I had reached the point of diminishing returns. I wanted to quit Twitter, but my fingers were as if possessed, typing command+n, tw, enter at any lull in the workday, letting autofill take care of the rest. Like an old woman who finds herself at a familiar bus stop in her nightgown, I would blink at the new window and wonder how I got there and where I had intended to go. More than once I asked a friend to change my password and lock me out of my account. Weeks would go by without incident, sometimes months, but then a protest would break out, or my hometown would be on fire, and the old media was too slow with the news. I would go through the password retrieval process, log on, catch up, lose my mind and repeat the process.
Finally, in July 2018, I thought: I’m going to have a heart attack if I stay on here.
I changed my password to thisisamassivewasteoftimeandnotthepurposeofyourlifeonearth.
I had always liked pictures.
I told a friend that I was banishing myself to Instagram, the only social media platform that did not haunt me, get under my skin and cause me to feel shortness of breath and numbness in my fingers. I had a theory that everyone was haunted by at least one of them, and which one depended on your insecurities, the type of people who gathered there, and the style of communication its interface allowed.
I surveyed new acquaintances: “When you think: ‘Social media is terrible,’ which are you thinking of most?” For some the answer was Facebook – people with serious exes, political ambitions, a Trump-supporting family or high school rivals. For me, and for others overwhelmed by the hyper-acceleration of news commentary, it was Twitter.
Instagram felt innocent by comparison. No one I knew cared about it or made a living on it. The people who confessed a troubled relationship with the platform were visual artists, which I was not; fearful of missing out, which was not my flavour of social anxiety; or influencers concerned with a standard of perfection that was not my standard, and so I felt immune. For the most part, Instagram people preached positivity and contentment, and reminded themselves and their followers that the aesthetic harmony attainable in images was fleeting, not sustainable as a way of life. Instagram people did not seem mean or clever. They were earnest and sincere. They drank green smoothies and went on hikes, sought personal bests, good health, peace of mind and oneness with the universe. They believed every day was a beautiful day to be alive. Leaving Twitter for Instagram was like moving to Los Angeles, only cheaper. I knew people who had gone west to convalesce and to retire from public life. Maybe Instagram would be like that for me?
By this time I had already been on Instagram for six years – long enough to have developed misgivings about it – but the platform was such a reprieve from the moment’s psychic turmoil that I didn’t dwell on them. To do so would be like spending your holiday researching the detrimental effects of tourism: a wise, just and morally superior choice, but objectively not the point.
If I was operating under a willful innocence, it helped that I had started in 2012 with a rule: only follow people you know. Even back then, I felt as if I was being hosed daily with unwanted opinions, ideas, emotions and headlines on Facebook and Twitter, and the idea that I could start afresh with a limited intake made me feel safe. My Instagram account was not private – anyone could follow me – but I kept a tight door on my feed. There was no share, retweet or reblog feature on Instagram; people would have to go out of their way to show me things by people I didn’t follow, and most didn’t bother. The network was limited. Nothing I didn’t want to see would appear in the timeline. The environment was still and sane.
How did I choose what to post? If I was walking down the street in company and stopped to say: “Sorry, I just have to take a picture of this,” usually that was sufficient. A random, inchoate force was at work – the snap reflex of humour or taste.
Posting was its own separate pleasure. I would eventually come to post for attention, like everyone else – but early on, when nobody liked my pictures, I still found it gratifying to post. The satisfaction of self-publishing is difficult to describe. To press a button and see your own excrescence appear in the preordained format, minted, can feel like a kind of magic. It can make you feel like you count. But what people saw from me was less important to my mental health than what I saw of them. Hence the rule to only follow people I knew. For two years, that was a clean, easy test. But in time, I began to relax my definition of an acquaintance. Soon I was looking at a lot of people I had never met and never intended to.
Genres of Instagram I came to recognise after this door opened were: archival photography, astrology meme, travel photography, cooking/baking, fitness/exercise, political meme, celebrity superfan, street fashion, makeup/drag, time-lapse photography, architecture/design, tactile or “satisfying”, cross-platform meme (eg, screenshots from Twitter), female influencer, historical, inspirational, animal rescue, literary, home decor, viral dance, gymnastic/acrobatic, ceramic, houseplant care, illustration and softcore pornography.
