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When I started my Instagram account four months ago, I did it with a spiritual purpose.
As a Baha'i with a firm belief in the oneness of humanity, I’m super interested in how people coming together online across race, class and gender could enrich our collective experience of unity.
I decided to log in to that Instagram world with an intent to “… regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch.” – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 164.
Instagram—because of its global nature—seemed like a perfect place to reaffirm Baha’u’llah’s teachings to unify humanity in one universal cause.
To unite with others, through a sense of humanity as “leaves of one branch and waves of one sea,” seemed like an attractive prospect. I had used online tools for mentoring and meetings, but never to connect with strangers.
One caveat, though: my teenage daughters responded to the news of my Instagram venture with mild, yet genuine, concern. “Mom, that is such a waste of time” they admonished, “You are going to hate it,” they both chimed. Knowing how much I disliked their overuse of technology, they were remarkably adept at pinpointing my prejudices.
Yet, I had a mission: to understand how to use social media as a force for good, to attract and bring together like-minded individuals on topics related to social entrepreneurship, social change, ethical business practices and sustainability. In the Baha'i writings Shoghi Effendi made it clear that the principle of oneness involves much more than just love and tolerance, but calls instead for a fundamental change in the structure of society:
Let there be no mistake. The principle of the Oneness of Mankind—the pivot round which all the teachings of Baha’u’llah revolve—is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. …
It represents the consummation of human evolution—an evolution that has had its earliest beginnings in the birth of family life, its subsequent development in the achievement of tribal solidarity, leading in turn to the constitution of the city-state, and expanding later into the institution of independent and sovereign nations.
The principle of the Oneness of Mankind, as proclaimed by Baha'u'llah, carries with it no more and no less than a solemn assertion that attainment to this final stage in this stupendous evolution is not only necessary but inevitable, that its realization is fast approaching, and that nothing short of a power that is born of God can succeed in establishing it. - Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 43.
With a billion active users, Instagram seemed like one of the most inclusive spots to test how the medium could help us re-organize our societies—but I had to start at the beginning. I didn’t know what a “story” was, or even hashtags. I also realized I was several years and a generation behind, so after 30 days and only 200 followers I turned to the experts to understand how to attract and engage with strangers who also wanted to be agents of change in their community towards a better world.
Seeking to learn more, I asked a friend who was an influencer on Instagram, plus my daughters’ friends (ages 16-21) about how to better use the medium. Both replied that it took a lot of effort, that they posted often, and followed others who would follow them in return. I viewed a few tutorials on how to build a presence, but resisted the urge to pay $350 dollars for a course or sponsor ads.
Instead, I watched what images the Baha'i youth shared, and found myself touched by the alternative world and perspectives of friendship and beauty they expressed, in line also with the unique guidance of Baha’u’llah:
We exhort you, O peoples of the world, to observe that which will elevate your station. … Henceforward everyone should utter that which is meet and seemly, and should refrain from slander, abuse and whatever causeth sadness in men. Lofty is the station of man! – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 219-220.
I found myself continuously turning to postings of quotations from the Baha'i teachings on a daily basis for the beauty, humor and upliftment they provided. Similarly I looked for sources of quotes from Rumi and Rudolf Steiner, and I found the work of many photographers and artists to be especially spiritual, too. I followed the authors of the quotes and found many were life coaches or leadership coaches.
Slowly I realized that Instagram worked as a medium to share ideas and also offer workshops, tutorials, coaching and ideas about life and how to live it. Yet the more I looked the more I also found people monetizing their ideas with offers to “buy followers” and “learn how to be an influencer.” It reminded me that we still have some progress ahead of us.
So how can we move towards unity, collective action and the oneness of humankind? Turning again to the Baha'i writings I read this: “Whatever a man’s tongue speaketh, that let him prove by his deeds.” – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 139. Clearly, not much actual action happens online, no matter how beautiful the images or the sentiments.
Also, even in setting out to be positive, given the vast amount of content and commentary shared, not all of it seemed uplifting to the human condition. I was obliged to examine that even with Word Swag, and other tools to beautify my posts, the “Follower ROI” on my time was negative. My conclusion: I’m not sure Instagram is going to be able to change this behavior. Hmmm.
Six months later, without a significant uptick in outcomes, I decided to refocus my efforts back in the real world. I joined a Baha'i study circle to become a tutor, opened our home to a junior youth empowerment group as well as a another Baha'i course on personal spiritual growth. I’m reflecting on prayers and the meaning of life and death from a spiritual perspective, and I plan to speak soon at a Baha'i-inspired conference on Ethical Business. Also, as you can see, I’m writing essays for BahaiTeachings.org.
I’m thankful to reflect, through my social media experience, on how my actions in my daily life can advance—how I can be frank and loving, and analytical yet respectful. At work and with friends, I strive to express ideas confidently yet with modesty, to be knowledgeable yet generous, friendly and genuine. My experience with social media helped me to be more vigilant and open, empowered and mindful in where I choose to expend my time. See you at a devotional, a Baha’i study circle or right here online!