This is the second in a two part series so be sure to read Part One here first.
When I started Gold & Graphite, I probably had somewhere around 700 followers. Let the words “probably” and “somewhere around” be the tip-off that I don’t have this number documented anywhere and wouldn’t put money on this guess, but I do distinctly remember hitting 1,000 followers being my first goal. Thanks to a few children’s clothing companies and Pinterest, I hit that goal quickly. After that, though, it felt like every follower was coming one by one from a quicksand pit in the depths of a faraway jungle. The process of growth was slow, friends. Risen Motherhood asked me to write a piece for them and that sparked an increase in followers. When Hunter asked me on the Journeywomen podcast, there was another little spike. The largest and most immediate jump back then, though, was when the Magnolia Instagram account posted a photo of my daughter at the Silos. I think it was somewhere around 900 people within the day. It was a mixture between excitement for some instant gratification and discouragement that my own work and words had never warranted the same response.
My Instagram follower count became a constant focus and disappointment. The messages in my DM’s would say things like, “you are my favorite person to follow! I can’t believe you don’t have 10K followers yet!” and “you’re the only account I have to check daily because I just cannot miss a thing! I’m shocked you don’t have more followers!” As kind as these messages were, they added to the most dangerous kind of cocktail brewing in my belly- a mixture of pride, envy, shame and discontent. It became impossible to create from a pure place anymore. Instead, I had an eye on just about every “How to Grow Your Instagram Following” content piece on the internet and became terrified to share something if I thought it wouldn’t perform.
Since I had yet to seal the deal on a paid partnership, affiliate links were the only way I actually made money for my fuller-than-full time job. This meant my number one focus had to remain blog content. I’d spend weeks on a post, gathering links, creating graphics in photoshop, documenting every tip and travel and sharing endlessly. All my experiences, all my research, all my trial-and-error was uploaded twice a week and offered up for free in hopes that that someone would find it helpful enough to share it, shop from it and see my work as valuable.
See me as valuable.
It’s important for me to say here that the heart behind why I started a blog and who I hoped to serve was lost somewhere back there. I was working so constantly that the product of those hours became an overwhelming source of secret humiliation. I’d traded hours of presence, sleep, contentment and fellowship for this work for years. As much as I truly loved (and nearly idolized) the work, I couldn’t justify talking into my phone while O watched the kids for the afternoon, looking for links people needed, answering questions-some that should have been a google search and some that were better suited for a therapist, responding to emails, creating the blog posts and graphics and NOT be compensated for it.
That right there was the slippery slope.
In the end, when the like-count was low and purchase count was even lower–when that work didn’t result in more blog views or Instagram followers or any real validation, the shame was unbearable. I can’t even begin to count the amount of times I’ve scribbled a rage and desperation dripped, “WHAT AM I EVEN DOING THIS FOR?” into journals over the years. Not because I wasn’t bringing in the income I thought my work would earn, but because I was living in a room lit with neon lights reading “you’re not good enough.” It was as if all content creators were co-workers wearing our perceived value on a sign above our heads for the world to see. 700 thousand people think she’s worth it. Seven thousand people think you’re worth it, Jill.
That isn’t true. Of course not. But for someone who has always battled crippling insecurity, doubt, envy and finding my identity in Christ and not the opinions of others, it was the equivalent of an alcoholic floating in the pool next to a swim-up bar. The alcohol wasn’t the reason the alcoholic got in, but if they stop kicking and just float, it’s where they’ll end up every time.
This is also the time on Instagram where loop-giveaways were at their absolute peak. You might remember a time where three out of every ten stories you’d watch would mention a giveaway of some sort. An, “all you have to do is follow these six people and like this post to enter” kind of situation. I noticed people gaining tens of thousands of followers in a day by following this method, but I couldn’t help but feel a knot in my stomach about it. Whenever I was approached to do one, the only word I could come up with in my mind for the reason behind my “no, thank you” was that it was cheating.
To be clear, loop giveaways weren’t necessarily cheating. They (mostly) were within Instagram’s guidelines and someone did genuinely win what was being offered. But for me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was the same as buying followers. I find this 2020 article to explain the loop-giveaway phenomenon in the most succinct, albiet snarky, way. Here’s an excerpt that sums it up well:
“So, who was paying for these Pelotons, which retail for a little over $2,200 a pop, and why? The answer’s pretty simple: The influencers involved in the loop giveaway split the cost of the item they’re giving away. You could say it’s an investment in their personal brand: Splurge on a must-have “prize,” tell Instagram users they can win it if they follow you, and get potentially bumped up into another influencer tier overnight. The higher your tier (aka, micro-, macro-, or mega-influencer), the higher and more frequent your brand partnership paychecks typically are. Of course, there are many, many more nuances to this complex ecosystem, but you get the gist. Followers are currency.”
