Readers, I apologize if you are receiving this for the second time. I attempted to send this out via my old newsletter service, TinyLetter, only to realize that 90% of the emails went to spam. So I’m re-sending this via a new platform, Substack. Please add firstname.lastname@example.org to your contacts to prevent this email from going to spam in the future, unless you prefer otherwise.
For the past several months, I’ve been working on a podcast about the intersection of technology and identity. But I don’t mean to talk about the podcast here. Only that working on this podcast has forced me to reckon with the ways my own identity has been shaped by technology. Namely, my fraught relationship with Instagram, and all the love and hate and addiction that has come with it.
I signed up for Instagram in 2011, sometime during my junior or senior year of college. The platform felt happily mundane and inconsequential at first, frivolous and unnecessary—the way all technologies feel in their incipient stages.
The first photo I ever posted on Instagram was of my sister eating frozen yogurt out of a cup emblazoned with Hello Kitty on it. We were at Yogurtland in San Jose. I put a filter on it, marveling at how I could turn a photo into the digital version of a Polaroid, an act which felt fresh and novel at the time. Instagram didn’t yet feel like a place where I had to construct or perform aspects of my identity. It hadn’t yet become a cipher of myself.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but Instagram transformed—for me, at least. It was no longer about self-expression or connection. Rather, it evolved into a crowd-fed machine that exacerbated my self-consciousness while encouraging me to perform and impress and consume. And I think all of that squashed parts of myself. I don’t know how to be more specific, or how to give any sort of tangible proof. I find it difficult to write about in a way that feels concrete. But I had this looming, pervasive feeling that that my identity was becoming a composite of sorts, a Frankenstein of other people’s tastes, affinities, and personality quirks. Sometimes it really felt like I no longer knew what parts of myself were truly myself and what other parts I had glommed from other people.
There are so many other things I could say about Instagram: how it’s homogenized design, photography, art (via the perpetuation of a particular Instagram aesthetic); how it’s created a form of pseudo-celebrity (i.e. influencers) that is at its heart, just another form of advertising; how it’s turned people into brands. And most subversive of all, how it presents itself as reality (or we mistake it as such) when it is much closer to a kind of simulacrum. But I’m not writing about all that right now. What I’m interested in figuring out is my own personal relationship to Instagram.
As a medium, Instagram lends itself to a kind of escapist voyeurism, where by inspecting the lives of others, we believe we can momentarily relieve ourselves of whatever stress, indecision, or overwhelm are currently plaguing us. Other mediums allow for this too, but the structure of Instagram makes it particularly good for doing this rapidly, continuously, and with infinite targets. I contrast it with blogging as a counterpoint, because over the decade (or more) that I spent blogging, my relationship with it was never complicated or self-destructive. Blogging felt diaristic and introspective. It allowed me to rapidly prototype different voices and try out different ways of writing. Even reading other people’s blogs mostly felt substantial to me, a brief dip into someone else’s brain—sometimes it felt like more than that, as if you were actually getting to know a person. Instagram on the other hand constantly short-circuited my attention, drawing it to shiny, pretty things and the lives of people I didn’t know. Sometimes I found myself desperately wanting to be those people I didn’t know. And it never felt particularly nourishing or relaxing, though perhaps I convinced myself it was.
On my worst days (and nights and mornings), I spent the bulk of my time on Instagram not posting photos but looking at them. Flicking through stories. Searching for rabbit holes to go down—sometimes very deliberately. Consuming in great quantities the accoutrements and facades of lives I did and didn’t know. Fantasizing. It felt good to get lost in a flimsy (but fun! and loud!) world when my brain felt incapacitated, something akin to a sushi buffet in Las Vegas with not-very-good sashimi. And doing so only inflamed my desire to purchase more things—things I believed would bring me one step closer to the life I wanted to live. Being the person I wanted to be! If only that’s how it worked.
Even after I de-activated my Instagram, I would sometimes crave the very particular feeling that going down a rabbit hole gave me, which I imagine is what alcoholics seek when they drink or what binge-eaters look forward to as they force five pints of ice cream down their gullets. It’s a temporary relief that feigns fullness, that feels good (it’s better than boredom and existential dread) but also bad at the same time. It’s an out-of-body, mind-numbing experience that feels as though it might just make me feel less empty and less lonely.
As I was writing this (read: trying to untangle an unruly and often unintelligible web of feelings and thoughts)—off and on for more than a month—I kept thinking back to an essay I read years ago by David Foster Wallace called “E Unibus Pluram: Television and Fiction.” It’s a sprawling but deftly written essay filled with precise insights and quite scathing critiques. I recommend it. Re-reading it, I realized that much of his analysis of television applies to Instagram as well. In the first part of the essay, he writes about why television is so alluring, especially to lonely people. One reason is that it “looks to be an absolute godsend for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself… We can see Them. They can’t see Us. We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle.” Like television, Instagram is a portal into different lives, which can provide a temporary respite from our own. We can feel connected to other people’s lives (albeit shallowly) without “[bearing] the emotional costs associated with being around other humans.”
