In some ways, my life is a sequence of discarded addictions--money discarded for travel, automobiles for architecture, one woman for another. There is a crystalline mania that follows the first hit, but it inevitably gives way to the dull maintenance phase, and then the undignified thud of rock bottom.
Thankfully, my brain doesn't let me sulk for too long. The same suspended logic that first enabled my addiction comes rushing back. It's always intent to make up for lost time, to apologize in the form of a sweeping observation about the world in general or me specifically: the market thrives on specialization, I pinned a lifetime of hope to a person I hardly knew. These are the things that take the sting out of personal failure, the consolation prizes for being inadequate.
But after enduring my most recent addiction, the hollowness lingered. There was simply no lens through which I could view an addiction to Instagram as anything other than a triumph of flippancy and a failure of willpower. My impatience with my own mind, with its refusal to provide a better explanation, increasingly resembled a greedy, delusional search for someone to blame. Besides, it was brutally unoriginal.
I suspect that there are lots of people who, like me, have found themselves scrolling through a deluge of images for half an hour at a time, only to close the app and immediately re-open it. I suspect that there are lots of people who, like me, have weighed their big brains against the hair-pulling pettiness of Instagram and concluded that, though something is obviously wrong, it's best not to talk about it. But that's bullshit and it isn't fair to the kids behind us, to the ones who won't know the sticky, abrasive world that came before The Cloud and its breathtaking slickness.
And suddenly it was there.
It wasn't an explanation, but something ancient, something I thought I'd innoculated myself to long ago: a moral imperative. It went something like this: barring some cataclysm, I am a member of the last generation that will ever know the world that came before the internet, and as a co-conspirator in the rise of social media, as a member of the vital 18-34 bracket by which cool things are born and everything else dies, I have--and I say this neither lightly nor ironically--an obligation to warn people that we're not engaged in a fair fight.
If that seems self-evident or futile or just plain impossible, I offer one point: the first step in solving every single problem that we'll face for the next decade will begin with getting people to put their goddamn phones down.
Now, I understand how that sounds, though I can't put it any better than my friend who asked me, "are we not risking a slow stroll to the front porch of impending age? That we will be the malcontents bitterly waving a fist at the next generation?" He had a point: history doesn't lack for bitter souls.
But at the same time, I can't reconcile that with the available evidence: machine learning and the striking rise in teen suicides, the growing chasm between connectedness and connection, the army of depressed people that staggers around the blissful parade grounds of social media. Most of all, I can't escape the idea that to shrug at the blistering pace of Today is to deny that we have any control over where we end up Tomorrow.
I'm not about to advocate for some naive, indefensible nostalgia. The fact of the matter is that technology has improved our lives in countless and demonstrable ways, but it's extremely dangerous to view it as a linear progression, to confuse new with better. When we look at technology, or even just history, through the rearview mirror, we inevitably force its story into a coherent, recognizable structure that obscures how it could--and generally did--go in any number of directions besides forward. In other words, "a Cosmic thrust in one direction... is surely one of the lamest semantic fallacies ever bread by the word 'evolution."
I've put a lot of thought into this, and while I'd be hurt if you stopped reading here, I also don't think that I could blame you, because the subtlety with which we're nudged from one outrage or obsession to the next is so sublime and sly and strong that it seems to be a force of nature. But if you accept that the screen you're looking at was invented by us, then you accept that we can still control it--and so I implore you to keep reading.
The only way for me to wrap my head around this is to--briefly--take you through my appalling descent into Instagramadness. Given that this is the intellectual equivalent of approaching a urinal in a crowded men's room and dropping my pants to ankle-height, I suspect that it will be good for my overgrown ego.
Instagram entered my life, like so many other things, when a beautiful woman brought it to my attention. For the following half decade, it wallowed in obscurity on my iPhone and I wallowed in obscurity on the platform. My irrelevance stemmed from logic (hashtags represent self-promotion, and self-promotion represents a lack of taste) and aesthetic shortcomings (a lack of taste). As I became more interested in art and architecture and design, Instagram became a bigger part of my life. This was driven by the idiotic belief that it was the only game in town, but also the undeniable inertia of the app and the time I'd sunk into it.
But no matter what, I promised myself that I wouldn't fall for the trap--that I would play the game with Henry Kissinger's monogrammed calculator and the distant apathy of the Truly Cool.
But Instagram played me. Big time.
Its tyrannical rise began about 80 days ago, when I returned to America and abruptly began taking photos of people. The mild agoraphobe within me was floored to realize that people like other people, so I began reaching out to models. The artist within me was quick to justify my new obsession not as pandering, but as an opportunity to experiment with posing and lighting and all of those things that you have no control of in architectural and automotive photography (where you're almost entirely dependent on where the rich people left their shit). Meanwhile, my following doubled in the span of two months and, on some data-worshipping level that I should've been deeply hostile towards, this affirmation of my taste had to mean something positive.
