Cleaning up my Instagram

I’ve been an Instagram user for about 8 years. I used it to keep up with friends and not be totally out of the loop in conversations. I enjoyed posting the occasional photo mainly for the dopamine hits, but also to let my friends know what I was up to.

Yet, I often hated using it. It’s similar to how I relate to alcohol. “I’m never drinking again”, I’ve said a couple dozen times in my life. But I still drink. Regularly. I mostly enjoy it, but sometimes it leaves me feeling empty. It’s worse with social media since social media almost always left me feeling empty.

There’s a lot of disturbingly accurate comparisons of social media’s addictive nature to that of physical drugs. Researchers, whistleblowers and psychologists have written and produced content informing us about social media’s negative mental effects as well as the morally emaciated actions Facebook has deliberately taken and continues to take. That’s not the point of this essay.

Last month, I made some changes to my Instagram that have made it more tolerable and satisfying to use. There were 4 changes — I’m laying them out in order of easiest to hardest.

  1. I made it harder to reach. I moved Instagram into a little folder in a hard-to-reach corner of my phone’s screen along with Reddit (another app I end up scrolling aimlessly through). This just adds some friction so I don’t instinctively open the app when I’m on my phone.
  2. I unfollowed every account in my followers list that wasn’t a real person that I knew. Basically, I unfollowed all brands, celebrities, and politicians. (I consider dogs to be people, so I still follow my friend’s pet’s accounts). Instagram already shows you ads, so it felt a little unnecessary to be following corporations that are just trying to sell me products. At a psychological level, celebrities can often give me a feeling that I’m not adequate. I haven’t made it. I wanted to stop feeling that. I’m alive and relatively healthy. I have people who I care about and who care about me. I don’t need more. For politicians and politics, I have no problem with my friends being political on Instagram — I’m often political on it, too. But I wanted Instagram to be about the people in my life, so I unfollowed politicians. I have Twitter for politics anyways.
  3. I unfollowed people that I didn’t have at least 1 strong memory with. Over time, I’d collected the accounts of some people that I met once or twice but never really had an opportunity to get closer to. They’re often friends of friends who I met once at a social gathering but I’d never gotten to know them individually. I felt very neutral about these people. I didn’t dislike them, but I had no positive memories of them. If I meet them again and got to know them, I’d gladly re-add them. But for now, they were just making my experience on Instagram less personal. So, I Marie-Kondo’d them — I wished them good health and good times and clicked unfollow.
  4. I unfollowed people I disliked. This was the toughest one. These were people I personally knew that I had always disliked or had grown to dislike. They were often people who were bullies (either to me or to others). Maybe they’d changed since I’d known them, but my memories of them were pretty negative and I had no desire to get to know them now. They’re entirely out of my life except for when I ran into them on Instagram. Seeing posts or stories from these people wouldn’t make me happy. So, I unfollowed them. After a month of this new Instagram experience, I’m definitely enjoying it more. At the very least, the exercise of going through and deciding who to follow felt healthy and rejuvenating.

The best part of this exercise is how it changed my view of Instagram in my own life. I now view Instagram as a feed of scrapbook-worthy photos from people that I have a positive relationship with. I don’t feel as anxious or inadequate as I use it. There are still super successful (in the most diverse definitions of success) and super attractive people on my feed, but they’re my friends, so I feel grateful that I have a small window into important moments in their lives.