Some trends were easier to decipher than others. For a period of six months, I noticed a number of Americans visiting Portugal and posting pictures of painted tiles. Why did the tiles look so good there? I overthought it for a while and then realised Instagram was already tiles. Why all the houseplants? Because we spend too much time indoors and they photograph well.
Each night I lay in my bed beside my boyfriend with one eye closed against the pillow and with the other, wheeled down Instagram’s infinite scroll. Each morning, I woke up to my phone alarm and rolled over to tap it off and, if I had time, looked at Instagram while still half-asleep. I easily spent an hour on it a day – in bed, on the subway or at my desk during lunch. Compared with the hours I spent elsewhere on the internet, it felt like nothing.
What would I see? A fitness personality lunging across the sand. An adopted cat squirming in a paper bag. A Frank Lloyd Wright building. A sourdough loaf. A friend coming out as nonbinary. A mirror selfie. A handstand tutorial. Gallery opening. Nightclub candid. Outfit of the day. Medal from the Brooklyn half-marathon. New floating shelves. A screenshot of an article titled: “A 140-year-old tortoise wearing her 5-day-old son as a hat.” Protest. Crashing waves. Gabrielle Union’s baby. Wedding kiss. Friend’s young mother at the peak of her beauty for Mother’s Day. Ina Garten in a witch’s hat. Detail of a Bruegel painting. Brown egg in a white void, posted to @world_record_egg [verified blue checkmark], with the caption, “Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram, beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)! We got this [hands up emoji].” By the time I saw it, the egg had 53,764,664 likes. The comments read:
“What does the egg mean?”
“That’s a trick question.”
“The egg doesn’t mean anything.”
World records are meaningless in a culture defined by historical amnesia and the relentless invention of categories, I thought, and double tapped to like the egg.
The closest I came to experiencing an Instagram subculture was through following fitness accounts between 2016 and 2018. I was in my late 20s and had rediscovered a passion for exercise. I belonged to a gym but needed things to do, something better than running or cycling. Instagram was a fount of ideas. It was there that I discovered a world of people, mostly women, who worked out all day and were paid in tights and crop tops by athleisure brands to do so.
The independent sponsored athletes made oceans of content. Many of them were YouTubers who had crossed over to Instagram, and a surprising number were from Australia or the UK. They were also young. I watched more than one video in which a nervous, tearful twentysomething confessed that she was dropping out of uni because her heart wasn’t in it any more; what she really wanted, she said, was to make content full-time. Most wore makeup or false eyelashes as they squatted twice their body weight and pushed sleds across the floor. All wanted to build their glutes [peach emoji] and to strengthen their posterior chains. All demonstrated a monomaniacal commitment to exercise and set their videos to royalty-free electronic music with chopped chipmunk vocals. On the morning of 9 November 2016, even the Americans were still squatting, doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT), breaking personal records, without interruption.
From time to time they cracked. “I look nice and smug in this photo,” said a popular woman powerlifter I liked, “but I’m considering making a YouTube video about my recent nervous breakdown/identity crisis.” Through her, I learned about the mechanics of Facetune, a photo-editing app that allows you to smooth cellulite, shrink waistlines, whiten sclera and disappear acne with little technical skill. I knew about the app from trans women I followed who used it to soften jawlines and erase Adam’s apples, a sort of spot-treatment for dysphoria that brought their likeness closer to the ideal. Their offhand references to Facetune suggested that image manipulation wasn’t empowerment, just something you could control when your health insurance didn’t cover facial feminisation surgery. The athletes, less forthright about their body-image issues, were cagier about their usage.
In the powerlifter’s video about Facetune, she said she felt hypocritical for editing her photos while championing body acceptance and strength-building for women. If she couldn’t walk the walk, at least she would talk about it. She was not the only one. Such confessional double-consciousness was everywhere on #fitstagram. Women posted before-and-after photos 60 seconds apart to demonstrate the powerful effects of posing. Before: a slumping, bloated person with her tailbone tucked. After: a composed physique model with a popped heel and a perfect ass. But no matter how much consciousness-raising they did, they were still under the spell of the image and strove to live up to it.
