Instagram is bad for tea. There, I said it. It’s not that I don’t like Instagram, per se. I’ve met great tea friends on there, found new tea experiences, and generally learned a lot from what I’ve seen there.
Disclaimer: I’m aware of the irony of complaining about Instagram while using it to benefit myself. I look at Instagram as something of a “necessary evil”, though the “necessary” part is actively up for debate.
That said, the main issues I have with tea on Instagram are as follows:
- Too much emphasis on the aesthetics of tea
- Difficult if not impossible to start meaningful dialogue
- Creates real dissatisfaction in users
- Adds pressure to document experiences rather than be present with them
- It enables tea “brands”
Tea Aesthetics and Why Too Much is a Bad Thing
Tea is beautiful, that’s not a surprise. The problem with Instagram is that it makes the beauty of tea the point, rather than the added benefit. With so much emphasis on aesthetics, it leads to focusing on style over substance.
Take chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) for example. Only looking at pictures of the tea room, of practitioners in kimonos, close-ups of matcha or sweets puts the focus on those things themselves. It might lead the viewer to believe the point of chanoyu is to celebrate pretty stuff. It’s not that they’re wrong in that per se, but the pretty things are there to serve a purpose–their job is to communicate a theme or an idea. Each tea gathering is arranged by the host according to the season, the guests, and the occasion. Sure, you can discuss that in the caption, but many people I have asked indicate they don’t read captions.
And speaking of matcha, there is perhaps no greater beneficiary or victim of Instagram in the tea world. The brilliant green color of matcha along with its fabulous froth makes it the perfect eye candy for Instagram, which undoubtedly helped propel it to mainstream popularity. The problem with this is the mechanism that drives popularity on Instagram is the same one that drives its users to constantly engage in one-upping each other. This leads to the creation of all kinds of matcha-based monstrosities.
Style over substance. All sizzle but no steak. This is often the case with tea on Instagram.
Instagram Does Not Facilitate Public Conversation
Pretty much all of my talking and connecting with people on Instagram happens in DMs. Why? Because Instagram’s platform does not have the features to support quality conversation. Again, it’s all about the pictures, yo.
Comments on Instagram are poorly organized, nested in a weird way that doesn’t reveal the full conversation, and are generally difficult to consume. I think this is probably why we see comments like “awesome”, “brilliant”, “beautiful” or some combination of emojis, rather than something thought-provoking or interesting.
I’ve had plenty of meaningful interactions in DMs, but those are private conversations restricted to a few people in a group at most. There’s nothing social about that.
Personally, I would much prefer to use Twitter for engaging with tea people. It still allows for pretty images and video, but content is text-forward. It’s designed for quick and condensed thoughts, rewards discussion and conversation (usually), and it’s public, which allows other interested folks to join in. Sure, Twitter has its faults–there are some very toxic fandoms and communities on Twitter–but generally I like it better as a place to share, learn, and discuss.
Tea Envy Is Real and it Feels Bad
One of the most commonly discussed downsides to social media is the way it can create feelings of dissatisfaction or even depression in its users. With everyone curating only the best, most shareable moments from their lives–many of which are manufactured–users of social media compare the worst of themselves against the best of others.
I believe tea on Instagram suffers from the same defect.
Let’s count the ways we might compare ourselves against others on tea Instagram:
- Tea (quality, rarity, exclusivity, frequency or manner of consumption)
- Teaware (antique/vintage, handmade, expensive)
- Environment (scenery, backdrops, surroundings)
- Experiences (travel, exclusive events, workshops, training)
- Equipment & Editing (camera, software, skills/training)
That’s a whole lot of space for us to feel bad about ourselves.
Adds Pressure to Document Experiences Rather Than Have Them
Much like the old phrase: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
We can say: “If tea is had and no one takes a picture of it, did tea really happen at all?”
Instagram puts pressure on us to constantly document our tea experiences so we can share them with other people for internet points. Those of us who are creating tea content (i.e. me) are especially vulnerable to this pressure.
I would love to have more photos of my experience studying tea ceremony and attending tea gatherings, but the nature of chanoyu itself is to be present. Hard to focus on experiencing a “once in a lifetime” moment if I’m busy trying to get the right angle to take a picture of it.
Even alone, I find myself spoiling my personal tea time sometimes because I go to take a picture and then get sucked into the phone, rather than staying with the tea.
Tea “Brands” on Instagram
Being a tea drinker, I get lots of ads from tea companies. I almost always click on them to view the company’s profile or website. I’m always curious to see what marketing schtick they’re using. (Spoiler alert: it’s usually matcha and statements not evaluated by the FDA)
News flash: if you don’t own or have access to exclusive production, then you’re peddling the same tea as everyone else in a different package.
When tea companies lack a unique product or core competency, that forces them to compete on brand. This leads companies to even more outlandish marketing or branding exercises. This type of behavior is misleading at best, or dangerous at worst (looking at you, diet and weight-loss teas).
Educated tea consumers generally know when these types of companies don’t pass the sniff test. However, there are plenty of people out there getting duped into dropping money for mediocre tea because of some pretty photos on Instagram.
You might argue “a fool and his money are soon parted”, but as a tea enthusiast and a business professional I take umbrage at the notion of fooling people with bad tea and misleading marketing.
Complaining Without Offering Solutions
I admit, I don’t have a good solution or alternative to the above. Maybe this is a sign I’m turning into an old man sitting on the porch railing at the world. I’m aware it doesn’t mean anything will change but sometimes it feels good to shout into the void.
I wish people would use Twitter more, as discussed above. I wish Facebook weren’t a hot mess (or an evil mega corporation). Forums are great, if a bit antiquated. Discord is pretty cool, but it can be hard to keep up with.
Please don’t make me use TikTok.
In the end, it feels like us tea nerds have sort of settled on Instagram for now. After all, tea is pretty to look at and it is fun to indulge in some aesthetic tea porn sometimes.
So, until we find something better you’ll find me posting there, albeit begrudgingly. If you are active on Twitter, please do follow me. I’d much rather grow a community there.
Time to go take some pictures of tea to advertise this post on Instagram.
Wow, putting it all out there. The benefit of connecting with direct people through DMs is enough to keep me on IG. My biggest challenge is standing out among the beautiful photos when my content is all about the people and process behind tea. Also, I feel that other users assume I’m showing off when I am just trying to share the education and experiences that I do have the great privilege to have as I’ve sacrificed everything to build a tea company against all odds.
Thanks for opening this conversation. It will help people shake their self doubt if they feel they don’t perform well on IG.
I’m grateful I met you through IG!!!
Great points, Elyse. My personal take on IG stuff is you’re either a great photographer or a great writer. What I mean by that is, I’m someone who reads captions and you’ll get my support if you’re creating great stuff even if your photos aren’t shot on some sexy DSLR and edited in Lightroom.
I admire your passion and dedication to putting content out there with Tealet, so you can rest assured you’ve at least got me in your corner cheering you on.
Very glad to have met you via IG as well!
I feel like communicating with pictures is entirely possible, just requires a hell of a lot more knowledge and skill with photography then most people would possess. I can think of a way to take a picture that conveys loose leaf is good and that a certain source is good because it sources tea in a better way, while still catching the eye. But to do that every single aspect of the picture is controlled and set up in specific ways with everything having a reason. So I can see Instagram being able to be good but not as accessible
Thorough thoughts. But I’d say don’t underestimate power of tea 😉