"The question of attention in the age of digital media may ultimately come down to the question of limits, the acceptance of which may be the condition of a more enduring joy and satisfying life. What digital media promises on the other hand is an experience of limitlessness exemplified by the infinite scroll. It tempts us to become gluttons of the hyperreal. There is always more, and much of it may even seem urgent and critical. But we cannot attend to it all, nor should we. I know this, of course, but I need to remind myself more frequently than I’d care to admit."
- M.ichael Sacasas, from his article: "Attention, Austerity, Freedom"
Earlier this month I quit instagram.
I had spent almost six years sharing publicly: lovely photogenic bits of my life: farm, kids, meals, garden, sunsets, flowers in hand and crafty projects. Highlights and carefully curated lowlights, poems, recipes, thoughts. It was almost six years of watching other people's lives too, people I knew in real life and others I'd never met before - their faces, homes, artworks, babies, businesses, handmade clothes, coffee mugs, freshly baked loaves of bread.
I joined in 2015 when everyone else seemed to be there. I was drawn to the visual nature of it: photos with little notes accompanying. It felt so much more interesting and enjoyable than other social media platforms that were focused on text and emojis. It also seemed a more convenient way to share (and follow) than writing and reading blog posts. The blog was dead, we all said. I had a toddler and a newborn baby, we were learning to farm and start a small business from scratch - it seemed the perfect place to document the journey: to fix the beautiful, ridiculous and important scenes in time.
Then something began to shift in me, in the platform, my feed became a way to idealise my own experiences: an easy way to escape the monotony and difficulty of life with three tiny people dependant on me and a business that was holding on by fragile threads. I thought about it constantly, and in the middle of moments, how I could document and caption them later in a post.
I loved how it gave me a sense of accomplishment, a reward for my doing. I loved how it seemed to justify and reinforce the life choices I had made. I loved how connected I felt to people, how it allowed me to do less real life socialising and the (more difficult) reaching out to friends and family through phone and email. I also loved how immediate the feedback was - almost instantly - the likes. I'd rationalise that the liking and comments weren't important: they weren't a reflection of me, or my worth - but in my body was a different story: the quick release of dopamine-laced warmth was something I wanted everyday if I could, and I was becoming addicted.
I felt gripped, somehow beholden - like I couldn't leave but couldn't stay. I was spending on average 1.5-2.5 hours every on it. Scrolling, checking, reading, liking, watching stories, posting, re-reading my own posts and reviewing other people's posts I'd put in my bookmarked folders for ideas and inspirations (inevitably leading to looking up patterns and products). I called it a "little hobby", "a non-essential", "a tool for decompressing" but really it took up a big part of my life.
I tried extended breaks from it - some for a few weeks, the longest was four months. It would follow a predictable pattern: I would feel increasingly unhappy and overwhelmed using it, decided to leave for a while, delete the app from my phone, almost immediately feel better to no longer have the temptation to use it, followed days later by sadness and irritability (a withdrawal of sorts, with regular unlocking and locking of my phone), followed by calm relief, clarity, peacefulness. I would ask myself why I even used it anymore, and talk to friends and family who were willing to hear me ramble around in circles. Then I'd decide to return - download the app again - resolve to use the platform differently, with more boundaries and a lighter grip. It wasn't the platform, it was me I'd say, I can approach it differently! And I would, to begin with... but then I'd inevitably circle back to the uncomfortable, addictive mode.
In the past twelve months I've read and listened to some really thoughtful, challenging articles, podcasts and books on how social media is changing us: our culture, politics and relationships (see bottom of this post for more references and links). I really believe we need to speak about our experiences and gather together to brainstorm some best practice tools for these platforms and the important needs they meet - as well as call for appropriate governmental industry regulation.
