One night last spring, curled in my tent on an island off the Maine coast and lit only by the glow of my iPhone screen, I posted a photograph on Instagram. This was my fifth post on the photosharing site but my first from such a remote location. As I hit “share,” I felt a weird mix of dread and anticipation—the opening of a Pandora’s box that might change everything.
Earlier that day, my friends and I had sat chatting on a granite ledge near our kayaks, sipping post-dinner beverages while the twilight faded. Following an unstated rule about minimizing cell phone intrusion, I stepped away to send my wife a “safe and sound” text. As I glanced back toward my friends reclining against a driftwood log, I held up my phone and took the fateful photo.
Back in my sleeping bag, I turned the phone off, and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed the sharp scent of spruce wafting down and the waves lapping against the granite below. I lay back, thinking about the picture I’d just posted. Why had I done it?
I’d been on Facebook for years and felt occasional ambivalence about the fine line between sharing and narcissism. After posting something, I’d compulsively check to see if anyone had liked it or commented on it—and then feel angry at myself for seeking such assurances. But like a lot of people with a business to sustain, I couldn’t ignore the exposure social media offers. Now that I work as a sea-kayak guide and instructor, that means promoting myself.
As with any marketing scheme, though, the gulf between what’s real and what we show the world widens with every photo tilted askew to make a wave look bigger. The photos in an Instagram feed often resemble the pages of a trendy outdoor clothing catalog: It’s not exactly reality, but you get the sense you might want to live there anyway.
I’m not sure what I hoped to get out of Instagram. I liked the ease of posting from my phone and the way a #hashtag could direct the photo toward a limitless variety of people. With all of those square-format photos lined up in a row, I began to feel almost envious of the lifestyle my own feed suggested. I finally posted a sunset shot from a big-box-store parking lot, just to balance things out. But I still felt weird about it. Was I shouting, “Look how awesome I am”? Or was I truly sharing something, like that moment at dusk with my kayaking friends? And in doing so, did I miss fully experiencing it myself?
The tea I’d drunk and the sound of the waves were taking their toll, so I climbed out of my tent and strolled down to the shore. The moon had arced westward, hovering low over Penobscot Bay. The night felt utterly quiet, but to the north, the smudge of light above a town reminded me I wasn’t far from civilization.
I turned back toward camp. Beneath the dark canopy of spruce, the telltale glow of tiny screens illuminated several tents from the inside. I wondered if any of my friends had seen my photo yet or if they were posting their own. As soon as I woke up the next morning, I checked if anyone had viewed the photo. I already had a few likes.