How to Be a Polite Human on Instagram

I practiced for the school spelling bee for weeks in the fifth grade, and when the big day came, I spelled my way to safety through a dozen rounds. Eventually it was down to me and one other kid, standing in the front of the auditorium while the whole school sat and watched. My opponent had just flubbed a word, and if I spelled the next one correctly, I’d win the whole thing. A kindergartner in the front row held her breath while I walked up to the microphone.

“Corral,” I said. “C-O-R-R-A-L. Corral.”

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Pictured: a dramatic pause.

The principal said, “Correct,” and the room blew up. The kindergartner screamed and jumped up and down. In the back of the auditorium, my class stood up and cheered. I turned away from the mic to smile like a maniac into my fist, and a photographer for the local paper caught it on camera and put me on the front page of that week’s issue. My classmates carried me back to our room on their shoulders. Nerds.

I got knocked out of the bee at the county level a couple of weeks later (P-I-L-L-I-O-N! I can spell it now! It’s not too late, is it?), but for a few days there, I was on top of the world. And although I’d always had a soft spot for words before, after that win I became a dedicated word nerd.

I tell you all of this for two reasons:

  1. To brag about how I can spell “corral” and “pillion.” I can even use them in sentences.
  2. To explain that I am not a visual thinker. At all. I’ll write you a paragraph in a heartbeat, but if you ask me to tell you what three-dimensional shape a particular two-dimensional figure would fold into, I will ask you to take your two-dimensional figure and shove it.

Because we’re not here to talk about the fifth grade spelling bee. We’re here to talk about Instagram.

I love Twitter. I tolerate Facebook. I accept Pinterest’s existence, even if I remain perplexed by it. Instagram, with its strong visuals and occasionally horrifying filters, leaves me baffled.

One of the problems, I think, is that venerable platforms like Facebook have unwritten etiquette. People ignore the rules a lot, but they’re still there. Instagram doesn’t seem to have that yet. Or maybe the rules are so unwritten that no one knows they exist.

And so I, Stephanie, super-fan of etiquette and holder of a degree in internet, have taken it upon myself to write those rules here.


Technically my degree is in emerging media, but that’s just a fancy way to say internet.

Post like Emily (Post)

  1. Cool it with the hashtags. You don’t have to use 47 of them, but if you’re going to, at least make sure they’re relevant. Some of us scroll through #CatsOfInstagram expecting cats. In all honesty, some of us are only on Instagram for the cats. This is an entire social platform dedicated to sharing pictures of cats. AMAZING.
  2. Avoid gratuitous selfies. Oh, look! It’s you by a wall. Then you by a different wall. Then you by that first wall again but this time looking sort of distracted and thoughtful. The black and white filter you’ve applied definitely makes me want to read your poetry on LiveJournal.
  3. Don’t clog up everyone’s feed with a zillion pictures. Unless it is with pictures of cats. Or books. Or, better yet, cats on books!
  4. Quit digging for compliments. The next time I see someone post a glamorous shot of themselves with a caption like, “Didn’t sleep at all and I look like King Kong’s hairy mole LOL,” I am going to agree and then tag that person in a bunch of pictures of actual hairy moles.
  5. Keep your comments meaningful. Don’t be like this guy, who commented something annoyingly upbeat on what is clearly the world’s saddest photo:
  6. Don’t be a jerk, jerk. The Golden Rule of Social Media applies here, too: Tweet others as you wish to be tweeted. Don’t write mean comments. Don’t post unflattering photos of your friends. Don’t use that eye-rolling emoji. That guy is a bad influence.
  7. Stop creeping. One delightful thing I’ve discovered about Instagram is that if you are a lady and you put up a picture of any part of your face — even a close-up of those weird hairs between your eyebrows that you’re not sure if you should pluck or not — there’s a good chance that a man will comment something about how beautiful you are. Which is nice, sort of, except that then he goes back and likes the last five months of your photos, which is like being stalked by a time traveler.
  8. Don’t share close-ups of those weird hairs between your eyebrows that you’re not sure if you should pluck or not.
  9. How about some more pictures of cats, people? Why are you posting anything else at all?

Some questions remain: Should you politely like someone’s latest photo if they follow you? Is it polite to follow back? How far back is too far back when scrolling through someone’s photos? Does it depend on what your purpose is, or how awesome their life is, or if you used to date that person? Does he still secretly love me? He does, doesn’t he? Wait a minute, who is she? She looks mean, right? Whatever, where can I find more cat photos? OHMIGOD, HOW CUTE IS THAT ONE?!

These are pressing issues, and I promise I will find out the answers. Just as soon as I finish posting this one picture of my cats.

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P.S., You can follow me on Instagram, if you want. We’ll explore together!


  1. Leslie Holt

    With re-re-re-re-respect to list items 1/ and 5/


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