Slaying The Instagram Beast
March 29, 2019 • 13 minutes
In the last seven years, permit applications for entry into a certain wilderness region in Washington have risen dramatically. In 2011 about 2,800 applications were received. But in 2018 the entries had increased to over 21,500. A similar trend has occurred in other wilderness areas across the USA. Suddenly, the amount of people going to very particular, even remote places, has exploded.
There are probably many reasons why this has happened—there is a positive trend of people getting outdoors more. However, for certain key zones, it seems more is going on than random chance coupled with an increased interest in going outside.
In regards to the popularizing of places both wild and tamed many people have begun to point fingers at social media influencers. Influencers are essentially trendsetters with massive followings, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people. Over the last six years or so these influencers, particularly those who are #vanlife and outdoors based, began to drop into the “most beautiful” places, and exploit them for likes and follows—and even money (they are often sponsored)—by shooting nauseatingly beautiful, perfectly posed photos—photos so beautiful, that it’s almost impossible for a viewer not to imagine themselves right there.
These influencers nowadays would defend themselves to the end, mentioning that they practice leave no trace tagging principles (keep in mind: these principles appeared less than two years ago), and that “bringing awareness” to places is always positive. People, while on social media, tend to see the world with rose-colored glasses. The only way something can be bad is if you choose to view it as such. Maybe this is because it’s very difficult to see your impacts in the physical world when you spend so much time and thought interacting with the digital. Being there, seeing the crowds, seeing the impact of hundreds of people walking on fragile ground, or converging on certain areas of towns, is a lot different than perfectly posed photos, cropped just enough to not show the crowds, or the impact, or the noise of hundreds of other people posing and taking photos.
In regards to the environment, and capitalism, I see this kind of exploitation of beauty for personal gain by brands and common people as one of the last frontiers of extraction. It’s a kind of digital clearcutting. Regarding landscapes, since they have already been dammed, cut, and mined, the final frontier is the exploitation of their beauty for likes and shares.
About a month ago, I made comments on a variety of Instagram influencer accounts that I felt made posts of this exploitative nature. In particular, they had all recently geotagged the above mentioned wilderness area in Washington. My post was something like “Please stop using geotags in places like this for your personal instafame. They are being overrun by too much exposure.” I got a variety of responses, most of them negative, with people lashing back at me. Some even took the time to find a single photo of mine from three years ago that I had geotagged. I realized, and already knew, that insults were not a good way to go about educating people. But, I was angry, and had been for a long time. It had finally boiled over.
After reflecting for an afternoon, I realized I wasn’t necessarily angry at those people for not examining their actions. I was angry at what Instagram has done to people, and at people’s complicity.
I think Instagram has become a beast. A subtle beast, that dotes and fawns, making me feel better, making me feel like it’s necessary—that if I didn’t have it, I would be missing out. And I think a lot of people have been entrapped by its honey’d barb.
Over the last five years, I have often thought about deleting Instagram, but always stopped short. To me, it came down to the idea that without it, I wouldn’t be able to keep in touch with certain people. Many of my friends post every day, and there is definite value in what they post: everything from their own creative work, to snapshots of their real life, to interesting things they want to share: things and thoughts I’d never otherwise see. But after my uncharacteristic and ridiculous burst of anger at random people, I realized that I’d had enough. For the time being, I was ready to let go of Instagram.
For the next month, I didn’t login to my personal Instagram account a single time. I was surprised: I didn’t even miss it. Not checking my phone first thing in the morning allowed me a wealth of free time. It was like a burden had been lifted. The post making, the replying to comments, the reaping of follows and likes: it all ended abruptly. I didn’t feel like I had lost anything. Instead, I had gained: time, attention, and sanity.
In the following weeks, I began writing letters to friends, because without Instagram, I no longer knew what they were up to. I read two books, Americanah (Aidiche), and Independent People (Laxness). I learned how to use Github, and coded the website you are reading this on by hand, a major advance in programming skills for me. I suddenly had so much more focus. I felt like a mist had been lifted from my eyes.
The fact is, the moment a person touches the Instagram button on their phone, they have initiated a system that harnesses the deepest, most vulnerable part of their brain: the rewards system. You may be familiar with dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is at the core of the system. Everything from the little white heart icons that pop up on a red background, to the way the feed is organized by complex and addictive algorithms, has been engineered to be as seductive as possible: to produce dopamine in people’s brains.
I think seductive is a very important word here, because on the surface Instagram is so real (the content is from our friends) that it’s hard to think of it as fake and bad. But in many ways, it is. But it’s not bad like cigarettes. Instagram is far more skillful at making you addicted to it. It seduces you by making you think it’s necessary, that without it you will be missing out. It leverages our needs for socializing, recognition, and stimulation, and turns them insatiable. Instagram is like water that quenches no thirst.
Most people would say they waste time doing things they don’t want to be doing. In this case, I don’t mean obligations, but habits. It might be easy to ignore everything I’ve said about Instagram so far, because it’s easy to think that you are in control of what you’re doing. However, anyone who has checked in even precursorily will know that is actually not true. For example, noticing the busy, somewhat uncontrollable nature of mind is one of the first insights of meditation practice. I would submit that Instagram, and maybe phone use in general, is one of those things that’s hard to get clear on without close attention to habits. Are you using it, or vise versa?
I have a hypothesis that companies nowadays, and since advertising was invented, prey on this kind of difficulty of discerning good from bad. In an NYTimes article called The Cost of Paying Attention, Matthew Crawford claims that these days we even have to pay for silence. We have to pay not to be advertised to.
Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I heard only the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. I saw no advertisements on the walls. This silence, more than any other feature, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows, your neck muscles relax; after 20 minutes you no longer feel exhausted.
Outside, in the peon section, is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.
