#6 Sad girls of Instagram
For most of high school I had only one friend. Her name was Rose, and we did everything together. She was smart, funny and she had two chihuahuas named Gracie and Chavez. After school we’d make bowls of buttery fried mushrooms and watch TV. Rose was all I needed, except when she wasn’t at school because she was sick or visiting her cool big sister in Elwood, and then I’d lob around like a pinball, bumping up against different groups but never feeling in. It was on these days, crunching along the gravelled pathways with a cheese roll in hand that I wished I had a big group of friends. Not just one person but a whole heaving crew of bodies around me.
At some point my friendship with Rose faded and I became friends with the cool kids, they were loud and fun and there were so many of them. When someone was sick it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to be a pinball anymore.
This is the feeling, of being a lonely pubescent pinball, that Instagram sometimes gives me. And this is why I left it for about 3 months last year. I deleted the app, deactivated my account, I spirited it away. It was replaced with yoga, eBooks and listlessly staring out the window. And it felt so good.
By far, my favourite thing about not being on Instagram was losing that weird combination of loneliness and a hummingbird heart.
In my hyperbolic opinion, there’s nothing worse than casually observing the effervescent fullness of someone else’s life when you’re already in bed at 8pm on a Saturday. And it really smarts when it’s someone you know at a place not far from home. For me it manifests as an overwhelming feeling that I could and should be doing more with my time. Crafting an existence that is more colourful and aware of its own preciousness.
Many people (including me!) are inclined to share their garden variety social interactions on Instagram. Circa 2019 it was shakily filmed gigs at the Gaso and now it’s Pet Nat fuelled picnics in a park. Whatever the content, the premise remains the same; show people that you are in fact, having fun.
Perhaps the sentiment is reminiscent of the tree that falls without an observer; if you don’t share the great time you had, then did you even have a great time at all?
Is it enough to just experience the fun for yourself? I think not.
Humans are brilliant show-offs and we’ve always loved to share our highlight reels. When I was 19, I recall subjecting my clearly bored friends to piles of overexposed photos from my trip to Vietnam. But pre social media saturation, these moments of exhibitionism were few and far between and were reserved mostly for the big stuff. For the most part, the photos you took stayed on your shitty digital camera, which almost certainly ended up in a box beneath your bed. Only to be rediscovered years later when moving house.
Of course, it is nice to know that the people you like are having fun, albeit with dinner-plate pupils at 3am on a Saturday. But I still think our propensity to share small and mundane moments of joy is worthy of examination.
Anyone who’s seen the Social Dilemma knows that a big part of our inclination to reach for our phones when our friend is head-thrown-back-laughing in the sun, is that frat guys in Silicon Valley are rewarding us with hearts sprayed across our screens. Their clever training means that sharing the daily gloss of our lives has become as par for the course as monogamy or the 5-day work week. And we’re very good students.
Because of this, I have a suspicion that our desire to share is more ominous than just the formation of a new habit. The roots of the thing are dark and knotty.
Journalist and author Johann Hari talks about ‘junk values’. Put simply; just like there’s a rainbow of shitty, iridescent food that’s bad for our physical health, there are values that are bad for our mental health. Like Mie Goreng, they satisfy us for a little while and then pretty quickly, we’re left hollow and hungry. They’re generally defined by extrinsic motivations; we value or prioritise something because of the outside validation that’s promised. Hari likens it to playing piano for the innate joy that playing an instrument brings you versus playing the piano just to seem cool and hopefully seduce someone. One will bring you joy itself, the other will bring you an off-brand synthetic version of joy. I think this framework applies well to social media.
Lil Nas gets it.
The other thing that I loved about not being on Instagram was not being perceived. The fatigue associated with being casually observed by people as they eat their lunch is real and bulky. Your sunlit bedroom, a photo where you think you look nice, a poem you scribbled down are all lacquered with the plastic-y shine of hundreds of bored gazes. And they’re a tough crowd! If you’re earnest, anxious or uncool like me, then nothing stings like silence, especially when you’ve made the cardinal sin of trying. And it seems I’m not alone, as Kate Mckean, of Agents and Books says “it is hard to be perceived these days. It leaves you open to scrutiny, judgement, and sometimes even worse, silence.”
Partake enough and I think it can become difficult not to (at least occasionally) view your life through the disembodied gaze of other people, like catching yourself on the security TV at the servo. At some point on a Sunday you’re watching your own stories or scrolling through your own feed to understand how others might see you.
You might even start to catalogue moments in your life as instagrammable and not instagrammable. The teary fight you have with your partner, not instagrammable. The sunset you watch alone afterwards, very instagrammable.
It was the freedom from this clinical dissecting and teaching myself to enjoy something without the eyes of others that felt like floating on my back in the ocean. The squeals of children, the gulls, a boat motor – all the noise becomes muffled and glassy.
Sadly, my three months of freedom from perceiving and being perceived is well and truly over.
I’m back on the ‘gram in a big way; I tap ‘remind me in 15 minutes’ on my time limit notification numerous times a day. I spend far too much time scrolling and yeah, the pinball feeling is back.
I think this is because ultimately, ceaselessly observing the glittery moments of people’s lives and sharing my own, feels central to living. Like wine and bad food, the virtual junk adds another gritty dimension.
That’s not to say I’ve given up completely, just like I don’t eat Reese’s Puffs for breakfast every day (as much as I’d like to), I know that so too, my virtual diet requires restraint and plenty of water. Less of the bad shit and more of the good.