Why I Keep Breaking Up (and Getting Back Together) with Instagram
by Abby McIntosh
Where does my arm end and my phone begin? This question initially formed as a clever quip in my head, where it happily remained until I realized that A: it’s not that clever and B: it’s not rhetorical — I actually want an answer. You see, once in a blue moon, I have one of those nights where I just can’t sleep. I lie in bed, tossing and turning, counting sheep, trying every trick in the book to lull myself into a velvety slumber, but nothing seems to work. JUST KIDDING. I “can’t sleep” because I fall into an Instagram hole and scroll my life away for five hours. Before I know it, it’s three in the morning and I’m wondering if it’s even worth attempting sleep. Cool, right? Eventually, I manage to nod off, but when my alarm goes off a mere two hours later, I wake up and think, “Why. Are. You. Like. This.” I know that I can’t go on like this (or can I?), so on the heels of a possible breakup with my beloved Instagram, I won’t settle for deleting the app and then caving two weeks later when it’s 11 PM on a Tuesday and I’m fiending for a scroll. Nope. The only fix is to dive all the way in and figure this thing out. Buckle up, friends.
My now six-year-long Instagram romance has always been on-again, off-again. My first foray into the app was in 2011, when it had just launched. Ever the tech-savvy 15-year-old, I immediately downloaded the app after reading about it somewhere on the internet. My relationship with social media, up until this point, had been, shall we say, touch and go. I was never a total philistine, but I was typically a late adopter for two reasons, the first being strict parents (hi, mom!), and the second being a general aversion toward making a spectacle of myself. I’d grown up a chubby, mixed-race kid with a bowl cut — school picture day was hell for me. So the idea of choosing to share images of myself? Nah. But something about Instagram intrigued me. The possibility of having some say in the presentation of my own life? I think that’s what drew me in. And that’s how Instagram was, and still is, sold to us: a platform for untethered personal expression. Oddly enough, though, I never got a taste of the satisfaction that I was promised would come from sharing my life this way. Though I didn’t know it in 2011, Instagram would become, at its worst, not a fun way to share, but instead a vortex of insecurity and frustration.
My first year of Instagram was great. I took photos of myself, my dogs, my food, my friends, my neighborhood, my travels, all of which I strategically filtered to what I thought was photographic perfection. The reality, of course, is that my content was garbage. But that didn’t matter! I loved posting, and every day was brimming with content possibility. As my friends made accounts, the fun kept on rolling. I liked their pictures, I commented on their pictures, I posted some more bad nature pics — everything was going swimmingly. About a year-and-a-half in, however, things started to go downhill. As Instagram blew up and the ability to garner more followers and likes became seemingly central to one’s right to exist, one of my favorite friends, Mr. Anxiety, would start showing up as I finalized the details of a new post. “Yikes…you sure about that caption?” he would ask. “Is this really the kind of filter that [insert name of my crush] is going to go for?” With each new follower (or each lost follower), my anxieties grew. By the time I was two years in and getting ready to head off to college, my process for posting a picture boiled down to essentially one question: Are other people gonna like this?
From the moment I arrived at college, I was starkly aware of two things: number one, how Instagrammable this moment in my life was supposed to be; and number two, how ill-equipped I was to do anything other than feel homesick. I spent many weekends sitting alone in my dorm room, wondering how I was going to make friends, and occasionally peeking my head out the window to gaze at the clusters of freshmen walking up the hill towards the frat houses. As I watched my high school classmates splash their new college lives all over social media, I felt further compelled to shut down and silo myself off from the world. And that’s what I did. On a whim, one evening I decided to delete all of my social media, which at the time consisted of Facebook and Instagram. Naturally, this decision was preceded by a bit of back-and-forth. I was genuinely concerned about what my life would be like sans Instagram. Primarily: How would people know what I was up to? How would people *see* me? But those concerns weren’t compelling enough for me to stay on the app. Newly free of my Instagram addiction, I was able to find my footing unburdened by the urge to edit and share my life.
