I am cozied up to my husband on our sofa in front of the wood stove and we are both attached to our respective iPads. (Mine has a pink cover, his has a black and white skull-themed cover. There you go.) I’ve grown weary of the state of the world I’m encountering in the New York Times, so I decide to pass the time scrolling through my Instagram photo feed. I see one of Barks at Strangers’ earlier posts and say with childlike glee, “Hey! My photo got enough likes to warrant an actual number!”
For those of you who don’t follow Instagram, when you post a photo, people can like it and Instagram will list those people. Until it reaches a tipping point, in which case they start to tally them instead of listing the individuals. I’m not sure what that tipping point is, but I’m guessing it’s around 10 or 11. My highest number of likes so far is 18. We are not talking astronomical popularity here, people.
There are some people out there in the world of Instagram who have, quite literally, millions of followers. DogsofInstagram has 1.1 million followers. HumansofNewYork, 2.3 million. BarksatStrangers, 47. I’m buying a bottle of champagne when I hit 50. (And yes, those other two are worth checking out, which you can do even if you don’t have an Instagram account. Just click on the links.)
This world of social media is indeed a strange one to me. I can’t even fathom how I would get over 100 followers, like some of my friends who do this Instagram thing just for fun, never mind 1000. One million is just an entirely different universe than the one in which I exist. I’m fairly certain that I am not the only person out there for whom this quantifying of one’s popularity in the world is mildly stressful. I honestly do not need to be reminded of something I learned back in middle school — that there are the popular kids and there are kids like me — when I’m the age I am.
I may joke about the number of likes and followers I have, but until I sat down to write this post, I wasn’t actually aware of the numbers, hadn’t really given it much thought. (Okay, maybe I gave it a little thought.) I would scroll through my feed and think, “Hmm, 27,667 likes. That’s a lot of people looking at this photo.” Sometimes I would see Instagram users urging their followers to go and like someone else’s page and “Help them get to a thousand followers!!!!!!!” (Yes, the excessive exclamation points drive me around the bend.) But it really is just so baffling to me, this pursuit of popularity that seems to be consuming our culture. And not only the pursuit of popularity, but the display of said popularity.
It’s no secret that I’m rather fond of dogs. I like taking photos of my Maisie and I like looking at great photographs of dogs (or great photographs period), of which there is no shortage out there. I would love someday to take the kinds of photos that inspired me to buy my camera. I’ve even signed up for an online course on photographing dogs, since up until now I’ve mostly relied on luck. Luck, and the fact that I have, in my own humble opinion, one of the most photogenic dogs to have ever graced the planet.
But all of these photos and videos of dogs — whether they are on Instagram or Facebook, YouTube or Vimeo — mean absolutely nothing to the dog. Zip, zero, zilch. Maisie doesn’t care one whit — indeed doesn’t even know — how many people like my photos or my posts about her. In fact, I’m sure she mostly identifies my iPad as something that prevents me from playing with her, petting her, walking her, feeding her — simply engaging with her in some meaningful manner.
I’m trying hard to understand this pressure, this intense drive, this pervasive striving for virtual popularity. I’m sure there are ways I could “work” my Instagram account to get more followers and more likes, but until I can see any reason other than my own vanity (or its opposite, my own wounded ego) it just seems like a bit of a time waster. Somehow, though, with my Instagram account being an extension of the blog, that almost feels irresponsible. I’m just not sure why.
I started this blog for two simple reasons: I love to write and I love dogs, particularly the one with whom I share a residence. It seemed like a good fit. But when you dip your toes into the world of blogging, you are suddenly aware of things like stats and hits and comments and pingbacks (huh?) and, of course, the damn likes. You realize you are supposed to participate in social media, are supposed to have a Facebook page (yes) and a Twitter account and a LinkedIn account and a Tumblr account (no, no, and no) and an Instagram account (see above) and lord only knows what else. You’re supposed to care about reaching a bigger audience, actively seeking out more readers, casting an ever wider net.
Frankly, it’s all very exhausting.
Because what it means is that there is never any resting from trying to prove your worth to the world. The internet never goes to sleep. The opportunities for more fans, more followers, more readers are always there and you’d best be paying attention. I’m actually worried that even by writing about this topic (and by, extension, my relative anonymity) I am somehow diminishing my credibility. After all, aren’t we all supposed to be bragging about how many Facebook fans we have?
The day I found Maisie, she was not trying to win a popularity contest. Whether she was conscious of this fact or not, all she was looking for was one person. She was looking for just one like. Because that was all she needed to be freed from the jail cell (albeit one with loving guards) she had found herself in. She was unclaimed at the vet’s office for seven days. She went unadopted at the shelter for ten. The person who adopted her partner-in-crime, Jerry, apparently went to the shelter with the intention of adopting her, but instead chose Jerry. I don’t know how many other people passed her up.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I knew I would have a time convincing my husband to adopt her, but I still had the courage and the confidence to tell her, “Don’t you worry, I’m coming back for you.” And I did and she stopped worrying about trying to win someone over, stopped worrying about why she was being passed up, and just got to be herself, in a warm home with people who loved her.
And really, isn’t that what it all comes down to? It’s all just about love, about giving it and receiving it and experiencing it each and every day of our lives. The more we exist on a virtual level, the less tangible that love is, and so the more we seem to need that reinforcement through the quantifying of popularity.
But here is what I know: when I wake up on a cold, cold January morning, under layers of soft flannel, a deliciously thick down comforter, and a handmade quilt given to me by a dear friend, with little Maisie curled up in between my husband and me, love is tangible. When I feel her wet nose on mine in the middle of a yoga pose or see her trusting eyes looking up at me when I call her to me, love is tangible. When I absent-mindedly rub her blissfully silky ears or consciously rub her upturned belly, love is tangible.
When my husband wraps his arms around me and completely envelops me after we are done recording for the day, or maybe just because I walked by him on my way to another room, love is tangible. When we find just the right harmony or the perfect part to complete an arrangement of a song, love is tangible. When we sit down to nourishing, delicious, homemade soup and take a moment for gratitude, love is tangible.
This blog exists in the virtual world and that makes it possible for me to make connections with people all over the world. It’s wonderful to look at my stats and see readers from different countries, encouraging to see your comments (hint, hint), lovely to see someone like a post or a photo, or better yet, to share it (hint, hint). For these things I am truly grateful.
But I don’t want to forget the real reason we are here and that is to experience life in real time, in real space, with real connections. I don’t want to judge myself or my work by some arbitrary popularity contest, by some random signs of approval, constantly looking for a hit of dopamine from the virtual world. So while I would love it if you would follow me on Instagram or Facebook, I’m just happy you’re here reading. But mostly, I’m happy I have two of the most important likes I could ever ask for: my husband and my Maisie.
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So lovely readers, are you susceptible to the whims of popularity on social media? How do you keep yourself from drifting too far from the tangible shore in a sea of virtual reality? But most importantly, how many followers do you have on Instagram? I love to hear from you, so please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.