Let me begin this story with the beginning of Instagram.
(Yes, this will be a long post but I HAVE to write it to a) get it off my chest, b) help get my business back on track after last year, and c) to be as open and honest with all of you as I can be.)
When I was 15, my father and I started our photography business. Until I was 21 we ran studios, workshops, did personal and commercial shoots alike and had a blast at it.
Things were different back then. To get a photography job I’d have to lug my paper portfolio around to agencies, PR firms, and individuals. I’d bring a contact sheet of references and spend at least half the meeting selling myself as a photographer.
That’s how I got jobs back then — at least until I started getting a steady stream of business through word-of-mouth.
Instagram changed all of that.
I never thought much of Instagram when it first began. My sister is actually the reason I have an Instagram account at all (and because I had to choose a username, MushroomStew was born). There was no logic, strategy or expected outcome, just a place to share little bits of life:
(my very first Instagram post in 2012)
But after my father’s tragic death in 2010, I shut down our photography business. Locked up my cameras. Burned my original portfolio. The whole NINE YARDS. Just so I could try to shed every aspect of that life in an attempt to just stifle the pain.
I’m not proud of this. As I reflect, almost 8 years later, I know how upset my father would’ve been if he knew I’d give up photography for five whole years after his death. But that’s what happened.
But, again, Instagram changed that.
When I started my account I hadn’t picked up my DSLR in YEARS. And for the first year and a half on Instagram I’d share only phone photos for personal reasons.
But as Instagram grew, as I grew, and as my aesthetic grew, I eventually knew it was time to pick my camera up again.
And now I’m a full-time photographer and blogger ALL thanks to Instagram and the amazing followers I’ve found along the way. Brands and clients take one look at my Instagram account and I’m hired! It’s the only portfolio or resumé I need anymore. What a change from 10 years ago!
And better still, I LOVED Instagramming.
For almost three years straight I posted to Instagram three times a day. I shot my way around Chicago and found my dream job sharing the photos of my travels with my followers.
But last year I disappeared from Instagram.
And here’s why…
Why I Disappeared From Instagram Last Year
1. Family Illnesses & Loss
When I lost my father in 2010 it felt like my whole world collapsed.
He was my best friend, father, AND business partner. And the void after his death is something I’ve struggled with everyday since.
Grief, tragedy, and death have been a huge portion of my life since I was 22. So I’m no stranger to family illness and difficulties.
But the last 16 months have been even harder than losing my Dad at such a young age. In just 16 months Hubby and I have lost five DIRECT family members, ranging in ages 38 to 93. Some expected, most not. And the tempo hasn’t let up since Hubby’s grandfather passed in October 2016.
While Hubby and I were visiting my Southern Belle grandmother for Thanksgiving 2016, she had a massive stroke and my life turned upside down (remember my ‘reality bites’ post?). As her primary caregiver and power of attorney, I stayed behind to care for her. Anxiously sitting in the hospital for days straight not sure if she’d live. Just waiting, waiting.
Once she was discharged to rehab weeks later I came home but turned right back around the next month to help her transition to living at home post-stroke. My days were filled with physical therapy, endless doctor visits, and constant comments from those in Florida asking if I was going to leave my life in Chicago and move down with her.
All the while I was losing my Chicago business right and left. And spent the longest time away from my husband I’d ever had since we met nine years earlier.
To say it was an anxious few months would be an understatement. ‘The Sun is larger than the Earth’ kind of understatement.
To put it bluntly LIFE SUCKED.
I lost most of my main photography clients — not because they weren’t understanding or sympathetic to my situation — only because I was 1,000 miles away and unable to take the shoots.
I returned home again in March 2017 to head on a once-in-a-lifetime trip with the Finland Board of Tourism. Not even 9 hours after landing my grandmother had to go to the hospital because she’d fallen off the toilet and hurt herself. I spent the rest of the trip worrying and panicking every time I got a call from her area code, completely distracted and completely miserable that I was so distracted during such a momentous trip.
