I am sort of thinking of this as a new year reflections post. It's not really the new year anymore since we're already halfway through Safar, but since I didn't write one at the beginning of the year, I thought I would call it that anyway. This post is more directly the result of a combination of a question asked by Assia (@shereadsox on Instagram) - "what is Bookstagram* to you?" - and a lot of thinking I've been doing recently about Instagram and the way social media influences the conversations I have with people and the podcast itself.
What is Bookstagram to you? This is a question that is a recurring part of my "social media thought cycle", but I have been asking it increasingly frequently recently. I joined Instagram with my podcast account primarily to have somewhere to share new episodes and perhaps have a few interesting discussions. At the time, I had not long started my 2018 Reading the World project and it occurred to me that Instagram might be a great place to find book recommendations by people in different parts of the world that are not limited to the promotions of mainstream UK publishers, bookshops and reviewers.
I have indeed discovered some great books. I have also come across many sincere, passionate, intelligent people on this platform who have shared their thoughts and experiences of reading in many ways and in open, thoughtful discussions. Some of them have also become the most common guests on the podcast and have helped to transform this podcast into an ongoing learning experience for me as well as the listeners, I hope.
However, it has been a few months now, maybe over a year, since I started to feel a certain fatigue with the echo chamber that Instagram creates (to some extent). In terms of books, I realised that, while there was some range in the books being discussed, a lot of the posts were inevitably recreating the trends I had been trying to evade. In terms of ideas, I do think it is important to have a social space in which you know the people you speak to share your values. In this space, we can have open, critical discussions about the problems and questions we and the world are facing and know that there is a mutual understanding of the basic values that these discussions are based on. But this is a space I curate for myself in a transparent and controlled way; I don't want Instagram to do this for me while creating the illusion of openness. I didn't come to Instagram for them to decide who I should interact with and how; I came here to find difference and new ideas.
Recent events have only solidified my discomfort on this front. Increasingly, I felt that the status quo being reinforced by Instagram's algorithms led me to feel a certain fear of expressing my true feelings or asking difficult questions. I have also caught myself occasionally speaking and thinking in binaries that I don't believe in deep down and I feel that this is, in part, an emotional response to this Instagram experience. The other day, I listened to a couple of my early episodes and while I was certainly nervous and perhaps more hesitant to speak, due to a natural cautiousness with a new platform, I was thrown back to a certain feeling of having space to think. It also brought back the feeling, after becoming more active on Instagram, of a sudden increasing consciousness of what people (on social media) might think and what the politically correct thing was to say or not say.
Of course, this is not something that can be entirely, or even mostly, blamed on social media. And I'm not suggesting that I don't think for myself or voice potentially unpopular opinions on the podcast now. Alhamdu Lillah, I still consciously try to do this. In the end, though, I am responsible for my own spiritual and mental clarity and health and for making decisions that maintain it. Given that, I'm feeling in many ways that perhaps Instagram has served its purpose in my book research adventure and now it's time for it to take a backseat. I haven't made any firm decisions but I am considering my options and hoping perhaps to find another medium through which I can have - and facilitate - meaningful, thought-provoking conversations in a more human, transparent environment with less manipulation by obscure forces I don't fully understand. Realistically, I don't know if it is possible - or even preferable - to completely withdraw from Instagram (I don't agree with the "retreat from society and save yourself" approach to existential threats 🤓) but I would like to move the main communication channel of the podcast elsewhere. If you have any ideas, do let me know!
I hope this doesn't sound dramatic or self-important. I am still trying to understand what I am learning and feeling about this, so this post is more of a collection of thoughts than a concrete, fully-formed statement!
*Bookstagram is used to refer to people and posts on Instagram related to discussing and reviewing books.
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.
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