My ankles don’t feel much of anything, but they did help me with a change.
Stretched out on a bed enclosed in mosquito netting, a languid voice instructed me to gently move the spotlight of awareness from my feet up to my ankles. Ankles have sensations? The task was both playful and difficult, but more of the latter. It’s called practice, and the name is apt.
The audioguide emphasizes the tendency of the mind to wander, but I had done myself no favours. Like inhaling one last muffin before going carb-free, my practice began as it usually did: Shortly after just a little Instagram scroll. My mind became fixated on analyzing the latest from Calgary, despite being in a quiet room in northern Uganda. In spite of my gentle, silent pleading to stay on task, it was as if my cousin Kelly was there in the room, too.
She was pictured in the closest approximation to mom jeans she now owned. The caption was funny: “The higher the waist the closer to God.” My mind weighed the evidence for or against my cousin’s subscription to an omnipotent deity, or just to the fashion gods. My ankles’ barely-there sensations are unable to compete for my attention.
Until recently, I was living a double life with Instagram and had been for most of a year. I no longer posted anything, and even when a photograph or its caption resonated, I didn’t like or comment. Yet, I was still spending time on the site—a lot of time. I inhaled content whenever I had the chance, but refused to exhale anything in contribution. It felt disingenuous and unbalanced.
Most concerning was time spent digesting posts from people close to me at the expense of taking the moment to make a connection instead. I wondered to what extent their scrollable showcases reflected their dreams and drudgery. If the goal was to understand one another a little bit more, an extra step was required that I’d stopped taking. The time that was being eaten up needed to be poured into something reciprocal.
I felt there were two choices: Either rejoin the ranks, or entirely forgo the medium. What forced my decision were the effects I felt using Instagram not only as a passive user, but also an active one. So I permanently deleted my account: Goodbye, mamajamer! As I clicked in finality my heart raced, an illuminating response if also a little horrifying.
Deletion was only the final move in a journey to forge a healthy relationship with Instagram, during which I didn’t think to ask myself whether such a relationship was even possible for me.
Deleting the app from my phone did not reduce the vigour with which I scrolled, as opening Safari just stepped up in its place. The last page visited loaded itself automatically—usually Instagram—and inaction instead of intention would drag me onto the site once more. The original reason for opening the browser? Forgotten, if there was anything to forget: Often Safari’s launch was only to start another Instagram to Facebook to Instagram tail chase—but just for a minute (again).
Similarly symptom-treating were my attempts at an ‘intentional feed’. I culled ruthlessly, feeling relief and even pleasure at each ‘Unfollow’ clicked. It was easier to take this action with the accounts of people known outside of their personal circles, anonymous-familiar to me. No more would I see well-lit roasted parsnip wedges, posted to convey how satisfied an Eastern Medicine practitioner was when her son assisted in the preparation of hummus instead of watching television one afternoon in rural Texas. I was in Kenya.
It was more difficult to unfollow the accounts of those I knew personally. Some were acquaintances I shared a few memories with, but with others there was more than that. I wondered if they would notice the small reduction in their virtual tribe. I wished I could explain to them that to me, if this was the extent of our relationship then it wasn’t a relationship at all.
This curated, app-less approach didn’t bring change. Bombarded with those who inspired me or those I felt able to relate to quickened comparison. I followed a feed showing street photographers’ work in Ghana. It was interesting, but also elicited guilt at not sharing relevant photographs of my own to their initiative. The fact that I thought I must be the only one (in Africa? On Earth?) prone to feelings of guilt or ineptitude when scrolling Instagram is testament to its tendency to show only one side of a story. Or rather, for people to choose to show one side of a story, through Instagram.
Brendan Leonard, in “Please Continue Instagramming Your Amazing Life” argues that if social media drives you to comparison, the problem isn’t with social media, it’s with you. It’s a solid hypothesis. Maybe there will be a time in the future where I can pop into my feed, share the stoke, and then get on with the day, deftly maneuvering my focus away from my phone and towards whatever is actually my intention. It felt rash to delete Instagram, but that was also part of the appeal. Shouldn’t anything holding your life with a firm grip be questioned time to time?
As I took a last, long gaze at my modest Instagram legacy, a surprising fear of losing the memories themselves gripped me. No no, I steadied myself, I really did have the opportunity to ride a train ferry across the Caspian Sea, wearing a baseball cap that I loved and subsequently lost in the Caucasus. Those days aren’t made any more or less real by the existence of their online record. One day, I can just make a book of photographs, but somehow it doesn’t feel that simple.
I’m not writing this on papyrus; sharing online has become a currency of connection that I continue to trade in. I want to share, and see a lot of value in it. But time is one of life’s more valuable currencies, and Instagram’s effects in my life were no longer worth the time. I was skeptical that the clock cost to maximize its benefits (sharing the memorable of your life, a virtual community, the unarguable beauty of a good photo) would in fact balance out the damage it was doing to me. To this day I remember which of my pictures gleaned more likes than others, and that my brain is that attuned to external validation gives me pause.
My end goal was connection, why not just cut the middle man and seek that directly, online or in person?
To ask an Instagram enthusiast to send you the occasional photo of their life in an email or WhatsApp message feels like you are imposing on them. Perhaps in some small way, it is like someone who is avoiding drinking asking their friend to meet you for a coffee, when you suspect they’d rather just talk to you over a beer, like you used to. Part of life after Instagram is questioning my fundamental expectations about sharing. I’m feeling hopeful that my relationships may actually be bettered with less.
That same cousin with the mom jeans spoke with me on the phone recently. In the time it took to talk, I could have just looked at many of her beautiful, candid Instagram photos or have taken the time to do both talking and scrolling. My strongest argument for solely speaking with her is to cherish attention. Without preconceived notions or an inkling of what she’s been up to, I felt able to approach the conversation with more curiosity and engagement. And maybe, a thought or story I told her wouldn’t have been grasped without cutting the minutes of distraction here and there throughout the day.
Account successfully deleted, there was a moment where I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. Feeling inspired, I opened my Kindle app to read a book. But not without also opening Facebook too.