Talk about unrelatable. This is the sort of stuff you really don’t understand until you go through it yourself. I sometimes wonder if the way other people judge you during these tragic times isn’t even harder than the tragedy itself. You’re alive but you can’t live your life. And believe me, I get why NO ONE really wants to talk about this stuff. But that also makes it even harder to handle. You feel like a freak even though you had no say in the hand fate dealt you.
Hadn’t I already sacrificed so much for my Dad at the end of his life? To have it happen twice in my 20’s felt downright cruel.
And the rest of our year followed in suit — sudden illnesses or complete life overhauls in the blink of an eye. Ups and downs like I never would have ever expected in my life 10 years ago.
I just couldn’t bring myself to Instagram hardly at all, especially when I was actually with my grandmother caring for her. I was so resentful about losing my business I didn’t even want to look at it. I shouldn’t have been, but I was. And seeing all my friends and colleagues continue to build their businesses and get new opportunities only fueled the frustration.
Three or four times last year I didn’t go on Instagram once for at least two weeks straight.
It was THAT bad.
And if I did post it was once in a blue moon.
After my grandmother’s death this past February I started to return to Instagram slowly, only when it felt right and “positive” for me. What did that do? That lost me hundreds of followers just by posting after having been gone for so long.
So far all I can do is push along and have faith that I’ll get my life back on track after the tragedies of the last 16 months. I don’t regret shirking Instagram for so long but I’m certainly paying a price for it. Which leads me to my next point…
I’ve waited YEARS to shoot the Northern Lights — only professional photographers can appreciate what a truly delicious moment capturing this shot was. It was f*cking freezing out, my tripod was on an icy windy hill, I couldn’t see a damn thing through the viewfinder, and could see NOTHING in person but on our last night here in Lapland, I’ve fulfilled a decade-long bucket list shot of capturing the Northern Lights PROPERLY. This ones for you Dad, I wish you could have been here to shoot this with me. I’ll never forget the lessons you taught me ❤ || #ourfinland #visitlapland #bachelorinfinland
2. Depression & Anxiety
During all these family tragedies and illnesses, I began to spiral ever downward. Some days it was too much to try to even smile.
I’d lost most of my business. Lost most of my motivation to run it. And was even losing some close relationships because I couldn’t cope with everything.
So much of my grandmother’s last year of life brought back memories of caring for my father during his last 16 months of life.
It was too much. And my resentment bred depression and anxiety like mold.
Some days I was so paralyzed with my depression I wouldn’t even want to get out of bed. And showering? Nope.
And, again, I’m not proud of this. But I also accept that I am human. And I feel like any human watching their loved ones go through the pain and suffering I’ve watched my closest family go through would feel damaged.
And I was.
I was damaged. I’ve suffered from strong bouts of depression ever since my father’s death in 2010 and I’ve shared that with you before. After I finally opened up and wrote one of the rawest posts I’d written to date in 2016, I was SHOCKED at how many of you reached out and said you dealt with the same things.
In particular, Erin of 312 Food, wrote me the sweetest email about that post and her extreme bouts of depression too (she’s since written about it on her blog and I highly recommend reading it!). We’d known one another through the Instagram community for a while before that but that email and our lunch date after solidified our friendship.
And, if I’m being honest (and because I really just want you all to know what a truly amazing person she is), I don’t know if I could have made it through last year without her.
(Thank you Erin for saving me from myself. Thank you for always taking my 2 am calls, watching me sob on Facetime for hours, and for always proving to me that friends really can make all the difference in your life.)
But let me tell you, one thing the depression and anxiety I experienced last year did was keep me off Instagram. Every time I went on, every time I saw someone’s beautiful feed and their beautiful life it’d send me into a terrible spiral. So there were so many weeks that I just stopped because I really couldn’t. I knew well enough that I needed to manage my depression instead of “egg it on”.
So my method was just to avoid anything and everything that caused more pain and depression. Which ties into my third point…
Chicago may be freezing today but at least the sun is shining! Heading to the Windy City soon? Be sure to bookmark my @expedia guide to the 5 Chicago Tourist Spots WORTH Visiting — direct link in my profile 👆🏻(@liketoknow.it http://liketk.it/2pVF3), 📷: @alialistone || #liketkit #dametraveler #ltktravel
Being 1,000 miles away from my home, puppies, family, and friends was the hardest part of last year.
