Instagram makes me lonely. For a while I’ve tried to figure out why.

Dante reads the words "All hope abandon ye who enter here" on Inferno's entrance in Canto 3 line 9 illustrated by Gustave_Doré 1861-1865. Inferno Canto 3 line 9: All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Fundamentally, a qualm I have with how I experience the world mediated by Instagram is that the user interface hijacks how I would like to relate with my friends. This is a problem, particularly because the global COVID-19 pandemic and its associated quarantines have drastically increased the amount of digital mediation of social relations in our lives. That’s not to say this wasn’t an issue before, but it’s one that is affecting me more than ever.

The systems design force that I see at play here is that the UI and its inevitable user habits cause our relationships to become primarily asynchronous in a shared hyper speed communication space. Ultimately, the knowledge that users who follow each other have of each other enters into weird, uneven information space.

What do I mean by an uneven information/memory space? Think back to your childhood friends. What did you know about your friend? How did they react when stressed? What kind of jokes did they tell? What was their favorite song?

How did you find these things out? All this knowledge was gleaned from mutually shared experiences. Information they explicitly shared with you or maybe information that you just picked up on. On the bus. Working on homework. Walking home. At each others houses. What I want point out here is that your knowledge was in sync with each other due to a shared experience. It was synchronous.

This is how we get to know people. As we get to know them, they get to know us. The knowledge of the other grows in sync with the other’s.

Social media, particularly Instagram does not work like this. It doesn’t work like this because all the interactions are asynchronous for the most part. For the most part this is how communicating on the internet works. We read each other’s tweets, forum threads, blog posts, etc. Elsewhere it is not usually an issue. On Instagram it’s a problem.

You post something in the morning. Your friends and followers see it later, hours or maybe days later. Maybe they see it, maybe they don’t. If they do, though, you don’t really know when they did, unless they comment or like it. Realistically, if you have more than 200 followers, it becomes hard to track likes as a set of actual interactions with you. Rather they become a lump aggregate of “value” that a certain post accrues. What does that value mean? Well, a lot of things under different circumstances. It’s hard to tell. At a basic level it means that X number of people chose to tell you that they saw it and appreciated it. But sometimes people click that button for reasons that actually don’t involve you and are more about them, but that requires too long a digression.

Ok, so what effect does all this have on us when we’re interacting with other people on the platform? Basically, the User Interface of Instagram welcomes and, by design, encourages voyeurism. You can observe without necessarily having your observation be observed. Strange. What happens when you’re allowed to be a voyeur? 

For me, this situation creates a unique kind of stunted social longing. This longing stems from a feeling of separation. This separation’s origins lie in the fact that Instagram subtly creates a new kind of social relation that embeds itself into our day-to-day life. This social relation is built on seeing our “friends” without being seen. We’re here reading and looking at what you’ve shared but unless we choose for you to see our presence by commenting, liking, or watching a story, you don’t know we’re there.

This is the way we relate to public figures and celebrities. The exist in this space that is separate from us. Sometimes we break through the barrier and they become real people with whom we interact with, but for the most part they’re just out there.

What happens when you subject people who were having normally synchronous interactions, to be in asynchronous relationships with each other. Where each needs to keep track of the public utterances (of images, video and writing) that the other person may make?

I don’t know, exactly. I feel that it creates a hybrid. It does so under the pretense that nothing changes between you and the other person. But things are no longer as they used to be.

In a sense, there is a flattening of the gamut of social relations. Suddenly we become especially evident performances of ourselves that may or may not be in sync with the totality of our selves. If you’re at all self aware, these spaces end up requiring a whole lot of management of your many invetiable self-presented selves.

The reason for this morphing of relations is that, the underlying the common usage of instagram assumes that this is a digital space of real people sharing real life, real time (for the most part). This isn’t an intentionally virtual place like Second Life TM. Aliases and pen names are not the norm. This is not a stage. And yet, we must act. And we observe and attend as relatively invisible audiences. This is us, we say. Inevitably it’s not, though the entire platform is predicated on the idea that it is.

It’s a real mind bender and all I can say for sure is that this creates a great deal of pain for me. I feel the presence of a strange social rift.

When I’m on the app, I feel as if I hate my friends and peers. I resent their lives, lives that I’m not living. Lives that I may not see myself involved in. Why? Outside of this bubble, I wouldn’t care. In fact, I’d love to hear a story about what happened when they were with so and so. I’ve tried to figure out why that is. I don’t actually hate them. I resent them not reaching out to me. Why? If I’m not on the app, I don’t think of them not thinking of me and I bet they don’t think of me not thinking of them at a given instance. We have lives to live and things to do. We think about each other when we think of each other, and that’s ok!

So, why do I feel this feeling? This acrid bitterness? This trapped feeling of perpetual anger and sadness?

