"How much life do I exchange for followers and likes?"
This sentence persistently showed up on the pages of my journals over the past few years, nudging me to find an answer to this question, urging me to take action. Taking action took a long, long time, but when I did...it resulted in a life lived with a sense of meaningfulness, a sense of purpose and dedication to those things I value the most.
By the end of 2020, I knew there was only ever going to be one solution for ending this continuous feeling of missing my self (not as in : myself). Social media had got in the way of deep thinking, of eloquente writing, of creativity, of continuously improving my vision and craftsmanship in photography and of peace of mind and happiness. As these things are my highest valued priorities in life, it all of a sudden felt like I was leading a life that was no longer mine. Because activities like reading, learning, creating and writing whilst challenging your mind to go just a little further every time, are most likely to be activities that might induce a state of flow, which in turn leads to more happiness, it goes without saying that numbing my mind did not feel that appealing to me anymore.
Besides that, I have always been very wary of popularity driven activities, which I have always believed to be slightly hazardous. I have always laid my faith in craftsmanship, self expression in words and visuals and challenging myself. Smart phones have met with my equally suspicious attitude towards them from day one, as I have not seen anyone actually becoming smarter from using them. Also, I don't wish to be disturbed all day long everywhere I go. I wish to do the work in this lifetime that I feel I was meant to do and this involves hours and hours without distractions, it involves as much peace of mind as is needed to be able to fully engage with a landscape that I am photographing or just experiencing and it involves adding value as much to others as to myself.
I used to be the child that read all the books in our local library. When I ran out of children's books, I went onto reading non fiction books, about all kinds of subjects from professional gymnasts to geology, before also moving on to books for adults. I was so eager to learn. My dad recognized that he needed to challenge me and gave me essays from high school students to score when I was only 10 years old. My grandmother in turn installed in me a love for the extraordinary in the ordinary, an eye for incredibly magical phenomena in nature and this all laid the foundation for the person that I turned into.
My reality was very worrisome though and to prevent my mind from going through endless cycles of unhappy thoughts, I learned to fill the voids between school hours and household chores with learning, creativity, paying attention to nature, reading and writing. These activities added value to my life all through my life. Social media also fills that void where unhappy thinking can take over, but it does so by numbing your brain through endless scrolling, chatting and liking. This mind-numbing to fill the void results in a distracted mind though, which grows ever more incapable of focus and deep thinking and ultimately incapable of feeling anything at all except the unhappiness that we attempted to numb and that grew as we started living in a world of comparison that no one knows the rules of and where no one can ultimately win.
Social media (or should I say : my use of it) diminished the quality of my life to such an extent that on January 3rd I had had enough.
I switched off my phone, I took it upstairs, put it in a drawer and recommitted myself to reading, learning, writing and photography. I did not post to social media anymore and even though I had attempted to stop for years and never quite succeeding, I did not fail this time. It was not hard, because I had decided that I had to put myself, my mind, first. I had a goal to achieve in those hours not spent with a phone in my hands, the goal being to retrain my brain to focus and to give me back the words that used to come so easily. After two or three days, someone recommended Cal Newport's book Digital Minimalism to me, saying this book was exactly about what I was doing.
Reading it was not becoming convinced that I was on the right track, it was recognizing that what I had been feeling all along was indeed true. The restlessness I felt, the anxiety, my overstimulated brain by thousands of fragments of not important mind-numbing information and images, that in turn responded to this by not being able anymore to read for more than a few minutes, not being able to absorb texts that I studied and also not able to find the right words to express myself, because what needed to be expressed was out of reach, hidden behind a veil of distractions.
I had noticed in the past few years that more and more the count of followers and likes became to be like a new currency, with people valuing it so much that they were willing to steal and copy accounts, like mine. I thought about this new currency and came to the conclusion that users highly value having this currency on their Instagram accounts', like money in a bank account, but that the currency you pay with for this count of followers and likes is attained by giving your attention and time to Instagram (or Facebook, Twitter etc). Your attention and time make up the hours and quality of your life and so you exchange life for some abstract amount of followers of which a large number is not even real.
In the last weeks of 2020 I had to spend hours every day reporting fake accounts that copied my profile, my content, my profile picture and others that stole my work and then accused me of stealing theirs. Then the daily actions of blocking numerous people who were perverts, scammers and those who use my account to converse with others about things that had nothing to do with me or my work.... I lost sleep over it. I lost control over my focus, I lost out on life because I was busy protecting myself from those who deem popularity more important than honesty, respect and reliability.
Furthermore, I became more and more startled about what is happening to nature and also to the originality in art due to people's endless striving to post a picture that would hopefully win them the jackpot (i.e. get a high amount of likes). There is an "anything goes" mentality, because the image and its possible impact on one's popularity has become more important than being authentic and to being respectful towards other photographers/ artists and nature, the latter being what worries me most. Nature, the thing that drives photographers to make images has become a means to an end, something that can be used up just so a picture can become popular, just so the photographer can add followers to his account. It makes me feel quite sick in all honesty.
This all lead to me wondering why I was spending so much time on platforms intended to rob me from as much time and attention as possible, when I could be living my life according to what I hold dear.
I set out to make a list of my most valued activities and states of mind. I weighed the benefits of social media against the value (not to be confused with monetary value) that would come from dedicating my time (and life) to those priorities and came to the conclusion that I really value being of value to others as well as to myself. Being of value to others by writing essays and teaching, by making images that convey my vision, is my preferred way of doing so and so this blog and my newsletter will be the place where I will be creating content that will hopefully be of value to you. New pictures will be posted on my website as soon as they are ready to be posted. They will be posted without the slightest consideration if they might be popular.
My efforts will stay true to the principles of the Nature First Alliance, of which I am a member, which can be summarized by saying that not one single image is worth destroying nature for, that there is a responsibility that comes from sharing images and then mentioning their locations. You might have only 1000 followers, but your work might be seen by someone who has 250000 followers who in turn shares the location with his or her followers and not all of these people have the wellbeing of nature in mind.
I have seen this happen to a spot that I was asked to not disclose. I did not, but people found out anyway and even though there are signs there that explain that you must stay on the tracks because rare plants that only exist in this area need to be protected, photographers were trampling the rare plants to get THE shot the last time I visited. It broke my heart, it really did.
These are the consequences of social media use that made me decide to back out. At this moment I have not made up my mind if I will be gone from there indefinitely, or not. Fact is though that I feel happier than I have been in years. I have reclaimed my life, because it is mine, because my father's words " Stay True To Yourself" are ringing in my ears. I have to live up to the opportunity that I received by having been given life in the first place. The prize of my life for more followers is too high, the prize of my attention and mindless distraction too steep to ever be worth it.
My newsletter is at the core of my wish to be of value to others. In the very near future subscribers will be getting content on a monthly base that will not be published on my blog. This is my way of expressing gratitude to those who support me. This blog will be the home of my essays and musings and my website the home of my images, prints and eBooks.
If you would like to subscribe to my newsletter, you can do so here (scroll down to find links to books and organizations mentioned in this essay)
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