I was gone twice as much from my home last year than I’d ever been before. And most of it wasn’t for glamorous press trips (though WOW did those save my sanity last year)…
It’s hard to describe the loneliness you feel in your 20s when your friends are at the bars and buying tickets to see Beyoncé and you’re buying adult diapers and keeping Pacemaker records six states over.
And going on Instagram DEFINETLY made this a lot worse. At first while I was caring for my grandmother, I thought trying to connect with my friends and family back home would help me feel better.
But really all I felt was EXTREME disconnect.
Like I was living a completely different life. A ghost of my life.
And once I realized that I’d go into a lonely depression every time I went on Instagram, I had to make the decision to just STOP. To just stop fixating. My life last year for most of it WASN’T Instagrammable. Far from it.
Uninstagrammable, if that’s even a word.
I had to stop. To stop feeling so anxious and pressured to try to maintain my Instagram life when my “real life” was in shambles. I’ve seen bloggers whose lives are complete messes but their Instagrams look perfect. I am not one of those girls.
I’m not a ‘fake it ’til you make it’ type. I’m a ‘let’s find the beauty in this messed up world’ type. But once I started this blog, I made a conscious effort to make it my beautiful escape and the moment my life lost it’s beauty, I lost the will to share beauty (temporarily).
Nothing beautiful was happening so I just didn’t post. I never like to get negative on my feed because it is, above all else, my positive life outlet. And I want others to feel positive when they see my work. I want them to feel empowered and inspired. Not lonely and broken.
So every time I felt lonely last year, I avoided Instagram like the plague…
4. Instagram’s Algorithm
I can’t possibly talk about engaging with Instagram last year without touching on the truly tragic way that Facebook has destroyed my beloved social outlet.
When I started Instagramming it was all about the quality of the content. If someone followed you it wasn’t to unfollow you 20 minutes later to try and build up their following. If you posted a photo, it was seen by all of your followers in a simple, chronological feed.
As soon as Instagram began monetizing the platform things went downhill.
And I get why monetization needed to happen — the platform is so POWERFUL! We’re ALL on Instagram and it’s become one of the coolest evolutions in marketing tools this century.
But when 40k+ people tell Instagram “hey, I want to see MushroomStew’s photos in my feed” by following me, it makes sense that they’d see my photos in their feed.
But no. Now I had to pay Instagram to show my already existing followers the same content. My engagement dropped from an average of 900 likes per photo in October 2015 to an average of 410 in March 2016.
My own sister hardly ever saw my posts. And, since I refused to pay for something I’d been earning for free for years, I lost out.
Which only fueled my disappearance from Instagram more (see how this all became a vicious cycle?).
Instagram is starting to see the error of their ways. I think MILLIONS of people slowly became disenchanted with Instagram last year because it was ALL about the money and not at all about the talent or the community. And Instagram is finally picking up on it as they lose loyal followers right and left and as those of us who remember “the good old days” have sought out other platforms and other communities.
But man did they really screw up last year and I doubt Instagram will ever be the end-all-be-all it was for me in early 2015 because of that. I hope things do continue to improve and that at least the people who WANT to see my content can without me paying for it in cash dollars every week. But only time will tell…
5. Sponsored Content
Instagram has evolved SO MUCH over the past four years. And apart from creating my entire business, personal brand, and marketing team all in one, Instagram also brought me some of the most amazing friends. I have met some true kindred spirits along this journey.
And Instagram also brought me constant inspiration.
But as Instagram began to monetize (and as brands realized that influencers were a wealth of untapped marketing potential), things changed, as they always do.
But, more importantly, what people posted changed.
Instagrammers who I’d followed and admired for years because posting non-stop sponsored content. All. The. Time.
Content that wasn’t organic with their personal brand, aesthetic, or M.O.
Most of it ended up just feeling jarring and fake.
I’ve even unfollowed several close friends because their feeds just read “MONEY GRAB” now. Oh, I miss when we used to post because we were inspired, not because we were contractually obligated.
And I get it. There’s a misconception that Instagrammers are all millionaires (we aren’t) and that we get everything for free (we DEFINITELY don’t). And believe me, starting just a blog will cost you a small fortune (if not in dollars than in mistakes).
