I first started using Instagram when I was a senior in college. My first app-friendly smartphone was a BlackBerry with horrific camera quality that made my pictures barely decipherable. My Instagram account was a haphazard mix of grainy dog pictures, snaps of day-to-day oddities, and increasingly, books I was reading.

Reading was, and is, my main pastime. I wanted a way to document what I was reading and sharing a filtered Instagram post made me feel less isolated, even if no one around me cared. My very first book post was from the summer of 2013, a blurry shot of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with a whopping single like.

It’s been almost 10 years since Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger made their creation public. Krieger posted the first Instagram photo on July 16, 2010. Since then, Instagram has grown exponentially, officially reaching the one billion user milestone back in June of 2018. People born after 2010 have never known a world without the Gram.

But with the growth in users came a radical shift in the way people perceive and use the platform. In a highly publicized study from 2017, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health condemned Instagram (and Snapchat) as “the most detrimental social networking app for young people’s mental health.”

The book-obsessed community where I also began developing true online friendships […] would not be the same without politics.

What used to be the place for hastily snapped photos has now become notorious for being a money-making machine. What started out as a platform intended to share life experiences and connect became the reason why people felt pressured and lonely — but is this toxicity and negativity really all that social media has to offer?

The answer depends on where you look.

Two years after my first book post, I uploaded a picture of China Mieville’s Embassytown, with #bookstagram in the caption. The hashtag has over 32 million posts, and if you search for #bookstagrammer, there are over 4 million. Within this vast sea of content is a sprawling network of readers coalescing around extremely bookish things: genres, authors, auxiliary lifestyle interests, book subscription boxes, and beautiful photography.

Through Bookstagram, I’ve discovered writers who have since become some of my favorite authors, and even had the chance to interact with them. And, in keeping with the stereotypical influencer culture, I have found myself snapping up new releases based on account recommendations.

Many of these Bookstagram accounts have managed to garner followings that even rival some beauty gurus, and the conversations they bring to the community go beyond book reviews or pretty flat lays.

Diana, who runs the account @owlslittlelibrary, describes her entry into the world of Bookstagram as an attempt to find others with similar interests. She joined the community because book posts on her personal IG rarely received likes or engagement.

“One day I thought, ‘there must be more people out there like me!’ And there sure was. While it was new and a bit intimidating, it was so fun to be able to geek out on books and receive the same enthusiasm in return.”

Since 2016, Diana has met a number of other bookstagrammers in real life, developing a vibrant local community and even participating in literary events. And as the daughter of immigrants, Diana also has been vocal about which authors tend to be overlooked, not only by publishers but also by readers.

With some other Bookstagram friends, she developed the Words Between Worlds Book Club on Instagram, focusing on sharing stories told by marginalized voices and promoting “own voices” reviews — or reviews by people who share a similar background as the author and story.

Naturally as politics in the United States became more mainstream, Diana also folded politics into her community. “The thought of opting out of things that make one uncomfortable is a privilege. So, many bookstagammers of color spoke out because, everything is political, especially to people of color.”

Many other accounts have openly responded to political issues around the world: mental health stigma, climate change, rising right-wing nationalism, and advocating for groups that have historically been marginalized.

It is naive of us to consume books without questioning the realities that reading stimulates. — Margaret, @bookmateriality

In the fall of 2018, around time of the Kavanaugh hearings, a number of bookstagrammers also began sharing their thoughts. With these posts came the question of what responsibility large accounts had, and there were times when the debate became heated.

Some expressed annoyance at an “over-politicization” of a space that was intended to be an escape, while many posted about the inherent privilege of being able to ignore politics and focus only on books.

The debate had a flurry of accounts unfollowing one another but ultimately, when recalling the situation, Diana remembers the interactions with positivity.

“That’s the thing I love most about Bookstagram, we all want to learn and grow. We all read for fun, but we also read to grow. And by reaching different backgrounds, experiences, and challenges help us gain a different perspective and become more empathetic. Many friendships were formed after this event as well, which I’m grateful for.”