I wish I could say I watched this all from a cool, critical distance. In truth, I spent too much time at the gym and worried about my forward head position – an affliction common to people who spend too much time on their phones. My Explore page, which drives users via algorithm toward content similar to what they’ve seen or liked, became a mosaic of increasingly extreme exercisers. Looking at competitive bodybuilders, I caught myself thinking they didn’t look all that weird. This is how dysmorphia works, I thought; the algorithm only encourages it, nudging you towards extremity. And yet it cut both ways: the more body-positive accounts I looked at as a counterweight, the more the Explore page fed me body-positive imagery. All images train the eye, and consistent exposure to fat bodies rewires the brain just as much as consistent exposure to thin ones. It brought to mind a moment in Pumping Iron, the 70s bodybuilding documentary, in which a young Arnold Schwarzenegger attempts to explain the mindset of the subculture.
“I mean, obviously a lot of people look at you and they think it’s kind of strange, what you’re doing,” he says. “But those are the people who don’t know much about it … As soon as you find out what the whole thing is about, then it’s just like another thing.”
Everything on Instagram was like that. Once you found out about it, it was just another thing.
We think we know, but do we really know the full extent of manipulation on this platform, the psychological complexity and the degree of social engineering involved? Yes and no. As of this writing, Instagram has an estimated value of more than $100bn (£77bn), 100 times what Facebook bought it for in 2012. It is a data-collection business and a media-selling business. Third-party indexing tools glean data from what is posted and sell it in the form of brand analytics – or as information for governments, security and surveillance firms, and corporations. Images posted to Instagram are used by Facebook to help train its proprietary image-recognition software. And, of course, Facebook-owned Instagram tracks your movements across the internet, and hints that it is stalking you in ways both subtle and not.
Occasionally someone or something lifts the veil. In July 2019, Instagram crashed, and for a brief period users had the unusual experience of scrolling through their feeds and seeing, in the place of images, image-recognition metadata as blue text in pale gray squares. The text read:
“Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, text”
“Image may contain: 1 person, close up”
“Image may contain: night, sky and outdoor”
“Image may contain: 1 or more people, people sitting, shoes and indoor”
I imagined sentient robots thumbing through photos. This is how they would see us: in Terminator vision.
When Instagram introduced advertisements in 2013, it suddenly seemed as if every fifth image in my feed was an ad. Then I counted – every third or fourth post was an ad. With time, they grew uncannily specific. An ad for a bar cart from a furniture startup, on which stood a selection of magazines, including n+1 – the magazine I work for – next to a speckled philodendron. An ad for a minimalist women’s clothing brand based in San Francisco, modelled by the younger sister of a poet I had recently met. I was being reached by Facebook Ads Manager through detailed targeting, which I knew existed: users who like Bon Appétit, live in Brooklyn, between the ages of 18 and 35, should see this ad. But this was being stalked on another level. By the end of 2019, I half expected to see my own likeness in an ad served just to me – me in minimalist clothing, reading n+1, beside a bar cart.
What were other people seeing? I realised I had no idea. Whereas I once watched TV ads with interest – especially those geared toward men during the American football games my boyfriend watched, the car commercials and beer commercials and pharmaceutical commercials for hair loss and erectile dysfunction – on Instagram I saw only myself. It was easier to see ideology at work on other people, and at least those TV ads gave me a sense of what strings of the American male psyche advertisers were choosing to pull. Now, I was alone with my ads, in a filter bubble of one.
Meanwhile, Instagram was leaving its trace on the physical world. People in search of ’grammable content were mobbing restaurants, public lands and private neighbourhoods in greater numbers, causing their stewards to think differently about design and crowd control. I read an article about Rue Crémieux in Paris, where residents of pastel-painted houses were begging for a gate so tourists would stop taking photos in front of them. “It’s become hell,” the vice-president of the street association told a local news website. “On weekends, we get 200 people outside our windows. Our dinner table is right by the window and people are just outside taking pictures.”
An article on NPR suggested Instagram was driving more visitors to national parks in pursuit of the perfect image. In 2018, the article reported: “A California woman fell to her death at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan while trying to take a selfie.” At Yellowstone in 2015, a woman “was gored by a bison while attempting to get a selfie with the animal”. Park officials created a voluntary pledge for visitors that included the phrase: “No picture is worth hurting yourself, others, or the park.”