I spent almost all four years of college Instagram-less, not once re-downloading it. My anxieties about not having the app wore off quickly. It turned out that once it was off of my phone screen, the entire solar system of Instagram (influencers, brand deals, etc.) was off of my radar. It wasn’t all a cake walk, though. There were times when I missed the thrill of finding a cool account, and also times when I urgently needed to lurk and couldn’t do it. Not having an Instagram also amplified the loneliness that I felt in my first year of college, as it was one less distraction that I could lean on when I had downtime. Generally, however, I felt solid about my abstinence, and I found myself missing Instagram less and less with each month that passed. I stayed strong up until the spring semester of my senior year, at which point I realized that I could no longer ignore the reality that I would have to find a job.
Stressed as I was, I started to think about how I was going to break into the fashion/beauty industry when I had quite literally zero experience. I quickly realized how substantial a role social media, and Instagram in particular, played in creative industries. It seemed that having an active Instagram account was a requisite part of being a successful anything. As the pressure to figure out my next steps bore down on me, I was more desperate than ever for quick distractions. And just like that, as quickly as I had deleted it, Instagram was back on my phone. But this time, I established a rule: no posting, only following.
The logic behind this self-imposed rule was that the primary source of my Insta-related anxiety came from the pressure that I felt to post, and from the ensuing time I would spend analyzing each post’s performance. If I didn’t post, I reasoned with myself, there was no way for that anxiety to take root. Plot twist: I was wrong…. My new rule was doomed to fail me because it hinged on the assumption that none of my anxiety came from other people’s behavior on Instagram. The truth, however, was that 100% of the time that I now spent on Instagram fell into the category of looking and lurking. There was no more sharing, only viewing. Eventually, anxieties that had been dormant for three years came back to me, this time slightly different in nature but still very much recognizable and equally unsettling. “Are they going to hire you if you don’t have a good Instagram?” “How does everyone afford these amazing apartments?” Now, instead of worrying about whether or not my crush was going to see my post, I was worried about why I seemed to be lagging so far behind all of these cool people. The familiar pattern of scrolling my evening away was back, but this time, it almost seemed worse. When I finally managed to close the app and resume my life, all I could feel was the widening of the canyon between where I was and where I wanted to be.
For a while, I had a nagging feeling that I should delete the app again. I was having trouble using it in a way that felt healthy to me, and it became harder and harder to justify its presence on my phone. Fortunately, however, I was experiencing this anxiety as 21-year-old me and not as sad freshman me. I was self-assured enough to know that my anxieties weren’t really worth pursuing. I knew that the gloss that everyone was putting on their Insta-life was just that, a gloss. It was the same gloss that I would no doubt be putting on my life should I start posting again. True, I was watching everyone’s highlight reels, but this time, I was kind of okay with it. There was no denying the utility that Instagram offered when it came to finding inspiration and connecting with people who I genuinely admired. The variety of accounts and content had grown exponentially since I was 17, opening up new channels of enjoyment for me. Reluctant as I was, I carried on with the relationship, only occasionally falling prey to the comparison game. Over time, it became easier for me to understand my relationship with the app: what worked, what didn’t work, and how I should be using it.
It’s been a long journey, and to be frank, it doesn’t end with a neatly-packaged conclusion. I still go back and forth on how I feel about Instagram, but for now, I think I’m keeping it. I’ve figured out a formula that helps me use it in such a way that the inspiration I gain isn’t marred by an obsessive fixation with where other people are in life and why I’m not there yet. Yes, there is the odd sleepless night, but those are becoming rarer and rarer. For me, the trick lies in viewing Instagram as a fictive universe, a bizarre fairytale world wherein everyone is sharing their own curated microcosm. A lot of what you see isn’t real, and understanding that fact makes the canyon less intimidating. Sometimes you have to wade through a lot of bullshit to get to the good stuff, and sometimes you just need to give your thumb a break, but above all else, you have to be honest with yourself about how it’s making you feel. You’re the only one who can write the rules. And trite as it may sound, breakups aren’t always a bad thing — they can offer perspective that makes it easier to jump back in the next time around.