A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a phrase I hadn’t heard before, though I immediately recognised its meaning. “Success bombing”, as explained in a piece for Stylist, refers to the act of bombarding others with tales of your own success. “Success bombing is the term coined for the need someone has to show off about their success all the time,” writer and mental health campaigner Neev Spencer told Stylist, arguing that the phenomenon is wreaking havoc on personal friendships. “Really successful people often don’t look for that outward validation, they have that within the core of who they are, and that’s what drives them forward to be the best.” The thrust of the article argued that we need to bring back discretion and humility — values that are seemingly in short supply in the era of Instagram, where self-promotion is rife and the algorithm encourages a feverish, unquenchable thirst for social validation. Writer Kayleigh Dray finished the piece by quoting Frank Ocean: “Work hard in silence, let your success make the noise.”
I understand the ethos of the piece. I was raised in Australia, a country where the ubiquitous “tall poppy syndrome” means that even the slightest hint of big headedness is greeted with universal disdain, and my British parents brought me up to consider any form of bragging a mortal sin. My knee-jerk response to compliments is the usual trio of feminine discomfort: downplay, deflect, self-deprecate. I am a person who dislikes success bombing in real life, and yet am, like everyone else, guilty of it in my own social media habits. Since January, I’ve essentially only used Instagram to promote stories I’ve written, events I’ve hosted, or episodes of my podcast. In an ideal world, I’d be off social media altogether — but after losing my primary source of income in the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, I quickly cottoned on to the fact that an app on my phone was my most powerful tool for getting work. I estimate that at least 50% of the work I undertook during the pandemic was facilitated by Instagram. This is the catch-22 of working as a creative in 2021: economic freedom is often only possible by engaging in shameless self-promotion. It’s the Faustian bargain of life in the so-called “gig economy”.
First coined at the height of the 2009 financial crisis, the “gig economy” describes freelance, contracted and casual workers, a sector that grew steadily throughout the mid-to-late 2010s with the rise of platforms like Uber and Airbnb, and exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Australia, the gig economy has expanded nine-fold since 2015 and is now responsible for $6.3 billion in annual income. This is often framed as evidence that millennials are an entrepreneurial-minded generation of digital mavericks, willing to take on big risks in order to live life on their own terms. The reality is far less glamorous. Most new inductees of the gig economy are there by necessity, not choice, after the pandemic decimated multiple industries worldwide. Those who managed to keep their jobs have struggled with stripped-back hours and reduced salaries, often dabbling in freelance or contractual jobs to supplement their income. Even those currently in full-time employment are feeling the pressure. Many people I know who work nine-to-fives are also quietly working on side businesses or have ‘back-up’ careers in case they suddenly find themselves without work. All that without mentioning the myriad downsides to relying on gig economy work full-time: no superannuation, no medical leave, no HR, no legal protections, no financial safety net.
Self-promotion, whether it’s posting your work on Instagram, asking for reviews on Uber and Airbnb, or trying your hand as a Tik Tok creator, is an inherent part of succeeding under the gig economy. And contrary to popular belief — that millennials, in particular, are a generation of self-obsessed braggarts — most of the people I spoke to for this article said it was their least favourite part of the job. “I have an incredibly complicated relationship with Instagram,” says London-based Australian artist Jessica Yolanda Kaye. “On the one hand, I’m very grateful for it. Instagram has democratised the art market by giving artists like me a platform to sell my work all over the world, without gallery representation. With that autonomy, though, comes the responsibility to do what a gallery would otherwise do: promoting and selling the work. And when the work feels like an extension of yourself, it can often feel like you’re selling yourself.”
Kaye has developed a loyal fan base of more than 20,000 Instagram followers over the last four years, a move that left her “unexpectedly equipped” to handle the UK’s intense 2020 lockdowns. During a moment where many artists struggled with the closure of traditional gallery spaces, she hosted virtual drawing classes over Instagram Live with Alexa Chung, and was tapped to create the original artwork for a new wine company. Five of her collections sold out back-to-back, with many sales facilitated through Instagram. Jessica is an unequivocal gig economy success story, but she admits that courting the app’s algorithm can sometimes come at a personal cost. “It’s depressingly easy to confuse the number of likes, comments, and follows I receive as a measurement of my worth,” she admits. “Objectively, I know that isn’t true, but when creativity, connection, and commerce are all intertwined, it’s really difficult to navigate.”
