Ways Instagram Saved Us in 2020 - Prithiva Sharma

A narrative of experiences that kept people sane in isolation


Day 236?

Today, I dug up my old pen drive to see if eighteen-year old me saved a secret gallery from where I can borrow photos for my Instagram; it had nothing but old cringey poems I’d rather keep hidden.

***


2020 has been a year of unprecedented events – with the COVID-19 pandemic, a global lockdown, and deteriorating economies all across the world.

In other, more happening news – Chris Evans joined Instagram on 2nd May, 2020 and broke the app within 2 hours of joining.

The COVID-19 lockdown started with a calm expectation for life to restart within a week, or two, or three; it reached a frenzy somewhere around Month 2, when the way life stood still started feeling threatening to the sanity of some, livelihood of some, and just overall being of most. In the ninth month now, what we face is borderline resignation, and a reluctant acceptance that life may be on a buffer for a majority of 2021 as well. It is what it is has never felt more real.

Social isolation and distancing from family, friends, and the neighborhood stray dog had people scrambling for something they could do to get a speck of normalcy back in their post-lockdown, oftentimes lonely reality.

I remember waking up on 2nd May with my Instagram DM’s a flood of messages, all the same thing – Chris Evans’ first Instagram post, and I remember thinking, this man managed to partially salvage the disaster 2020 is. I didn’t realize then how my mind was running on a similar track like many.

***


Day 1

Instagram was full of posts of how classes were postponed – a relief at being able to sleep past 7. It was a relatively normal day, one I spend looking at for possible omens now.

***

Day 16

A consensus and a realization that the college semester was effectively ruined, we left and couldn’t go back now. Nandini, studying in Delhi, went home for Diwali in March and was now looking at cancelled trains and flights with a longing – she left her books, ukulele and friends behind in South Delhi and was now alone with herself and two parents who made her feel even more lonely.

College had closed for all purposes, and while online classes were being talked about and set up, students were left trying to get adjusted to indoors we never spent much time in, and outstations struggled to arrange course books they had left behind in Delhi. “If only I had precognition,” Nandini said as our friends group chat (vove cluv, with me, Nandini and Nashra) became more active than it had been through all our college years together.

And that is where lockdown changed things. With everyone stuck at home, some at homes they wanted to escape, social media became a shelter.


***

Day 45

An Ode to my Phone Gallery

my phone gallery

is deeper than the grave

they might dug for this year


i am down to October 2018

a month in a lockdown

i didn’t invite to the party

and i realize how many photos

i didn’t take


January 2017

i went to college

with a broken hand

and i could have clicked

photos of ankita’s

disapproving face

but i didn’t


November 2019

fariha, shrish and i

sat with cigarettes in our hands

feeding to dogs

shrish adopted

like i adopted her


9-4 classes

chai sutta

slight chill in the air

and i could have taken a photo


of tea and Marlboro

in the same frame as

fariha and shrish

but i didn’t


my gallery became a space

for memories i had forgotten

and was now trying to dig deep

to find out


Instagram was hard work

but when you are sharing memories

and words

which only your walls listen to anymore

it’s okay to crop that photo

with that classmate you now loathe

to make a new memory

out of a stale moment


and who would have thought

one day my phone gallery

will deserve an ode


that little red flower icon

that has shots of faces with flowers

candids we didn’t know were being clicked

and it’s all stored

in folders

organized in a way

2020 doesn’t allow us to be


i am not going to class tomorrow

and can’t talk to nashra

about my latest breakdown


mental health series (i /?)

photo taken in 2018

welcome, instagram

to diaries of a mind that

has nowhere to go.


***


Day ‘I can’t count anymore’

What does one do when they can’t meet people they used to hug every day? What is coping when your coping stops within your home?

Instagram became a black hole that could take everything anyone had to say and make space for it. It became a space for words we didn’t have anyone to share with now, for conversations too stilted at home. Khushee, within first few weeks of lockdown, created an artists’ Instagram group which she then invited me to. It’s named cutie gang and is an innocuous presence in my daily DMs, a space where we throw our art and it throws encouragement and appreciation back at us. It’s one thing to get appreciated for good art, another to be part of a community that cherishes you just because you create something, good or bad.

***


Social media activism is not new; Twitter and Facebook have always raged over right and left – Instagram activism was similar. There’s a story feature – a little round icon with ring, that disappears in 24 hours (shorter than some of Nandini’s rants) – and that became the spot for information sharing.

You see an Instagram post being shared on someone’s story, you view it, and you like and share. That post and its information is disseminated through you and others similar to you, because we’re all the same now, and it trickles down to our conscious knowledge and thought formation after we see it on 7 different people’s stories.

