12 things I learnt taking 12 months off the ‘gram

Reproduced from an original article published on Medium, Dec 30th, 2020.

12 months ago I posted my last in-feed photo on Instagram.

It was, like so many others around that time, a ‘Top Nine’; the nine MOST-LIKED photos from my feed throughout that year.

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Instagram, #TopNine2019 — @whatleydude

8/9 family. 1/9 work. That’s a good balance, I’d say.

A few days after that I posted – and pinned – an ‘end of year review’ to my stories and then after that… promptly uninstalled the app.

One month or so prior my other half, (pictured top left, 319 likes), shared with me a quote from Matt Haig’s Notes from a Nervous Planet:

“An online profile of your best friend is not your best friend. A status update about a day in the park is not a day in the park. And the desire to tell the world about how happy you are, is not how happy you are”

It stuck with me.

And so at the end of 2019, I thought I’d take the damn thing off my phone and just see. Could I do a year without Instagram?

Spoiler: I did. And you can too.

So here, as promised, are:

12 THINGS I LEARNT TAKING 12 MONTHS OFF THE GRAM

THING 1.

I didn’t miss it that much.

This is interesting to me. I thought I would. Like I really would. I thought removing the app from my phone would be one of those things that I’d try for a bit and then eventually crumble again for, I don’t know, work reasons or something. Truth be told, I did have to visit the platform a couple of times to preview some builds for work but nothing further than that — and virtually all of that through the web interface.

Point being: it was easy.

Much easier than I thought it’d be.

THING 2.

Seriously, I didn’t miss it at all.

I remember when I first signed up for Instagram (August 2011 — a photo of a Green Goblin action figure, 5 likes), I think I was convincing myself that it was a great place for photographic creative expression.

And I guess for a while I think it was. But then you find yourself in the early hours, trapped in the endless scrolling of the never-ending feed, either looking at what other people are doing, or seeing if that latest exquisite framing of a great sandwich has got… just… one… more… like… than the last one, or just checking your activity page to see if you have any new followers.

This is not healthy.

And for why?

In Cal Newport’s excellent book, Deep Work, he asks the question (admittedly of a journalist’s Twitter usage):

“Why are [they] urged to regularly interrupt their deep work to provide, for free, shallow content to a service run by an unrelated media company based out of silicon valley?”

It’s an adjacent point but one I am drawn to from time to time. You see what I mean? Why are you doing this? Why is anyone doing this?

I enjoy the creative expression. But if I’m pouring it into Instagram then where isn’t it going instead?

THING 3.

You don’t actually MISS much.

For transparency, I re-downloaded the app earlier today (I’d forgotten the password — of course) to see exactly what I had missed.

Turns out I had nine unread notifications. Of those notifications, three were posts that people had shared with me directly, one actual Direct Message (we’ll come back to this) and five ‘X has mentioned you in their story’ — an entirely useless notification anything later than 24hrs after it happened.

Why? Because I click on them and I literally see… this:

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Useful Content™

Like. What?

So while I may have missed the occasional engagement announcement from that person I once met at an after-meeting drinks thing, or a Stories Mention (what even do those two words together mean) from someone that I’m hanging out with telling me that they’re hanging out with me… I think I’ve done alright here? Yes my life doesn’t revolve around instagram and it turns out when you remove it from your life, life goes on!

Both on Instagram and off.

And if people want you — you specifically — to know stuff, they’ll tell you.

THING 4.

The platform kinda sucks now?

I installed the app this afternoon to take a proper look at what I had missed. The new dark mode looks L U S H on my phone’s OLED screen, that’s nice. But the muscle memory instantly went click on the ‘Activity’ on the bottom nav and, oh look, Facebook has switched it with ‘Shop’.

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Hmm. Crispy blacks.

I understand that this is a dark pattern of some kind and I also understand I am VERY LATE to this party. But still. It sucks! And no matter how Facebook paints the decision, it is clear to everyone why it was done and what the ambition was. It’s all just so transparent.

Speaking of things that suck.

THING 5

My God the ads get worse.

You saw that one above right? So far today in feed-ads I’ve seen: crap for extendable desks, crap for bikes, crap for… WhatsApp? And just more crap. It’s a photography platform. Create ads that look like gorgeous photography maybe? Can it be that hard? Apparently: yes.

Actually, no. It’s not about making things hard it’s about what Facebook makes easy. Facebook makes it easy to run the same ad across all of Facebook’s platforms with just one click. So why bother making something platform-specific when platform-agnostic (and screw the user experience!) is so much quicker?

And don’t even get me started on Stories.

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I used to run a Tumblr aaaaages ago, called ‘Instagram ads are awful’ — I don’t think much has changed. I’m sure there are some great ones but aye carumba they are drowned out by the dross.

Dross that appears after every fourth post.

I know this is veering into old man shouts at cloud territory but I work in this stuff and man alive I wish people would just. stop. with. the. bad.

THING 6

None of it matters.

This too shall pass. And people will remember you for the things you did, not the photos you posted or that amazing Stories compilation you nailed.

THING 7

It changes the way you look at social apps.

For background, I think I took Facebook off my phone shortly after the ‘Sorry, didn’t we mention we use your 2FA for targeting advertising?’ debacle (but then again it might’ve been sooner. Given how much I’ve written about how they simply cannot be trusted, like, with anything). So when’s that? 2018?

Possibly even earlier.

Don’t get me wrong, I still use the platform; exclusively on web and almost exclusively for groups (work, gaming, and smart people — w_w). Those conversations are valuable, yes, but the app actually being on my phone is too high a cost for that, thanks.