Like any community, there’s a range of engagement and some people just want to focus on the beautiful when it feels like the world is burning around them. Sometimes I, too, want to find a straightforward review or a pretty picture.

But the book-obsessed community where I also began developing true online friendships — with people I send snail mail to, people who I check in on via text when they’re struggling, people I have never actually met but wouldn’t think twice to see them in person if we happened to be in each other’s vicinity — would not be the same without politics.

Margaret, who runs the popular account @bookmateriality, says something similar about the deep, meaningful friendships that form from this pool of readers. She describes people she’s met locally in her area of Australia, as well as other Bookstagram users she met while traveling overseas in Europe and in Asia. This sense of community, of being able to connect with others with similar interests and experiences, has been the draw of her account.

“Being a fairly introverted and shy person, most of my interaction takes place through the platform, but it has been refreshing to meet people face-to-face, people I have long-conversed with via direct messages and as comments on posts!”

While Margaret’s posts have always explored complex topics around self-identity and literature, she started taking a more direct stand around issues important to her. It’s now common to see climate-related events or information on where to donate to various causes interspersed between her musings on books.

This overt political shift might have turned off some, but her follower count has continued to grow to more than 60,000 followers, clearly belying an audience open to the intersection of books and politics.

“I understand that some people would prefer not to engage in politics online and their reasons for reading are purely for that sense of escapism, and that is perfectly okay. But I also think that it is naive of us to consume books without questioning the realities that reading stimulates, as well as the biases and types of books that are getting air-time in the Bookstagram community.”

I don’t regret for a second having had my Bookstagram account. It has opened a world of possibilities for me. — Madalina

That being said, she was also quick to point out the limits of online social activism.

“As a teacher,” she said, “I believe the best way to educate is on the ground.” She emphasizes that there has to be a balance between political activity on social media and real-world action, whatever that looks like for each of us.

Instagram’s natural infrastructure may foster an engaged and active community but even the most niche communities still operate under the logic of social media and its negative offline effects.

Madalina runs an account reflecting her love of both books and fashion. Like me, she stumbled upon the community by accident, eventually gathering over 12,000 followers.

Throughout the time I followed her account, I noticed an increase in posts about mental health. She opened up a discussion among her followers about self-care and helped remove stigma around certain struggles. Despite this, she admitted to me that her account itself started to negatively impact her moods.

“Over the 3 years that I’ve had my account, I have often experienced moments, days, even weeks of feeling very down about the perceived lack of success of my account. I would compare myself to others, I would over analyze every single like and comment I would get. About 3 months ago I felt like enough was enough and I basically asked myself why I am doing this.”

After further reflection, Madalina made a radical move.

“I decided to take control of the situation and genuinely not care about numbers,” she explains. “I […] deleted anyone that I did not feel like I built some sort of connection with.”

She now has 697 followers and has turned her account private so she can pre-approve who follows her.

And though she admits her approach will not work for everyone, her reclamation of her social media account is inspiring. After I heard her story I went through my own followers, picking away a few accounts at a time that I knew were clearly inactive, spam accounts, or never engaged. I saw my own numbers drop significantly but, rather than causing any stress, I felt an odd surge of empowerment. It felt good to delete these accounts, to actually act on something I know is better for mental well-being, to truly not care about the numbers.

So much of social media optimization tells us to accumulate followers and to up engagement, with the idea of continuous growth built into the very fabric of social media. Unlike many users today, Madalina made a deliberate turn against the conventions and returned to the root of why we first opened up these accounts to begin with — to build community.

When I asked Madalina if she regretted starting her account that ended up creating so much anxiety, she was adamant about the joy she felt in the Bookstagram community.

“I don’t regret for a second having had my Bookstagram account. It has opened a world of possibilities for me,” she says.

“Having immigrated to the United Kingdom 9 years ago I left a lot behind in my home country and one of the things I lost were friendships. I found it very hard to make friends, especially close friends in the UK, because of my introverted nature and Bookstagram helped me overcome that.”

Julia Shiota is a freelance writer whose work centers on questions of identity through culture and literature. Find her on Twitter or at juliashiota.com