There’s an impenetrable world of teenagers on social media and I so badly want to understand it.
When I was an adolescent, the preferred destroyer-of-self-esteem was MySpace and, of course, there were rules. Strict rules. You had to put your very best friend in your Top Eight, or you might as well have told the whole school they were a loser. You had to have a side fringe, and at least one photo from a very high angle, revealing only one eye and half your face. You HAD to reply ‘thnx 4 tha add :)’ when someone added you, and you HAD to reply to their comments on your page.
You also had to have a PhD in HTML coding and there was a prerequisite of poor taste in graphics and mainstream taste in music, but that’s beside the point.
Now, however, I’m completely out of touch with what the ‘rules’ are. And whatever they are, I’m definitely not following them.
So I decided it was time for some #research (see, I can hashtag), and asked my super-cool-Instagrammer-teenage-cousin Caitlin, who just turned 18, to explain the rules to me. I've never felt so a) old and b) ...silly.
Here they are, in no particular order.
Your Instagram needs a theme.
WOAH. Your Instagram needs a what now?
"I reckon a main influence of what both boys and girls post on Instagram is how it will look on their 'feed,'" Caitlin* explained. "Like, on their Instagram page."
OH, YES! I've heard about this.
Some people have a 'white' theme, where every photo they post is white and bright with bold edges and lots of negative space. Others are more into their 'pastels', with brightly-coloured images of places and clothes and food.
This is Instagrammer Sahara Ray's feed:
I would probably describe the theme as 'skin?' Or 'naked?' But whatever, it's definitely a theme.
So it seems teenagers prescribe to this creative brief. Their Instagram is like their bedroom - it represents their 'feel.'
"Like, if it doesn't go with the theme of their Instagram, people will either edit the crap out of it to make it fit or just won't post it," said Caitlin.
You need photos of you.
I'm the kind of 'grammer (that's what the cool kids say when they're talking about a person who uses Instagram) who likes to post pictures of things.
Excuse me, I went snorkelling and I saw Nemo. He was in his anemone!
My friends then comment things like 'you found Nemo!' and we laugh and laugh.
But I am NOT following the rules.
"I find that photos of you tend to get more likes than a landscape photo, so a lot of people's Instagrams are just pictures of themselves," Caitlin explains.
This is Alexis Ren's Instagram feed:
Yeah, somehow I think I'd be posting a lot more pictures of me if I happened to look like that.
I'll stick to Nemo.
You need to watch your followers-to-following ratio.
"You want to have more followers than you follow," said Caitlin.
But... but... I'm never going to have enough people follow me to justify the hundreds of D-grade celebrities I need to be following. That's not fair.
Obviously, for 'social media influencers', this isn't a problem. Jessica Stein, who runs the wildly successful Instagram account tuulavintage has 2.4 million followers. She follows 224 people. She is so, so, impossibly cool.
But teenagers need a strong ratio too. Even if it's randoms following them, they need to be followed more than they follow.
You must post during prime time.
"There are rules about prime time, of course," explains Caitlin. "It's between 5-7pm, and that's when you're going to get the most likes."
Caitlin said most of her peers would save a picture to post within this window, because otherwise it's a bit of a waste.
And when it comes to likes, you need to maintain a strong average. "As for standards of likes and stuff - that matters to a LOT of people, but it sort of depends on the rest of your Instas," said Caitlin. "Like say on average you get 150, then if it's less than that, it's bad."
So there's a social payoff for posting during prime time. You're more likely to rake in an appropriate amount of likes, because more people are going to see it.
And if you post a photo and it completely bombs? "You delete it." Obviously.
You need to know what your 'gram is. And don't get confused.
I specifically wanted to know about the rules when it comes to health, fitness, wellness and 'inspiration.' This seems like a huge trend on Instagram, and I was interested in whether everyone can join in.
"I find it lame when an average person tries to be inspirational with some quote that has only a bit of relevance to the photo," said Caitlin.
"But with health and fitness stuff," she continued, "you kinda have to have your whole 'gram based around that if you're gonna post those kinda 'grams, otherwise it's lame."
That's surprising. The 'rules' don't necessarily approve of health and fitness content filtering down to everyone's accounts, and instead, it's reserved for designated spaces.
According to Caitlin, the same goes for travel. "People make separate 'grams for travelling," she said. "Like a lot of mates doing gap years this year have a separate 'gram for travelling photos, which is good I reckon."
It sounds almost as though people are using separate Instagram accounts as 'galleries', with travel, health, and more everyday content needing to exist in different spaces.
Caitlin's descriptions let me inside a world I'm still far from understanding. And while it might seem trivial, and, of course, there's the side effect of me feeling like a complete loser after realising I follow approximately zero of the rules, it's important that we keep talking about how young people engage with social media and what it means to them.
After all, a platform they use for hours every day has to have some effect, and there's inevitably a great deal their interactions say about who they are and what their world looks like.
*Name was changed for anonymity.
Featured image: Alexis Ren/Instagram