And I DO sponsored content too. But once I started getting so turned off by how inauthentic the sponsored content on my feed felt, I became A LOT pickier. If I won’t buy it, use it, and spend my own hard-earner cash on it, why should I tell my readers to?
Part of what I’ve loved about blogging from the beginning is how authentic it is. If I recommend a product to you and you have an awful experience, you’ll probably TELL me.
And that’s a great thing. I’m always thinking about the integrity of my recommendations and my content. As readers, I hope you WILL hold me accountable if something I recommend sucks (though I take great pride in trying to recommend only the best).
I love that as bloggers we’re real people who understand real issues (and have them ourselves). We recommend things based on the ups and downs of life, not just which brands sent us free things that month (though that certainly happens all the time).
Think about it, if I recommend something to you that you hate, you’re probably not going to take my next recommendation. So in order for my blog and Instagram to be successful, I need to ensure that everything I’m talking about is worth it’s salt. I vet it for you because that’s part of my job as a blogger.
But the flip side of that is that I’ve seen hundreds of talented photographers and Instagrammers fall into the easy trap of taking ANY paid jobs because why not? Or “shit, I have to make rent this month”. And I think it’s had a real effect on the trustworthiness of our vocation as a whole.
And, when coupled with all the other reasons on this list, it’s certainly an important element to WHY I disappeared on Instagram last year.
6. My Blog Traffic
But that leads me to my last point which is actually the most positive!
I started this blog AFTER my Instagram account (hence the confusing branding of Sed Bona vs. MushroomStew, etc) and for a long time I worried that my brand couldn’t survive without it.
But last year proved me very, very wrong.
Luckily at the beginning of 2016 I invested a lot of time and energy into growing my website. I was disenchanted with Instagram’s algorithm change and decided that if I was going to invest hundreds of hours into any platform, it was going to be on one I owned. On a platform I had control of the algorithm on.
So I devoted a lot of time to making things better behind the scenes here on the site. I learned SO much about Google SEO, took several online writing courses, began teaching myself HTML, redesigned the entire site, AND invested in Pinterest.
Pinterest is very slowly becoming my social media outlet of choice. Not only does it send a solid amount of traffic to my site each and every day, it’s also the antithesis of Instagram — the older the photo, the stronger it performs. And I love that. I love having a “long play” that continues to grow my site each and every day.
And this strategy really paid out for me last year.
One of the best investments I made in 2016 (and that saved my blog from completely dying during all the craziness of last year) was Tailwind. It’s a Pinterest scheduler which allows me to work ahead of time pinning both inspirational content across the web and my own content to all sorts of inspirational boards.
And, better still, it was FUN.
(Side Note: This is NOT at all sponsored. Tailwind will probably never even see this post. But if you are curious, here’s a $15 off code to try it yourself — I really can’t recommend it enough!)
By the time our lives were taken over last fall by all of our family troubles, I had a full YEAR of scheduled posts heading out each and every day keeping me active on at least one social platform.
And it worked.
My Pinterest blog traffic is nearly 5x what it was in April 2016. And I don’t think that’s just because my photos and content have gotten better. These days I get almost 1 million Pinterest impressions a month and that’s led to a lot of new readers here on the blog.
So as my blog continued to slowly grow last year, I devoted my extremely limited “work time” to focusing on keeping the traffic on my site and forgetting about Instagram.
And while Instagram is still by FAR my largest social media platform, I’m hoping that focusing so much on Pinterest last year will keep paying out in new readers for a long time to come.
Last year was hard. Harder than I’ll ever admit here. And it’s hard not to focus so much on what I’ve lost (my Instagram following is about 60 followers less than it was this time last year… yikes!).
But life gets in the way. Bloggers and Instagrammers aren’t perfect. And we do dumb stuff all the time just to stay afloat, all the while trying desperately to navigate this new industry that practically changes by the minute.
And while I’m sure I’ll be paying a price for disappearing on Instagram last year for the rest of 2018, it feels so good just to let it all out and tell you all the truth about WHY. And hopefully, soon enough, my business will be booming again.