I think it’s because I’m feeling a certain kind of pain. It manifests as an anger and cynicism, but it is really rooted in pain and loneliness. The psychological environment on the app is such that if I scroll past my friend I see their avatar and their image is visceral light. It wasn’t there 20 minutes ago, so they are here. They are with me. But they’re not really. They didn’t reach out to me. They just made a public post/story.

I ask myself, why do I feel this way and what can I do about it? Why am I seeing them before I reached out to them? Is it because I’m a trash person? Is it that I just don’t care about them? What a strange position to be in when the reason that you wanted to hop on this app was feel closer to the world…

I often times feel I miss them and notice I haven’t actually engaged with them in a long while. I ask myself, why haven’t I texted/emailed/message? Why do I feel this towards everyone and never act on this impulse?

These digital spaces, create visceral, yet subtle constant reminders that you are not actually engaging deeply with people. “Yeah, but have you called Luke on the phone?” “When’s the last time you talked to Kamryn?” “When was the last time you hung out with Camden? Asia?”.

Inevitably, the space with its feed of hundreds of images and text breeds a certain kind of social passivity. We can’t help it in the face of information overload. This overload is not something that I hear too many people talk about. *Note: If you comment often and message frequently this situation changes. But inevitably, people follow far more people than they actually engage with. As a result, I think what I’m saying is applicable to everyone’s relationships on the platform.

I want to return to that concept of asynchronous, asymmetric mutual knowledge.

As I said earlier, the problem is that Instagram subtly creates a new kind of social relation that embeds itself into our day-to-day life. This social relation is built on seeing our “friends” without being seen. We’re here reading and looking at what you’ve shared but unless we choose for you to see our presence by commenting, liking, or watching a story, you don’t know we’re there.

We inevitably have thoughts about our friends our acquaintances, independent of actually engaging with them. Our friends and connections wind up being more in our heads than out in the world.

The worst part happens when we join up with these friends to chat and actually spend time with each other after experiencing each other digitally. Just think about how conversations about something they shared digitally may go.

We speak as vain ghosts. We communicate with the notion that there is a body of knowledge that people could/should know about you. As if you were a celebrity. A public figure. That it is not necessarily your responsibility to update them on whether or not they know about such and such that you shared. Aren’t they following you? Do they really know about such and such or are they just being coy? You’re both playing this weird game of chicken so as to perhaps not be embarrassed about not knowing about such and such post or story or moment in their life. 

I think that we don’t really talk about this because it is not readily visible. The surface level phenomenon of the app is one of gregariousness and funny/ironic/political/commercial posts and people documenting their lives, etc.

But let’s not forget that the silent majority is scrolling, not posting. So what?

So we feel lonely. And naturally, we seek to remedy it by going to the place where we see the people. The place where we see people’s faces everyday. The cycle of appearances of stories in our feeds feels organic and slightly unpredictable. So, it feels alive and full of possibility.

We see people but don’t experience people. We’re transformed into ghosts due to the design of the platform. And it is miserable for me. Maybe it is for you, too.

Needless to say, I’ve been avoiding using Instagram since October. It has been good. I’ve accomplished a lot. I’ve planned+replanned a wedding with Jenn, I finished my degree at CMU, I quit my job, I successfully completed a Software Developer Bootcamp at Academy Pittsburgh, I’ve built Jenn a website, I’ve rebuilt this blog and site… No one’s really seen me do these things, but that’s ok. I’m satisfied.

I feel no FOMO, for I know not that which I’ve missed out on. No bitterness or resentment seeing as how I don’t see anyone that I didn’t naturally think of or actually bump into.

Instead, I’ve found myself reaching out to the people that I care for at my pace. I’m slow. Thank you for loving me as I am, friends. I’m not that good digital conversationalist as I tend to put my phone down. I’ll happily chat on the phone for hours, though.

Call it “controlled ignorance” in this circumstance. I’m aware of it and have to routinely pull up and check in with the “world”. How I check in has changed. I can’t handle being a ghost anymore.

Do I feel out of touch? Yes, a little. Do I know what I need to do about it? Yes, I usually call a friend. I ask what’s going on in the world. They fill me in on their corner of things. It’s a good pace. It works.

(When I really need the hyperphrenetic 24-hour news cycle I hope on Twitter. For local news my personal account. For global happenings my secret account. Why I finally like that platform now is for another time ;)

Most people say they can’t stop using Instagram for professional reasons and/or for fear that they won’t be in touch with what’s going on in the world. I hear that. Those are valid fears and concerns.

Unfortunately, much of the issue here is that the internet has been narrowed down to a limited set of corporate provided, individualized perspective base media portals through which we are allowed to “see” the world.

As a result, we find ourselves subject to the effects of the user interfaces that other humans have gotten paid to design for us to use in ways that can successfully generate profit and sustained audience retention for the companies they work for. That which I’ve outlined here is but one effect.

I’d like to grow with you across time. I’d like you to know me as much as I know you. As it should be, friend.

That’s why I’m not following you on Instagram.

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