When I was pregnant with my first baby, I was sure that once my son was born, I would rarely have time for mindless internet scrolling. Of my many false ideations of motherhood, one was that it would be relatively screen-free: my attention would never wander from the beautiful child in my care, the superficial entertainments of my iPhone rendered dull in comparison.

Of course, I spent more time than ever on my phone after my son was born, especially in those early nursing-round-the-clock days. Sure, a lot of it was spent taking photos of the precious babe, and sometimes I’d listen to podcasts or audiobooks, but for the most part, I thumbed through Instagram. (Apple’s Screen Time feature wasn’t available yet—what a relief. File that information under “Things I Don’t Ever Want to Know.”)

At the time, influencers were gaining steam in every imaginable area of interest: fashion, fitness, travel, DIY. I’d been following a handful of influencers who ranged from event-planners to foodies, but after my son’s birth, I gravitated toward other moms.

There were plenty to be found. Some focused their accounts entirely on motherhood and its joys and difficulties; others built their platforms to sell their art or get their writing in front of more readers. Some were thoughtful and introspective; some were funny. I loved them all. In a season that yielded as much loneliness as it did joy, I was grateful for a bit of solidarity.

As time went on, however, I began to feel pinpricks of . . . something. Skepticism, maybe? Annoyance? Disillusionment? Whatever it was, it wasn’t positive. Slowly but surely, I began to unmask my relationships with these women—that is to say, the reality that I had no relationships with them.

The friendly neighborhood of microinfluencers

Some influencers gain followings in the hundreds of thousands, even millions, their lifestyles approaching the glamour of Hollywood celebrities’.

Many others, however, gain relatively modest audiences in the tens of thousands, some even falling below the 10,000-follower “swipe up” threshold. Often referred to as micro- or nanoinfluencers, these were the types that dominated my own feed.

“Their lack of fame is one of the qualities that make them approachable,” explains business reporter Sapna Maheshwari. “When they recommend a shampoo or a lotion or a furniture brand on Instagram, their word seems as genuine as advice from a friend.”

But while brands may have latched onto the efficacy of working with micro- and nanoinfluencers, many such women (and they are mostly women) eschew sponsorships entirely. They share their lives and their creativity, and the draw for their followers isn’t so much product recommendation as it is relatability. Perhaps there’s no better example than the #fridayintroductions convention: on Fridays (though not typically every week), an influencer might share a post introducing herself and welcoming new followers. It reads like an offer of friendship—and, I’d hazard a guess, is often genuinely intended as such.

The illusion is insidiously easy to maintain. In many ways, these women are everything you’d want in a friend: they offer generous (and frequent) windows into their homes, their families, their musings, their struggles. As a new mom, I clung to the knowledge that I wasn’t the only one who spent more time sitting on the floor than in an office chair, whose biggest outing for the day was usually a walk in the neighborhood, who longed for adult conversation even more than sleep.

And yet, as I began to unpack the emotions that had begun to nag me, I discovered that the similarities to real friendship ended there. These were not women who knew me in any meaningful way—really, in any way at all. They were unfamiliar with my home, family, musings, struggles. Their recommendations and advice lacked helpful personal context that long-standing relationships in my life had, and as such, the solidarity I felt was short-lived.

The pitfalls of the platform

Many early users of Instagram were drawn to the app for its filters, not even realizing it was a social network, co-founder Kevin Systrom told Recode Decode in 2017. “What happened was they started getting likes, and before you knew it, it was like oh, there’s an actual network here,” he explained. “And it started to take off.”

Today, it’s hard to imagine an Instagram in which we’re not hyper-aware of our audience. We download third-party apps to edit our photos; we carefully craft our captions. And even after we finally tap “share,” we still often feel what writer Collier Meyerson dubbed “post-post anxiety” in those vulnerable moments before the likes start rolling in. We’re caught between wanting to record our experiences in a way that’s real and true while also making a favorable impression on our followers—who, by the way, can range from coworkers to best friends to an ex-boyfriend’s sister.

But it’s also hard to imagine an Instagram in which we’re not conscious, on some level, of being the audience. By the time we see a post from an influencer in our feeds, it already has hundreds of likes, if not more. Comments likewise proliferate—just take a look at any giveaway post (which seem to appear as frequently as spotless kitchen counters or latte art). Navigate to an influencer’s profile, and you’ll find out what miniscule percentage of her followers you comprise. Even if Instagram permanently removes like counts from posts (a change it’s currently testing in the United States, among other parts of the world), each post will still proclaim, “Liked by so-and-so and others.” The “others,” even if not visibly enumerated, will always be around.

