers’ need (just like any business). This eventually creates dissonance in how influencers see themselves, in particular they concern about authenticity of their persona and activities on social media. Dissonance leads to lack of confidence, self-questioning and depression — in particular where followers’ actions are quite negative and radical to what influencer does,” says Bolat.

The ugly truth
When Ankita Kumar, a former assistant director with a production house in Mumbai, joined Instagram in late 2015, she found it to be a “very positive” platform. Kumar, 27, a globetrotter, began by posting pictures from her travels and realised that her page was getting enough traction, winning her 10,000 followers in less than a year. On a friend’s suggestion, Kumar made cold calls to brands, which were looking at marketing themselves on the digital space. With this, her journey as an influencer began. Kumar, who has moved to Bengaluru, now works as full-time social media influencer.

This also means that she is completely invested in her job. With over 42,000 followers, earning a decent 3,000 plus likes is hardly a day’s work. But, after the Instagram algorithm changed earlier this year, instead of the most recent pictures flashing on people’s feed, users were seeing photos of those people they interacted with often, says Kumar. The shift from a chronological feed to an engagement feed, made it “even harder for one’s posts to be seen”. Tech sites claimed that only 10 per cent of the audience was actually seeing the posts. Both, Kumar and Flexcia recall their likes dipping by nearly a half.

“I started becoming very anxious during this period. I had worked so hard to curate my feed, and suddenly, it was all slipping out of my hands. If there was one thing I was feeling, it was sadness,” remembers Kumar, adding that at the time, she had little idea that it had something to do with the validation she wasn’t receiving for her posts. Three months ago, after realising how the dip in likes, had begun to affect her emotional well-being, Kumar went on a digital detox for nearly 12 days. “During this time, I completely abstained from posting anything,” she adds. “I have now decided to take a break every once in a while. The experience was so terrifying that I knew I was losing control of myself.”

Noel, who suffers from depression and anxiety, recalls having very rough days, and yet being forced to flush out content for her followers. When she feels that way, Noel just cuts down on the number of photos or stories she posts each day by half. Mumbai-based clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta says, that since social media influencers are a brand themselves, there is always, this pressure for them to perform.

“But, what I find most troubling is that for most of them, their curated reality on social media becomes their reality, and it becomes difficult for them to separate the two. Our social identity is only a mask we put on. When the mask becomes your complete identity, you may lose focus of who you are as a person,” she says, adding, “In therapy, a lot of work is directed at helping influencers develop a stronger core of what their self is like. Our anxieties stem from keeping work as central to our identities, so the minute you move that narrative and keep your identity at the centre, a lot of healing starts taking place.”

Kavya admits that as the number of influencers have increased in the online space, it’s hard for one to not be on the edge and competitive. “This can be very overwhelming,” she confesses. “The Internet space is very delusional and is easily forgotten. What is trending today, won’t be tomorrow. And, because things are changing so quickly, you need to constantly reinvent yourself. You can’t live in this bubble that you’ve got the ‘formula to success’ right. Being an influencer is an all-consuming activity.”

Not just click and post
Fashion blogger Kavya D’Souza says she uses UNUM, an Instagram planning app, to ensure that her feed “binds together”. The app allows you to “handcraft layouts, tailor your grid, save posts to drafts and plan the perfect looking feed”.

Kavya uses the app to work on a certain colour palette like orange, green or golden, and post a set of pictures featuring that colour, to create an interesting grid of photographs. The planning and execution of the feed takes around three to four days, and it helps boost the curiosity for
her feed.

Money-spinning industry
Rs 2 to 3 lakh: Amount top influencers charge for a campaign that includes a couple of tweets/Instagram posts.

Rs 50,000 to 1 lakh: Price quoted by micro, middle-level influencers Small-time influencers, who will write anything the brand/client wants, including political ‘trending’ campaigns, charge as low as 2 to 3 digits as price per tweet/post

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