Land preservation was also a concern. An anonymous curmudgeon started the Instagram account @publiclandshateyou to shame Instagram tourists for their thoughtless treatment of nature reserves and wilderness areas. In spring 2019, Miley Cyrus posted a photo of herself hanging from aJoshua tree, an endangered plant known for its delicate root system. The Mojave Desert Land Trust begged her to take it down.
By then it was obvious that Instagram was changing the built environment, too. Cafes, bars and themed fun houses called “museums” were being constructed and designed to appear on the grid. Art museums realised that programming exhibitions with built-in selfie opportunities increased “user-generated content”, or UGC, which, in turn, led to free, “organic” promotion.
New storefronts and restaurants were likewise optimised for the image. Considerations such as comfort, accessibility and acoustics were secondary to visual appeal. It was as if the landscape itself had dysmorphia, altering its physical appearance to fit an arbitrary standard that undermined its primary function. But maybe I had it backwards. Maybe the point of a physical space was no longer to shelter physical people. Maybe a shopfront was a marketing tool for a direct-to-consumer internet startup, the way a website was once a marketing tool for a bricks-and-mortar outlet. Glossier. Everlane. Warby Parker. The Sill. Walking into such places felt like walking into an app. They always looked smaller in person, like famous actors who are shorter in real life.
By the autumn of 2019, I came to understand Instagram dwellers as broken people – my people. If I was getting depressed, so was everyone else. The algorithm’s hall-of-mirrors effect seemed to be at work again: more and more people were posting about staying in, struggling with their mental health and finding a community of fellow sufferers on the platform. But it wasn’t just me and my algorithm. Other people were growing disenchanted and reclusive, and the media seemed to confirm the trend. Tavi Gevinson, the American writer and the co-founder of Rookie, published a New York magazine cover story chronicling her ambivalence about growing up on Instagram. The Atlantic claimed The New Instagram It Girl Spends All Her Time Alone and described how influencers were staging more selfies at home to appear relatable to their followers. Home-delivery services, loungewear brands and weighted-blanket manufacturers were all well poised to capitalise.
Then I encountered the Agoraphobic Traveller. At a live storytelling event I attended, the MC cued the lights for a message from the sponsor. The stage lights dimmed and a four-minute video told the story of Jacqui, a fortysomething woman with a thick New Zealand accent who had started having severe panic attacks in her 20s. “Eventually I was diagnosed with agoraphobia,” she said in voiceover as the camera caught her face through a windowpane. For a while, she struggled to travel far from home. “It’s not living life. It’s not a life, when you’re just constantly not in a good place.”
Then she hit a turning point. Jacqui was looking at Google Street View one day when she thought to take screenshots of vistas or tableaux she liked. “I’ve always loved photography,” she said. “This gave me the opportunity to be a photographer but without having that anxious feeling. I think that I’ve taken around 27,000 screenshots,” she told the camera.
Jacqui created an Instagram account, @streetview.portraits, to share the screenshots she took. In the video, the camera showed Jacqui looking at one of her Instagram posts, a washed-out image of two camels in the desert, scrolling over the comments. “Now I feel more connected to the world than I ever have before,” she said.
With help from Google, Jacqui travelled to New York for an exhibition of her photos in Soho called The Agoraphobic Traveller. The video showed Jacqui in a cab, Jacqui on the plane. The camera trailed her arriving at the gallery, her shoulders hiked and hands in her pockets. Inside, she smiled and relaxed. “If you’re struggling and you’re keeping it to yourself … it definitely doesn’t help,” she said. “Please don’t give up, know that it can get better and it does get better.”
I was happy for Jacqui, but the video disturbed me deeply. I found it pernicious and thought about it for days. The message was benign – technology connects you to the world. But I couldn’t shake the subtext: that if Google and Instagram had an ideal user, it might be a creative person who could not – would not – leave her home.
Modern voyeurism has precedents, even the multiple-window kind. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, LB “Jeff” Jefferies is a housebound magazine photographer laid up with a broken leg and “nothing to do but look out the window”. Across the courtyard is a dollhouse of parallel lives that he can watch unfold from his wheelchair. There’s the blond “bikini bombshell” – “Miss Torso”, he calls her – who stretches and twirls in her underwear while she butters her breakfast toast; Mr Thorwald, the costume jewellery salesman, who tends a flower garden and a sick, unhappy wife; “Miss Lonelyhearts,” a single woman who pantomimes a candlelit dinner for two before she drinks and cries herself to sleep; and other nameless neighbours who are less intriguing but still worth watching.
