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The Toxic Side of Instagram: Why I Used to Buy Followers

When I first joined Instagram back in 2012, I used it as a personal diary. I was both excited and nervous about a platform that would focus on photography. Excited because I've always loved taking photos, nervous because I know how much I'm capable of obsessing over something.

I was a big fan of Facebook when it came out, writing a daily status to tell my friends how I was feeling or what I was doing, sharing lyrics and my favourite songs, uploading epic photo albums every weekend from our adventures.

But there was also a dark side where I would spend countless hours creeping the profiles of the girls that I was dying to look like. For a while, it was my default to compare myself to and obsess over anyone who I thought was beautiful. And at the time, I didn't that think I was beautiful.

It didn't take long for me to do the same with Instagram. The comparison game, spending all my time rethinking how I should do something because of someone else's success or beauty, the intense desire for likes, comments, and followers. The incessant checking to see if my post got enough likes or comments. The wondering what to post and feeling unworthy when my posts wouldn't get as much love as someone else's.

I found myself thinking about it way too much. What to post in the morning and evening, what moments to capture with friends or by myself. I would lose my creative ideas, my confidence, my motivation, the love I had just mustered up for myself every time I scrolled into the abyss or found a new style profile.

My mind would spiral and make decisions that were coming from a place of fear and desperation. Why don't they like me? Who do I have to be and what do I have to do for them to like me? What do I post? What do I say? What do I wear?

I'm not someone who is motivated or inspired by seeing someone else's success. I'm motivated by the story of how they got there—and people on this platform NEVER used to share those details, so all we saw was the perceived success that we would compare our beginner's journey to. And even now, a lot of these stories are filled with "toxic positivity".

It wasn't long until I started to buy followers to try and relieve all of this pain I was creating inside of myself. How can I make it look like others like me, so that more people like me? How can I show those who don't believe in me that they SHOULD? And why the fuck doesn't anyone in this town have anything nice to say about me?

I was caught up in obsessing over WHY, like I do with many things in life. Of course I had my moments where I would snap out of it and do my own thing with my lookbooks and the blog, but right after I would post them—the doubts came out to play.

At the time, ClosettCandyy was a small town personal style blog and here I was comparing myself to the biggest bloggers in New York and Los Angeles who were born into money, luxury, the fashion scene or popularity. I wasn't really comparing myself to anyone in Kingston. I was new here, so I just wanted to make a name for myself in my new town while expressing my creativity.

I wanted to be noticed for my different take on personal style and beauty. I wanted to be told that I was beautiful and inspiring. I wanted to make new friends, but I also wanted to be admired and well liked. I wanted to prove that I was worthy.

I would buy 50 followers here and there. Not too much. I didn't want it to seem obvious. I would buy likes and comments here and there, too. If I remember correctly, I stopped at 1,000 and then let it go for a year or so before doing it again. This is a decade ago though, so the exact timeline is foggy for me.

I had a hot and cold relationship with the ClosettCandyy blog. I identified with it too closely and would go through waves of wanting to delete everything or build something brand new.

I was either constantly criticising my face, my body, and my clothing or I was in love with this image of myself that I had created and wanted to continue to play around with my self expression. It wasn't all bad, because I learned to create boundaries with the app—but I'd always get sucked back in.

Fast forward to when the influencer scene *really* started to blow up around 2016, the same time someone I knew launched an Instagram growth company.

They saw that my profile was growing, and I had a nice little community of engaged followers from my lookbooks and messages around expressing yourself through personal style.

This was long before I started sharing any sort of vulnerability or glimpse of the person behind the brand. I was a girly, smiley, fashionista who loved to shop for cheap clothes and encourage others to do the same in the name of expressing themselves. I was very naive to the horrors of the fast fashion world—but we'll save that story for another time.

Back to the growth company. They asked if they could use my Instagram account as one of the beta testers for their process. I agreed.

At the time, I was working at a Digital Marketing Agency and ClosettCandyy was my blog turned "side hustle".

I didn't ask many questions at first, mostly because I wasn't as ethical in my practices or my values back then and just wanted the damn Instagram growth.

But then I started to notice what they were doing.

They would follow a ton of accounts for a couple weeks or so, engage with them, and then unfollow once they got to know me and develop a relationship with me.

I asked them about this because it felt deeply inauthentic and they said something along the lines of, "no one's gonna know!"

... until I got a DM from someone calling out the exact process.

"I thought you were different for a minute but I guess you're just another one of those accounts that follows people so they follow you back and when they least expect it... you hit that unfollow button."

Ouch. That message got through to me because all my life, I've wanted to be different. And here I was playing the same Instagram game as everyone else rather than being myself (which I was in my content, just not in how I used the app).

This is when I asked them to stop. I had around 17,000 followers and I didn't feel good about it. Not to mention, my lack of engagement didn't match my following. So I started to remove the followers until I got to 13k. That seemed more reasonable to me at the time. But the engagement was still lacking. I thought I was a failure any time a post didn't receive more than 5 comments.

So I tried the next thing: comment pods. And I actually found some people that I like and I still follow, but again—the concept was based on inauthenticity. A group of you comment on each other's posts NO MATTER WHAT. Talk about unnecessary pressure and lack of truth.

The thing is, people still use BOTH of these tricks.

For a moment last year I thought a big creator wanted to follow me. Then I realized nah, she just wants me to follow her—because I did—and then I was unfollowed.

I hate that I did this. I hate that others still do this. I understand why I did, but I can't say the same for others who still are. All I know is there is way too much value put on vanity metrics and anything outside of organic growth is inauthentic, unethical, and shouldn't be celebrated.

I couldn't stand it whenever someone complimented how many followers I had because I knew it wasn't real, but also because I knew I was right—PEOPLE DO CARE AND THINK YOU'RE BETTER? COOLER? MORE SUCCESSFUL? WHEN YOU HAVE MORE FOLLOWERS.

I refuse to be defined by my past mistakes, so I'm owning this.

For the last two years I've been removing the followers I purchased and the ones the company acquired for me. I'm doing this rather than starting from scratch because I'm proud of the work that I share and I enjoy reading my old posts. Removing these followers is like removing my old, fear-based mindset and coming home to my truth all in one.

I have no idea how many authentic followers I really have. I'm still removing them. And yeah, the part of me that still cares about numbers is embarrassed about this. But that part of me is getting smaller, and the other part of me—the one who knew it was wrong all along—her voice is getting louder.

I'm not scared of that number anymore because I know it doesn't have anything to do with my inherent worth.

I've also learned not to mistake visibility with success.

I leave you with this question: What have you learned from your time on Instagram? Is it a space where you're inspired or defeated? Does it depend on the day?

Perhaps it's time to take a break. I know I need one..



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