There’s another thing about Instagram—its performative aspect. The premise of the platform is that you follow other people and other people follow you. You post photos so that other people can see them (and like them). Like people on TV, you know you’re being watched. And with that knowledge—no matter how subconscious—it is impossible not to think that every image I post suggests a particular aesthetic, vision, personality trait, etc.
When Instagram really got to me, I realized that EVERYTHING—EVERY MOMENT!—could be viewed through the lens of Instagram: How would I share, convey, manicure this experience? As though each experience was not an end to itself, but something I could use to build, bolster, construct my self-image (And each of these revelations was deeply shameful to me—it showed how much I cared about what people thought of me. Was I not myself but merely a mirror of what I thought other people wanted to see?) I’ll admit: I’m prone to neuroticism, anxiety, and self-doubt; I also tend toward over-analysis and wild (creative?) interpretations. So maybe it’s just me. Perhaps you don’t share any of these experiences at all. Well, bless your heart! Your mind is purer and clearer and healthier than mine.
Some more passages from DFW’s essay that I need not explain. They so obviously apply to Instagram:
“How can we be made so willingly to acquiesce for hours daily to the illusion that the people on the TV don't know they're being looked at, to the fantasy that we're transcending privacy and feeding on unself-conscious human activity.”
"We receive unconscious reinforcement of the deep thesis that the most significant feature of truly alive persons is watchableness, and that genuine human worth is not just identical with but rooted in the phenomenon of watching. And that the single biggest part of real watchableness is seeming to be unaware that there's any watching going on. Acting natural ... And we, trying desperately to be nonchalant, perspire creepily, on the subway."
"Television's biggest minute-by-minute appeal is that it engages without demanding. One can rest while undergoing stimulation. Receive without giving."
Last December, I decided to de-activate my Instagram account entirely. I’d spent time away from it before and and would erratically delete the app from my phone before installing it again, but it still retained a hold of my psyche. Removing any trace of my existence from Instagram (though not deleting it for all of eternity) alleviated the mental burden of wondering if people were messaging or tagging me. A firmer boundary had been erected. I no longer existed on Instagram, so Instagram no longer existed for me either. I could either be fully visible or decisively invisible, but not somewhere in between.
The first couple weeks were not easy for me. I missed and craved Instagram. I wanted to scroll through something. I’d often pick up my phone and find myself at a loss for what to do, since my usual recourse was no longer there. In place of Instagram I tried eBay, but it was nowhere near as gripping. I re-activated it once on December 30. I posted a series of pictures from a trip to New Orleans before I got on a flight back to San Francisco, and upon landing, I turned on my phone and immediately opened the app—I desperately needed to know who and how many people liked it. At that moment, I realized just how powerful and all-consuming that instinct to be liked and notice really was, and I was disgusted and repulsed. I needed more time away, so I de-activated it again, just five hours later.
Since then, it’s remained de-activated. I’ve noticed that my attention span has changed. The impulse to scroll has not entirely diminished but I notice the impulse more when it does arise, and I crave it less. My brain seems to operate more slowly, which is a good thing for me, and I think I’m gaining back some unnamed parts of myself that I’d buried for awhile. My whole life feels a little more spacious—though at the same time, more removed and hermited. I have to admit that I feel a sense of disconnection from a great swath of people. I do not know what any of my friends are up to, unless I see them in person or we text or call. And I’ve realized how much I loathe boredom. I dread it. I will do anything to not feel it. I am terrified of feeling nothingness. Of feeling useless. Of not knowing what to do. I used to use Instagram to mitigate some of those feelings. I notice those feelings more now, though sometimes I’ll do other things to avoid them, like watch TV or buy something online.
There’s nothing morally superior about being off of Instagram. I might be back on it next week, who knows. Some people are better at maintaining sensible relationships with things like food, alcohol, and technology. But me? I tend toward obsession and addiction. And sometimes the only way to reverse those tendencies is to ask myself these questions: What are my deepest desires? What is the emptiness I am trying to fill? Why am I so terrified of boredom? What am I running away from? What feelings do I hate to feel? I don’t have the answers to any of those questions just yet, but I’m working on it.
The last time I wrote one of these was in August of 2017! I only wrote one email newsletter that year, and I wrote zero in 2018. I've missed this forum. It is the one place where my writing is fully mine, not subject to any one else's agendas, constraints, needs, etc. and that is very freeing—so thank you for reading, especially because it's an email, and email can be a pain in the ass. Please say hi!