Vanshika’s brand of activism and advocacy is the same. She shares a post, rants on her stories, makes those stories highlights; people read, screenshot, post on their stories and it travels. Vanshika’s DMs are always open for a conversation, she says, to discuss what she talks about. It’s different from what one calls “armchair activism” – because Vanshika converses, she gives you readings to educate yourself, she talks and doesn’t hate. Meghna Prakash, a journalist also uses Instagram as a tool of information dissemination and activism by raising fundraisers and sharing art and journalism that aims for change.

Janhavi says, "I just couldn’t look at myself in the mirror for a whole month until I found about acne and body positivity activists on social media which changed my perspective of my body … I also learned about feminism and LGBTQ+ rights and I am proud to say that it completely converted my homophobic/transphobic mindset and i call myself an LGBTQIA+ ally now.”

And that’s how the Instagram community spreads information that trickles down to those not even consciously looking for it. It’s not the app or its algorithm that facilitates this, not anymore. It’s the people who create a community.

In the middle of a lockdown where outdoors is a viral pandemic, a community is what we all needed.

***


It’s the beauty of social media, particularly Instagram that it gives you space. Often, Twitter can become too cluttered, and millennials/Gen Z are not the Facebook generation. Instagram trolls, the algorithm doesn’t support local, small artists who aren’t capable of sponsoring advertisements, but the art community persists.

We make groups to share art, we share all art – make sure its spread enough to beat the algorithm. We comment encouragement on posts, hype each other in stories.


Illustration by @perksofbeingnandini


***


“You’re gorgeous”

“Go queennn”

“Such a beautiful piece of art”

“I stan you so hard I’m fangirling over your art”


Each of these comments is a subtle (sometimes direct) fuck you to every person who takes the time to hate on the art and ridicule the artist in the comments.

Sraman Dasgupta says, “After the start of COVID lockdown, the frequency of my experiments with pencil and paper increased, albeit by a small amount. I often went through the feeds of various artists on Instagram in an attempt to be inspired, and I was never disappointed. True, it was daunting to see such amazing work, but it felt good to know that amidst a global pandemic, people had turned to art to help them deal with the chaos. It was a ray of hope, knowing that even in such troubled times, people could produce amazing artwork.”

My Instagram (@prithuwu) became a diary – a small idea in a community that was creating revolution – but, stuck in a dysfunctional and strained house, I word-vomited on Instagram every day. A poem of the day, a rant of the day, a photo from summer of ’17 and an unrelated memory in the caption – they all culminated in a profile feed that looked curated but was just a bunch of people listening to me say what I couldn’t to my walls.

A major project I did, ongoing still, is the mental health series – each part talked of my depression, bipolar disorder, the ways I was still accompanied by trauma and the ways I recover each day. The first time someone texted me saying that my mental health rant about being stuck in a family where abuse is a thin, blurry line in the middle of a lockdown I didn’t ask for, I realized the power Instagram held.


***

Day ‘mid-September’

this isn't a poem.

this is a page from the logbook of today:

let me be very clear with you, i do not know how to

talk about my depression without three layers of metaphors

when you spend your life hiding, ignoring and escaping something,

acknowledgment becomes a tough game and i lose at sports


today, i cried.

and not in my "breakdown sobbing and yelling at air" crying

a cry that came from nowhere

that my body predicted hours ago with his constant shaking

trying to warn me of tears i didn't even know were building up

today i cried and it didn't tire me out


i told you, this isn't a poem

but a page from a logbook

and today's records have nothing

but broken statistics of my tears

that don't match in the final tally

and as you may see i do not know anything

about accounts.


the page of today in my logbook

is wet, spilled ink, drops of blood,

it's a mess

of hurt and ache,

crooked lines

forming no numbers but all emotions




***



Photo: @perksofnandini’s Small Things about October illustration


Day ‘somewhere in October’

Nandini’s art account went from a tiny audience to a family larger than a joint one. While she waited for her professors to figure out Zoom/Google Meets, she learnt illustrations. She followed illustrators on Instagram, found online resources, learnt and grew. Her little @perksofbeingnandini family became a brand. A whole day on vove cluv was dedicated to her rambling about having arrived as an artist and the next day, her thank you present came – a Perk’s Newsletter at the beginning of every month, containing her doodles and monthly happy memories. People tell her that her art helped them heal, and I have witnessed Instagram give back her love.


It’s this art, these ideas of sharing every little thing as art that helped quarantine become living. What do you do when you’re living with steel utensils, chipping walls, a balcony garden that rarely blooms? You talk of the sunlight pouring in at the onset of winter and turn that small warmth into art.

me, trying to create with old champa flowers my mother discarded after puja.