This competition was a painful one. For a few years there, brands would honor that higher follower count above everything else. I had pretty incredible engagement since I essentially devoted my life to the app. Despite being a micro-influencer, I had better engagement than many mega-influencers because each of my followers had come all that way from the quick-sand, remember? One by one, slowly but surely, each follower was there because they found value in my content and had chosen to be there. This meant they trusted me and were more likely to engage with me and my work. It didn’t matter, though, because someone who did six loop giveaways in a month and grew to 150 thousand followers in that time would be given the partnership strictly because, well, more eyes. This lasted for a while, but soon, brands began to realize engagement was the only metric that truly mattered.
And this brings us to the moment I began to wrestle with the idea that this job, my dream job, wasn’t for me anymore.
In 2020, like most people on the planet, I took a real look at the way I was living my life and was forced to ask the hard questions. At the top of the list for me, always, am I prioritizing my priorities? The answer was easy and inescapable; No. Instagram and the pursuit of perceived success was getting the best of my energy, effort, attention and time. I had just given birth to my third baby, my autoimmune disease had never been in a worse state and I was facing something I had never experienced and didn’t have a name for. I’d learn months later that I was wading through burnout. I’d say “of course I was” and “it was so obvious” but at the time, all I could say over and over to anyone who would listen was, “I just don’t know what to do.”
Because of Instagram’s new algorithm, the app rewards those who spend the most time creating and sharing on it and punishes those who fail to do so in a consistent (and constant) way. The only thing I wanted to do was delete the app, but knowing it would further jeopardize my ability to grow and work with brands and be compensated for spending nearly every waking hour on the app made that seem impossible.
I saw so many women navigating this well- sharing beautiful, inspiring and uplifting content every single day with joy and vigor- and the shame crept back in. Why could everyone from Bible teachers, writers, artists, photographers, mothers, stylists and chefs alike show up well on this app day after day while the same task left me crumbling? In January of 2021, I decided I’d delete the app every Friday afternoon and download it again every Monday morning. Those weekends became precious to me. A lifeline of sorts. I started to crave those weekend breaks by Wednesday and paid close attention to the root of that urge, only to notice the constant desire to show up as my best self and provide for thousands of people and a handful of companies had begun to take a toll. By the end of last year, I was so anxious and stressed with partnership deadlines and guilt from said partnerships that I couldn’t even open my emails anymore. I was spiraling.
Partnerships are something I cant end this without touching on. I had spent years watching my favorite influencers do “unboxing” videos and share posts with “gifted” this and “ad” that and I just couldn’t wait to get a taste of that life. When brands started contacting me asking if they could send me things for free I must have screamed out loud. What could be better than getting something you use and love for FREE?! And when I started to get actual partnership requests and would be PAID to use and share something I had been using and sharing on my own dime for years, I was flabbergasted. Gobsmacked. I felt like the end of the struggle had finally come. “Easy Street” and visions of Annie’s fake parents filled my head on repeat and some of that aforementioned shame died down a little bit. I learned quickly that I could negotiate my contract based on the work I provided, which was good work, and my even despite my follower count, I was able to make good money through brand deals. Good money. Fast money. But, of course, it wasn’t what it seemed.
Brand partnerships are genuinely what allow influencers to do what they do so I’m not bashing them. We all have a different threshold and I had to accept that I ignored what was right for me for years. I’m speaking for me and only me right now. I have a degree in fashion merchandising- not advertising. I wanted to be in the business of freely sharing what I loved- I didn’t want to be in the business of persuading people to buy on behalf of the company. I also paid attention to the way partnerships of other influencers made me feel. Does that girl working with Volvo and using a car for free make me feel encouraged? Does that girl working with a hotel and getting a full stay comped with snacks for her kids and a customized pillow and robe set make me feel inspired? Nope. It makes me think, “I wish I could stay there/get this/experience that for free, too.” “She of all people can afford it, why does she need all these things for free?” “Did they really send her four colors of that carseat?” I couldn’t help but think, when I opened another box of things I didn’t ask for or need, that brands should be giving these expensive things to people who need them rather than people filled to the brim with too much stuff as it is.
It’s a broken system.
A system of excess so blinding you almost go numb to it.
There are a million little things that contributed to my need to step away from this brand new form of business. There are millions of people who can play a game or two at those slot machines in the Las Vegas airport. Millions of people who can drink socially and have a good time. Millions of people who can have a little treat every once in a while and ignore them most days. But for people prone to addiction, turning something seemingly innocent into something toxic is just a slippery slope. I don’t drink, I don’t gamble and my vices are few, but it took years of craving approval, self-worth and support on the app to realize I’m not a person who can use it without abusing it. Without being abused by it.
And here, nearly five months after stepping away from Instagram and my career as an influencer, I can say I have a peace in my mind and spirit that I haven’t experienced in years. I have gone on trips without documenting them play-by-play in stories. I’ve celebrated birthdays and created things I’m proud of and laughed and cried without reporting it to anyone but the people in my arms. I’ve learned what it means to come face to face with idolatry and name it. My relationships are deeper, my friendships sweeter and my head feels more like Hans Zimmer than Metallica.
Again, I can’t stress enough that this isn’t a blanket statement for everyone in the industry-far from it-but it’s my story and I’m grateful to be able to share it in this space with you.