The view from Jeff’s rear window calls to mind Henry James’s “house of fiction”, which “has not one window but a million”. It also recalls the view from Instagram. As Durga Chew-Bose writes in an essay on the film: “Jeff sits and stares out his window like we sit and scroll, and double tap.” He spins stories about his neighbours, like we do “about strangers … based on their Instagram accounts.” The ethical implications were fraught then as now. “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” says Stella, the insurance company nurse who checks in on Jeff and admonishes him. “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How’s that for a bit of homespun philosophy?”
The entangled dynamics of who sees whom and who knows they’re being seen have always been present. Where Instagram seems truly new – beyond the introduction of machine learning and commercial surveillance to the mix – is in the strange instability of the viewer’s position as a subject. A voyeur knows what kind of viewer he is, but looking at Instagram, you are not always a voyeur. Neither are you always a witness, nor any other single kind of watcher. Your implied identity slips with each stroke of the thumb.
If you are me, scrolling through Instagram, you are the confidant being whispered to by a face shot from under the chin. You are the recipient of a holiday card from a family in matching turtlenecks. You are the magazine subscriber flipping through editorials. You are the woman standing in front of the screen miming the aerobic movements of your instructor. You are the mother, adult height, looking down at her child. You are the lunch companion peering across the table. You are the customer browsing for deals. You are the scholar sifting through archives. You are the fan admiring Beyoncé. You are the mirror, reflecting the image of the photographer. You are the photographer, seeing through her eyes. You are the phone.
Or you are the voyeur at the window, trying to get a closer look – in which case the villain who enters your private space, not through the window, but through the front door, is the ads.
A week into writing this essay, I began to see ads about it on Instagram. The bar cart came back, this time with different magazines on the shelf. So did the “life-transforming, plant-rich super meals delivered to your door”, a remnant from my fitness moment, and the forward-head-position posture corrector, a piece of plastic you stick to your spine that buzzes whenever you slouch. I was served an ad for a New York Times article about facial-recognition technology, and an ad for the Wall Street Journal featuring an illustration of a teen girl in bed looking despondent in bed; a phone on the bedside table showed two girls smiling and surrounded by hearts. The caption read: “Young Americans have become unwitting guinea pigs in today’s huge, unplanned experiment with social media, and teenage girls are bearing much of the brunt.”
The US government has been slow to respond to the scope of this experiment. The EU has been more aggressive. In response to pressure from regulators, Facebook is now more transparent about data. For the first time, I can see the names of companies who have uploaded my information to the platform: Predictive Media Analytics LLC, Nielsen, LiveRamp, Acxiom, Adara, Oracle Data Cloud, Wunderman Data Products, SocialCode, TowerData. The company has also given users some measure of control over ad settings.
Following the directions in an article I found online, I switched Ads based on data from other partners – meaning data about websites I had visited or purchases I had made on my credit card – to Not allowed. I switched Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere, which I didn’t understand, to Not allowed. I switched Ads that include your social actions, meaning ads telling friends I liked certain products, to be shown to No One. Overnight, my Instagram ads became delightfully random.
But my life as a generic nontarget, a recipient of ads for Amazon influencers, corny T-shirts and trashy iPhone games, was short lived. I simply spent too much time on Instagram for it not to relearn what it knew before I wiped the slate. I wish I could wipe it again.
The speed of machine learning is startling, often creepy. It is hard to tell what is creepier: the feeling that someone is somewhere out there, following your every step, or the fact that no one is, just the tracking device you carry with you in your pocket. I still give Instagram an hour a day, for the intermittent pleasure it brings. A built-in timer reminds me when my time is up.
Late at night in bed, I get an ad for a meditation app meant to aid with sleep. It’s midnight and I’m browsing Instagram stories.
Addicted to Instagram? says the ad.
Below is a poll with two options: Yes and How’d you know.
I tap my answer and the poll reveals its results – 49% clicked How’d you know.