***


Illustrators, artists, photographers and Ekphrastic writers have a special space on Instagram. A social media community which thrives on photos and is designed for them is just the place for these creators to data dump their art.

Prateek talks of his newfound romance with photography: “I started with some normal shots; then came in a bit of concepts. Some shots were just for fun, [others] were drawn with a concept. It looks like that I don't plan any of my Instagram, except three of the same kinda photos but most of the shots were well thought out.”

It’s a journey – a photographic tracing of temporal and spatial growth. “When I look at my Instagram, it shows a journey. It has shifted from shots of outside to shots of inside the house. From things and places to people and me. It has taken a lot of energy for me to reach here and I am all in for it.”

You can describe his account in one sentence, learning to love myself a bit more, one photo at a time

***


I have new friends, all on Instagram – Sejuti, Aashmani, Tushita, Rio; I connected with people I never even talked to.

The purpose of Instagram changed in the lockdown. From a void to throw aesthetics and photos into, it became an archive of memory and solidarity.

Art isn’t the only way people connected: Instagram gave people friends and help in different ways. A friend’s brother tested positive for COVID, and got the plasma donation he needed though Instagram – their friends shared details and someone from Instagram who saw it reached out.

We talk of how COVID restrained us to four walls, threw our lives off track; we talk of abusive houses, loss of education, the importance of touch.

One major loss we don’t acknowledge enough is the loss of community – of spaces of acceptance, spaces of solidarity, spaces of art and love. Being stuck in an abusive house, like Nandini, like many more I know – knowing there’s even one person out there listening to my churned-out-in-ten-minutes poetry and looking at the ways I’m trying to make a home out of my house – it helps to hold onto sanity for the day we will be released completely. It becomes easier to deal with not being able to meet or hug my best friend in a year when she sees all the art I create in her name.

Be it artists making sense of a world in disarray or COVID patients asking for help and guidance or fundraisers for small artists or classes affected by the pandemic deeply and struggling to survive, Instagram ties them all in a collective that speaks of help and encouragement.

***


A big Instagram success is the way it helps small businesses, especially independent thrift stores to flourish. I would reiterate that it isn’t the app, but the people. The people make the app.

Smriti Malhotra who owns @puranabazaar says, "I’ve made friends with fellow thrift store owners and we share stories and talk about our common love about our little business and the community in general and where we see ourselves taking it moving forward. The most basic major role that IG played is giving us this platform to reach out to our customers and like-minded individuals that have helped me grow my business tremendously. Barring the IG algorithms that are of course hard to crack, I've mostly been quite satisfied with this platform,” while talking of friendship and support from buyers who share their posts and endorse their products without any prompting, and other businesses that encourage and hype their reach.



me, wearing @puranabazaar earrings that I ordered through Instagram in a post accompanied by a poem

***

When I reached out on Instagram for interviews, I got responses where people talked of Instagram communities helping them in realizing their identities –

“I realized I'm gay in the beginning of this lockdown and I kid you not when I say wlw Tiktok compilations on YouTube and wlw shows on Netflix have literally been keeping me sane,”says Shatabdi Deori, talking of how she discovered content and LGBTQ+ communities that helped her find herself and resulted in her creating more art – she was inspired.

“I kinda got lucky during the lockdown and found some really amazing people and a safe space. We call our community the cone-munity.” Paridhi Seksaria speaks of friends she found – not through art but through the way she was bring trolled at one point and people teamed up in her comments to hype her confidence and help combat the hate of trolls.

“I got myself involved with people online – friends. K-Pop/anime/art. I felt very reassured that some [people] are openly vocal about their sexuality. There's also my favourite manga artist who texted me on her own, like out of nowhere, replying to my story. She's also a part of the LGBTQ community, and we’re very good friends now," as told by Priya.

However, it isn’t all rainbows. The Instagram algorithm is unpredictable and unfair, with the social media platform often being turned into a capitalist agenda.

“Instagram has shadow-banned me so 90 percent of my followers can't even see my stories or my posts,” Priya complains about the latest Instagram system."You're condemned if you do social media advocacy and if you don't, [still] you're not safe,” one interviewee talks of dangers of merely being on the social media app, the attack from trolls.

Every day I witness people like Vanshika and Meghna being hated on for their unflinching opinions, and creators like Nandini and Rio are harassed because they are “cute women” which somehow is code for “target of unsolicited and creepy flirting”. At times, I see the content from people I follow and compare their aesthetic to mine, their likes to mine – and spend two days depressed about my lack of talent or audience. It’s a danger – the anxiety of being incompetent or not good enough that comes with having so much material to consume at your fingertips.