I recently borrowed Jaron Lanier's books "10 Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Right Now" and "You are not a gadget" from my local library. I'd seen Lanier in the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, last year and was intrigued in his perspective as a computer scientist and "internet pioneer" but also a philosopher and musician. He is deeply concerned about social media platforms that play into our human desires for attention, approval and connection, whilst also exacerbating addiction, sadness, alienation, irrational behaviour, intolerance and mob mentality. He asks why organisations that purport to be "for people" rely on the free sharing of data that is collected and sold, targeted advertising and algorithms aimed at modifying human behaviour that ultimately go against people. Pit people against each other. Lanier is not anti-technology, or anti-internet - quite the opposite - he is calling for more dialogue around how to nurture personal dignity and promote diverse and kind community within the online world. These lines of his really stood out to me:
"The most important thing to ask about any technology is how it is changing people"
"If we associate human identity with the digital reduction instead of reality at large we will reduce ourselves"
In the end quitting instagram was my answer to an ongoing dilemma I found myself in. It felt good to realise I did have a choice and this could be mine. I know it doesn't "fix" the structural problems within the platform, or my own baggage around why I became addicted. It also creates a new burden of exploring ways to stay in touch with friends and connections made primarily through it. I really do miss "seeing" the glimpses of life on there - the creative community and diverse, provocative voices. I need to make more effort now to seek those out in other ways.
Quitting marks the end of a six year chapter - almost as old as my second born son. And while it is sad and painful in many ways, it has also made space and time in my life for something new. It has allowed me - so far - to rest, to contract, and to begin things I have long dreamed of like re-enrolling in my studies and in launching a monthly newsletter celebrating the seasons of life.
Some things to consider if you are using social media and not enjoying it, or at least debating whether you should quit. Let's call it Eight Steps to Quitting Instagram:
Step 1. Ask yourself some questions
-Why am I using this platform? Has my “why” changed from when I first started?
-List the positives and negatives you experience using it. Is one list longer or are they even?
-Track average time spent using it each day or week. Multiply it by a month or a year for some perspective. Be curious, not judgemental.
-If you want to stay, what would make it better for you?
-If you want to quit, what is stopping you from doing it?
Step 2. Talk your answers out with someone
Choose someone you trust to really listen to you - not tell you what you should do - but really listen, dig deeper on those answers you wrote down to the questions. I found this step especially cathartic and clarifying (thank you lovely people who know who you are).
Step 3. Try an extended break
Like a month or more. You could delete the app from you phone, ask someone to change your password or even disable your account if you feel that would help you get the break. Notice how you feel during the break: again, try writing some thoughts down. I usually found every time I had a break I felt pretty blue for the first few days. Like really sad, flat, unmotivated. I let myself feel that and try to be empathic...
Step 4. Remember you have a choice
… to stay… to quit. It's yours. It's going to be different from your best friend, your spouse. You can quit and decide six months later you want to join again, or two years.
Step 5. If you want to quit, you can download your data
This is assuming you want to actually delete your account and thus wipe your data. If you want to keep a record of your posts, messages, photos, stories, comments, activity - you can actually request this from the company. Go to settings and in "security" you can click request your data. It took about two days to receive mine.
Step 6. Make a book or prints from your favourite posts
There are many companies that will allow you to link up your social media account and easily access your photos. This is NOT an advert but I have used Artifact Uprising, Vista Print and Snap Fish for photo book printing and even fairly happy with the results. Friends have recommended Chat Books and I’m sure there are dozens of others similar.
Step 7. Ride the wave
This isn't really a step, or maybe it is. Ride the wave of letting go of something that was a big part of your life. Bake a cake. Dance a little dance. Have a cry. Light a candle.
Helpful further reading and listening on the subject
10 Arguments for Quitting Social Media Right Now by Jaron Lanier (2017)
You are not a gadget by Jaron Lanier (2010)
Rage Inside the Machine: The Prejudice of Algorithms, and How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All by Robert Elliot Smith (2020)
CBC's Ideas Podcast with Nahlah Ayed
Episode: The Joy of Mediocrity, March, 2020
Episode: Engineering Humanity with Brett Frischmann Part I + II, April, 2020
Episode: CBC Massey Lectures with Ron Diebart
Radio National's Big Ideas Podcast with Paul Barclay
Epsiode: The Inherent Prejudice of Algorithms, Jan, 2021
Epsiode: Ginger Forman on how trolling causes real-life harm, Nov 2020
Deep Brain Podcast
Episode: You can't hit unsend, Sep, 2019.
- Mental Health and Social Media (ABC news)
- Athleisure, barre and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman by Jia Tolentino (Guardian)
- Attention, Asterity, Freedom by Michael Sacasas of The Covivial Society
ABOUT the author
Emily Clare Sims is a farmer and mama to three young boys. Each day she looks for ways to notice beauty, contemplate her faith and savour the seasons...