There are some venues for which it’s preferable, or at least normal, to be part of an audience: concerts, movies, panel discussions, art shows. But relational intimacy thrives in privacy. What our friends choose to share with us—and, importantly, when they choose to share it—is no small part of the relationship. If they shared their struggles broadly as they were happening, it would not only risk their own mental health, but it would cheapen the confidence they’d placed in us.

And yet, it has become the norm for influencers to do just that on Instagram to ever-growing audiences. Every once in a while, we are forcibly reminded just how vulnerable this makes them: when they come under fire for how they respond to a pandemic, for example, or for what they do or don’t say in the face of systemic racism. And unfortunately, even the most well-intentioned sentiments cannot manufacture a relationship between an influencer and every follower. As I’ve written before, it’s a matter of numbers: if I am one of thousands of followers, I’m anonymous and expendable. Desire for the relationship to be two-sided—even from both parties—does not make it so.

Of course, we’ve assumed so far that these posts always come across as wholly genuine. The truth is, they often don’t. Most of us act differently when we’re conscious of a crowd watching, and even earnest attempts at authenticity can ring hollow. (Occasionally, they’re downright disingenuous. I once reached out to a woman who was, let’s just say, quite a bit less friendly over direct messages than in her own feed.)

Furthermore, it’s possible that any image-first platform would suffer from some level of inauthenticity: any true vulnerability in a caption is nearly always at odds with the accompanying perfect picture.

“Instagram is built for beauty (its filters make your life look better), not for rawness,” observed Sarah Pulliam Bailey in an article about the “Mom Internet.” Posting real captions is one thing; posting real photos is, for most, a bridge too far. And if a picture speaks a thousand words, Instagram’s caption character limit would need to be long enough for the entirety of this essay thus far to outweigh the perfect tile-floor shot.

All of it makes for an odd dynamic. There’s a lot that can be said about how it affects influencers and their own emotional health (too much to address in this piece, in fact). And when followers reckon with the true nature of those relationships—whether simply by observation; by direct messages or comments left unresponded to; or, worst of all, by direct messages or comments responded to unkindly—they’re left feeling even lonelier than before.

When less is more

We’ve all read memoirs, books, or essays where we felt a true connection to the author. Is that connection also illusory?

I don’t think so. For one, there’s a privacy, a uniqueness, in the experience that just doesn’t exist on Instagram. Even if millions of other people read the same book, I’m not conscious of their presence while I’m reading it, which makes the experience more wholly mine. And in the absence of photo after photo, our imaginations play a more active role, personalizing it further. It’s almost as if the author stepped into our homes, sitting with us in our kitchens, rather than us sitting at their (often enviable) farmhouse-chic dining room table.

Even more importantly, we’re more aware of the boundaries of these mediums. They can’t be as in-the-moment: they’re based on months or years of thought, research, reflection. (Even an article, which can be published quickly, is no match for the immediacy of Instagram Stories.) But far from being hemmed in by a lack of real-time updates, the reader-author connection instead transcends time and space. There’s no expectation of interaction or affirmation. The author casts his or her work out into the world, and if it catches someone at the right time, in the right season, it can be as impactful as the words of a trusted friend—even while it isn’t mistaken for real friendship.

When my firstborn was about six months old, I stumbled upon Anne Lamott’s memoir Operating Instructions, a journal of her first year as a mother. It’s raw, funny, and beautiful. I turned page after page, often muffling my laughter so as not to wake my sleeping baby, and I found more consolation within its covers than I ever had on my phone. Her son is a couple years older than me; the book was published when I was a baby. And yet, none of that mattered as I read her journal entries. If anything, the passage of so much time between when she wrote it and when I read it affirmed the universal nature of the highs and lows of new motherhood, a comfort in itself.

These days, I’m taking care of my second baby. It’s a lot easier this time around. But should I ever be plagued by self-doubt or loneliness, it’s real friends and family I’ll turn to—not Instagram. 

And if they’re all busy? I might just pull Operating Instructions off my shelf for another read.