Caitlin Jones, a freelance stylist and art director, whose work has been published in international editions of ELLE and Vogue, agrees. “I do feel the pressure as a freelance creative to curate an Instagram account that reflects my work and my style, and it’s something I’ve always struggled with,” she says. “I truly hate the self-promotion aspect of work, and while I know it’s important, it’s something that I really have to force myself to do. But then, if I don’t post very often, I’ll get lower engagement on posts, which can negatively affect how I feel about myself and my work. It’s very difficult to put your heart and soul into a project, and then have its value judged by an algorithm.” Jones is frank about the toll the pandemic, and its accompanying career and economic uncertainty, took on her mental health. As a freelance stylist, she was unable to work remotely in the way that I, as a writer, or Jessica, as a visual artist, was able to, and she found herself spending her spare hours scrolling on Instagram. “Very early on in the pandemic, I had the complete cancellation of all my scheduled work, and so I had weeks and weeks on end of nothing to do,” she says. “I felt the pressure to source a secondary mode of income, but watching so many people on Instagram thrive and find their passions through the small business or ‘side hustles’ didn’t inspire me as much as it became a stick to beat myself with.”
This touches on the most nefarious parts of ‘success bombing’ culture. When freelance creatives post about their work, they are often doing so with the hope it will lead to more work—it’s a networking move, on an app that many consider to be “LinkedIn for creatives”. But Instagram is also a social app, and we aren’t only posting to our industry contacts, we’re posting to our friends, many of whom we know are struggling with the same economic anxiety and chronic comparisonitis that we are. Instagram has always been a hall of mirrors, but as the pandemic facilitated an economic crash, the pressure to self-promote increased, at the precise moment people began feeling more vulnerable to the unrealistic pressures perpetuated by social media.
“While I do get some level of inspiration and connection on Instagram, without a doubt, it has a negative impact on my mental health overall,” says Kaye. “It affects my sleep, my self-esteem, and my focus. I’ve had to work hard to set clear boundaries between my personal life and my Instagram account.” Jones echoes this sentiment. “There was a point during the second lockdown where I began to have the self-awareness that I needed to pull away from Instagram entirely and remind myself what “real life” looked like,” she says. “While I do think the app has been great for helping people who would have previously struggled to crack it in the fashion industry due to the ‘who you know’ mentality, it hasn’t levelled the playing field completely. In some ways, Instagram has created a new kind of elitism that comes with a whole new host of problems. If you’re working under the illusion that everyone’s equal, it makes you feel even worse if you’re not over-achieving.”
I’ve been having versions of these conversations with freelance friends for the last 18 months, many of who, like me, experienced the unique terror of true economic vulnerability for the first time in 2020. Never before had I needed to seriously consider what might happen if I didn’t get work for three months, or six, or twelve. It’s an experience that fundamentally alters your perception of the world. In the early days of the pandemic, I’d speak to terrified friends who had lost their jobs and couldn’t pay rent but didn’t know when they could get on a plane back to Australia. I have friends who were suddenly let go from dream jobs they’d worked a decade to land, or who saw their entire industry crumble beneath them and had to start new careers from scratch. It’s because of these experiences that I tend to react to buzz-phrases like “success bombing” with an eye roll. The last thing anyone who hustles for their own work needs is to be told that they should keep self-promotion off Instagram because of some vaguely sexist notion that to do so isn’t ‘humble’ enough.
Of course, this doesn’t mean social media isn’t also having a tremendously negative impact on our mental health — this is a ‘hate the game, not the player’ kind of conundrum. In the past two months, I’ve barely been on Instagram because I too recognised the corrosive effect it was having on my creativity, energy levels, and self-esteem. For now, I re-download the app occasionally to — yes — post about the work I’ve done (that might even be how you’re reading this article) and check in on any work leads, then I delete it again and get on with my week. The concentrated economic domination of social media companies means that we can’t all “work in silence” if we want to make a living. The Frank Oceans of the world are the exception, not the rule. There isn’t a single creative I know who wouldn’t trade social media clout for being fairly compensated for their work, but unfortunately, in 2021, those two things have become interdependent. Many creatives are simply muddling their way through the foliage as effectively as they can, hoping to reach some semblance of financial security on the other side. Until we find a new way of doing things — until social media apps begin fairly compensating their creators, readers begin investing in the writers whose work they admire, or hell, why not until universal base income is introduced — we’re going to need to work within the system as it currently is. We aren’t a generation of Narcissuses, drowning in our own reflections...we’re perpetually treading water, trying to sell a few tickets to the spectacle where we can until the lifeboat comes to save us.