And make no mistake--I felt positive. Each like was a tiny surge of dopamine, each new follower a convert to the Aesthetic Church of Me, every comment a toast to MY vision at a white table-clothed going away party--because I was headed to the big leagues, to the land of 130k followers and false relevance.
Then one day I woke up and realized that I was just taking a bunch of photos attractive, typically white, women in the Holy-Shit-How-Could-You-Fuck-This-Up-If-You-Tried age bracket--and that my art, if you could still call it that, wasn't saying anything. The word "art" warrants scrutiny too, because I constantly found myself using it to hammer a wedge between my stuff and the selfies and the memes and the self-esteem issues and the carefully-pruned online personas that everyone else thrust out into the world. Only later did I realize that my art was really just a proxy for my own face, for my toned ass on a Micronesian beach.
It was around this point that I was introduced to the work of Marshall McLuhan, a media theorist who reached a striking degree of prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. His seminal achievement seems to be the cyclical and cryptic claim that "the medium is the message." As vague as the phrase seems, if you apply it to Instagram, it makes perfect sense: the message of Instagram has nothing to do with its content, but rather with the breakdown of content into a near-infinite feed of visuals that are as digestible as they are immemorable. It is one continuous lateral slide of association, connecting this image to the one beside it, but never to a higher plane. It never, ever transcends.
Whereas a good novel or a great film will subject you to a dizzying array of emotions--many of them unpleasant--it does so with the implicit promise that you're going somewhere, and that these are necessary steps along the way to Meaning. And Meaning is inextricably linked to the effort that is demanded of the audience, to the labor that every rewarding thing has required of me. Then again, maybe I'm just the guy who still likes manual gearboxes, the one shouting in frustration as the bullet train of technocapitalism races past.
As much as I'd like to write this whole essay off as an indefensible defense of nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, I keep bumping up against that moral imperative. I'm sure there are better, pithier quotes to justify why I'm tilting at windmills, but this one, buried deep within a McLuhan lecture from 1977, will have to suffice: "the hidden aspects of the media are the things that should be taught, because they have an irresistible force when invisible."
So, what is invisible?
How about the concept of variable rewards? It's a psychological phenomenon in which the inconsistent delivery of rewards leads subjects to compulsively return to the source of the reward--to do so expectantly and, soon enough, more often than rewards are given. If that seems like a tenuous example, then why are push notifications delivered to us--by default--on a seemingly random schedule rather than as a batch at a set time every day? Sure, you're asked if you want to enable them when you first download the app, but if you decline, you're consistently prodded thereafter to turn notifications on; to "always stay informed."
Why doesn't Instagram periodically ask those who've enabled notifications if they'd like to turn them off? Why doesn't the app nudge you off of it, not onto it, when you've sunk several hours into scrolling? Because it's incompatible with Instagram's business model. More scrolling means more data to sell, and even if the Facebook/Instagram juggernaut accepts that it's swimming in cash and decides to engage in meaningful, ethical redesign of its interface, that doesn't mean its competitors will. Eventually, and probably for reasons they wouldn't understand, the cool kids would migrate elsewhere and Facebook would struggle to explain its shrinking market share to stockholders.
But to view this strictly as Instagram exploiting its users is to ignore the murky crowd of influencers and marketers and social media gurus who loiter on the periphery. This group seems most invested in perpetuating the myth that there's a substantial amount of money to be made on Instagram by anyone other than Instagram.
That companies are willing to pay particularly visible users to promote their products is to ignore that this is both comparatively cheap, given most marketing budgets, and that its debatable effectiveness will vanish if we all obtain large followings. Right now, companies seem to be throwing money at the platform precisely because they lack information about it--and because they're falling for the anecdotal hype that the periphery intentionally amplifies. A strange contradiction--that we're more inclined to give money to people who already appear successful--also means that influencers are incentivized to fake it 'til they make it (or don't). I sense a bubble of misinformation here, and I suspect it will burst next year.
More than anything, however, I want to look at Instagram's emphasis on relative status. Yes, I'm talking about that billboard that projects the size of my following before anything else--including my name.
Instagram is founded on the primacy of followers. To hold any relevance on the platform, I must have a vast following (I’m not even going to unpack the Jim Jones-y, holy shit narcissism of “follower”). Frankly, I don’t know why we consistently equate a large following with being remotely important to the universe, but I suspect it stems from a desire to distill a person’s entire social relevance into two numbers. That’s deeply troubling on its own--but then I realized that the centrality of the size of my following is, above all else, a trick to coax me into playing a game that's actually playing me. I ought to pay no attention to these numbers, and yet I do.
