Tech

The Year Without Instagram

I quit Instagram for a year now. Here’s why.

If you prefer, you can also watch the Youtube video or the longer podcast episode that I made, covering the same topic.

The last picture I posted before I quit Instagram was on May 2020. It was the early months of the pandemic.

I still remember that my husband and I need some fresh air after going barely anywhere for so long. So we jogged around the neighborhood, took a couple pictures, and posted the best one.

Then, poof! – I quit Instagram for a full year.

Well, originally, I don’t plan to quit Instagram. A few months, at max. The news was in its peak madness with intense coverage on everything, and I need my zen back.

However, while the state of the world was certainly a trigger, it wasn’t the cause. The bullet has been there for a long, long time.

not my first rodeo

Deciding to quit Instagram or to social media platforms in general isn’t exactly novel for me, and I bet it’s the same too for you. I’ve quit Facebook since – God, it was so long ago – at least 2016.

It was because by that point, Facebook was, for me, a net negative. It used to be fun knowing with what my friends were up to. Do you still remember that question, what’s on your mind? Such a nostalgia.

But then, I felt coerced to accept connections out of obligation. It became more of a way for nosy people to stalk me. I no longer enjoy Facebook like I used to.

Instagram, on the other side, was the new cool thing. (Well, also Path, but then it died down. ) Instagram was like the new kid in school – pretty, hipster, a little nerdy – that everyone was curious about. Like Cady Heron of Mean Girls.

But soon, she overthrew the authoritarian regime of Regina George (Facebook), and we, the millennials, were there for it. My Facebook account was slowly but surely deserted, and the best pictures of my life found a new home: Instagram.

And when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke out, it was proven that not only Facebook was full of nosy people, the platform itself are nosy. Probably even more than my privy relatives. That was it. Adios, my 8-year-old FB account.

It’s ironic that now Instagram is owned by Facebook, it slowly becomes the very thing it overthrew. Actually, I can exactly pinpoint when the first crack appeared:

The June of 2016

June 2016 was the time when Instagram announced the algorithms. They ended the chronological order, replacing it with algorithm-driven feed.

I swear I could hear shriek of horror all over the Internet, and – you remember this – people asks their followers to turn notification bell on because the winter is coming.

Instagram influencers ca. 2016 asking their followers to turn on post notifications (src: Digiday.com)
Instagram influencers ca. 2016 asking their followers to turn on post notifications (src: Digiday.com)

By that point though, I certainly enjoyed Instagram much more than Facebook. And when the algorithm happened, I barely noticed. In fact, I think we all kind of liking it. Because now we see more pictures by the people we like the most.

Even though like a circle of life, a new Cady Heron emerged as Snapchat, it barely challenged Instagram’s supremacy. Because Instagram is smart and ruthless. With one swift move, they released the Story feature, making Snapchat less relevant overnight.

Well, sure people still uses Snapchat, especially for the disappearing chat. But the rebellion has been stopped, stat. Long life the king.

The ALGORITHM BLISS

Instagram Story was, of course, algorithm-driven. And that was the first trouble I noticed. There was an account of a pre-loved luxury handbag seller that I was more than obsessed with, along with a couple celebrities and cool people.

The problem was, my stories and feeds were full of them and them alone. Occasionally, other people I happen to follow popped up, but mostly it was them.

You know what was the worst part? The tactics worked.

I was obsessed with the app, both consuming it and feeding contents into it. I adored these accounts and want to emulate their example at my own.

Not until the iOS 12 introduces the Screen Time feature that I truly comprehend the cost of the addiction. Yes, I call it addiction. Because the hours spent on Instagram and the twitch to open it is similar to drug abuse case. Left unchecked, it may lead to a psychological condition called the Social Media Anxiety Disorder.

Social Media Anxiety Disorder is a syndrome that relates to generalized Social Anxiety, and is acquired when the participation of social media affects the mental and physical well-being of an individual.

Individuals who engage in social media discussion fear that interaction with people will bring feelings of self-consciousness, judgement, evaluation and inferiority. Often it leads to feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment and depression.

I wasn’t there yet, but I know it’s time for me to stop. Either I control my social media usage, or the social media controls me.

However, it was hard.

It’s not like I just decided to quit Instagram one day and that was the end of the story. Rather, it was a battle between my consciousness and the primal urge to open the app and indulge on other people’s lives.

Boy, it was primal. I drink no alcohol and touch no drug, but trying to quit Instagram must’ve had the same withdrawal effect.

Finally, when the pandemic came, it brought along a silver lining: a perspective. I was fed up with the chaos, but mostly with myself getting baited into perpetuating it. My hot takes and my slice of lives was NOT worth my peace.

I deleted the app, cleared my browser cookies, and disappear to the mountains.

ADDICTIVE BY DESIGN

Why did I take such a drastic measure, to quit Instagram for a year?

