I remember it perfectly. I was standing in my boyfriend’s condo waiting for him to get out of the shower so we could go to dinner. I checked my phone, as we all do these days whenever we have a second of free time, and I saw an email from my friend. I was immediately excited because I knew it was in reference to the event we were planning together — her store was going to host me and another author for a Summer Reading Soiree.
The email contained a draft of the invitation which included both our names, the titles of our books, and our Instagram handles. So, naturally, I did what any millennial would do next in that moment — I began to internet stalk the other author. I found her on Instagram and the first thing I looked for was the number of followers she had. It’s crazy how we do that when looking someone up — like the number of people who care what they have to say matters more than what they are saying. She had just under 3,500 followers… and there I was unable to break 500.
I suddenly felt inadequate. I felt like I didn’t belong. Like I was pretending to play in this league I hadn’t yet qualified for. Like my pursuit of being a well-known — scratch that, somewhat-known — writer was ridiculous.
And in the midst of all that self-loathing — in the time it took my boyfriend to step out of the shower and throw his clothes on — I managed to Google sites that sold followers, read a couple reviews, compare prices, and purchases 3,000 followers. I received the PayPal confirmation just as he rounded the corner saying, “I’m ready to go.” I closed my phone and we headed off to dinner. Other than a few I wonder if that was a total scam thoughts, I didn’t pay it much attention the rest of the night.
The following morning, I woke up to an onslaught of Instagram notifications — new followers. They had names in foreign characters or no names at all — just headlines soliciting something. There were handles with no profile pictures… or pictures that might qualify as soft porn.
And then the self-loathing returned.
What were you thinking?
This is ridiculous.
You are all about being authentic and this could not be further from that.
I started removing followers as fast as possible, but I could barely making a dent. The notifications just kept coming. Over the next two days, I got more and more new followers until I finally reached just over 3,500. I guess the silver lining was that I didn’t get scammed — I got exactly what I paid for.
Over the next week, an internal battle ensued in my mind — do I take the time to remove all the fake followers or just live with my panic-ridden decision?
Removing them will take FOREVER and there’s no way to know who is real vs. fake.
You cannot keep them. It’s pathetic.
Maybe it’s a good thing — when people look at your profile, you will look more legit.
And there it was — the real issue. I was using my number of followers to define my legitimacy; attaching “popularity” to validity. I assumed my follower count mattered because I was allowing it to matter in my own perusing of Instagram. Any number that warranted a “k” at the end of it and my mind went yep, they’re somebody. And that little blue check — definitely follow-worthy. And considering the number of articles, resources, and avenues out there dedicated to growing followers, I know I’m not alone in this preoccupation with numbers. We all want to increase the count because we think the count matters.
But when you really think about it, it’s completely and utterly flawed logic. There are people in this world doing incredible work and saying amazing things — it shouldn’t matter how many other people have discovered them. It should only matter that we discovered them. We shouldn’t have some popularity requirement in order to push that little blue FOLLOW button.
It’s strange because it didn’t always used to be this way. I remember back in the days of Napster and LimeWire, it didn’t’ matter how many downloads a song or artist had before we decided to include it in the mix of whatever CD we were burning (ah the good ole days!). There was almost a sense of pride in finding an artist the masses hadn’t discovered yet. It was cool to be outside the mainstream.
But for some reason that isn’t the case when it comes to social media. It’s easy to blame the socials for this shift. Why do they even show us how many followers someone has? Instagram even takes it a step further by showing you how many other people in your network follow someone. It’s like the internet version of peer pressure — “everyone else is doing it.”
But let’s be real. It isn’t social media. It’s us.
It’s our need for validation in everything we do. It’s our inability to stop comparing ourselves and our lives to those around us. It’s our unwillingness to accept where we are… to embrace our place in the process… heck, to even accept that there is a process. Instead, we always want to be bigger, further, more. And we want it now.
Recently, I listened to a talk by Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild. And boy did it hit home!
The talk was titled, “The Humble Journey to Greatness,” and towards the end she said something that took me by surprise. She instructed us to, “surrender to mediocrity.”
Huh? Mediocrity? Is her motivational speech really going to end by telling us to settle for mediocrity?
She went on to explain that surrendering to mediocrity is, “humbly acknowledging that the very best thing you have to give us is only what you have to offer. It’s what you already have; what you already hold.”
And then it sank in. We need to accept who we are and where we are and be true to that — whether it be at work, in a relationship, or in pursuit of a big dream. We live in this culture that is always striving for more — more money, more power, more love… and more followers. We see people who have what we want and use it as proof that we aren’t where we should be. We see their success as evidence of our failure. But that simply isn’t true.
According to Cheryl, “Part of being evolved is having the capacity to hold two opposing truths in one hand and recognizing the truth of each and understanding how they serve each other.”
Our task is to accept where we are yet still strive for more; to appreciate everything our current view has to offer while not losing sight of the heights we want to reach. It’s a delicate balance and one that’s hard to find in our forward-focused world. But it’s a line we must walk.
Because we don’t serve the world by wishing we were different or pretending to be something we’re not. Pining for the future does nothing for the present. We make the biggest impact by being true to who we are and giving whatever we have to give at that point in time. And as we continue to work on ourselves, our talents, and our business endeavors, those gifts will change and grow day by day, month by month, and year by year. And no one gift outweighs the other.
My truth is that I do not have a little blue check by my handle or a “k” in my follower count. Far from it. I am not well-known or even somewhat-known at this point. And I guess that’s alright. I am where I am… and where I am is in process to get to those places. I may be miles away, but I am still walking the path that those I admire had to walk. I am doing the work. I am defining my voice and learning how to use it. I am figuring out step by painful step how to build and market my brand. I am finding my tribe and they are finding me. Slowly — but that’s okay.
Ultimately, my frantic purchase taught me that the proof of success does not reside in numbers. It isn’t about counting your progress but rather continuing the process… at peace with every step. And as far as my fake followers go, I’ve decided to take the same view — appreciating the reminder of this lesson learned while patiently removing them one step at a time.