For Twitter, I have an on/off love affair with how I have it installed or not. And that changes from time to time. I’m relatively self-aware of how much time I spend on these things so if I catch myself spending too much time on it, I’ll take it off.

If idiocy levels get too high, if strat-gash gets too much, or if a firetruck load of muppetry gets delivered to my feed… then Twitter gets uninstalled.https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?type=text%2Fhtml&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&schema=twitter&url=https%3A//twitter.com/Whatleydude/status/1338771315185115136&image=Twitter is not currently installed on my phone.

TikTok was on for a short while but OH MY GOD WHAT A TIME SUCK so I had to that off as well. My children (combined TopNine score: 435 likes) need my time, not TikTok. I get it, I understand it, I read about it — I just don’t need it in my life right now.

So my point is, until earlier today when I installed Instagram back on my phone, I didn’t have any social apps installed at all.

And I didn’t realise how good that felt until I did.

By moving all social apps to web-only experiences, you’re removing some data-syphons, some terrible features (looking at you, Fleets), huge memory sponges on your device, and — perhaps most importantly of all, no notifications whatsoever. You decide when to look (or not).

No one else. Just you.

Freeing. Utterly freeing. I simply cannot recommend it enough.

And I think that’s what I might aim to do for 2021: try and spend the year with no social apps installed at all (almost impossible, given my job — but still, a healthy ambition nonetheless).

THING 8

Life is better without it.

Tim Urban, the amazing author of the Wait But Why website has written about this at length. This image (one of many) encapsulates a lot about why people feel the way they feel. Look.

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You can read the whole article right here.

And you should.

Theodore Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy”. My own version of that is simply ‘Never measure yourself with someone else’s yardstick’. Either way, by removing the platform from your life, you stop being Lucy and you can start being you again.

THING 9

Practical one this: If you’re going to leave a platform, and really mean it — then you should definitely tell people.

Now don’t get me wrong, I can’t stand those people that flounce off platforms at the drop of a hat (only to return <12hrs later). And there’s that tired old trope of ‘If you leave a platform and tell anybody about it, have you even left?’ BUT BUT BUT… hear me out!

I had to send a handful of messages this afternoon each saying ‘Hey, I’ve only just seen this! Sorry!’ and actually mean it — which is as hilarious as it is ridiculous:

‘Hi friend, this DM you sent me in July, what was the context? Can I help at all now… six months later?’ (this is a real thing that happened).

I guess if my last post on Instagram had said ‘Hi, I’m taking 2020 OFF this platform — if you need, send me a WhatsApp, thanks!’ then maybe that would’ve been helpful? Shame you can’t set an auto-responder or an out of office for these things.

I think I’m going to add one more post to my gram, in the short term — saying just that. Yes, that might be useful.

Point is: if you’re leaving, tell people.

Even if it is subject to tiresome mocking.

THING 10

2020 was a stellar year to not be doing the gram.

In these uNpReCeDeNtEd TiMeS, going on Insta and talking about how great your life is and how well you’re doing is… kinda gross?

Amanda Hess wrote in March about how ‘Celebrity Culture is Burning’, highlighting just how brilliant/disgusting it was to see/read/hear about what the ‘slebs were doing to help people STAY SAFE.

“Staying home is my superpower,” the “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot reported from her walk-in closet. Ryan Reynolds urged his fans to “work together to flatten the curve” from within his rustic loft…

…Ellen DeGeneres is going “stir-crazy” from having to stay inside her enormous home; Katy Perry has lost track of the days she’s spent inside her enormous home…

Madonna, performing for the public and holding fans in her thrall is yet “another luxury gone, for now,” she says in one video. In its place is the disturbing sensation of normalcy. “The audience in my house is not amused by me,” she says. Later, from the bath, she concludes that Covid-19 is “the great equalizer.”

Sublime. Incredible. And distasteful AF.

The lack of self-awareness is sublime.

THING 11

You should probably print more photos.

When I were a lad, you’d take photos on your camera and then take the film to Boots to get developed and then a few days later (or an hour if you paid extra) you’d get your pack of photos back, pick out the best ones for your wall/album, then chuck the rest (either in the bin or in the drawer with all the others).

Not being on Instagram didn’t stop me from taking photos (or sharing them, tbh — I’m still quite active on Twitter) but what it did do was make me start cherry picking what photos I have on our digital displays at home. And also think about how we might start bringing real-world photos back into the house somehow. We’ve already started — calendars have been made and there’s a cork board in the kitchen — but by not being on t’gram, I think I’ve come to appreciate photoGRAPHS more.

These things are important.

THING 12

Your mileage may vary.

I don’t know what I’ve truly missed out on because… well… I’ve missed it. But given the year we have had (yes, I said it again) I’ve probably spent more time figuring out what’s most important to me over above that of ‘things I might be missing on social media’. Yes, I am painfully aware that that point of view comes from an enormous position of privilege: I am a white man. I have a young family. We have our health. We have our jobs. We have each other.

And while we have struggled with mental health this year (all of us have)…

We are not struggling with the disease.

We are not struggling to make ends meet.

We are not struggling with loneliness.

For some, Instagram might be a window into the lives of friends that they’ve been missing all year round. For others, Stories might be the replacement for the person to person connection that they’ve each craved during isolation. My point is: the platform is what YOU make it.

And that is both its core benefit and ultimately, for me at least, the source of its downfall.

Scientifically proven to be bad for your mental health, Instagram is not something I want or need in my life. I thought I’d try removing it — for a year — and it worked out OK.

More than OK, in fact. I didn’t miss it.

And I doubt very much that it missed me.

One more post this year and then I’m out for good.

Your mileage may vary.