November 30th, 2022
Having just posted an image on Instagram, I am now sitting here wondering how many people have found themselves caught up in what I refer to as the social media cycle of dopamine or despair. How many people have fallen into the trap of measuring their success on social media based on the number of likes and followers they have?
Maybe my story will resonate with your own experience or maybe your relationship with social media has never made you feel as if you are riding an emotional roller coaster. Either way I hope you decide to read on to find out more.
So, let’s go back in time to 2018. Fuelled by an overwhelming passion for photography and driven to learn as much possible, I was by this stage taking an enormous number of photos. At the time, I had very little experience of social media. I knew it existed of course but I had never seen the appeal of it. That was until I decided that it would be nice to show some of my work to the rest of the world. The idea of sharing my images on a gallery that most of the world could access suddenly became very tempting so I opened an Instagram account and started sharing posts.
It wasn’t long before I received likes and followers and I naively assumed this would continue at the same rate. So, when the number of followers decreased instead of increasing, I felt very disheartened. I nevertheless continued to post images on a daily basis, hoping they would prove to be more popular. I didn’t expect huge numbers of people to like my work but it was easy to think that, because there are millions of Instagram users in the world, my images should receive hundreds or thousands of likes. Were my images that bad that not many people liked them? And why were people following me one day and not the next? Had I unknowingly done something to offend them or had their opinion of my work changed radically in the course of 24 hours?
I soon became trapped in the cycle of dopamine or despair although at the time I had no idea that this was happening nor did I realise the detrimental effect it was having on my mental wellbeing.
So, here is how it works.
If a post receives few likes then there is the temptation to post something else which might be more successful, therefore giving you the dopamine hit you require. On the other hand, if a post receives lots of likes then there is the temptation to post more similar looking images in order to continue gaining likes and avoid disappointment. We then have the scenario whereby you find a style of image which is very successful. Having found a magic recipe that works, you are reluctant to try something different in case it is badly received. You then self-limit your creativity and develop a photographic style defined by the validation you receive on social media.
It therefore becomes easy for social media to reinforce conformity and the need to seek validation from others. If you fall into the trap of measuring success by the number of likes and followers you get then this will inevitably take you into the cycle of dopamine or despair. The number of likes and followers is such an easy measure to observe and the social networks make you think it is important because it serves their purposes.
At one point I became extremely focused on Instagram, continually looking at my phone to see how many likes I had received. “I would get up in the middle of the night and sneak into the bathroom to get a fix, concealing from everyone the extent of my addiction.”* If a post was doing well I could feel a real sense of excitement whereas if a post wasn’t getting many likes I would feel very disheartened and disappointed.
My fixated, obsessive behaviour had spiralled out of control and instead of feeling good about my images I had lost a lot of confidence in my photography. I knew I needed to do something. As I saw it, I had two choices. I could:
a) Close my Instagram account or
b) Work out a way of making sure I never entered the cycle of despair.
In the end I chose option b.  I realised that that social media doesn’t have to be something to avoid and that it all comes down to how you measure success. If you seek validation from others, in terms of likes and followers, in order to measure how successful your images are, then you are doomed. If, however, you choose self-validation for your images and all that matters is whether or not you like them then you will always end up in the dopamine cycle.
For me Instagram is now a gallery where I post images, not in order to seek validation from others, but so that I can see how my photography evolves over time. Not only that, but it is an opportunity to engage with like-minded people. And, if I receive some nice feedback about my work from others then that is a bonus.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. If you would like to share any of your own thoughts, then please feel free to leave a comment or email me at
*Excerpt taken from ‘The Odd Piece.’

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