Before I launch into this, I’d like to make it very clear that I still love bookstagram, I still love reading, and I still love all the friends I’ve made through it. That being said, my relationship with the platform has fluctuated a lot over the seven months since I joined.
Essentially, the issue at the core of my problem with bookstagram lies in my relationship with social media in general. How often do you get trapped in scroll holes, procrastinating instead of tackling the mountain of work you’ve got piling up? Or watching YouTube conspiracy theories only to look up at the clock and find that it’s 2am and your alarm is going off in five hours? This is an all too familiar feeling for me, and sometimes I sit at the end of the day wondering what I’ve actually done with the hours I was given and how I could have spent them instead.
When I first joined bookstagram pre-COVID I still had a job. I had structure to my day, a reason to get up in the morning, and my world was not limited physically within the four walls of my house. While I had a few people I chatted to on booksta every day, I mainly used it to find interesting new book recommendations and geek out about what I was reading as, honestly, people in my real life just aren’t interested in that kind of thing (which is perfectly okay! No shade). It was never about the numbers and I simply didn’t have time to spend more than maybe an hour or so on there a day.
Like many of you, when lockdown arrived where else did I turn for comfort but books? I began with The Hunger Games and spent a week in Panem with Katniss and Peeta. For a while (before JK exposed herself as a raging TERF) I spent nights cosied up with Harry, Ron and Hermione in the Gryffindor common room, battling dark wizards and conquering evil. I spent the first few weeks of lockdown in so many worlds other than my own, and if I’m totally honest it was the only reason I coped with my feelings of anxiety and terror at what was happening in the real world.
But the more you read, the more you post, right? This is where the downward spiral began for me:
- The more I read, the more I posted
- The more I posted, the more time I spent replying to comments and messages
- The more I chatted, the less I read
- The less I read, the less I had to post
- The less I had to post, the more pressure I felt to ‘keep up’
But honestly – keep up with what? Number of books read a month? Number of likes on a post? Number of followers? Numbers, numbers, numbers. I felt a rising sense of competitiveness on the platform (totally irrational but there you go) and didn’t want to fall behind or read slower than other people were.
We all know on Instagram people engage more with genuinely interesting or helpful content; I don’t know about you but personally my reviews always ‘do better’ than my stacks or generic posts as they help people decide what to read. But the less I was reading, the less I had to review, the less people engaged with what I was putting out there. So what did I do? I joined an engagement group, of course! Not just one engagement group, but three. Great idea, Kate! *record scratch – it was not a great idea*
This was the point at which I genuinely started hating bookstagram. Yes, my posts were getting anywhere between 500 and 700 likes but they were all fake, it was getting so difficult to work out who genuinely cared what I was talking about and who was just engaging because they had to and wanted likes in return. I was also spending several hours a day engaging with other people’s posts. I ended up in insta jail twice because I commented / liked too much at once and was genuinely worried my account would get deleted. And of course, all of this meant even less time to read which was the whole reason I’d joined bookstagram in the first place. Looking back on it, you really do just have to laugh.
After a few months of this very boring cycle I had a bit of an epiphany: what if… you just… read books… and then talked about them… instead of trying so hard? Leaving the engagement groups was one of the best bookstagram decisions I made, and I wouldn’t think about joining another like them now.
Engagement and numbers are not the only things I’ve found tricky about bookstagram, however. Following the accounts that are right for you is so important and I was prompted to do somewhat of a purge of the accounts I was following (again, no shade to anyone here but this is just what worked for me personally). So I got rid of everyone who posted very aesthetically pleasing but pretty meaningless content. Instead, I followed the accounts that shared the important stuff, the nitty gritty (many of which are also lovely to look at which is a nice little bonus). The accounts that promoted LGBTQ+ voices, black voices, authors of colour, diversity within reading, the politics of the publishing industry, the hard truths we need to hear. As the accounts I followed changed, so did the types of books I was reading and so did the level enjoyment I got from these new worlds I was introduced to.
During the summer I reached a point where I realised that bookstagram was slowly having a negative impact on my love of reading, and the main link between the two was simply time. The amount of time I spent on social media (which was truly embarrassing) meant that I had very little time for reading. As a person in all aspects of my life I tend to get rather obsessive about things (mostly because I love them so much); TV shows, music, books, and yes… Instagram. At the peak of this obsession I found that mentally, my mind was always thinking about bookstagram. What photos I could take next, ways to keep my page fresh and interesting, creative ideas to get new followers. This meant that when I was reading I really wasn’t paying attention to what the book was about at all. I would often have to read entire pages over again to process what was going on. It was so tragic, and now I wonder why I got so obsessive over something that was only ever meant to be a hobby. I was so legitimately fed up at this point that I thought about deleting my account altogether.
The moment when I realised that bookstagram was truly ruining how I experienced books, however, was when I was trying to think of a book recommendation. I had cast my mind back knowing I’d read a book in June that someone had asked me my opinion on. I realised only after sending her my thoughts that my brain had merged the plots of three books I’d read that week into one. I didn’t remember the book I had read at all, yet I checked and I’d rated it five stars on Goodreads. And the reason I’d merged all these books? Because I’d read them in such quick succession, cramming to try and ‘keep up’ with whatever imaginary counter I’d created for this digital community I’d joined, that I’d not really paid attention to the content or meaning of some really profound books at all. I realised I’d not actually enjoyed reading for months. It had simply become something I did for the online platform I’d created, and for me that is just absolutely, categorically not what reading should be about.
So where am I at now? I am SLOWING THINGS DOWN, big time. I’m starting a Masters in English Literature and I am very aware that the level of reading I have to do for that is going to be unbelivably heavy, so I’m taking it easy on myself when it comes to bookstagram. I don’t have reading ‘goals’ any more. When I read, I read. When I don’t, I don’t. I am putting boundaries in place with the amount of time I spend on social media, especially since I run a shop from my phone and spend a ridiculous amount of time on that account too (but always very grateful for it!) If you follow me on Instagram you’ll have seen my ‘digital detox day’ and ‘evening off’ templates pop up on my stories every now and then. These are to make sure I allow myself time that is solely for myself without worrying or feeling guilty about replying to messages or comments. Time in the real world.
Now more than ever it is important to make sure we put boundaries in place and adjust the amount of time we give to others to make sure we allow time for ourselves. In an age where social media has such an evident and often toxic relationship with mental health, limiting the time we spend on it and the quality of content we engage with has never been more essential. From now on, I intend to always make sure I spend more time in the real world and my fictional worlds than I do in any digital one.