I quit Instagram for a year because I want to completely cut off the umbilical cord. Only after I succeed to remove the brain’s dopamine trigger mechanism, that I will come back and use it in moderation. But there is no “moderation” possible when you are a Pavlov’s dog to the mere sight of the icon.

And don’t beat yourself too much. The algorithms are designed to hook you in. Instagram gets revenue from inserting ads into your feed and stories. The more you are in the app, the more eyeballs the ads got, the more money Instagram (Facebook) pocket.

It’s a simple math. The modus operandi is, in fact, a standard in the industry, akin to Youtube’s watchtime.

According to Instagram’s own blog, there are a variety of algorithms that personalizes our experience on Instagram. They are collecting thousands of “signals” across Feeds and Stories to predict your preferences, and tailor the content presented to you accordingly.

At the first glance, the algorithms are beneficial. After all, we will be happier if we see contents we care about. But the side effect is that we become too attached, or worse, addicted.

Instagram knows exactly what you want. And what you want is what triggers your dopamine. Unknowingly, you’ve built a circuit of dependence in your brain with the app as the switch, because that’s how your brain works.

Don’t take my word for it. Researchers have compared social media usage to drug abuse or gambling and discovered a strong parallel.

A Michigan State University research published at the Journal of Behaviour Addictions found that people who excessively use social media exhibit the similar traits as drug or gambling addicts. In particular, the lack of ability to make decisions.

Excessive drug users or gamblers often have impaired ability to learn from their mistakes and continue down a path of negative outcome. Like a gambler that keeps betting away their money in a vain hope of recouping their losses, even with the money that was supposedly used to feed their kids.

But no one previously looked at this behavior as it relates to excessive social media users, so we investigated this possible parallel between excessive social media users and substance abusers.

Dar Meshi, lead author and assistant professor at MSU

The result? Positive.

The research demonstrates that more severe, excessive social media use is associated with more deficient value-based decision making. This result further supports a parallel between individuals with problematic, excessive social media use, and individuals with substance use and behavioral addictive disorders.

If you’re interested more about researches around social media use and neurobiology, I encourage you to go down the rabbit hole of Dar Meshi’s other researches. He focuses on figuring out how social information and social media affects human’s motivation and influences.

nosy + CREEPY

Other than breaking the dopamine circuit, another thing that motivates me to quit Instagram for a full year is safety and privacy.

First off, to break away from the Big Brother-esque surveillance. It is unsettling to search something on the internet, and then see the ad for the product appears on Instagram like they can read my mind.

The Amnesty International went as far as calling Facebook’s (and Google’s) surveillance practice as an unprecedented danger to human rights.

Mind you, I don’t use Facebook and rarely search with Google anymore, but their tracking systems are well meshed with the interwebs to collect, analyze, and predict every move I make for profit. So much so that I decided to switch browser to a more privacy-focused one like DuckDuckGo. Hell, they put my nosiest aunts into shame.

Google and Facebook’s insidious control of our digital lives undermines the very essence of privacy and is one of the defining human rights challenges of our era.

Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International

People are starting to push back on this, and I am here for it. There are even companies like YNAB and Basecamp whose strong points includes not selling your data out. Those are the only ones that I’m willing to pay for.

But also, Stories in particular can be a danger to your safety. When you post where you at and what you do in near real-time, you invite a serious risk into your life. I’ll be honest; I was able to avoid certain places after viewing a story from not-so-favorite acquaintances to avoid a run-in.

Worse, if somebody means harm and/or sufficiently obsessed with you, they can vandal your car or break into your home just by knowing the right time from your stories.

Paranoid much? Kim Kardashian learned this lesson the hard way. She was tied up and gagged in her hotel room by five masked men, while being held at gunpoint, during Paris Fashion Week. She lost $10 million worth of jewelry and endure lasting trauma.

Ait Kedache, the mastermind of the heist, said that the operation was possible thanks to the “internet giveaway” of Kim K’s non-stop postings. The jewels were shown on the internet, explaining that she did not wear fake jewels. The timing of her arrival in France was posted, and I quote:

You just needed to look at the internet to know everything.

Ait Khedache, charged with Kim Kardashian robbery in Paris

After the incident, Kim wisen up. She stopped posting so much in near real time. Granted, it was Snapchat, but Stories works in the same way.

If that doesn’t stop you from broadcasting your and your family’s whereabouts to the world in real time, I don’t know what will.

dive into deep work

Finally, my biggest problem that led me to quit Instagram for a year is how distracting the app is. To be fair, it’s not just Instagram, but rather social media in general. That’s the main reason I deleted all social media apps from my phone for the past year.

There two kinds of distraction perpetuated by social media that I despise. The first one is distraction in literal sense due to the dopamine withdrawal.

