The near-universally used social media mecca of photography, Instagram, has quickly blossomed into a breeding ground where its monetized users are posting content to spread and cement messages, as opposed to sharing pictures; it’s long-forgotten founding concept.

While the age old adage, Time is Money, is certainly solidifying its existence with each upload, (803 per second to be exact,) the mass-production of content has rapidly become the banker of our social lives.

In an article published by TIME Health, Why Instagram Is the Worst Social Media for Mental Health, author Amanda MacMillan states, “Instagram is the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing, according to a recent survey of almost 1,500 teens and young adults. While the photo-based platform got points for self-expression and self-identity, it was also associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out.’”

While these statistics are
undoubtedly useful in creating another layer of context when it comes to our
sharing-based platforms, they don’t really touch on why the content of Instagram is linked to poor mental health, and what it actually contains. Though the application is user-based – wherein you define your own newsfeeds by following the content of your choosing – the “master library” of accounts to choose from has become repetitive and, most significantly, unavoidable.

For the pillars themselves, they simply ride – or create – a wave, and wait until they’ve gained enough swimmers to classify themselves as an ocean. Once they’ve amassed a particular amount of followers, they are then funneled into advertising channels for anything that seemingly fits under the scope or demographic of their following.

With over 700 million monthly active users on Instagram, it doesn’t matter that, say, 3 million of those accounts are dedicated to weight loss – there can never be enough coverage on any one subject anymore. Like this – a YouTube makeup vlogger gathers a few hundred subscribers and then adds a Twitter account to share ideas on the “run.” Once they’ve created a window of accessibility to their followers, they then transition into selling products – the infamous social media “giveaways.” This then snowballs into unrelated (yet still somehow related?) products, such as workout gear, home-delivery meal services, tea detoxes, etc., and before their loyal followers even notice the progression, they’ve already blossomed into a picturesque empire, selling health and happiness with each piece of content posted. 

For a more granular example, let’s explore the Instagram account, Where’s My Office Now. A van-traveling couple – Emily King and Corey Smith – who have amassed over 170,000 followers (a drop in the bucket, comparatively) after creating a travel-inspired photography account filled with the quintessential “selling” of wanderlust. In a profile published by The New Yorker in April 2017, #Vanlife, The Bohemian Social-Media Movement, author Rachel Monroe dives into just how granular it actually is to be an Instagram “star,” let alone maintaining that fame.

“King clicked on the account’s most successful post, which has more than eight thousand likes. In the image, the back seat of the van is folded down into a bed; King faces away from the camera, holding a sheet to her chest, her hair cascading down her naked back. The second most popular post was of King wearing a bikini, standing on the van’s front bumper. In the next most popular, King is in a bikini, slicing lemons.”

Corey Smith and Emily King – Photograph by Jeff Minton for The New Yorker

Ah, the tangible evidence that no one cares about who you are as a human being, where your political beliefs lie, or even where you live your life – just as long as you look good doing it. And if that’s the case… has marketing, even in grassroots form, always been intrinsic to exploitation? Have all we done is simply change the vehicle and call it evolution by design? If a VW Van campaign can’t sell you the idea of living out of one, simply place a societally attractive couple in the middle of Joshua Tree, making love with the trunk doors open; body language becomes design and, in turn, that design becomes profit.

While the question of marketing as exploitation may answer itself tenfold, that still doesn’t solve for where on the timeline we turned humans into electronic billboards; robots who update the content of their lives in such rapid succession, one might think they never sleep. As digital natives, we’re quickly learning that to be asleep is to miss out, often referring to updating or adding to our social media accounts as “feeding the beast.” Never mind our ignorance to its ceaseless appetite.

To somewhat understand the enormity of our addiction, let’s take all of our social media accounts and envision them as a tornado – one entity tearing through landscapes (self-esteems) and across entire regions (psyches) – collecting content to secure the attentiveness of its audience. No amount of information can ever satiate the hunger of social media, the same way natural disasters don’t have parameters around what they destroy. We, as humans working to stay engaged, are starving for both content and privacy, and don’t care to put limitations on either.