***


“IG was colorful, real life not so much,” Priya summarizes Instagram during quarantine and lockdown in one sentence.

“In times that are this tough, and for people who are not readers, television/films become a huge escape and I don’t know where I read it or who said it but escape is not as bad a word as philosophers sometimes make it to be,” says Srishti who runs a small but impactful movie review/critique/theory account.

When I interviewed people, I got stories of support, of art serving as a crutch to survival in a less-than supportive household, of art growing, families and of online audiences growing. I also got stories of how it brought people down to see so much art, better than theirs as they saw it, and almost leaving art.

There really are two sides to a coin – but 8/10 times that I flip the Instagram shaped coin, I get a story of positivity and how this social media app turned someone’s isolation around.


***

Day in the second week of September

I co-wrote an reportage with Meghna Prakash for The Bengaluru Review, titled Reading in the Time of Corona, focusing on the way independent bookstores in Bengaluru. All the photos in that piece were taken from the bookstores’ Instagram accounts – and those accounds were the ones that helped us get a better sense of the activities and catalogues that the bookstores were offering.

Instagram is a space of information – that includes art, mental health stories, LGBTQ+ communities, journalistic stories and reports and of course, haters and trolls. One trumps the others most of the times.

***

Two days ago, Geetika made a doodle for me, because my art and conversations with her inspired her; it was her first art piece in months, she told me. Seeing the new art on Instagram she spent all this time ignoring showed her she could go back to it and enjoy a spirit of togetherness in aloneness that Instagram developed over these months – that was cultivated by people seeking and discovering solace on here.

Two months ago, Khushee co-started The Phosphene Mag. Intersections Magazine was founded and I joined as a Staff Writer and Poetry Reader.

Two days ago, Instagram introduced a “guide” feature – a handbook where we could compile posts and works that trace a journey. Utkarsh Tripathi created a guide titled, Outliving a Revolution, recording all protests he went and documented, from CAA/NRC to Hathras Case to LSR’s institutional abetment to suicide. It’s the journey of this city and it’s revolution – its fighting spirit, all recorded on social media archives.

***

Today, as I finish this narrative of how Instagram formed communities and connected people with love and support, Nandini and Nashra video call me. It lasts for 1 hour 20 minutes, and ends with a hug through the screens. I text Smriti a thanks for sharing her business journey with me, and read the texts I sent her thanking her for the earrings which were my Diwali present to myself. My latest post as 116 likes.

My parents and I still don’t talk a lot, nine months with each other. But, when I text cutie gang and see someone’s latest art post, it feels a little less lonely.


***

Day 58


how soon is too soon to make an instagram post

after my last one;

22 hours ago, and

i wait minutes

wishing it would cross 24 hours

so i don't look like i have too many opinions

and not enough space to put them

so it doesn't look like all my words

are vented out on my feed;

i don't procrastinate on instagram rants because my feed is the only blackhole that doesn't vomit my emotions out.


***

Day 68


2020 is an empty shell

an event too close to 2012

a disaster

so when I receive your DM

telling me

I loved your poem

or when I comment

on your post

because it made my lonely

my solitude

when we throw our aesthetics

in our galleries’ recycle bin

and write of how steel utensils

banging together

is a lot like 2020

starting –

loud, unsuspecting, another day

but leaving you a little less calm anyway


and I’m so thankful

for your art

and her music

and her thrifts

a gift for all the bad days

I get every day


you don’t solve a mess

by creating an ever bigger one

but you do cover it up

with a bigger canvas

of your mess

which I call art


Chris Evans joined and broke Instagram on 2nd May 2020

I should’ve seen the prophetic metaphor there –

he salvaged 2020 for me,

art and communities salvage

each day

without fail


People interviewed:

Nandini Gautam, illustrator/artist, @perksofbeingnandini on Instagram

Nashra Usmani, BA English (hons) graduate from Gargi

@kaafikhushee on Instagram, writer/Managing Director at The Phosphene Mag

Vanshika Sagar, a Dalit rights advocate, feminist and student, @thevanforyou

Journalist for The Quint/poet, @meghna_prakash

Janhavi Borole, @janhaviborole

Photographer/artist, @dasguptasraman

Prateek Jain, photographer/writer, @yetanotherflaneur

@sejutigivesup, @handbarfs, @tushi021

Owner of thrift business @puranabazaar

@shatabdideori, writer

@paridhiseksariaa

@pringeworthy, artist

@wordsdeal_igamble

@whygeetika, artist

Utkarsh_tripathi11, writer























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