At any given time, I know, plus or minus 2%, how many people follow me on Instagram--many of them strangers or realtors or architecture firms on other continents--and yet I can't tell you how many people I've slept with in my life. When I try to trace the origin of this fucked up calculus, I find myself tripping over the idea that I care because these numbers are broadcast for everyone to see.
To be painfully clear, there is an inescapable petulance to my complaint, a collision where the fact that 570 is a lot of people smashes into the fact that I feel I deserve more. Science says my brain can barely remember 150 faces, my call log says I've made 6 phone calls this week, and yet I lust for a bigger crowd.
If there's one thing that I'm sure of, it's that I'd be better off if I'd never heard that fucking number.
I really want to cut this off here, to demand that you turn on "Somebody Got Murdered" by The Clash and blow out your speakers because there's no point in fighting this anymore. I want to wrap this up by meekly admitting that, in retrospect, my mistakes are obvious: I conflated 'public' approval with self-approval, I abandoned metaphor, I exploited feminine beauty while traipsing down the path of least resistance, I failed in my responsibility to treat this shiny gadget as a tool rather than a purpose.
But as much as I want to walk away, I keep returning to this one quote: "you could say it's my responsibility [to minimize screentime], but that's not acknowledging that there's a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain." That quote, from a former product ethicist at Google, gets to the heart of the matter: this is a business first and everything else second. To deny this, to overlook the staggering amount of money that is being made off of me just because the transaction is cloaked in social fabric is to engage in something worse than complicity. Yet at the same time, to allege that Palo Alto is teeming with villains is just as delusional. These firms are obligated, particularly to their investors, to maximize profits. They are motivated by the same self-interest as me, because the alternative within capitalism is death via bankruptcy.
With that in mind, it seems that fixing this problem will have to come further upstream, either in the form of government regulation that levels the playing field for all social media, or by the device manufacturers whose business models aren't incompatible with reduced screentime. Apple will sell just as many iPhones if you spend 10 minutes a day on Instagram as it will if you spend 6 hours. Furthermore, I suspect they'd sell more iPhones if they'd market the next one as being less-addictive (although this opens the door to the liability concerns that discouraged tobacco companies from doing the same thing in the 60s and 70s--because to market something as healthier or less addictive is to tacitly acknowledge the danger of your other products).
Some of this will be as easy as changing the default settings on the next generation of devices. After all, we know from countless studies in the field of behavioral economics that we can improve the frequency with which people make "good" decisions by doing things as simple as changing the default option to the desirable behavior. Want more people to save for retirement? Automatically enroll them in retirement plans. Want to keep them enrolled? Require the slightest bit of labor to choose the alternative.
Regardless, the biggest obstacle to getting a grip on this problem won't be Instagram itself, nor will it be the broader Instagram Industrial complex that will scream and wail when the influencers' livelihood is threatened for the broader public good. No, the biggest problem will be us, because resistance, like life itself, is hard and Instagram is easy.
When I dwell on the darkest of nightmares, of a future that is purely socially mediated and somehow not lived, I see the same horrors as Sven Birkerts in 1994, when he considered the fate of reading. His fear was "not one of neotroglodytes grunting and wielding clubs, but of efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference."
But before you go back to The Feed, before you surrender to the brilliant glow of tomorrow, remember one thing: books aren't dead yet, and neither are we.
If you've reached this point, thank you. If this has moved you in any way, please, please tell someone else.
Below are a few simple tips for scaling back your usage of Instagram (and social media in general), as well as some sources.
Before that, however, I'd like to wish a happy birthday to Jonathan Franzen. I always thought that Davey Crockett was the coolest person with whom I share a birthday, but I learned (halfway through the fourth Franzen book that I've read in the past two months) that I share a birthday with Jonathan. I don't place any meaning in that--we all have to have a birthday--but discovering his work, particularly his essays, has been one of the great joys of my life and so I hope you'll read this.
How To Turn Down The Noise
- Don't follow people you don't care about, don't like things you don't love. Accept that ingratiating yourself to others is a deeply offensive act in the real world, and be honest when you see yourself doing it online.
- Ignore the Explore page on Instagram. This is a bottomless pit of content that is literally designed to keep you scrolling until the sun burns out.
- Accept that a measurable audience can make us scared to experiment--and that experimentation is as good as it is hard.
- Any time that you find yourself closing and then immediately reopening the app, delete it for as long as you can.
- Stop posting Instagram Stories and try to stop watching them. A willingness to post something for only 24 hours represents an unwillingness to commit to something. Also, the ability to see who views your story is an intentional abuse of your brain. I don't know what is being exploited here, but it's Freudian.
- Accept that Instagram confines your options for expression, and even just the number of actions, to those which the designers allow for. Thus, your frustration or inability to express yourself almost certainly extends from a design failure rather than a personal one.
- Download Moment, an app that passively tracks the time you spend on your phone. The numbers will disgust you.
Screw it, this is where you need to start.