Instagram changed my life. I was on maternity leave, trapped under a sleeping baby in a claustrophobic home, and found an app full of tiny squares of human connection. I started sharing a photograph a day, setting myself the tiny challenge to find something worth sharing. Often there was nothing at all, so I had to get creative: the ripe pears in the sun on the window-ledge. The pattern lefts by the trails from the jet planes in the city sky.
My audience began to grow, and with it a whole new world of opportunity blossomed. For the first time, I was getting feedback on my creative writing and photography, and it empowered me to keep going and try new things. Five years on, my old day job is history. I run my business, Me & Orla, from my new home in the hills, where my husband works as my assistant full time and last year our turnover was £250k.
And as I sat surveying my quiet little empire, all I could think was, why did nobody tell me this was possible?
So I wrote a book to do just that. Hashtag Authentic isn't a traditional social media how-to guide - it's not about the cold hard numbers so much as the bigger questions that make that kind of growth possible. How can we stay authentic in a world that would quite like us all to be somebody more 'perfect'? How do we navigate all the noise to build something with meaning and impact? It's a handbook for navigating a digital world where anyone can have a voice - but where getting that voice heard requires a degree of game-playing and nuance, and will tempt you to lose sight of who you are.
Most of all it aims to give everyone permission - that permission that I got from my audience in the beginning, to take my creativity seriously and explore my online dreams. We hear so much negativity about social media - how it's ruining our lives and eroding our social structure - but for many of us it's a playground where we get to be the fullest and most free versions of ourselves. For anyone with disabilities (I have a chronic health condition that means I look fine but feel like a salted slug most of the time), with caring responsibilities, with anxiety or a busy schedule or a hectic day-job or a million other realities, the internet is an accessible window to wider world that they would otherwise miss. My business is proof of what can happen when we embrace that, instead of looking for ways to try and tear ourselves away, or tear it down.
Instagram has taught me self belief, it's given me friends all over the world, it's saved me from loneliness and social isolation and it's allowed me stay to productive and profitable in the face of poor health and disability. It's helped me to find the beauty in the smallest moments of my everyday life, and it's empowered me to share these lessons with anyone out there who might be walking a similar path. Hashtag Authentic is a collection of that wisdom and all the things that I wish I had known in the beginning, and my hope is that it finds its way into the hands of anyone who, like me, is burying their dreams down deep, and gives them a little bit of space to let them expand.