Another key idea drawn from his writing, and my own experience: Resisting impulses takes effort.
What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.
The sad state of this commons is on display everywhere; consider the experience of being in an airport. I have found I have to be careful when going through airport security, because the trays that you place your items in for X-ray screening are now papered with advertisements, and it’s very easy to miss a lipstick-size flash memory stick against a picture of fanned-out L’Oréal lipstick colors.
I am already in a state of low-level panic about departure times, possible gate changes and any number of other contingencies. This fresh demand for vigilance, lest I lose the PowerPoint slide show I will be presenting in a few hours, feels like a straightforward conflict between me and L’Oréal.
I think these compounding factors may be why I personally have had such a hard time focusing, reading books, etc when I was using Instagram daily. Every moment I was doing something “less interesting” (according to the dopamine-based rewards system) my mind would tell me to pick up my phone: there’s something more stimulating there!
These thoughts so far have been drawn from my personal experience of using Instagram as a photographer and writer for about seven years. My experience has most likely been different than yours. For me, Instagram was initially a replacement for Flickr—a place to share my work. But I realized recently that Flickr was not only empurposed with the idea of sharing photos—it was about community and recognition too, at least for me. And online communities have often filled in for real-life communities that I’ve lacked.
The lack of something is a powerful motivator. Feeling a hole, a space that was once filled and is now empty, can compel massive effort. Relationships with other people, for example, are often both the hardest and most rewarding things in our lives. They are hard because we need them for our wellbeing, yet they take effort. They are rewarding because effort deepens them.
In my opinion, Instagram at its core is a panderer of illusory relationships. It makes one feel connected, while actually disconnecting people from the present. It makes one feel involved and accepted, but actually dis-involves, and perpetuates an insatiable need for recognition. Your mileage my vary, however, anecdotally, I have heard a lot of people echoing these same thoughts. But the way friends talk about it is more a vague uneasiness, like they are not really sure what to think of it. Their view of it sways from being terrible to wonderful. In other words, a relationship with Instagram for some can take on the hallmarks of an addiction. Something that is both loathed and loved, with obvious shortcomings, but that for some reason cannot be expelled.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Back when Instagram first launched, it was innocent enough. There were no sneaky algorithms, stories, geotags, suggested followers, ads (remember that?!), influencers… etc. It was a simple platform for sharing, used by creative people. The platform itself wasn’t designed to be addictive. It wasn’t based on fame and capitalism. It was a like a screwdriver. It was a simple tool.
When Facebook acquired the company for $1,000,000,000 on April 9, 2012, everything changed. And now, six-ish years later, all the original founders of Instagram have quit, and some of the original employees have deleted their accounts. I think that’s all I need to say about that.
I have now been off Instagram for almost two months. Apart from my first day off the platform, I haven’t received a single message saying that someone has missed my presence there. Coming from posting almost every day, for almost five years, it makes ya think… how much value was I really adding to people’s lives? How much was I receiving? What could I have been doing with that time, and energy? In the time since signing off, as I mentioned before, it seems like I could have been doing a lot. Or, maybe, less. Just enjoying the present moment with a cup of tea, a good book, and occasional glances out the window.
This morning I woke up and toasted a batch of millet and oats in a small pan I took from my grandmother’s house after she died. I added some toasted sesame seeds and some whole milk, along with some raisins and a few grains of salt, sat down, and turned on a podcast interview with Teju Cole. Teju, ever since I found out about him, has been a person I’ve felt a deep kinship with—someone who is willing to stand on the edge and look at everything, alone. And in the interview, he said just that—
Right, but being “woke” is also different from waking up, because it’s a performing — knowing the right things to say so that you don’t get attacked. But the responsibility actually goes deeper than that — like, what does it mean to seek justice?
So I think about that in relation to [James Baldwin], and it connects to a further thought, which is that in his lifetime he had this early success, and then he lived — he didn’t live long enough, but he lived into some — a bit of old age. He really fell out of favor. He was sort of set up for it: He was black, grew up poor. He was queer, and he was independent-minded. White people attacked him. Black people attacked him. People thought he wasn’t going far enough in his radical ideas. People thought he was going too far. It was incredibly stressful. He couldn’t live here. And it wasn’t only because of racism. It was also because people on the left were attacking him.
So I think what I learned the most from him is not that you can mine his work and find the quote that fits our progressive positions, but what I learned from him is that taking truly progressive positions can be devastatingly isolating. If everyone is woke, you may be called on to be something else, something a bit more difficult than that. If we live in an environment where we take the “right” opinion for granted as a given — “Oh, everybody knows that” — maybe you’re called on to explore the ideas that not everybody knows.
— Teju Cole
I wanted to share this excerpt because it hit home for me so deeply, I cried. I feel like, for so long, I have been on the edge of things, looking in. The words I wrote above, about Instagram, is just a recent thing I’ve noticed of so many. However, I have waited over a month after writing it to publish it, because I know that a lot of people think I’m wrong, will take it personally, or think that I am just a fool with an axe to grind. Or maybe, I’m the only person who has problems with social media. That’s often how it feels. Isolating.
The last thing I want to say is: I don’t think the problems of the world, such as Instagram, can be dismantled by fear-based anger. Fear based anger often motivates a lot of what people do, it’s a compelling reason after all: as I mentioned before about the idea of Lacking Something—fear can be the motivator to pre-empt a future lack via action. I have been the victim of fear based anger, particularly with my commenting on Influencers accounts mentioned above. I fear a loss of wild places. But my fear will not drive wise actions. I have to step back and take stock of everything, and then act.
I guess this writing, this thinking, is my best shot at that, for now.
Thank you for reading ~
I think it’s worth noting that Teju Cole used to post every day, many times per day, on Instagram. On checking today, his last post was December 26th, 2018