The Unterrible Lightness of Being Off Instagram
on anger machine somatics
This is what scrolling feels like in my body: a switch flicked on, a fluttering chest, a rush — but not of pleasure. It’s searching for something you never really find, like a hungry ghost. It’s floating free from your body in a world made of symbols and discourse.
I lose time, incessantly preoccupied with the machinations of strangers. Here is someone I’ve never met showing off their houseplants. Here is an anonymous user posting about war crimes. Here is a meme where SpongeBob cums.
Over and over and over, the scroll washes my brain out with a fire hose of data until I no longer generate my own thoughts. I try to limit myself, but if I put a toe in, I slip into the stream every time. I can’t have the apps on my phone.
The professionals are arguing about whether social media can be an addiction or not. Some of them have developed a rating scale for this — The Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale. It applies to any social media app, though. A recent study used it to assess TikTok addiction. The qualifiers are:
Having obsessive thoughts about [app]
Feeling an urge to use [app] more and more
Using [app] to forget about personal problems
Trying to cut down on the use of [app] without success
Becoming restless or upset when prohibited from using [app]
Using [app] so much that it negatively impacts school or work
There are, of course, dopamine-based theories about how social media “hijacks” our brain chemistry, but I find these reductive. Instagram became a compulsive habit for me over the last three years because it served a set of purposes, just as drinking did.
It was a creative outlet, a way to make friends, and a (misguided) source of affirmation. I wasn’t hijacked — I learned to keep using until I learned so deeply that I couldn’t stop.
I want to know, I want to see, I want to lurk. I want to feel like a switch flicked on, but I end up empty and nervous. Moderation is impossible. If I post, then I’m posting, then I’m handing over all my time. I don’t notice that it’s happening, until I look up after weeks of scrolling and posting and hot-take-making and realize I am anxious as fuck, with very little substance to show for it but the numbers going up.
The feed of any social media app is a dissociation factory. It pulls you out of your body and plugs you into a purely cerebral world. I am vulnerable to this, preferring to spend most of my time in my head, more comfortable with typing and texting than talking with my mouth. I often feel like a brain with a body attached, and social media allows me to live fully in that disconnect, to become words instead of sensations.
In a review of Richard Seymour’s book The Twittering Machine, Max Read writes:
…we have, in the world of the social industry, become “scripturient—possessed by a violent desire to write, incessantly.” Our addiction to social media is, at its core, a compulsion to write. Through our comments, updates, DMs, and searches, we are volunteers in a great “collective writing experiment.” Those of us who don’t peck out status updates on our keyboards are not exempt. We participate too, “behind our backs as it were,” creating hidden (written) records of where we clicked, where we hovered, how far we scrolled, so that even reading, within the framework of the Twittering Machine, becomes a kind of writing.
As a writer, I can’t escape my obsession with script. I inhale other people’s words and exhale my own through my fingers — a mechanism I have used to cope with existence since I learned how at a very young age. It makes sense, then, that I would be addicted to social media, that I would amass a following through it. I am scripturient to my core — it’s a platform made for me.
The writing I did on Instagram felt good in the moment, but looking back over the years I gave to the app, it’s seems hollow now. The feed, ironically, does not feed me — it’s a mindsuck, a parasite. It leaves me feeling drained of nutrients, unable to read books. The more I scroll, the harder it is to sit still and turn a page one-by-one. It’s too inert in comparison, and my mind drifts to the feed.
What are people talking about? Hypervigilance taps at my spine. I need to check, just for a minute. But in that minute, a post flicks the switch of my anger, and I fire off a rant about it. People reply, and I become words again, swept up in discourse.
If social media is a writer’s parasite, then books are a slow-release fertilizer, a source of nourishment that requires time and space to sink into the soil. The feed collapses both, placing every happening across the world and every opinion in my lap at once.
At first, this was a lifeline, a window into worlds I couldn’t access, ways of being I’d never seen. I learned about queerness and disability theory and neurodiversity — it was world-making and person-building, a way for me to express all kinds of things I’d hidden and hear them echoed back to me for the first time. I overshared and people loved me for it. I learned in public and it felt less lonely.
But as my following grew, I started to realize that I had become a brand against my will. On an internet optimized for marketing, the feed makes brands of us all. You start to think in numbers, and people start to treat you like a symbol of whatever they need to love or hate. You become a source of content for consumption, limited by word count and algorithm to produce only the most surface-level, inflammatory work for clicks.
Google strategist turned philosopher James Williams calls this a “proliferation of pettiness”, describing his own experience of social media as a slow distortion of his values:
..the metrics that comprised the “score” of my social game - and I, as the player of that game - were directly serving the interests of the attention economy. In the pettiness of my day-to-day number chasing, I had lost the higher view of who I really was, or why I wanted to communicate with all these people in the first place.
The feed can divide us from our bodies, from our values, and from each other, too. When we play the attention game, we are sorted and siloed, influenced to think in black-and-white. This either/or thinking makes a population easier to manipulate, both politically and economically. “With us or against us” is the fascist’s creed and the capitalist’s sales pitch.
Williams quotes the philosopher Charles Taylor, who says we are in danger of becoming “a people increasingly less capable of forming a common purpose and carrying it out.”
Read takes a psychoanalytic approach, proposing that our addiction to social media is a subconscious act of self-destruction. He writes:
What the Twittering Machine offers is not death, precisely, but oblivion—an escape from consciousness into numb atemporality, a trance-like “dead zone” of indistinguishably urgent stimulus. Seymour compares the “different, timeless, time zone” of the Twittering Machine to what the gambling-addiction expert Natasha Dow Schüll calls the “machine zone,” in which “time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process.”
…Seymour compares the Twittering Machine to the chronophage, “a monster that eats time.” We give ourselves over to it “because of whatever is disappointing in the world of the living,” but we do so at great cost.
It took a while to understand what was happening to me in this machine, but eventually I got tired of losing time to it, of letting it rattle my insides everyday. Once I realized my creative process had become little more than a snap reaction in a sea of dissociation, I found myself longing to slow everything down, to think in weeks and months instead of days and hours.
I craved longer forms of writing, driven not by fury but curiosity. I want to feel the weight of resolve in my chest as I write, not the flutter of urgency. I can’t change my scripturience, but I can choose how I engage in it — slowly, mindfully, and without detaching from my senses. I need creative outlets that allow me to stay in my body.
Without the apps, there’s a stillness in my veins. Sometimes, in an echo of old habits, I pick up my phone and just look at it, longing to scroll, but with no feed to take me away, I finally run up against real boredom. It’s not terrible, though. It feels spacious. I have so much time.