Do you realize that when you are working on something, and it gets hard enough, often you have this urge to check Stories or open Youtube? This escape from hard problem is bad for our productivity. Luckily, for desktop, there are tools like Distraction-free Youtube browser extension that can block the recommendation algorithm, minimizing the rabbit hole effect we experience after “just a quick break”.

With phone or tablet apps, though, it gets harder. Sure, there are tools like iOS’ Time Limit, but you can always bypass the lock screen with a few taps. There are stronger third party tools, but I have concerns with security/privacy.

After trials and errors, I find that the only thing that works as good as desktop’s browser extension is to actually delete Instagram app, along with all other social media apps. Dont forget to also make sure no credential is saved in the phone/tablet’s browser. It’s a harsh measure, but very necessary.

This distraction from work is expensive. It prevents you to get into the state of flow – the state when your fingers are as fast as your thoughts. In fact, a book has been written about this, titled “Deep Work” by Dr. Cal Newport, a CS professor from Georgetown University. He argued that the ability to focus and do deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. 

I certainly can attest to how satisfying being at the state of flow is. In fact, as I’m writing this, I am in one. No social media in my tabs – only calendar, to-do list, my site to write this, and a few research tabs related to Dr. Newport.

Deep work, enabled by quitting Instagram.
Deep work (Illustration). Photo by Simone Abrams

I don’t even know where my phone is, and I don’t care, as it is at a perpetual silent mode. No notification is possible, because I turned off all of them. Phone, desktop, iPhone – nada. This mode has been my default for the past year, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

get your focus back

The second distraction is more subtle, but way more dangerous if let loose. I’m talking about the distraction from what truly matters.

Here’s the thing: Instagram gives us an illusion of success. You are in a cool place, you did something cool, you hang out with cool people. And people – your followers – gives you affirmation whenever you share those things. They say, “wow, very cool!”

At first you may think, “Hey, why not? I like being cool”. The danger is when you start optimizing your life for your digital presence in order to collect digital approval.

As I mentioned, the pandemic really does give me a new perspective with what truly matters. Life is short, change is inevitable, chaos is always lurking.

I start to question things that I thought was my goals – were they actually, truly mine? I also start to re-think about my risk profile. Did I play it too safe, so I don’t fail too hard? Finally, I arrived to the million-dollar question:

What will I still pursue, even when nobody knows?

That was the snap I needed. I made big and bold changes in 2020, the kind that shift the course of my future for the next ten years. It is a very interesting journey and I’ve done many, many things in the past year that I keep private, until deemed otherwise. Here are some that I can share with you now:

  • Mastered full-stack programming and created three web applications of my own. One of them is public and on Github.
  • Selected as a fellow at my first programming conference.
  • Cultivate the habit of reading books every morning, adding to the list of my productive habits.

I credit the drastic cut down on social media use as a BIG factor that made them all (and more) possible. I learn to prioritize hard but significant things over easy fixes.

This blog post, for instance, took me three full days to write, research, and edit. No less than 20 revisions. For one content. It will take me a second to snap the view of my apartment balcony and post it as an Instagram Story, for the same one content. But now I knew better.

BENDING the HOT IRON

Now it comes the big question: to be on social media, or not to be?

There are convincing testimonials from those who quit Instagram and other social media platforms for good, and how their lives are so much better after it. Dr Newport gave a famous TEDx talk titled “Quit Social Media” which has been viewed over 7 million times up to this point, where he listed main excuses of why people can’t let social media go and offers a counter for each.

At the same time, I can’t deny that social media allows us to crush geographical borders and connect with interesting people around the world. Twitter, for instance, lets us into the mind of our generations’ the living geniuses of, such as Elon Musk raves on Dogecoin. I came across awesome doctors, psychologists, programmers through people I follow on Instagram, from which I listened to their podcast or even read their books.

The way I contend with the duality of social media – the good and the bad – is to change how my mind perceive these apps. Previously, I thought about Instagram as a harmless fun. A place to unwind, relax, and catch up with interesting people.

After I quit Instagram for a year and educate myself better on the neurobiological effect of social media use, I perceive social media like a hot iron. Certainly don’t cuddle it or even play with it, as it will burn you if you’re not careful.

However, if you can approach social media with proper precautions and discipline, you can bend and shape it into something useful, like a conductor to eye-opening knowledge and perspectives.

People have different temperament and psyche when it comes to social media, and what I am sharing is mine. As always, I hope you can use this post to compare notes on your social media usage, so you can make a wiser decision on what to do next.

You don’t have to post it to prove it.

– Anonymous

By the way, this article is also available as a shorter Youtube video and a longer podcast episode:

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Hi, I'm Sarah.

I'm a geologist who works in the energy + tech space. Yep, I know both Ruby the gemstone and Ruby the language. Here, I post my finest takes on energy, tech, and life at large.

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